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Bleacher Report's Ultimate 2015-16 NBA Season Preview and Predictions

Bleacher Report NBA StaffFeatured ColumnistOctober 26, 2015

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) walks in front of Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) during the first half of Game 5 of basketball's NBA Finals in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, June 14, 2015. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Bleacher Report

As the NBA mourns the passing of Minnesota Timberwolves icon Flip Saunders and holds its breath for beloved son Lamar Odom’s recovery, we can at least take solace that actual consequential NBA games are just around the corner. We really need the distraction right now.

We need to see LaMarcus Aldridge in a Spurs uniform. We need to see Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Love healthy and revitalized. We need to see what Steph Curry has in mind for his next act.

We also needed answers to the biggest questions heading into the 2015-16 season. We rallied our top national and team writers to find out...

 

Will added mileage slow down LeBron James this year?

Jay LaPrete/Associated Press
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The clock is ticking louder than ever for LeBron James to make good on his promise to deliver a title to Cleveland, if in no one else's head than his. It's why he put in three-a-day workouts to prepare for the season, a source close to James said, and why he invited the team down to Miami to prepare with him.

While outsiders may look at the team's reign of supremacy as just beginning with Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson all twentysomethings, James is acutely aware that history says he's already defied the number of consecutive NBA Finals (five) one player is supposed to reach and that a physical toll eventually will have to be paid.

As he sees it, he nearly pulled it off a season ago without a healthy Love or Irving—which is why he remains supremely confident that he can close the deal this year. Assuming, that is, that both they and he can hold up.

—Ric Bucher


Can the Golden State Warriors get even better this season?

The answer depends on what "better" means. It's highly unlikely Golden State will post an even more historically dominant average margin of victory or win more than 67 games, but it'll be avoiding those lofty regular-season achievements by choice.

Health will be critical, and we should expect to see the Warriors give away regular-season games here and there in the interest of preserving their core for the long haul of a title defense. Guys like Andre Iguodala, Andrew Bogut and even Stephen Curry will get games off.

So maybe that means the final standings show a step backward. But with another year to build chemistry and add layers to Steve Kerr's offense (and a chorus of doubters providing motivation), the Dubs could enter the playoffs a much more dangerous team than they were last year. That's the kind of "better" that actually matters.

—Grant Hughes

Will the LA Lakers finally face reality?

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

For nearly two celebratory decades, the Los Angeles Lakers orbited Kobe Bryant. But that ends in 2016. Heading into this season—possibly Bryant’s last—the organization needs to get its priorities in order.

Do the Lakers want to win as many games as possible, play their veterans, fall short of the postseason and lose their 2016 first-round pick (which goes to the Philadelphia 76ers if it’s not in the top three)? Or will they hold a mini-fire sale, make in-season trades that help solidify their future and focus all of their energy on developing D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr.? Since the draft, almost all L.A.’s personnel decisions lean toward the former, but going down the opposite path may be a more prudent option.

—Michael Pina

Are LaMarcus Aldridge and the San Antonio Spurs really a perfect fit?

When hoop heads think of the San Antonio Spurs, there’s a good chance that mental movie features a brilliant display of ball movement that ultimately creates a clean look for a capable shooter. Guess who consistently buries that type of shot: LaMarcus Aldridge. There have been loud whispers that the four-time All-Star isn’t cut from a Spursian cloth—that he’s too concerned with individual numbers and a potential ball-stopper on offense.

The truth is he’s built to dominate in this system. He tallied 314 points on spot-up shots and 386 on catch-and-shoot attempts last season, per NBA.com; Danny Green was the only Spur to clear either mark. Aldridge also added the long ball to his arsenal, shattering his previous bests with 37 makes and a 35.2 percent conversion rate. The Texas native should look like a silver-and-black natural. And the differences he does bring will only make the Spurs harder to stop.

—Zach Buckley

How can Fred Hoiberg take the Bulls to the next level?

Paul Beaty/Associated Press

The Bulls roster is virtually identical to last year's team, but their identity couldn't be more different. Last year's Tom Thibodeau-led team was 21st in league pace at 95.35 possessions per 48 minutes, per NBA.com. That's been a point of emphasis for Fred Hoiberg in his first NBA training camp—he wants the Bulls to get into sets early in the shot clock, and Derrick Rose has raved about his potential production in this free-flowing system.

Last season's Bulls attempted 22.3 threes per game, 16th-most in the league. In eight preseason games under Hoiberg, that number has skyrocketed to fifth-highest at 28.8. Hoiberg's decision to start Nikola Mirotic alongside Pau Gasol and move Joakim Noah to the bench will open up the offense, but it also sends a clear message that defense is a secondary concern. Get ready for the Bulls to play a lot of 120-115 games and not as many 80-75 games.

—Sean Highkin

With Kevin Durant’s 2016 free agency dominating headlines, what about Russell Westbrook?

David Goldman/Associated Press

How well the Oklahoma City Thunder do this season under new head coach Billy Donovan will certainly affect Durant’s position. If Durant leaves and the Thunder miss their championship prime, the next domino to fall is Westbrook. But one thought that can’t be overlooked as Durant evaluates his future: What if he stays, but Westbrook then leaves a year later?

Durant, who played at the University of Texas, has connected with the Oklahoma fanbase in a meaningful way. Westbrook is obviously a free thinker and unabashed doer who wouldn’t be above making a bold choice. As long as Durant and Westbrook are together, the Thunder are a title threat. All eyes are on Durant now, but part of the urgency—and pressure—for Oklahoma City is that the team needs to be great this season to show Westbrook the value of staying, too.

—Kevin Ding

 

Are the LA Clippers more concerned about touches or championships?

DeAndre Jordan was on his way to Dallas because he wanted the chance to be an All-Star and a featured part of the offense. Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle made a convincing presentation of exactly how he would do that. The Clippers, after failing to answer that question the first time they met with him, did so in their last-ditch effort to get him back.

But how exactly are they going to accomplish that with not only Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, but Lance Stephenson, Paul Pierce and Jamal Crawford needing their shots and touches as well? And how is Jordan going to react if his offensive role is even smaller than it was last year outside of when injuries expanded it?

That's why, for as much of a relief as it had to be for the organization that Jordan returned and how much talent they added, the simplest of chemistry questions remains: Can they keep everybody happy? Coach Doc Rivers did it successfully in Boston, but that was with three veterans willing to sacrifice anything to win a ring. Are the Clippers' stars—Jordan included—at that point? We're about to find out.

—Ric Bucher

  

How concerned should we be about a potential lockout in 2017?

Mark Lennihan/Associated Press

No one wants to read about NBA labor matters, and no one wants to listen to the histrionic he said, she saids that fuel every tedious, nauseating shutdown in pro sports. So I’m here, dear reader, with two encouraging bullet points:

1. The NBA and the players union are quietly working to avoid another shutdown.

2. I believe there’s a very good chance they will succeed. The labor deal signed after the 2011 lockout runs through 2021, unless one party or the other elects to opt out in 2017.

But there’s really no reason to do so. The first installment from a $24 billion national TV deal will begin filling team coffers next fall. The average player salary should hit $7.5 million next season. Franchise values are skyrocketing. The game has never been more popular.

Yes, a few teams might still be losing money. Yes, the players would love to make a few changes to the system. But another shutdown would be sheer lunacy under the circumstances. Union chief Michele Roberts has hinted at reaching a new agreement by next summer. That sounds a tad optimistic. But $24 billion tends to put everyone in a good mood.

—Howard Beck

 

Can the Houston Rockets fix their most glaring issue?

James Harden, whose 2014-15 season ended with 12 turnovers in Game 5 against the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, has preached the importance of taking care of the ball all preseason long. The Rockets offense slipped to 12th in points scored per possession last season, and it’s clear turnovers were to blame. The Rockets ranked 28th in turnovers, averaging 16.7 per 100 possessions.

The next-worst Western Conference playoff team in turnover ratio, the San Antonio Spurs, were 14th. Turnovers also handicapped an otherwise strong defense, with the Rockets allowing the third-most points off turnovers in the NBA.

—Jonathan Feigen

Will the NY Knicks finally take pride on the defensive end?

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 12:  Robin Lopez #8 of the New York Knicks looks on during the game against the Philadelphia 76ers on October 12, 2015 at Madison Square Garden in New York City.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloa
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

The New York Knicks finished 28th in defensive efficiency last year and have been in the bottom 10 in 10 of the last 14 seasons. The starting lineupJose Calderon, Arron Afflalo, Carmelo Anthony, Kristaps Porzingis and Robin Lopez—features four below-average defenders (depending on how you feel about Afflalo, whose reputation has exceeded his tape and advanced metrics for at least two years now).

Can Lopez paper over all the issues on the perimeter by himself? Considering even Tyson Chandler couldn’t make the Knicks respectable defensively, probably not. Shifting minutes from Calderon to the young tandem of Jerian Grant and Langston Galloway may help some. As would playing Carmelo more at power forward than small forward, where his deficiencies guarding in space are more noticeable.

—Jared Dubin

 

Can Goran Dragic and Dwyane Wade make each other better?

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Few NBA backcourts can match the collective talents of the Miami Heat’s Dwyane Wade-Goran Dragic tandem. But, as the old adage goes, ability alone does not a great guard combo make. There’s more to figuring out this duo than lining them up together and letting them loose. The pair lost a combined 6.5 field-goal percentage points when they shared the floor last season—from 48.2 to 42.3 percent for Wade and 50.3 to 49.7 for Dragic.

Those numbers shouldn’t be alarming. Wade plays a calculated, methodical game, while Dragic darts around like a tardy driver in rush-hour traffic. Both also work best with the ball in their hands, and neither possesses the most reliable three ball. The Heat, who have the league’s second-oldest roster, need these two to blend their styles together sooner rather than later.

—Zach Buckley

 

What is OKC’s ceiling if stars are healthy?

During the short time Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were simultaneously healthy, the Oklahoma City Thunder managed to outscore the opposition by 9.3 points per 100 possessions when both superstars were on the court, per NBA.com. Throw Serge Ibaka into a three-man equation with those two, and the net rating rises to a staggering 11.4 during the 27 games they suited up alongside each other.

Considering the Golden State Warriors rode a league-best 11.4 net rating to 67 wins during the 2014-15 regular season, that's great news for a core that should be healthy and raring to climb back up the Western Conference standings after an injury-riddled year in the lottery.

—Adam Fromal

Which rookie will have the greatest impact on his team this season?

Oct 8, 2015; Boulder, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Emmanuel Mudiay (C) dribbles the ball between Chicago Bulls guard Aaron Brooks (L) and forward Nikola Mirotic (R) during the first half at Coors Events Center. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY
Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Emmanuel Mudiay is the clear choice here, if only because he's the only top-10 pick who won't cede touches to a more established No. 1 option. Karl-Anthony Towns has Andrew Wiggins; D'Angelo Russell has Kobe Bryant and Nick Young; Mario Hezonja won't even be starting, and when he does play, he'll defer to Tobias Harris, Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo; and Kristaps Porzingis will bow at the altar of Carmelo Anthony. Jahlil Okafor may be the only exception, but touches don't always translate to dominance when the defense has nothing to plan for but you. The list goes on.

Mudiay, on the other hand, is the man. He's the Denver Nuggets' first line of attack now that Ty Lawson is gone, so the usage will be there. More to the point, he spent both the summer league and preseason showcasing those glittery and incisive drives that rival John Wall in speed and explosion but mirror Tony Parker in the way he works the corners on kick-outs.

Given his immediate role, as well as the imprint he's bound to leave on Denver's transitioning offense, Mudiay isn't just in line to have a greater impact than any of his peers. He's a Rookie of the Year favorite.

—Dan Favale


Bleacher Report NBA staff and expert predictions:

 

Most Valuable Player: LeBron James (5), Anthony Davis (4), Kevin Durant (2), James Harden (2), Russell Westbrook

Defensive Player of the Year: Rudy Gobert (8), Kawhi Leonard (5), Anthony Davis

Executive of the Year: R.C. Buford (10), Doc Rivers, David Griffin, Daryl Morey, Danny Ainge

Coach of the Year: Billy Donovan (3), Fred Hoiberg (2), Steve Kerr (2), Brad Stevens (2), David Blatt, Quin Snyder, Alvin Gentry, Doc Rivers, Gregg Popovich

Sixth Man of the Year: Isaiah Thomas (8), Andre Iguodala, Patrick Beverley, Ryan Anderson, Joakim Noah, Tristan Thompson, David West

Rookie of the Year: Emmanuel Mudiay (9), Jahlil Okafor (4), Mario Hezonja

Most Improved Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo (3), C.J. McCollum (2), Otto Porter, Bradley Beal, Reggie Jackson, Victor Oladipo, Rudy Gobert, Meyers Leonard, Andrew Wiggins, Kawhi Leonard

Western Conference Champions: Warriors (6), Spurs (3), Thunder (3), Rockets (2)

Eastern Conference Champions: Cavs (13), Bulls

NBA Champions: Warriors (6), Thunder (3), Rockets (2), Spurs (2), Cavs


Howard Beck’s Predictions (@HowardBeck)

Most Valuable Player: Kevin Durant

Defensive Player of the Year: Kawhi Leonard

Executive of the Year: R.C. Buford

Coach of the Year: Quin Snyder

Sixth Man of the Year: Andre Iguodala

Rookie of the Year: Emmanuel Mudiay

Most Improved Player: Otto Porter

Western Conference Champion: Spurs

Eastern Conference Champion: Cavaliers

NBA Champion: Spurs

Ric Bucher (@RicBucher)

MVP: Russell Westbrook

DPOY: Rudy Gobert

Exec: R.C. Buford

Coach: Alvin Gentry

Sixth Man: Patrick Beverley

ROY: Emmanuel Mudiay

MIP: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Western Champ: Warriors

Eastern Champ: Cavaliers

NBA Champ: Warriors

Zach Buckley (@ZachBuckleyNBA)

MVP: LeBron James

DPOY: Rudy Gobert

Executive: R.C. Buford

Coach: Doc Rivers

Sixth Man: Isaiah Thomas

ROY: Emmanuel Mudiay

MIP: Bradley Beal

Western Champ: Thunder

Eastern Champ: Cavaliers

NBA Champ: Thunder

Joel Cordes (@bball_joel)

MVP: LeBron James

DPOY: Anthony Davis

Exec: Doc Rivers

Coach: Billy Donovan

Sixth Man: Ryan Anderson

ROY: Jahlil Okafor

MIP: Reggie Jackson

Western Champ: Thunder

Eastern Champ: Cavs

NBA Champ: Thunder

Kevin Ding (@KevinDing)

MVP: James Harden

DPOY: Kawhi Leonard

Exec: David Griffin

Coach: Fred Hoiberg

Sixth Man: Joakim Noah

ROY: Jahlil Okafor

MIP: C.J. McCollum

Western Champ: Thunder

Eastern Champ: Cavaliers

NBA Champ: Thunder

Jared Dubin (@JADubin5)

MVP: Anthony Davis

DPOY: Kawhi Leonard

Exec: Daryl Morey

Coach: Billy Donovan

Sixth Man: Isaiah Thomas

ROY: Emmanuel Mudiay

MIP: Victor Oladipo

Western Champ: Rockets

Eastern Champ: Cavaliers

NBA Champ: Rockets

Dan Favale (@danfavale)

MVP: Anthony Davis

DPOY: Rudy Gobert

Exec: R.C. Buford

Coach: Steve Kerr

Sixth Man: Isaiah Thomas

ROY: Emmanuel Mudiay

MIP: C.J. McCollum

Western Champ: Warriors

Eastern Champ: Cavaliers

NBA Champ: Warriors

Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen)

MVP: LeBron James

DPOY: Kawhi Leonard

Exec: R.C. Buford

Coach: Gregg Popovich

Sixth Man: Isaiah Thomas

ROY: Emmanuel Mudiay

MIP: Rudy Gobert

Western Champ: Spurs

Eastern Champ: Cavaliers

NBA Champ: Cavaliers

Adam Fromal (@Fromal09)

MVP: Anthony Davis

DPOY: Rudy Gobert

Exec: R.C. Buford

Coach: Billy Donovan

Sixth Man: Isaiah Thomas

ROY: Emmanuel Mudiay

MIP: Meyers Leonard

Western Champ: Warriors

Eastern Champ: Cavaliers

NBA Champ: Warriors

Sean Highkin (@highkin)

MVP:  LeBron James

DPOY: Rudy Gobert

Exec: Danny Ainge

Coach: Brad Stevens

Sixth Man: Tristan Thompson

ROY: Jahlil Okafor

MIP: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Western Champ: Rockets

Eastern Champ: Cavaliers

NBA Champ: Rockets

Grant Hughes (@gt_hughes)

MVP: Anthony Davis

DPOY: Rudy Gobert

Exec: R.C. Buford

Coach: Steve Kerr

Sixth Man: Isaiah Thomas

ROY: Emmanuel Mudiay

MIP: Andrew Wiggins

Western Champ: Warriors

Eastern Champ: Cavaliers

NBA Champ: Warriors

Michael Pina (@MichaelVPina)

MVP: LeBron James

DPOY: Rudy Gobert

Exec: R.C. Buford

Coach: Brad Stevens

Sixth Man: Isaiah Thomas

ROY: Mario Hezonja

MIP: Kawhi Leonard

Western Champ: Spurs

Eastern Champ: Cavaliers

NBA Champ: Spurs

Greg Swartz (@CavsGregBR)

MVP: James Harden

DPOY: Rudy Gobert

Exec: R.C. Buford

Coach: David Blatt

Sixth Man: Isaiah Thomas

ROY: Jahlil Okafor

Western Champ: Warriors

Eastern Champ: Cavaliers

NBA Champ: Warriors

Chris Trenchard (@ChrisTrenchard)

MVP: Kevin Durant

DPOY: Kawhi Leonard

Exec: R.C. Buford

Coach: Fred Hoiberg

Sixth Man: David West

ROY: Emmanuel Mudiay

MIP: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Western Champ: Warriors

Eastern Champ: Bulls

NBA Champ: Warriors

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