The 10 Biggest Things We're Already Anticipating for the 2015-16 NBA Season

Bryan Toporek@@btoporekFeatured ColumnistJuly 30, 2015

The 10 Biggest Things We're Already Anticipating for the 2015-16 NBA Season

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    These former teammates will wage war for Eastern Conference supremacy all season.
    These former teammates will wage war for Eastern Conference supremacy all season.Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    The NBA underwent a significant amount of upheaval over the past few months. From coaching transitions to splashy trades and free-agent signings, a number of the league's teams will look far different when they convene for training camp this fall.

    That only leads to heightened anticipation for the 2015-16 season.

    It's never too early to start looking ahead to the juicy storylines that await NBA fans in the coming months. From a battle of top-three draft picks to an away game that one marquee free agent must already be dreading, this upcoming season should feature no shortage of drama.

    At this juncture in the offseason, 10 particular storylines jump out in terms of their narrative intrigue. Many will pique the interest of NBA fans due to their potential impact on the championship picture, while others are perhaps setting the stage for bigger explosions to come.

    One thing all 10 of the following storylines have in common: They should have fans counting down the days until the 2015-16 season commences.

Karl-Anthony Towns vs. Jahlil Okafor

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    Jahlil Okafor wasn't thrilled to fall to No. 3. Will he exact his revenge on Karl-Anthony Towns?
    Jahlil Okafor wasn't thrilled to fall to No. 3. Will he exact his revenge on Karl-Anthony Towns?Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

    For most of the draft process, Kentucky's Karl-Anthony Towns and Duke's Jahlil Okafor appeared to be the clear-cut top two prospects available. Though Ohio State combo guard D'Angelo Russell made a late charge up draft boards, pushing Okafor down to No. 3 overall, the two bigs will remain tied together for years to come.

    The debate between Towns and Okafor largely boiled down to a common refrain: upside versus safety. While Okafor's floor appears to be significantly higher than Towns', the latter's ceiling towers over that of the former.

    Even if Okafor never develops into a quality rim protector, his low-post acumen on offense will help him carve out a role as a consistent double-double threat. He'll need to continue working on his defense and free-throw stroke to emerge as a true superstar, but at worst, he figures to fit into an Al Jefferson-esque mold.

    Towns, meanwhile, has the two-way skill set of a future superstar, but he's still far more raw than the refined Okafor. Luckily, he'll have perhaps the best possible mentor at his disposal this year, as legendary Minnesota Timberwolves big man Kevin Garnett continues his inspiring reunion with the franchise.

    With both Towns and Okafor having gone among the top three picks on draft night, NBA fans will rightfully keep a close eye on their respective development in the years to come. Though we don't know just when the two big men will take the court for the first time against one another, that contest will be appointment viewing.

New-Look Miami Heat vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    The Heat figure to be one of Cleveland's biggest roadblocks in the East this coming year.
    The Heat figure to be one of Cleveland's biggest roadblocks in the East this coming year.Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    The Cleveland Cavaliers steamrolled their way through the Eastern Conference playoff bracket this past year, dropping just two games en route to the NBA Finals. Thanks to the newly revamped Miami Heat, LeBron James and Co. aren't likely to replicate that feat in 2015-16.

    The Heat continually struck gold this offseason, starting with Duke forward Justise Winslow unexpectedly slipping to them at No. 10 on draft night. With Winslow in the fold, Miami suddenly had one heck of an insurance policy in case Luol Deng decided to decline his player option and leave as an unrestricted free agent.

    Next, free agency broke perfectly for the Heat. Deng decided to opt into his player option, Goran Dragic reached a five-year, $85 million agreement with Miami on the first day of free agency, and Dwyane Wade re-signed with the only franchise he's ever played for on a one-year, $20 million deal.

    With the team's core intact, Heat president Pat Riley proceeded to round out the roster with quality veteran additions such as Gerald Green and Amar'e Stoudemire. Assuming the club can avoid the catastrophic bout of injuries that afflicted many of its players last season, Cleveland has a legitimate reason to fear Miami in the playoffs.

    Of course, James' history with Miami—namely, two titles and four straight Finals appearances—only adds to the intrigue surrounding this upcoming Eastern Conference clash for supremacy. A Heat-Cavaliers playoff series, preferably in the conference finals, would be a narrative extravaganza.

DeAndre Jordan's First Trip to Dallas

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    DeAndre Jordan should expect vociferous boos during his first trip to Dallas.
    DeAndre Jordan should expect vociferous boos during his first trip to Dallas.Tim Sharp/Associated Press

    This one should be rather self-explanatory. After one of the wildest free-agent sagas in recent memory, DeAndre Jordan's first trip to Dallas this season promises to be highly entertaining.

    The big man verbally committed to join the Dallas Mavericks during the July moratorium, when free agents aren't yet allowed to sign official contracts. The day before the moratorium lifted, Jordan decided to pull an about-face, opting instead to re-sign with his incumbent L.A. Clippers for four more years.

    Given the optics surrounding Jordan's flip-flop—between the emoji war that erupted and the so-called "hostage situation" in which Jordan's Clippers teammates refused to leave his side until he put pen to paper—it was an unforgettable few days. Dallas fans have every right to be bitter about how the situation unfolded.

    Mavericks owner Mark Cuban certainly hasn't hidden his frustration regarding Jordan's reversal. He ripped the big man's apology in a Cyber Dust post (via USA Today's Sam Amick), then blasted him during an appearance on The Herd with Colin Cowherd, saying, "There are things about him that we didn't know and gave him credit for that we probably shouldn't have given him credit for," per ESPN's Arash Markazi.

    One can only imagine that rage won't subside anytime soon, either for Cuban or Mavericks fans. When Jordan makes his first trip to Dallas this season, he figures to be greeted with a deafening shower of boos that likely won't subside all game.

The LaMarcus Aldridge Era in San Antonio

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    The Spurs won free agency by signing LaMarcus Aldridge.
    The Spurs won free agency by signing LaMarcus Aldridge.Eric Gay/Associated Press

    The NBA's rich got richer this offseason, as the five-time champion San Antonio Spurs landed one of the biggest free-agent fish in the pond, LaMarcus Aldridge. Suddenly, a franchise teetering on the brink of a looming rebuild now has a clear post-Tim Duncan plan in place.

    Now, the question becomes how Aldridge fits into the Spurs' well-established system. Count Bleacher Report's Jared Dubin among those who believe the big man's transition from Portland to San Antonio should be rather seamless:

    Aldridge does have a skill set that's tailor-made for the Spurs, though. He moves well without the ball, he's a skilled passer, and he's very smart. He can be a ball-stopper on occasion, but it's not at all difficult to envision him moving the ball more quickly in San Antonio than he did in Portland. The Spurs are infectious that way. 

    Dubin isn't the only analyst who loves Aldridge's fit in San Antonio. The Washington Post's Neil Greenberg highlighted how the Spurs "need guys who are unselfish and worry more about the team getting a good shot than putting up a mediocre shot themselves," noting Aldridge racked up 37.6 passes per game last season.

    BBallBreakdown's Coach Nick likewise expects Aldridge to only make an already elite Spurs team even more devastating. It may take the big man some time to acclimate to San Antonio's way of doing things, but if he unlocks his full potential in the team's system, the Spurs will enter the 2015-16 season as title front-runners.

Kevin Durant's Return

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    Kevin Durant spent far too much time in a suit last season due to injuries.
    Kevin Durant spent far too much time in a suit last season due to injuries.Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    One year after winning the league's Most Valuable Player award, Kevin Durant suited up for only 27 games during the 2014-15 season due to recurring foot issues. Luckily, we're only a few months away from seeing the Oklahoma City Thunder superstar start pouring in a deluge of buckets once more.

    For those doubting Durant's place on the NBA's totem pole following his injury-plagued season, CBS Sports' Zach Harper would like to have some words with you. He (rightfully) believes the former Texas Longhorn "unequivocally" remains the league's second-best player behind LeBron James, writing:

    He didn't go away. He didn't lose his talents. He isn't a broken man. At least, we hope not. He's still the Slim Reaper or the Durantula or just that lanky 6'11" guy pretending to be a shorter height in an effort to make his insane game on the court make a lot more sense. He's the best scorer in basketball. He's one of the best scorers of all time. He has a complete game, and when he steps back on the court this coming season, we'll remember exactly what we were missing for 55 games and the playoffs in 2014-15.

    KD and his Thunder teammates are sparing no expense to ensure they hit the ground running this coming season. He, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka recently arranged for 10 OKC players to converge upon Los Angeles for a de facto week-long summer minicamp, according to Barry Tramel of the Oklahoman.

    With Durant set to become a free agent next summer, the Thunder face a never-ending barrage of pressure this season, particularly if the team stumbles early under new coach Billy Donovan. That added intrigue will only make KD's impending return more fascinating.

The Brow Under Alvin Gentry

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    Alvin Gentry has big plans for Anthony Davis this season. Gulp.
    Alvin Gentry has big plans for Anthony Davis this season. Gulp.Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

    In just three years' time, Anthony Davis has evolved from "high-upside future star" to "destroyer of worlds." It's up to Alvin Gentry, the New Orleans Pelicans' new head coach, to continue Davis' development into the NBA's most terrifying two-way stud.

    The two appear to already have a healthy admiration for one another. In a conference call with reporters Monday, Davis heaped praise on his new coach, saying, "He's always bringing that positive vibe. It kind of gets you excited, kind of gets you having goose bumps."

    Gentry, meanwhile, has made it clear that he only plans on running more of the team through Davis this coming season. In an interview with NBA.com's John Schuhmann, the new Pelicans coach described his plans for the franchise cornerstone. 

    "I think we'll try to expand his game," Gentry said. "He's a good enough shooter where he can step out and make corner 3s right now. The big thing is that we've got to have more possessions per 48 minutes. The way you do that is you've got to play with faster pace."

    That sound you hear is 29 other NBA teams running for the hills like a zombie apocalypse just broke out. If Davis adds a consistent three-pointer to his game—the only one he hit in 12 attempts last season was the back-breaking game-winner against the Oklahoma City Thunder—he may legitimately become unstoppable.

Fred Hoiberg's Impact on the Chicago Bulls

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    Summer league gave us our first glimpse at the Bulls under Fred Hoiberg.
    Summer league gave us our first glimpse at the Bulls under Fred Hoiberg.Ronda Churchill/Associated Press

    Given the success the Chicago Bulls had during the Tom Thibodeau era—they never won fewer than 45 games and made the playoffs in each of his five seasons at the helm—new head coach Fred Hoiberg has a great deal to live up to.

    Luckily for Bulls fans, the former Iowa State head coach may be just the person to usher the team forward. During his introductory press conference, Hoiberg detailed how just about every Bulls player will fit into his scheme, particularly singling out injury-plagued point guard Derrick Rose:

    It will be great for Derrick. Derrick's obviously a guy who's at his best when he's playing downhill. If we can get the wings out running, you get that first big running to the rim, and you give Derrick space on the fast break, that's going to create a lot of opportunities. We run a lot of simple drag screens in transition with the floor spaced with shooters, where he can get in the paint and make plays. And that's where I think he's as good as anyone in the world.

    Radius Athletics owner Randy Sherman told Kelly Scaletta of Today's Fastbreak that fans of "free-flowing uptempo basketball" will enjoy Hoiberg's offensive scheme. BBallBreakdown's Coach Nick expects the new Bulls head coach to give more run to younger players such as Tony Snell and Doug McDermott, reducing the regular-season wear and tear on veterans Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah.

    Hoiberg offered Bulls fans a preview of his schemes during Las Vegas Summer League, where the team finished 3-3 overall, making it to the quarterfinals. If he makes the transition from the NCAA to the NBA as seamlessly as Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens, the Bulls will once again be a top threat to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Eastern Conference supremacy.

More Sacramento Kings Drama Looming?

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    The Kings certainly haven't been short on drama this offseason.
    The Kings certainly haven't been short on drama this offseason.Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    If HBO ever planned on creating an NBA version of Hard Knocks, this year's Sacramento Kings would be the best possible candidate.

    The Kings certainly haven't been short on drama this offseason, from a smoldering relationship between their head coach and franchise cornerstone, to a front office that has undergone significant changes on a regular basis. If recent reports are any indication, the choppy waters don't appear to be dying down anytime soon.

    On Sunday, Sportando's Emiliano Carchia reported Vlade Divac, Sacramento's vice president of basketball and franchise operations, is "strongly opposed to the use of analytics in evaluating players." Shortly thereafter, the Kings parted ways with Dean Oliver, the team's director of player personnel, who, as CBS Sports' Matt Moore succinctly put it, "literally wrote the book on basketball analytics."

    Sacramento also managed to sign perhaps the league's most combustible point guard in free agency, inking Rajon Rondo to a one-year, $9.5 million deal. While the short-term contract theoretically will ensure Rondo remains on his best behavior this coming season, his history suggests a confrontation with head coach George Karl is all but inevitable.

    Aside from the Kings' head-scratching trade with the Philadelphia 76ers, there's a lot to like about their offseason; they added numerous quality pieces and should feasibly improve upon last year's product. The threat of a locker room eruption looms large, however, making Sacramento one of the league's most fascinating teams heading into the season.

Ty Lawson's Fit with James Harden

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    Ty Lawson will provide James Harden some ball-handling relief.
    Ty Lawson will provide James Harden some ball-handling relief.Pat Sullivan/Associated Press

    The Houston Rockets pulled off possible grand larceny this summer, sending Nick Johnson, Joey Dorsey, Kostas Papanikolaou, Pablo Prigioni and a lottery-protected 2016 first-round pick to the Denver Nuggets for embattled point guard Ty Lawson. It's a high-risk, high-upside move that could cement Houston as a legitimate top-tier title contender.

    The Nuggets sold low on Lawson following his second DUI arrest this calendar year, shortly after he checked himself into a 30-day rehab facility. Team president Josh Kroenke told Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears that the UNC product "always had an affinity for burning the candle at both ends," admitting "the problems have been there for several years."

    Clearly, Lawson must get his off-court life in order before Houston can feasibly begin dreaming big about his on-court fit. Assuming he does kick his demons to the curb, however, it's hard not to admire the diminutive point guard's potential role with the Rockets.

    As BBallBreakdown's Seth Partnow recently noted, Lawson's playmaking ability will both reduce James Harden's ball-handling burden and help the team subtract turnovers. Considering Houston ranked 28th in turnover percentage this past season, cutting down on cough-ups should be one of the team's top priorities.

    Even after starting point guard Patrick Beverley suffered a season-ending injury in late March, Houston trampled to a 57-win record and advanced to the Western Conference Finals before falling to the eventual-champion Golden State Warriors. If Lawson can stay out of trouble, this year's iteration of the Rockets may be even better.

The Warriors' Encore

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    How will the Warriors follow up their run to the 2015 title?
    How will the Warriors follow up their run to the 2015 title?Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    The 2014-15 Golden State Warriors produced one of the most dominant single-season campaigns in NBA history. As Pro Basketball Talk's Dan Feldman noted, they accrued the third-most wins ever (83, counting the playoffs), topping the 1985-86 Boston Celtics.

    There's only one question: What do they have in store for an encore?

    The Dubs didn't make many big splashes this offseason, valuing continuity over all else. They re-signed Draymond Green to a five-year, $82 million deal and flipped David Lee to Boston for Gerald Wallace, but beyond that, their championship-winning core largely remains intact.

    That doesn't mean the Warriors are a shoo-in to repeat, however. With the Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs having each made significant improvements to their rosters this summer, the Western Conference playoff bracket may be even more of a bloodbath than it was in 2015. (The Oklahoma City Thunder loom large, too.)

    Will reigning MVP Stephen Curry and Co. be able to replicate their magic season with so many top-tier West foes even better prepared for battle? There's only one way to find out…and unfortunately, we're still three months away from doing so.

    All statistics via NBA.com or Basketball-Reference.com. All salary information via Spotrac.com.

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