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 2016-17.
No player in NBA history had ever led both NBA Finals teams in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocked shots. No team in NBA history had ever crawled out of a 3-1 hole in the Finals. But then LeBron James did, and the Cleveland Cavaliers did, and the Golden State Warriors saw their peerless season for the ages snatched away by the greatest player in the world, and the city of Cleveland tasted ultimate victory for the first time in more than a half-century.
Now, all LeBron and company have to do is come up with an encore.
How do you follow an exorcism? What kind of sequel can you write to build off that sort of exultation?
It’s a high-class problem, of course, but that doesn’t mean it’s not at least kind of a problem. On Oct. 25, the Cavaliers will get their championship rings — which, as you might’ve heard, are awfully sparkly — and Quicken Loans Arena will explode in rapturous applause, and we’ll revisit every amazing pay of the Cavs’ run to the first championship in franchise history. And then they’ll play the New York Knicks, and they’ll either be 1-0 or 0-1 with 81 games left to play, because yesterday’s gone and the game don’t wait.
With the exceptions of still-unsigned shooting guard/champagne supernova J.R. Smith (whose return might feel like a formality but isn’t yet formalized), key reserve Matthew Dellavedova (who headed to the Milwaukee Bucks in a sign-and-trade) and center Timofey Mozgov (whom the Los Angeles Lakers gave an eye-popping four-year, $64 million deal with the Lakers to kick off a sticker-shock-inducing free agency period), the Cavaliers return the core of the team that has dominated the Eastern Conference for the past two years. James returns on a new three-year deal that makes him the NBA’s highest-paid player. Kyrie Irving, fresh off a reputation-making close to the Finals and an Olympic gold medal, enters training camp healthy after missing the first 24 games of last season with a knee injury.
Ditto for Kevin Love, who had a summer free of shoulder rehab — and, thanks to a monster 14 rebounds in Game 7 and that title-sealing stop, free of the dark cloud that had seemed to follow him since he came over from Minnesota — to work on continuing the improvement in per-minute and per-possession production he saw from his first to second year in Cleveland. They remain as talented a troika as the league has to offer, guarantors of an incinerating offense and, most nights, victory: the Cavs are 97-32 over the past two regular- and postseasons when James, Irving and Love have all been in the lineup. (It’s hard to make a .752 winning percentage sound impressive in a post-73-9 world, but it’s very good!)
James will turn 32 in December. Leading Cleveland to the promised land secured his immortality. Titles and the ghost of M.J. all that motivates him now. So maybe this is the year that he decides to take a step back during the regular season, let the 24-year-old Irving and the 28-year-old Love become the main engines of the Cavs’ attack, and keep his powder dry for the playoffs while concentrating more on other pursuits. (For example: it’d be really, really neat to see LeBron go all-out for the Defensive Player of the Year trophy he feels he should’ve won a long time ago.) Or, maybe he’s cool with continuing to throw up 27-7-7 every night. I’d imagine it’d be hard to give that up when you don’t have to, after all.
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Postseason heroes Tristan Thompson and Channing Frye are still in the frontcourt, joined by former LeBron running buddy Chris “Birdman” Andersen. Vets Richard Jefferson and Mo Williams eschewed retirement to run it back on the wing, where they’ll be joined by potential perfect-fit forward Mike Dunleavy Jr. There might not be many surprises on the roster — maybe intriguing rookie point guard Kay Felder breaks camp with the team and flashes, or athletic young swingman Jordan McRae takes a step forward — but there are worse things than knowing what you’re going to get when what you’re going to get is tremendous, and that’s the promise of the LeBron-led Cavs.
The infrastructure of the back-to-back conference champions remains strong and imposing. Barring an explosion to dominance by the now-Al Horford-fronted Boston Celtics and/or a James injury, Cleveland remains the heavy favorite to win the East and make a third straight Finals trip. Whether what’s good enough to win the East would be good enough to topple the best in the West — especially if that winds up being the Warriors, now featuring Kevin freaking Durant — remains to be seen … but that would make for one hell of a sequel, wouldn’t it?
Previously, on BDL 25:
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