With a settled squad, the best player in basketball, and the pain and experience from missing out in last season’s Finals, the NBA championship is heading to the Cleveland Cavaliers, right?
With the new campaign tipping off on Tuesday, the Cavs are guaranteed to be in the mix but you can bet others will fancy their chances of blocking their way to the title.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers (3.75) All the ingredients are there. But then, you might say, that’s just as they were 12 months ago. In the 2015 Finals, we will never know how different the outcome might have been had Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving had both been injury-free but the plus for the Cavs is that the whole gang (almost) is back together. With Love and LeBron James coming off injuries, their opening three games of Chicago, Memphis and Miami could be problematic but they then have a three-week stretch where momentum can be quickly built.
2. Golden State Warriors (5.50) The defending champions are feeling a little disrespected. The extra motivation from which should balance out any of that second title syndrome. All their starters and main reserves are intact and even with coach Steve Kerr missing the start of the season, the Ws are capable of proving last year was no one-off.
3. Los Angeles Clippers (11.00) The great under-performers of 2015 have tweaked and re-tooled and their biggest boost has been adding a bench that can hold its own. Relying on the erratic Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith might be a gamble. Yet with Paul Pierce, even at 38, lending title insight, the Clips have the pieces to push.
4. Oklahoma City Thunder (8.00) New coach in Billy Donovan. New start. In the three years since the Thunder reached the Finals, there has been drama and crisis without regaining such heights. Donovan, as a NBA rookie, can only hope Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook stay healthy. If that happens, they could win the title. If it all collapses, this could be Durant’s farewell in OKC.
5. San Antonio Spurs (4.50) Add LaMarcus Aldridge and David West. Make a few tweaks. Carry on as normal in San Antonio. After their title defence ended in the first round, the Spurs need to make significant gains with Aldridge expected to slot into their frontcourt. The question mark is whether Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili can slow their declines.
6. Chicago Bulls (15.00)
7. Houston Rockets (17.00)
8. Memphis Grizzlies (34.00)
9. Atlanta Hawks (29.00)
10. Washington Wizards (29.00)
With a new coach in Chicago, the Bulls have potentially one last crack with their current crew with Pau Gasol ageing and Derrick Rose yet to regain MVP-level status. Houston, Memphis, Washington and Atlanta have all opted for continuity and will remain strong. Of those, only the addition of the wayward Ty Lawson for the Rockets might push them over the top.
11. Miami Heat, 12. New Orleans Pelicans, 13. Toronto Raptors, 14. Milwaukee Bucks, 15. Sacramento Kings, 16. Indiana Pacers
Intrigue surrounds Miami. If Dwayne Wade remains potent, if Chris Bosh returns to full fitness, if Goran Dragic rises again… lots of ifs. New Orleans, Milwaukee and the combustible concoction in Sacramento can make strides forward. Toronto remain solid. Indiana, with Paul George restored, can rebound. All are set to be solid mid-range teams but without the pizazz needed to surge higher.
17. Utah Jazz, 18. Dallas Mavericks, 19. Phoenix Suns, 20. Boston Celtics, 21. Charlotte Hornets, 22. Denver Nuggets, 23. Minnesota Timberwolves, 24. Detroit Pistons, 25. Brooklyn Nets, 26. Los Angeles Lakers, 27. Philadelphia 76ers, 28. Orlando Magic, 29. New York Knicks, 30. Portland Trail Blazers.
Pity Damian Lillard. Everyone else bolted on Portland. Now he gets to carry the load alone. There’s a group of clubs here playing the long game, supposedly with a plan, like Utah, Boston, Minnesota and Orlando - plus the ever-terrible Philadelphia at 301.0 for the championship. They could pleasantly surprise. As for the rest, it figures to be a mix of rare joy and considerable pain.
Best bet: Cleveland is the obvious choice but for value, you can’t beat the Clippers at 11.00