The NBA offseason has brought many changes to rosters, coaching staffs, and the list of championship contenders. As we draw closer to opening night, it's time to move our focus from the potential impact of each offseason event and onto the broader issues that figure to define this season. The BDL 25 takes stock of, uh, 25 key storylines to get you up to speed on where the most fascinating teams, players, and people stand on the brink of 2015-16.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are so firmly entrenched as East favorites that we ran a feature recently that didn't even contemplate that they could be challenged for the conference title. Unless Derrick Rose returns to superstardom or LeBron James suffers a cataclysmic injury, the Cavs face no clear competition this upcoming season and may only get a serious rival if the Washington Wizards manage to lure Kevin Durant to his hometown in free agency. A regional dynasty looms.
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Way back in the ancient history of February 2014, LeBron and his All-Star friends (then known as the Miami Heat) did face a serious challenge in the form of the Indiana Pacers. That nascent power fell to pieces shortly thereafter, largely due to supposed chemistry issues involving the volatile Lance Stephenson and the bizarre disappearance of ever quality that had made Roy Hibbert one of the NBA's best interior defenders.
The Pacers were always bound to fall from contention last season after such a disappointing finish, but Paul George's horrific broken leg at a Team USA exhibition turned them into a low-lottery squad. While his late-season return impressed if only because he seemed certain to miss the whole season, he was limited and didn't contribute as much more than a role player.
It's fair to expect more from George this season, both because he's now several more months removed from injury and, at 25 years old, could be in line to see sizable improvement. The George we last saw over a full season flirted with an All-NBA First Team spot for the majority of 2013-14 and ended up with averages of 21.4 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 3.5 apg, and 1.9 spg with excellent wing defense to boot. Two-way players of that quality are exceedingly rare, enough so that a full recovery for George will give the Pacers a decided matchup advantage in all but a few playoff series.
The high expectations for George do not extend to the Pacers, who have opted to reform themselves as a smaller, more versatile outfit and figure to suffer some growing pains along the way. (For one thing, George will have to juggle his reacclimation to the NBA schedule with a very different set of tactics than those he's used to.) But the presence of George will allow Indiana to build with a strong sense of the finished product (and a useful fallback option) that other transitioning clubs usually do not have. If all goes well, the April (and maybe also May) Pacers will look like a franchise primed to take a meaningful step in 2015-16.
George's season can be a success if the Pacers don't accomplish all these goals, because he's still plenty young enough to fulfill his sizable potential at a later date. In a way, it's OK if he shows nothing more than that he can get back into All-Star consideration. However, the scope of his immediate impact could determine what happens to the perpetually imbalanced East.
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