The 2014-15 NBA season was pretty darn good -- especially if you're a fan of the Golden State Warriors. But we can't help feeling that the league can do a little bit better this season. It'd be nice if there were fewer injuries, for one thing. The 2015-16 season tips off Tuesday, and if you need a primer for the new NBA season, we've got you covered. The West is still really tough, at least at the top. There are question marks in the East, although LeBron James isn't one of them. And The Brow is ready to soar down on the bayou. These are 10 things you should know headed into a new season of professional basketball.
APMark J. Terrill
The Western Conference is going to be a brawl at the top
There are five legitimate title contenders in the West, but there's a precipitous drop after that. The Golden State Warriors will be just as good, if not better, than they were last season, although coach Steve Kerr's health is a concern. After the reigning champions, the Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder will all be in the thick of the race for a Finals berth, too. Beyond that group, though, things get murky quickly. The Memphis Grizzlies will be fine, although their lack of shooting will likely be problematic once again. The New Orleans Pelicans should make the playoffs for the second straight year, but health is a concern. And the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns should round out the West's playoff teams. But the conference isn't the 1-to-10 powerhouse it used to be.
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LeBron James is the only known quantity in the East
The Cleveland Cavaliers are prohibitive favorites to emerge as Eastern Conference champions for the second consecutive year, and why not? This is James' conference until another team proves it can knock him off his throne. Both the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat are contenders to do the deed, but they have questions marks. Health will be a concern for Chicago, and the Bulls will have to hope that they don't take a huge step backward on defense while implementing new coach Fred Hoiberg's much more creative offense. The Heat have offensive concerns, too; the starting lineup of Goran Dragic, Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Chris Bosh and Hassan Whiteside looks formidable on paper, but a lack of 3-point shooting could sink Miami. The Raptors, Hawks and Wizards remain a half-step behind. But if Cleveland can't get healthy, anything could happen.
The Kevin Durant free agency talk will only get louder
We hope you're comfortable hearing Durant's name because it is going to come up a lot this season. Every time the Thunder put together a win streak and look like the toast of the Western Conference, that will be reason to discuss how there's no chance Durant is going anywhere. If tensions flare between the former MVP and teammate Russell Westbrook, that will be evidence that he's on his way out, probably back home to the Washington Wizards. Ditto if new coach Billy Donovan has moments where he looks like he's still learning. Yet there is another scenario: a one-year deal for Durant to remain with the Thunder, then he gets to dip back into the free agency waters when the salary cap rises for the 2017-18 season.
Get ready for a kinder, gentler Kobe Bryant
The Los Angeles Lakers aren't winning the NBA title this year. That's one of the safer bets one can possibly make. And Bryant seems to know this. Without the pressure of chasing ring No. 6 and with so many young players on the Lakers roster, Bryant has made it clear that the Black Mamba side of his personality is going into hibernation. This season will be about mentoring Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle and D'Angelo Russell, catching up with Metta World Peace and trying to stay healthy. It might be his farewell tour as a Laker. It might be his NBA retirement tour. Or it might not be either of those things. But 2015-16 will see a version of Bryant that we've never seen before. Until, of course, the Lakers are in the closing minutes of a close game. In that case, all bets are off.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY SportsKirby Lee
A coach will probably be fired before New Year's Day
It likely won't take very long this season for the first head coach to lose his job, and that's a shame. We're never in favor of someone becoming unemployed. But there's a perfect storm gathering of coaches who've been on the job for a few years and have underperformed against (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. Preseason reports indicate that as many as eight coaches could be in jeopardy heading into 2015-16: David Blatt of the Cavs, Derek Fisher of the Knicks, Jeff Hornacek of the Suns, Lionel Hollins of the Nets, Randy Wittman of the Wizards, Dwane Casey of the Raptors, George Karl of the Kings, and Byron Scott of the Lakers. Many of those reports will end up being more smoke than fire. But with league insiders concerned about the job status of that many coaches, it won't be surprising if the first firing comes before Jan. 1.
USA TODAY Sports
Anthony Davis is about to demand your attention
NBA diehards watched The Brow blossom into one of the league's top players last season, and it was a sight to behold. Davis then introduced himself to a larger audience in the Pelicans' first-round sweep at the hands of the Warriors in the 2015 playoffs. Now, the Davis bandwagon is going to get awfully crowded. He's knocking down 3-pointers this preseason with ease; when coach Alvin Gentry tells reporters not to expect his star player to shoot that many triples, it feels like a bluff. We don't want to discount Stephen Curry or LeBron James too quickly, but Davis has a chance at becoming the best player in the league on both offense and defense in 2015-16. We're not mathematicians, but when you add that up, we're pretty sure that would make him the best player in the league.
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Resting stars will become an epidemic
When you think of NBA teams resting their best players during the regular season simply for the sake of rest, you probably think of the San Antonio Spurs. Gregg Popovich has mastered the tactic with his older guys, and he'll even rest Kawhi Leonard if he sees fit. That approach started to spread in 2014-15, with the Warriors doing the same and LeBron James taking a two-week hiatus in the middle of the season. Here's the thing, though: It works. By sitting out games here and there, the players who carry the heaviest burden are able to preserve themselves for the playoffs. And the NBA is a copycat league, so we can expect more and more teams to bench their top guys in games that ostensibly count. The league has done its best to limit back-to-backs and tough stretches of the schedule, but this trend will get worse before it gets better.
NBAE/Getty ImagesGarrett Ellwood
Paul George is back, and the Pacers should be fun
There's been a lot of digital ink spilled this offseason about how George will fit at power forward, and that's fine. But here's the bottom line: George is one of the best players in the NBA, and the league is fortunate to have him back. And whether he really plays power forward is a superfluous discussion, anyway. What matters is the philosophy, which reveals that Indiana is about to turn its offense up to 11. Roy Hibbert was great and everything, but you have to keep a big guy happy, and that means dumping the ball into the post every now and again. This season, the Pacers will get out and run, they'll spot up at the 3-point line, and they'll dunk all over people. And if things go well, they might even make a run at a playoff berth.
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Boogie is a perfect way to end your night
When the East Coast is headed to bed and the only NBA games left are being played in the Pacific Time Zone, basketball can get a little weird. It's the perfect time to throw on a Sacramento Kings game and let DeMarcus Cousins escort you through the end of your evening. If you haven't watched Kings games before, we get it. Sacramento has been bad, and it gets late. But Cousins is an absolute phenom, and he deserves your attention. He's arguably the best center in the NBA, and much like Anthony Davis, he's been working on his 3-point shooting this offseason. Rajon Rondo will look to get Boogie his looks, which could make things even better. And if you need more reason to tune in, the Kings should be entertaining for all the wrong reasons, too. There's always the potential for drama here. It's a fantastic mix.
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The 2015-16 season will be defined by trades
The transactional landscape in the NBA is about to see seismic upheaval thanks to the increasing salary cap over the next couple of seasons. Basically every team will have cap space moving forward, but the teams that have been stockpiling players and picks -- namely, the Celtics and the Rockets -- are primed to make moves now. Both teams are right on the cusp of taking big steps forward. Daryl Morey will be looking for a trade that puts Houston over the top as a title contender, while Danny Ainge will be on the hunt to turn Boston's stockpile into a star. Perhaps related: Carmelo Anthony should be on the market. And those are just the moves everyone's expecting. The only question when it comes to this season's trade market is whether teams will wait until the deadline or strike early.