The dog days of the NBA offseason have kept happenings in a relatively dormant state of late, but the league helped quench fans' thirst for hoops with the release of the 2015-16 schedule Wednesday night.
And after the 2014-15 season proved to be the most entertaining in years, the upcoming slate has plenty to live up to.
But surpassing expectations shouldn't be too difficult with fascinating storylines abounding.
Wi the Golden State Warriors seeking to win back-to-back titles with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green at the helm, the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers and Houston Rockets are all looking to unseat the reigning Western Conference champions.
Then there are the Oklahoma City Thunder, who are finally healthy after slogging through a year riddled with injury-related turmoil. Not only is Kevin Durant hoping to regain MVP form, but Russell Westbrook also will continue to try to shatter statistical ceilings after leading the league in scoring at 28.1 points per game.
Out east, the Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls will all be eyeing top honors, while a group of up-and-comers headlined by the Milwaukee Bucks seeks to throttle up the standings.
So with the schedule providing a light at the end of the tunnel, here's a very early preview of what's to come this season.
Additionally, a rundown of the top games to keep an eye on can be viewed here, courtesy of NBA.com.
|2015-16 NBA Predictions: Eastern Conference|
|10||New York Knicks||40||42||25%|
|Source: Alec Nathan projections|
Can LeBron and the Cavs Earn Redemption?
After struggling through the first half of the 2014-15 season, the Cleveland Cavaliers hit their stride and soared to an Eastern Conference title.
And even though they fell to the Golden State Warriors in six games in a thrilling NBA Finals, the Cavaliers have every reason to be optimistic entering a new year.
Not only is LeBron James back after signing a one-year deal with a player option for the 2016-17 season, but Kevin Love also surprisingly opted to ink a five-year max extension instead of going the same route as James.
"At the end of the day, and after meeting with my teammates (it turns out pools are great meeting places) and with the front office, it was clear Cleveland was the place for me," Love wrote in a first-person piece for The Players' Tribune. "We’re all on the same page and we’re all in. We have unfinished business and now it’s time to get back to work."
With those situations settled, the Cavaliers did well to maintain and add depth by retaining Iman Shumpert at an average annual value of $10 million while bringing Mo Williams back on board to play the role of backup and veteran mentor to Kyrie Irving.
Remember, this is a Cleveland team that purveyed the East's best offensive rating (108.9) after the All-Star break last season before losing a grand total of two playoff games prior to the Finals.
And now it's even deeper.
The Eastern Conference has assuredly improved with the Miami Heat reloaded and the Atlanta Hawks boasting one of the league's most intimidating front lines, but Cleveland has the best player in the world and a star-studded supporting cast to lean on.
|2015-16 NBA Predictions: Western Conference|
|1||Golden State Warriors||66||16||100%|
|2||San Antonio Spurs||64||18||100%|
|3||Los Angeles Clippers||60||22||100%|
|4||Oklahoma City Thunder||59||23||100%|
|7||New Orleans Pelicans||49||33||85%|
|11||Portland Trail Blazers||38||44||15%|
|12||Los Angeles Lakers||32||50||0%|
|Source: Alec Nathan projections|
Will the Spurs Return to the Championship Stage?
The San Antonio Spurs were already title contenders without LaMarcus Aldridge, but his arrival in Texas could single-handedly change the complexion of the Western Conference.
Instead of re-signing a five-year max deal to remain with the Portland Trail Blazers, Aldridge bolted for the Spurs on a four-year max commitment.
"It’s an honor to even be in this organization," Aldridge said at his introductory press conference on July 10, according to the San Antonio Express-News' Dan McCarney. "To even be in that (company) feels good. I’m not trying to be Tim Duncan or David Robinson. Those guys are rare. They only come around once every 20 years."
Even if he isn't Duncan or Robinson, Aldridge has the chance to compete for titles year after year alongside Kawhi Leonard—an opportunity that eluded him for the majority of his tenure in Portland.
But now Aldridge joins a Spurs team that's arguably the deepest in the NBA after it was able to convince Duncan and Manu Ginobili to return on two-year deals while stealing David West at the veteran minimum.
Bleacher Report's Fred Katz explained why the West signing could be a boon for the Spurs:
He's actually shot better than 50 percent from 16 feet out to the three-point line during each of the past two seasons, and that's inside the Pacers' scrunched offense which lacks much of the space the Spurs promote inside their schemes.
t will be harder for defenses to guard a West pick-and-pop with Parker as the ball-handler than with Pacers point guard George Hill, who mostly looks to score instead of distribute on such plays.
The Spurs have so many options now that West's minutes will go down (because who plays heavy minutes on the Spurs?), and his numbers will decrease with them. But his actual production will likely soar through the roof.
Consider the rest of the NBA on notice.
Can the Clippers Finally Capitalize on Tremendous Talent?
The Los Angeles Clippers have qualified for the NBA playoffs four years in a row—the longest streak in franchise history. However, Doc Rivers' club has failed to advance past the Western Conference Semifinals each of the past four seasons, despite owning a 3-1 series lead against the Houston Rockets in the second round of the 2015 postseason.
If the Clippers are going to forget that dreadful collapse and finally secure a spot in the Western Conference Finals, this needs to be the year they blow expectations away.
It has to be.
After it looked like the team was destined to undergo a major face lift, center DeAndre Jordan pulled a heel turn and returned to Hollywood on a four-year max deal following his decision to spurn the Dallas Mavericks.
With Jordan back in tow, the Clippers retained four of the five pieces of the starting lineup that led the league in offensive rating (117.8) by 3.4 points per 100 possessions last season, according to NBA.com. The one missing piece is Matt Barnes, who was traded to the Charlotte Hornets in the deal that netted the Clippers Lance Stephenson.
Outside of retaining Jordan and adding Stephenson as a reserve weapon on the perimeter, the Clippers were able to secure Paul Pierce at the mini mid-level exception used by taxpaying teams. Pierce represents an immediate upgrade over Barnes on the offensive end, and his spot-up shooting capabilities should thrust the offense into an even gaudier statistical stratosphere.
But Rivers didn't stop there.
After the free-agent frenzy died down, the Clippers were able to sneak in and nab Josh Smith at the veteran minimum, which is a coup for a team that needed another versatile ball-handler and playmaker to help buoy the second unit.
Last season, the Clippers bench ranked 23rd in scoring and 27th in field-goal percentage, according to HoopsStats.com. Those underwhelming tallies placed a monstrous burden on the shoulders of Jordan, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, and the fatigue showed late in the playoffs.
Slaying one of the West's biggest powerhouses en route to nabbing a conference finals berth will be a massive undertaking, but the Clippers finally have the depth to get it done.
The Storyline Hanging Over Both Conferences
How the 2015-16 Regular Season Will Impact the Summer of 2016
The summer of 2016 was supposed to represent the craziest free-agency period the NBA has ever seen. But at this rate, it's hard to imagine that narrative holding true.
After 2015 free agents like Love, Aldridge, Paul Millsap, Marc Gasol and Co. all opted for multiyear deals over short-term versions with player options for the 2016-17 season, the intrigue surrounding next summer's crop of available stars has seemingly dwindled a bit.
While Durant is still slated to become an unrestricted free agent—you can bank on that storyline following him all season long—the class of 2016 just isn't as compelling as it once was.
"It really bodes well for the guys who weren't in this year's class but are in next year's class," Phoenix Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said, according to Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick. "Because there is so much money in the marketplace, there will be fewer players in the marketplace. Next summer would be a great time to be a free agent, especially if you're unrestricted."
As the season unfolds, keep an eye on how players in contract years produce, and which teams could make runs at them as franchises seek to position themselves as contenders for the rest of the decade.