Early NBA Preseason 2014-15 Title Odds for All 30 Teams
The NBA preseason is nothing if not a spectacle of speculation. Media days are rife with players and coaches answering questions about their hopes and expectations for the upcoming campaign before there's been so much as a productive dribble.
That is, aside from the bounces that giant, jersey-adorned dudes are asked to perform while posing for the cameras.
The thing is, you're not likely to learn much about any squad's actual aptitude by combing through quotes from the first few days at practice. If you're searching for the best of the best in informed guessing regarding the 2014-15 season in the Association, you would do well to consult bookmakers, the masters of the speculative sports universe.
To get a sense of how the league shakes out in early October before the first exhibition games get underway, let's have a look at the championship odds of all 30 teams, listed from worst to best based on figures provided by Odds Shark.
Philadelphia 76ers: 500/1
The Philadelphia 76ers, like Drake, are about to start from the bottom...again. When they get back to the top, or whether they do at all, is another story entirely.
That will depend largely on how quickly and at what capacity the Sixers' most promising prospects develop. Nerlens Noel should be ready to play without any limitations after sitting out the 2013-14 season while recovering from knee surgery. Michael Carter-Williams, on the other hand, has yet to be cleared for full five-on-five contact following an offseason operation on his shoulder.
And then there's the not-so-small matter of Joel Embiid, the No. 3 pick in the 2014 NBA draft. Embiid's status for his rookie season is up in the air and figures to remain so until Philly can determine how well his foot injury is healing.
"I don't know how it will play out," Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie said of Embiid's situation, via the Philadelphia Daily News' Bob Cooney. "We'll take an approach without knowing where the finish line is. We want to know how we can be sure to put him in a position to have a long NBA career. However long [rehab] takes will be however long it takes."
Milwaukee Bucks: 300/1
Just because the Milwaukee Bucks are tied for the second-worst title odds in the league doesn't mean they'll wind up as the second-worst team. The roster, while young, is surprisingly long on talent, with Jabari Parker joining and Larry Sanders returning to a group that includes promising prospects like John Henson, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brandon Knight.
Those last two in particular, though, could find themselves at the epicenter of a considerable shake-up during Jason Kidd's first year on the job. On the one hand, the Bucks have high hopes for Antetokounmpo as a gangly, 6'9" point guard.
"It’s something that I feel comfortable with, and I’ll play wherever coach wants me to play, especially when it’s Coach Kidd who thinks that I can play point guard," Antetokounmpo said, per Basketball Insiders' Alex Kennedy. "That makes me feel like, ‘I can play it. I can play point guard.’ I’m going to try my best and just listen to coach."
On the other hand, Milwaukee already has a young point guard in Knight who's been playing the 1 for years and, presumably, would know better how to handle the job at the NBA level. "It's my best position," he told The (Milwaukee) Journal Sentinel's Charles F. Gardner. "Point guards have to be able to beat their guy, get in the paint and make the right decision. I can get in the paint at any time."
As in football, where having two quarterbacks often means you don't have one (and not in a good way), the Bucks can only hope that this competition yields a player who is capable of commanding the court competently from night to night.
Minnesota Timberwolves: 300/1
Losing a cornerstone of Kevin Love's caliber is never going to improve a team's immediate title odds. Hence, the Minnesota Timberwolves find themselves back among the NBA's odds-on bottom-feeders now that Love resides elsewhere in the Midwest.
Even with Love, though, it's not as though the T-Wolves would have been in the mix for basketball's biggest prize. They still would have been fighting for scraps on the fringes of the Western Conference playoff picture.
With Love's departure being a reality rather than a looming inevitability, Minnesota can move forward free from any fear that the whole operation might soon collapse. Better yet, the team can do so with promising prospects like Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and Zach LaVine filling the wings on the fast break for Ricky Rubio, and with Thaddeus Young, Nikola Pekovic and Gorgui Dieng providing plenty of muscle up front.
This may come as cold comfort ahead of another bitter winter in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but for long-suffering T-Wolves fans, any glimpse of hope down the road should be welcomed, if not embraced outright.
Utah Jazz: 300/1
All three teams listed as 300-1 long shots to win the NBA championship also happen to rank among the most likely to emerge as the NBA's most promising team in the next three to five years.
That includes the Utah Jazz, who added Australian sensation Dante Exum this summer to a mix that already features no fewer than five other talented youngsters. Two of those (Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward) have already signed four-year deals that kick in this season. Two more (Enes Kanter and Alec Burks) are the subjects of ongoing extension talks with Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey, per The Salt Lake Tribune's Aaron Falk. The other (Trey Burke) is coming off a rookie campaign that was dragged down by injuries at the outset.
These guys are going to need time to develop, both individually and as a group under first-year head coach Quin Snyder. Eventually, though, this group could put the Jazz back on the map of perennial playoff competitors.
Sacramento Kings: 250/1
Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive insisted at the team's media day that this year will be "about wins and losses" for the forlorn franchise, per The Sacramento Bee's Jason Jones. He wasn't the only one.
"We’re not trying to be patient anymore, we’re not," general manager Pete D’Alessandro told The Bee. "We want to win more, we want to be more exciting."
Apparently, the oddsmakers didn't get the memo...or perhaps it's the other way around. Whatever the case, the Kings aren't expected by the betting world at large to so much as sniff the postseason, much less the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
This, despite DeMarcus Cousins' dominant showing at the FIBA World Cup, Rudy Gay's participation therein and the growth potential of Ben McLemore and rookie Nik Stauskas on the wings. And maybe—just maybe—changing out Isaiah Thomas for Darren Collison won't be such a downgrade after all. Take Boogie's word for it.
"It's been incredible. It's been a smooth transition. The ball is moving a lot better. It's not stuck in one place." Cousins told Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee.
Boston Celtics: 200/1
The Boston Celtics had better hope that they improve enough over the course of the season to merit better than 200-1 odds to win it all.
Sure, this squad would be lucky to share a room with the Larry O'Brien Trophy, much less hoist it in June. But it would behoove Boston to show some tangible signs of progress over the course of the coming season if the team hopes to retain Rajon Rondo over the long haul, as general manager Danny Ainge noted, per Ben Rohrbach of WEEI.com.
Rondo will be a free agent next summer, and as Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher pointed out, the C's have already dangled their All-Star point guard on the trade market. The trouble is, Boston will be hard-pressed to fetch the price it wants for him due to his notoriously stubborn attitude, his shortcomings as a player (i.e., his shooting) and now his injuries—a surgically repaired knee that limited him to 30 games last season and a broken left hand that could keep him out for the start of the one to come.
Rondo's latest injury doesn't figure to help the C's in their efforts to keep him either. Chances are, the team will struggle in his absence—unless rookie point guard Marcus Smart far outpaces expectations.
In which case, a split between Rondo and the C's might not be so bad after all.
Detroit Pistons: 200/1
Greg Monroe seems to have this much in common with the oddsmakers: They are taking a wait-and-see approach with the Detroit Pistons' new regime.
Monroe insisted that he turned down a long-term deal with Detroit in favor of the Pistons' one-year qualifying offer not because he wasn't satisfied with the terms of the former, but because he was wary of the organization's changes in management and coaching.
"It's no disrespect to the people working here, but it was just tough for me to agree to another four years with new people," Monroe told The Detroit News' Vincent Goodwill Jr. "Honestly, if you were to ask the average person would they do that in the arena they're in, they'd say no."
The pressure, then, is on the Pistons to prove to Monroe that his future would be a bright one were he to return to the Motor City next summer—or not. With Andre Drummond and Josh Smith already entrenched up front, the Pistons might be better off removing one of their bigs from the equation. And if contracts are any indication, Monroe would be the most likely to go.
Orlando Magic: 200/1
Can uniforms impact a team's championship odds? If so, the Orlando Magic's outlook can't have been helped by their new alternate Pride Jerseys, pictured above. The sleeves are icky enough on their own, without the flood of gray with white pinstripes that, all told, make this ensemble blander than bland.
In truth, Orlando's odds of doing anything other than landing in the lottery again weren't going to be good this season, with or without the regrettable duds. There's much sorting to be done among the youngsters, between Victor Oladipo and rookie Elfrid Payton at the point and the slew of talented hopefuls on the wing (e.g., Tobias Harris, Maurice Harkless, Andrew Nicholson and rookie Aaron Gordon).
And that's before anyone figures out what in tarnation Channing Frye and Ben Gordon are doing in the Magic Kingdom.
Atlanta Hawks: 100/1
The betting world isn't high on the Atlanta Hawks whatsoever. In fact, Odds Shark pegged them with the 10th-worst odds to win the Eastern Conference.
Which is to say, some folks aren't particularly high on Atlanta's hopes of extending its playoff streak into an eighth season.
That's understandable to a degree. The East's middle class seems to have swelled up this summer, while the Hawks, 38-44 as the conference's eighth seed last season, didn't do much to improve their roster. If anything, the recent fiascos involving owner Bruce Levenson and general manager Danny Ferry could distract the team from the task at hand and, in turn, drag it out of the postseason picture.
Except Atlanta's underwhelming record had everything to do with Al Horford's absence. The All-Star big man is on the mend from another tear of his right pectoral muscle and should be ready to go for the season opener, per The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Chris Vivlamore.
And as unfortunate as the end of the offseason was for the Hawks, it's not as though the group they have is about to be fractured by an upstairs fracas. The core of this club is intact, with the requisite experience and leadership to survive the storm and emerge with its sights still set on the playoffs.
Denver Nuggets: 100/1
The Denver Nuggets, on the other hand, have the requisite talent to compete for the playoffs but are stuck in the overstuffed Western Conference.
Last year's wounded troops (e.g., Ty Lawson, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, JaVale McGee, Nate Robinson) should all be in considerably better condition. Lawson in particular could be a better leader than ever after observing a certain quarterbacking legend in practice recently, per USA Today's Lindsay Jones.
Meanwhile, Kenneth Faried shouldn't be short of confidence after a summer spent dominating on the world stage with Team USA. And to top it all off, Arron Afflalo is back after a brief sojourn to Orlando.
Even with all that, it's tough to expect anything more out of the Nuggets than a run at a winning record and, perhaps, a bid for one of the final spots in the Western Conference playoff picture.
New Orleans Pelicans: 100/1
Among the other teams the Nuggets will have to contend with on the fringes of the postseason picture: the New Orleans Pelicans.
On paper, the Pelicans have the potential to be this year's biggest surprise, if that term even applies to a team that employs a superstar-in-the-making of Anthony Davis' caliber. With Davis, Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson and now Omer Asik, New Orleans has the makings of a solid nucleus that's oozing with upside.
The onus, then, will be on head coach Monty Williams to fit the pieces together properly and on the pieces themselves to stay healthy—a task that they all struggled with in some capacity last season.
Phoenix Suns: 100/1
Last season, the surprise spot that the Pelicans might occupy this year belonged to the Phoenix Suns. Jeff Hornacek's exciting squad fell just one game shy of going from worst in the West during the 2012-13 season to claiming a postseason spot this past spring.
That immense progress seemed at risk over the summer, as contract talks between Eric Bledsoe's representatives and the Suns front office broke down. Fortunately for Phoenix, he put pen to paper on a five-year, $70 million deal, thereby avoiding point guard-maggedon in Arizona.
Still, Bledsoe's return, along with the addition of former Kings guard Isaiah Thomas, hardly guarantees a leap forward for Phoenix. Channing Frye's flight to Orlando leaves the team without its most potent pick-and-pop threat.
If the newly extended Morris twins can fill that void effectively, the Suns might just sneak into the playoffs. If not, Phoenix could find itself on the outside looking in for a franchise-worst-tying fifth straight season.
Brooklyn Nets: 66/1
Is it possible that the Brooklyn Nets will actually be better this year than they were last year? Even after watching Jason Kidd walk to Milwaukee and Paul Pierce and Shaun Livingston, two crucial cogs in the team's machinery, take their talents elsewhere?
For one, new head coach Lionel Hollins is arguably an upgrade over Kidd. He's certainly more experienced, with 450 games and three playoff appearances under his belt. Moreover, Hollins' success with a big, slow-paced squad in Memphis should translate well to Brooklyn, where his team has tremendous size at every position.
"I know what to expect this year living in New York. Let me explain that," Garnett said at Nets media day, via the New York Daily News' Stefan Bondy and Justin Tasch. “Coming to the Brooklyn Nets and coming from Beantown, I didn’t really know what to expect the first year. Under Jason (Kidd), I didn’t know where I fit in. This year, coming in with a little more edge, a little more assertiveness, kind of deferring back to when I came into this league and what I’ve created for myself.”
That being said, the Nets could be hard-pressed to find room among the East's top four seeds.
Charlotte Hornets: 66/1
In essence, the Charlotte Hornets took two steps forward and one step back this summer, though they could wind up in the same spot anyway.
On the one hand, they landed Lance Stephenson in free agency, added Marvin Williams up front and watched Michael Kidd-Gilchrist launch jumpers with assistant coach and shooting legend Mark Price.
On the other hand, Josh McRoberts, Charlotte's glue guy, bolted to Miami. Jeff Taylor has been told to stay away on account of a domestic violence arrest, and, well, Kidd-Gilchrist worked closely with Price last summer, with only middling results.
All told, though, the Hornets should be better this season, if for no other reason than they won't have to start from scratch now that Steve Clifford is entering his second year as head coach.
Los Angeles Lakers: 66/1
How is it that the Los Angeles Lakers' odds to win the title are on par with those of the Nets and the Hornets, two superior teams in a much weaker conference?
For Lakers diehards, it's probably due to the belief that Kobe Bryant is who he is, Steve Nash is feeling good and Julius Randle is a legit Rookie of the Year candidate.
For everyone else, it's a matter of gambling math. The Lakers are a popular team that tends to draw a ton of action at sports books, especially since Las Vegas is a mere four- to five-hour drive (or 40-minute flight) from LA. The more people bet on the Lakers, the higher their odds go, if only to more closely align the value of the bet with the market.
Hence, Lakers futures tend to be out of whack with reality, at least in those years, like the one to come, when the franchise lacks the talent and on-court infrastructure to live up to its championship ideals.
Indiana Pacers: 50/1
Apparently, the oddsmakers aren't too worried about the Indiana Pacers' playoff hopes without Paul George and Lance Stephenson. To be sure, the Pacers would probably be much closer to the top of this list had they not suffered such devastation on the wings.
And, in the bigger picture, Indy should have enough in its holster to hold firm in the East's postseason picture, albeit well below last season's No. 1 seed. The Pacers have been a size-oriented team for some time now and figure to lean even more heavily on Roy Hibbert and David West to carry the load this year.
If the Pacers can get decent production out of their remaining stores of swingmen (Solomon Hill, Chris Copeland, C.J. Miles, Rodney Stuckey and Damjan Rudez) while maintaining their defensive effort and execution, their season without George might not be a total loss after all.
Memphis Grizzlies: 50/1
When it comes to value bets, there may not be a better one in the NBA right now than the Memphis Grizzlies at 50-1 odds to win it all.
Remember, this team won 50 games last year despite a sluggish transition from Lionel Hollins to Dave Joerger on the sideline and injuries to Marc Gasol, Tony Allen and Mike Conley. Those three should all be fit from the outset, as should Quincy Pondexter, who missed most of last season on account of foot problems.
Throw in complete campaigns from Courtney Lee and Vince Carter, and the Grizzlies might have the perimeter shooting they need to fashion a potent offense around the interior talents of Gasol and Zach Randolph.
That's not to mention the stifling defense on which this squad has long staked its reputation.
Does that sound like a sleeper pick to you?
Miami Heat: 50/1
No team should have a chip on its shoulder that's bigger than the one the Miami Heat figure to carry.
Chris Bosh will be out to demonstrate that he can be the offensive focal point of a competitive club. "I'm a much better player than I was in Toronto, and I'll be able to give Miami a lot more," Bosh told Bleacher Report's Jared Zwerling. "I'm excited to really test out what I've done over these years, as far as leadership is concerned, as far as what's on the court is concerned, and really put it out there."
Dwyane Wade, meanwhile, has no shortage of critics to quiet after two-plus seasons of considerable decline. Luol Deng will be looking to put his calamitous half-season in Cleveland and Danny Ferry's errant comments behind him. Josh McRoberts will have the opportunity to demonstrate just how crucial a cog he can be after flying under the radar in Charlotte last season. The point guards all have plenty to prove as well.
And of course, there's the organization-wide effort to show the world that the Heat are more than a one-man show after watching LeBron James return to Cleveland.
New York Knicks: 50/1
Like the Heat, the New York Knicks don't want to be pigeonholed as a one-trick pony, even though that pony (Carmelo Anthony) is still in town and happens to be pretty darn good.
Frankly, the Knicks figure to fashion their offensive efforts around Anthony's scoring skills. Chances are, he'll serve as the fulcrum of Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher's triangle offense, much like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant before him.
It should help, too, that New York's roster is replete with above-average spot-up shooters, as Posting and Toasting's Joe Flynn noted: "The Knicks' corps of shooters and the triangle offense might just be the perfect match of players and system. If J.R. [Smith] and the rest of the Knicks buy into the triangle and master its principles, this whole wacky experiment might just work after all."
Toronto Raptors: 50/1
Once again, it would appear that there's some betting bias involved when the Knicks' championship odds are on par with those of the Toronto Raptors. You may recall the Raptors winning 48 games, capturing their second Atlantic Division crown and coming within a buzzer-beating block of advancing to the second round of the playoffs.
That all happened despite a midseason shake-up that saw Rudy Gay shipped off to Sacramento. This time around, Toronto's starting five, featuring the retained Kyle Lowry, will be intact from the get-go, with plenty of room for improvement on the part of youngsters like Terrence Ross, DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas, the latter two of whom spent the summer burnishing their credentials at the FIBA World Cup.
The additions of Lou Williams, James Johnson and the Brazilian duo of Bruno Caboclo and Lucas Nogueira should only add to the Raptors' considerable depth and upside as they eye another leap forward in 2014-15.
Portland Trail Blazers: 40/1
The Portland Trail Blazers had better hope that Wesley Matthews' latest bout with an irregular heartbeat turns out to be as harmless this year as it was last. Matthews missed back-to-back practices as a precautionary measure, per The Columbian's Erik Gunderson.
Portland can ill-afford to lose Matthews for an extended period of time if it's to build on last season's success in the cutthroat Western Conference. According to NBA.com, the Blazers were 4.6 points worse per 100 possessions without Matthews on the floor than they were with him in 2013-14.
Matthews, though, appears to have put an unfailingly positive spin on his situation. "I’m involved, stay engaged with the team," he told The Columbian. "Similar to what I did last year. It’s almost like a good sign; I had a career year last year. It’s like it’s supposed to happen."
Washington Wizards: 33/1
In case you've been slow on the training-camp uptake, the Washington Wizards and the Cleveland Cavaliers—more specifically, Bradley Beal and Dion Waiters, with a chime from John Wall—have been locked in a war of words that has yet to abate.
The point of contention? Whose backcourt is the best. The Washington Post's Dan Steinberg has documented the debate thus far, which he's pegged as a five-act magnum d'oh-pus thus far.
Of course, there's much more to the Cavs and the Wizards than just guard play. Cleveland has LeBron James and Kevin Love up front, while Washington can count on Nene and Marcin Gortat as a productive tandem in the middle, with Paul Pierce sliding in as a crunch-time killer on the wing.
But if the Wizards are going to build on last season's playoff run, they'll need their backcourt to compete for that title of NBA's best.
And really, any reason to stoke the flames of a once-vibrant rivalry between the Cavs and the Wizards is a good one.
Golden State Warriors: 25/1
In truth, the NBA's best backcourt resides not in Cleveland or Washington, but rather in Oakland, where Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson play.
Thompson, in particular, has been a hot topic of discussion for the Golden State Warriors in recent months. First, he was (reportedly) the reason the Warriors didn't pull the trigger on a Kevin Love trade. As much as they wanted Love, the Dubs didn't want to part ways with Thompson, who may not be as good as Love on the whole but ranks highly at a position of greater scarcity.
Then, Thompson put together a strong two-way performance on behalf of Team USA at the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain. Now, the 24-year-old sharpshooter is closing in on a rich extension with Golden State.
"I just let (agent Bill Duffy) and the front office sort it out," Thompson said at the team's media day, via the Bay Area News Group's Diamond Leung. "I know if I just keep my mind on hoops and staying healthy, I know everything else will take care of itself."
As well it should, including in the opinion of HoopsHype's David Nurse:
There’s no denying that Klay Thompson is one of the brightest, young emerging talents in the NBA. His all-world shooting ability coupled with his increasing high IQ decision making have undoubtedly shed Klay from the shadow of being known as 'Mychal Thompson’s son' to 'Mychal Thompson is Klay Thompson’s father.'
Dallas Mavericks: 20/1
Say this much for the Dallas Mavericks: They're not short on confidence heading into the 2014-15 season.
So does the point guard play. As much as the Mavs may think they can relive the glory of the 2010-11 season now that Tyson Chandler is back, doing so without solid play from their floor generals would be difficult, if not nigh on impossible.
Four years ago, Jason Kidd, Jason Terry and J.J. Barea ran the show. This time around, that responsibility will fall to the aging and oft-injured trio of Devin Harris, Jameer Nelson and Raymond Felton, who combined to miss 73 games last season.
It's a good thing, then, that Chandler Parsons and Monta Ellis can both make plays in a pinch. Otherwise, the Mavs might need Nowitzki to do much more than just launch his beautiful, sped-up jumper if they're going to contend.
Houston Rockets: 20/1
The Houston Rockets hardly had the most encouraging offseason, between the losses of Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons and Omer Asik and the swings-and-misses on Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh. But is it possible that the Rockets might not be worse off this season than last after all?
James Harden has pledged better focus on defense. Hakeem Olajuwon said that Dwight Howard is "more mature, more confident." Parsons' replacement, Trevor Ariza, is a superior perimeter defender who's familiar with both playing for the Rockets and competing for championships. Lin's spot has since been filled by Jason Terry, whose outside shot and resume trump those of the Lakers' newest point guard.
It's possible, too, that Houston will finally find a long-term solution at the stretch 4 now that Kostas Papanikolaou has finally made his way over from Greece.
"He looks like a guy who has been in the league a couple of years already," said Harden of Papanikolaou to the Houston Chronicle's Jenny Dial Creech. "I didn’t really get the chance to watch him play overseas, but for this being my first time seeing him, I am really impressed. He can shoot the ball, make plays. He is really crafty."
This isn't to suggest that the summer didn't stink for the Rockets, but maybe—just maybe—it won't turn out to have been as bad as it's been made out to be.
Los Angeles Clippers: 10/1
There's little doubt that, on paper, the Los Angeles Clippers are better off now than they were last season. Jordan Farmar and Spencer Hawes should both prove valuable additions to the second unit. Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan worked hard to sharpen their respective games over the summer. J.J. Redick and Matt Barnes are healthy again.
On the whole, these Clippers appear primed to build on their previous successes, if only because they don't have to worry about acclimating themselves to a new head coach this year.
"We had a good camp last year, but this year we’re putting in stuff they already know as opposed to everything being new," Doc Rivers said at media day, according to Jesse Blancarte of Basketball Insiders. "I think that’ll make our camp better."
That being said, small forward remains a glaring weakness in LA. Barnes might be better off as an energy guy off the bench. Reggie Bullock probably isn't ready to fill that role just yet. Neither is Joe Ingles, an Australian rookie who has seasoned his game in Europe. As it happens, Chris Douglas-Roberts might be the best bet to take the reins on the wing before the season is through.
This wouldn't matter so much if the Clippers had a true clutch commander in their troop. But Chris Paul has struggled under those circumstances (see: Game 5 vs. OKC) and Griffin might not be equipped to handle those duties just yet.
Had LA been able to land, say, Paul Pierce to be the big-bucket guy, its championship prospects would appear pristine, especially without Donald Sterling in the picture. Instead, the Clippers will have to hope that internal improvements and additions on the margins will be enough to push past the Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs on their way out of the West.
Chicago Bulls: 11/2
The Chicago Bulls may not be the odds-on favorites to take home the franchise's seventh Larry O'Brien Trophy, but they should be in line to snag the best regular-season record in the East.
For all the talent the Cleveland Cavaliers now have on hand, they're still likely to face plenty of growing pains between now and next spring. Remember, the Bulls finished four games ahead of the Heat at the end of LeBron James' first season on South Beach, and this year's Cavs are facing down just as much organizational turnover as that Miami team did, if not more.
Chicago, on the other hand, returns the same general manager and head coach from recent seasons, with an on-court infrastructure with which most of the core players (Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy, Kirk Hinrich) are already intimately familiar.
Questions still abound, between Rose's readiness to shine again, Pau Gasol's prowess at his advancing age and the rookie lumps due to be taken by Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott.
Even so, the Bulls have a ton of talent and a much clearer idea of how to maximize it than the Cavs do at this point. Whether that's the case come April, May and June is another story.
Oklahoma City Thunder: 11/2
Kudos to Scott Brooks for showing such strong, unprompted support for his polarizing point guard.
"I believe Russell [Westbrook] is the best point guard in basketball," the Oklahoma City Thunder head coach said during the team's media day, via ESPN.com's Royce Young. "That's happened over time. I've seen Russell every practice, every game, every film session, and he's really put a lot of time into being the best point guard in basketball."
Westbrook didn't exactly brush off such effusive praise, either. "I'm very honored to hear him say that, but that's how I feel," he added.
And why shouldn't he feel that way? His most recent postseason performance (26.7 points, 8.1 assists, 7.3 rebounds in 19 games) was nothing short of awe-inspiring and may well have marked the best stretch of his career.
He did this after undergoing three knee operations in an eight-month span. Westbrook could be even better this season after a summer free from operating tables and grueling rehab routines.
And that's to say nothing of Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Reggie Jackson and Steven Adams, each of whom figures to take another step forward in his career and play a pivotal part in the success of what could be OKC's best team yet.
San Antonio Spurs: 4/1
At first glance, it may seem strange to see the San Antonio Spurs installed as anything less than odds-on title favorites. After all, they're set to return the entirety of a squad—minus Patty Mills, for now, on account of shoulder surgery—that won a league-best 62 regular-season games before romping and stomping its way to the franchise's fifth Larry O'Brien Trophy.
Sure, there are (somewhat) valid concerns about the Spurs' aging core and whether they might lapse into complacency after consecutive trips to the Finals. But those likely had less to do with San Antonio slipping to second than did the crowd of competition out West.
As good as the Spurs may be, their path back to the Western Conference crown looks to be as arduous as ever. They'll have to outlast the Thunder, Clippers, Mavericks, Rockets, Warriors and Trail Blazers (among others) just to earn another shot at the most coveted hardware in hoops.
Las Vegas' favorite to win it all, on the other hand, need only emerge from the moribund morass of the East to earn that same opportunity.
Cleveland Cavaliers: 5/2
Sin City's pick at this point is, indeed, the Cleveland Cavaliers. As the last four years have shown, if you play in the East and LeBron James is on your team, you're probably going to wind up in the Finals.
To be sure, that's not a given for these Cavs. They still have much to prove, including (but certainly not limited to) how their star-studded parts will fit together, whether they'll be able to stop anybody on defense and what David Blatt will be like as a head coach in the NBA after all the success he enjoyed abroad.
The field in front of Cleveland might not be a cinch, either. The Bulls bring experience and defensive toughness to the table and figure to score their fair share with Derrick Rose back and Pau Gasol in the mix. The Wizards and Raptors should both be better, and the Heat, Hornets and Nets could all be surprisingly good.
On the whole, though, the Cavs' path out of the Eastern Conference should be a cakewalk compared to the bloodbath that awaits the West's best.
Who's your money on? Tweet me your choices!