The Golden State Warriors might appear destined to defend their NBA title, but it won't be a cakewalk to the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are lording over an Eastern Conference that might finally have tilted the balance of power in its favor. And Golden State still has plenty of competition out West, particularly in the Southwest, where the Spurs and Thunder are sharpening their knives.
It's much too early for any squad, even the Warriors, to feel comfortable—we're only a quarter of the way through an 82-game marathon.
For now, the top four teams in each conference (as of games played on Dec. 15) have plenty of questions to answer. Here are the biggest ones facing the most banner-worthy combatants so far.
Cleveland Cavaliers: How will Kyrie Irving fit when he returns from injury?
It's a matter of when, not if, Irving returns from his knee injury, presumably in time for a Christmas Day matchup with Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors. Then, ESPN's Dave McMenamin reported the All-Star point guard was set to debut against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday, only for Irving to refute the news himself.
Kyrie Irving @KyrieIrving
Sorry to dwindle the news, but I won't be returning tmrw. It was wrongfully reported. When I do come back you'll hear it directly from me.2015-12-16 16:46:28
Cleveland.com's Chris Haynes posited that Irving could ease his way back into the action against the sad-sack Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday.
Whenever Irving debuts, he'll have to figure out how he fits in with what Cleveland is already doing. LeBron James and Kevin Love are more comfortable, both individually and as a tandem. Love has settled in nicely as the King's top sidekick—a role Irving largely filled last season.
At this point, the Cavs aren't in any rush to rock the boat, nor should they be. At 16-7, they've held firm atop the Eastern Conference standings without Irving.
There could be some turbulence upon Irving's return. Adding a ball-dominant scorer into any mix is never a cut-and-dried affair. But the Cavs won't make the leap from good to great until their 23-year-old whiz kid finds his comfort zone and starts dribbling, dishing, scoring and shooting from it.
Chicago Bulls: How long until the Bulls find themselves?
On its face, Chicago's 15-8 start under new coach Fred Hoiberg seems encouraging. The Bulls are still defending like they're being chased by Tom Thibodeau (96.7 points allowed per 100 possessions, third-best in the league, per NBA.com), which is a good sign for this veteran squad.
But the points of emphasis behind Hoiberg's hiring—the snappier pace, the pinball passing, the wide-open spaces—have yet to bolster an offense that's slipped to 28th in efficiency, down from 10th last season, per NBA.com.
Chicago's attack could (and should) improve as the season grinds on. Derrick Rose's vision is still blurred by a facial injury suffered in training camp. Mike Dunleavy Jr., the team's most lethal shooter, has yet to play a single minute while recovering from back surgery. The situation at power forward is still unsettled, with Taj Gibson usurping Nikola Mirotic's starting spot. Joakim Noah, once a key fulcrum, is having a devil of a time adjusting to his new role as a reserve.
"We obviously have an issue right now with playing with the right energy," Noah said after the Bulls' recent win over the Philadelphia 76ers, per Bleacher Report's Sean Highkin. "I think that it's definitely something we need. This team has an identity of playing with intensity and the right energy. That's been our identity for a while now. I think it's up to us to find that, play hard the whole game."
In years past, Chicago could take its sweet time finding that energy while the rest of the East scuffled along. But as Highkin noted, the conference's vast improvement could put the Bulls up against the clock: "Twenty-two games into the season, they're still figuring out their identity under new coach Fred Hoiberg, and with the rest of the Eastern Conference playoff race rounding into shape, they don't have much more time."
Toronto Raptors: Are the Raptors ready to take the next step?
Toronto has made history each of the last two seasons, topping the previous franchise high for wins in consecutive campaigns. But the Raptors have had little more than first-round playoff exits to show for their efforts.
This year, Toronto appears poised for postseason success. Where once Toronto's defense held off opponents about as well as a pasta strainer holds water, it's since been fortified by the likes of DeMarre Carroll, Bismack Biyombo and Cory Joseph. With those specialists on board, the Raptors have inched toward the top 10 in defensive efficiency, per NBA.com.
The offense, meanwhile, remains one of the league's most productive. The Raptors rank eighth in efficiency, despite starting the skill-challenged Biyombo in place of the injured Jonas Valanciunas at center.
It helps that Kyle Lowry is in the midst of another career year, with personal bests in points (21.3), rebounds (4.9), steals (2.3) and three-point percentage (40.9 percent). It also helps that DeMar DeRozan, the reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week, is on track for his third straight season averaging better than 20 points per game.
But we've seen Toronto start hot before. Last season, the Raptors went 24-7 out of the gate before fading hard amid Lowry's fatigue and DeRozan's absence. If those two can stay healthy and energized through the frigid Canadian winter and into the spring, Toronto might make some serious noise in the East.
Charlotte Hornets: Are the Hornets better off without Al Jefferson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist?
Before the season began, Danny Chau, then with Grantland, all but buried the Hornets' hopes of getting back into the playoffs without Michael Kidd-Gilchrist:
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is the team's best and most important player. Full stop—no need to throw the word "arguably" in that sentence, which only serves as a slight hedge to appease those who might balk at MKG's uninspiring per-game numbers. A team's top scorer isn't always the team's top player.
That top scorer, Al Jefferson, has had issues of his own. He missed six games with a strained left calf and is slated to sit out another five for a drug-related suspension.
Without their tentpoles on both ends, the Hornets were destined for a plate full of sad Michael Jordan pancakes. Instead, they've continued to soar up the standings by playing top-six ball on offense and defense.
Absent Big Al eating up clock and possessions with middlingly effective post-ups and MKG clogging the court with his clunky jumper, Charlotte's offense has become much more dynamic. Kemba Walker is in the midst of a banner year (18 points on 45.2 percent shooting, 39.6 percent from three, 4.7 assists, 6.9 drives per game), thanks in no small part to the space opened up by Charlotte's other shooters:
|Charlotte's Top Three-Point Shooters|
On the other end, the Hornets have made up for a downgrade in defensive personnel by playing with more energy on a tighter string. As Zach Lowe, writing for ESPN, explained:
This goes beyond the team's absorbing the rules of [head coach Steve] Clifford's ultra-conservative drop-back defense. The Hornets bounce on their toes, hyper-alert, a five-man force field bending and stretching as needed. They sense who needs coverage, where the next rotation should go and, in the event of a painful choice, which enemy shooter requires more attention. That is the product of preparation, coaching and the sort of constant engagement too mentally draining for weaker teams. One confused pause can snap the chain.
This doesn't mean the Hornets will turn away Jefferson and Kidd-Gilchrist once they're ready and eligible to play. But if the team ain't broke, how quick will Clifford be to "fix" his team's presumed cornerstones back into the mix?
Golden State Warriors: What now?
The streak may be over, but the Warriors still have five months of regular-season ball to slog through before they can lock into their playoff title defense. Where reigning champions tend to rest on their laurels, Golden State used slights—perceived and real—and the prospect of history to fuel their fire.
"Our guys love the pressure," Luke Walton, the Warriors' interim head coach, told Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding. "Our guys play better the bigger the stage is."
The stage will still be plenty big. The 72-10 record of the 1995-96 Bulls and a second consecutive title are squarely in Golden State's sights. The same goes for the Warriors as targets for the 29 other teams seeking to dethrone the NBA's best from night to night.
The Dubs also have plenty of their own concerns to address. Klay Thompson returned from an ankle injury against Milwaukee but looked hobbled (4-of-14 from the field, 2-of-7 from three) in defeat. Harrison Barnes remains sidelined by a bum ankle of his own. Steve Kerr, coping with complications from two offseason back surgeries, hopes to make his season debut in due course, per the San Jose Mercury News' Tim Kawakami.
All the while, fatigue seemed to take its toll on the team's execution on both ends of the floor as the Warriors crept toward their first defeat.
As Kevin Ding wrote, this Golden State squad could sink without a clear, immediate goal to chase or swim its way into the annals of NBA lore:
If the Warriors are patient and detail-oriented enough to make that incremental growth—instead of getting bored or bogged down by individual interests—then we know now, after they completed the greatest start to a season in professional sports history, that the rest of the NBA doesn't stand a chance.
San Antonio Spurs: How great can these Spurs be?
While the Warriors captured the imaginations of basketball fans everywhere during their streak, the Spurs were busy doing what they do: winning basketball games. According to NBA.com, San Antonio owns the league's third-best offense, the stingiest defense and the second-best net rating, in addition to the second-best record.
What's mind-boggling about this, though, is how much room for improvement these Spurs have ahead of them. Danny Green's shooting percentages (33.3 percent from the field, 29.7 percent from three) are still sucking pond water. LaMarcus Aldridge, the biggest free-agent catch in franchise history, is just now finding his footing under head coach Gregg Popovich.
Paul Garcia @PaulGarciaNBA
Pop on Aldridge: "He's a guy who's getting used to this system more & more every game & feeling more & more comfortable."2015-12-15 04:28:50
If not for Stephen Curry's transcendence, Kawhi Leonard (20.8 points, 7.6 rebounds, a league-high 48.9 percent from three) might be the MVP front-runner. And at 24, he could just be scratching the surface of his prodigious potential.
The key for San Antonio will be getting the younger members of their core up to speed while keeping their older constituents (i.e. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili) playing at a high level. The stronger the team's traditional foundation remains, the more the likes of Aldridge, Leonard and Green will be able to return the Spurs to familiar heights.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Has anything changed under Billy Donovan?
Watch any Thunder game and you might think Scott Brooks is still coaching in Oklahoma City.
They remain one of the 10 most frequent proprietors of both isolations and pick-and-rolls in the league, per NBA.com. No team passes less than the Thunder, and only five teams register assists at a lower rate than OKC does.
These aren't necessarily bad things. When you have two otherworldly talents like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook on the same squad, you could do worse than put the ball in their hands and have them break down a defense. So far, that's been good enough to give the 17-8 Thunder the third-best record in the West, courtesy of the league's longest active winning streak of six games.
Even so, with all the talk of Billy Donovan bringing better ball movement and spacing to the Sooner State, it's noteworthy to see the Thunder falling back into old habits—good, bad and otherwise—this season.
That's not to say things won't change in OKC. By all accounts, the team is working diligently behind closed doors to adjust to and incorporate what Donovan dictates.
"A lot of these things we talk about sometimes are very fleeting," the former Florida coach told ESPN.com's Royce Young. "You've got to be able to have a strong conviction and commitment, and you've got to be intentional about it. Because if you're not intentional about it, you lose it very quickly. So you've got to go into games intentional about moving the ball, sharing the ball, doing those kind of things."
The Thunder have shown flashes of such intention. During their latest trip to Memphis, OKC topped 300 passes in a game for the first time all season and came away with arguably their most impressive all-around result of the campaign: a 125-88 win over the Grizzlies.
Passing like that may not be a panacea, but come playoff time, it'll make slowing down the Thunder's otherwise vanilla offense that much tougher.
Los Angeles Clippers: Have the Clippers flipped the switch?
L.A.'s early-season struggles have stemmed from and spread into nearly every aspect of the squad, both on and off the court.
The backcourt of Chris Paul and J.J. Redick has been banged up, while the frontcourt of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan hasn't been banging on the boards like it should. The new additions to the bench have scuffled, with some (i.e. Josh Smith) reportedly getting into it with members of Doc Rivers' coaching staff.
All signs pointed to an overarching lack of trust. For all the franchise's successes since Paul's arrival in 2011, the Clippers' playoff collapses and turbulent summer of 2015—both good and bad—seemed to shake this team to its foundation.
But the tide may be turning. The Clippers went 4-1 on their latest road trip, with gut-check finishes galore, and have won eight out of 10 games dating back to Nov. 28.
Jamal Crawford said this after the Clippers stormed back from a double-digit deficit in Detroit to beat the Pistons, per Clippers.com's Rowan Kavner:
We have a lot of faith in everybody out there. We have a lot of high-IQ guys, guys that are happy for each other's success. You watch the shot I made, Lance [Stephenson] and those guys are on the sideline, the shot J.J. made, we're all going crazy. We play for each other, and we're really figuring it out.
The Clippers have had a habit of jump-starting their seasons on the road under Rivers. In 2013-14, they went 4-3 on a seven-game December swing before ripping off 17 wins in 23 games. Last season, they won six out of seven on a November trip that bled into an eight-game winning streak.
This time around, the Clippers will have even more time to bond. After hosting the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday, L.A. will spend seven of its next eight contests on the road.
All stats accurate as of games played on Dec. 15, 2015.
Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.