Kendrick Morris | Oct. 30, 2015, 2:52 a.m.
For NBA fans like myself, this week’s season tip-off marked the most wonderful time of the year. After almost six months of endless waiting, the Splash Bros, the ageless Spurs, King James, Kevin Durant, and the “NBA on NBC” theme song return gracefully back to our lives. After an incredible 2014-2015 season and a loaded draft class, this season will definitely not disappoint. Here are the top ten things to watch for in the 2015-2016 NBA season:
Recovered Superstars—Last season, we missed out on watching two of the top five players in the game, Thunder forward Kevin Durant and Pacers forward Paul George. A big question this year is how they will recover. Durant has undergone three surgeries on his left foot, but after watching him score twenty-two points on Wednesday night against the Spurs, it looks like his video-game-like jumper will carry him until he fully regains his quickness. Everyone seems to forget about how good Paul George had become before he suffered one of the most gruesome leg injury in recent years. George made some nice plays in the Pacers’ season opener, but he will need to rely on his strengths, finishing in transition and defending the other team’s best offensive player until he fully regains his offensive confidence.
Is Kobe Still Good?—Last season, it seemed like the only thing holding the Lakers back from going into full rebuilding mode was Kobe Bryant’s enormous “thank you for winning us five titles” contract. This year, the team drafted the crazy-talented D’Angelo Russell out of Ohio State University and returned a healthy future star in power-forward Julius Randle, so it looked like this year would be perhaps a slightly better version of last year. Then, I turned on the Lakers game on Wednesday night and suddenly Kobe scored twenty-four points with twenty-four shot attempts. Is this still Kobe’s team? Is Kobe still an elite player in the league?
The Spurs—With an aging core group of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, I thought maybe this year would be the end of an era. Then I realized: this team doesn’t age. Then, I learned that the Spurs added top free agent Lamarcus Aldridge and the vastly-underrated David West to their front court. This team is scary good now. I am excited to see how this team matches up against the Golden State Warriors.
MVP Race—Is this still LeBron James’ world which we merely live in? Steph Curry said no to that question in last year’s regular season, but LeBron reminded everyone in the Finals that he is still the best player on the planet. This year LeBron turns thirty-one, so a little bit of wear may start to show up in his game. I’m predicting a Russell Westbrook-Steph Curry showdown for the regular-season MVP. No one plays the game harder than Russell Westbrook, but the Thunder is returning a former scoring champion in Durant. Look for Curry to have another MVP season.
ROY—The 2015 draft class was absolutely loaded. As I look down the list of rookies, I find myself thinking, "this guy will have a good career" at least ten times. As far as my predictions for the NBA Rookie of the Year, my choice needs to be a lottery pick and a projected starter this season. Sorry Justise Winslow, although you already have a Sportscenter Top Ten highlight dunk, your former Duke teammate, 76ers forward Jahlil Okafor, will have the chance to be a 20-10 guy and earn the Rookie of the Year. Nuggets guard Emmanuel Mudiay will also have a good shot at the ROY award as he will play a big part of the offense in Denver. Other rookies to watch out for are New York’s Jerian Grant, Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell, and Pistons guard Stanley Johnson.
COTY—The Coach of the Year award will be given to one of the following three coaches: Billy Donovan, Greg Poppovich or Erik Spoelstra. Billy Donovan, the new coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder, is my top choice for COTY because Kevin Durant’s return gives him a hanging curve ball to knock out of the park. Last season, the Thunder was a 45-win team riding Westbrook’s incredible scoring effort. This year, the team returns one of the NBA's top three players in Durant, so even if Donovan doesn’t coach at all, the team will inherently be better. Traditionally, college coaches don’t make great NBA coaches, but if Donovan can recreate an offense featuring Westbrook and Durant that is even slightly similar to the early Scotty Brooks era, he will be very successful. Greg Poppovich made my list out of respect for his legendary coaching abilities. To be realistic, this award is based on the regular season, and Coach “Popp” is famous for sitting his starters during the season in preparation for the postseason. Erik Spoelstra is also on my list, as the Miami Heat has a lot of new key players to work with. Spoelstra’s success will be measured by his development of rookie Justise Winslow and his ability to connect Goran Dragic and Dwayne Wade in the pick-and-roll offense with Chris Bosh and Hassan Whiteside. Under Spoelstra’s leadership, I think the Heat can improve their record by at least ten games.
Sitting for Simmons—There is almost no question that the first pick in next year’s draft will be Ben Simmons, a first-year point-forward from Louisiana State University. After watching Simmons’ highlights on YouTube, I can confirm this guy is the real deal. He’s a six-foot-ten lefty with guard skills. Think a more athletic Lamar Odom or a left-handed Paul George. The competition for the first pick, which is likely to be Simmons, seems to be the same story as in the past few years, as the Philadelphia 76ers and the Minnesota Timberwolves battle for the worst record. Both teams have some exciting players. The 76ers have a "wow-factor” in their backcourt which features Nerlens Noel, potential ROY candidate Jahlil Okafor, and injured former-lottery-pick Joel Embiid. The Timberwolves are similarly filled with young talent in reigning ROY Andrew Wiggins, lottery choice Karl Anthony-Towns and athletic wing Zach Lavine. As talented as some of these young players are, none of them are experienced enough to take their teams to the next level. As the season progresses, look for one of these teams to “sit for Simmons.”
A team that is better than we think—After losing Lebron James in a stunning move to Cleveland and being plagued with injuries, the Miami Heat was a very average basketball team last season, winning only 37 games. This season, the Heat return a healthy Chris Bosh, a top twenty player in the league, and Josh McRoberts, who was a very effective player two years ago. Additionally, President Pat Riley was able to acquire aging star Amare Stoudamire, athletic wing Gerald Green, and the extremely talented rookie Justise Winslow. This Heat team is very skilled and has strong leadership in Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, Luol Deng, and Amare Stoudamire. Look for this team to surprise teams in the East. I’m thinking the Heat will win fifty games this season.
A team that is worse than we think—On paper, the Houston Rockets are really good this year. The team is coming off one of their best seasons since the Olajuwon era. Sabermetric-driven GM Daryl Morey added talented point guard Ty Lawson and rookie forward Sam Deckker during the offseason. Defensive-oriented point guard Patrick Beverley is healthy again, which will be beneficial for the matchup against Steph Curry and the defending champions, the Warriors. However, I think the Rockets are more hype than reality. The Rockets made it to the Western Conference Finals last season, but it was in large part because the Clippers had a historic meltdown in the second round. Furthermore, Dwight Howard is aging, James Harden only made the news during the offseason for hanging out with the Kardashians, and the Rockets’ rivals reloaded even more than they did. The Spurs added Lamarcus Aldridge, a matchup nightmare for the Rockets a few years back when he played for the Trail Blazers. The Thunder returned an MVP caliber player in Kevin Durant. The Mavericks added a strong shooter in Wesley Matthews and a former elite point guard in Deron Williams. Finally, the Clippers added depth in aging superstar Paul Pierce and defensive specialist Lance Stephenson. I think the Rockets will definitely make the playoffs, but I don’t see them making it past Golden State or San Antonio. Sorry Houston, I’m not fearing the Beard this season.
NBA Finals—My prediction for the NBA Finals consists of a rematch between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers. In the Eastern Conference, the only teams that have a chance of beating the Cavaliers are the Miami Heat and the Chicago Bulls. However, LeBron is a matchup nightmare for the Heat and the Bulls only have a chance if Derrick Rose can both stay healthy and perform at a level close to the way he did three years ago, which may be a stretch. The Western Conference is a whole different story, as many of the top teams reloaded. San Antonio added signature free agent Lamarcus Aldridge, Oklahoma City returned a healthy Kevin Durant, Houston signed Ty Lawson and the Clippers assembled a strong bench in Paul Pierce and Lance Stephenson. I think the Spurs have the best chance of beating the Warriors, but the Warriors have enough depth in the frontcourt to guard Duncan, Aldridge and Leonard. Additionally, at this rate, Curry is considered open when he’s given six inches of space to shoot. Assuming everyone in my projected Finals can stay healthy, I like the Warriors winning a back-to-back title in seven games.