Much has happened since the Cleveland Cavaliers did the unthinkable and became the first team in NBA history to overturn a 3-1 deficit against the Golden State Warriors in the 2015-16 NBA finals. Lead by LeBron James’ insane averages of 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.6 steals and 2.2 blocks per game, the Cavs quickly turned Warriors quest for dominance into disaster, consequently ending a 52-year-long title drought in Cleveland.
How did the 73-win regular seasons victors of 2016 and champions of 2015 respond?
By upgrading the usually-reliable-horror-show that was Harrison Barnes in the NBA Finals with none other than Kevin Durant, who deserted Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma to take an ‘easy-route’ to a ring in Oakland (but more on that later).
Elsewhere, Tim Duncan retired, Mike Conley became the highest-paid player in NBA history thanks to the salary cap expansion and Al Horford became a Celtic. The unthinkable happened as, Dwayne Wade left Miami for Chicago, Rajon Rondo joined Wade in Chicago and Derrick Rose and Joachim Noah are now part of a New York Knicks ‘super-team’, according to Rose himself.
Here’s a quick recap of some of the major moves that took place during free agency:
Major Contract Extensions
|Name||Team||Value of Contract||Length of Contract|
|LeBron James||Cleveland Cavaliers||$100m||3 years
|Russell Westbrook||Oklahoma City Thunder
|Andre Drummond||Detroit Pistons||$145m||5 years
|Mike Conley||Memphis Grizzlies||$150m||5 years
|CJ McCollum||Portland Trail Blazers||$106m||4 years
|James Harden||Houston Rockets||$118m||4 years
|Giannis Antetokounmpo||Milwaukee Bucks||$100m||4 years
|Bradley Beal||Washington Wizards||$128m||5 years
|DeMar DeRozan||Toronto Raptors||$145m||5 years
|Nicolas Batum||Charlotte Hornets||$120m||5 years
|Hassan Whiteside||Miami Heat||$98m||4 years
|Dirk Nowitzki||Dallas Mavericks||$50m||2 years|
Major Instances of Players Joining New Teams
|Name||Old Team||New Team|
|Kevin Durant||Oklahoma City Thunder||Golden State Warriors
|Al Horford||Atalanta Hawks||Boston Celtics
|Chandler Parsons||Dallas Mavericks||Memphis Grizzlies
|Dwight Howard||Houston Rockets||Atalanta Hawks
|Derrick Rose||Chicago Bulls||New York Knicks
|Al Jefferson||Charlotte Hornets||Indiana Pacers
|Dwayne Wade||Miami Heat||Chicago Bulls
|Joakim Noah||Chicago Bulls||New York Knicks
|Luol Deng||Miami Heat||Los Angeles Lakers
|Rajon Rondo||Sacramento Kings||Chicago Bulls
|Pau Gasol||Chicago Bulls||San Antonio Spurs
|Harrison Barnes||Golden State Warriors||Dallas Mavericks
|Jeremy Lin||Charlotte Hornets||Brooklyn Nets
With the exception of Kevin Durant and Al Horford, there weren’t too ground-breaking moves involving a player joining a new team, although, the Celtics have an arsenal of tradable assets at their disposal, so they might not just be done yet. Kudos to the Milwaukee Bucks (Giannis Antetokounmpo), Detroit Pistons (Andre Drummond), Houston Rockets (James Harden) and of course, the Oklahoma City Thunder (Russell Westbrook), who did well to tie down three almost-certain All-Stars in the years to come, to longer, more lucrative contracts.
Last season, Golden State achieved an unprecedented win total of 73, beating the record of 72, set by Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls during the 1995-95 season, which for them, culminated in a ring, not shocking disappointment. In the playoffs, the Warriors’ record was 12 – 9, as they lost 6 of their last 12 games against the Thunder and the Cavs respectively.
Prior to that historic moment, the Cavs also steamrolled their way to the Finals, only briefly being tested by the Toronto Raptors, before doing the unthinkable a series later. Basically, the East and the West had two clear powerhouses, and with all things considered, a shift in the balance of power doesn’t seem all that likely in the 2016-17 season.
Of course that may prove incorrect, but the ‘smart money’ would be on a rematch of last year’s finals, barring any injuries or unforeseen moments of craziness from Russell Westbrook.
But then again, the ‘smart money’ would’ve been on the Warriors closing things out at 3-1, so to that end, in no particular order, it’s worth looking at the five most important talking points that are likely to shape the 2016/17 season.
1 – How far can the Warriors + Durant go?
The Golden State Warriors will become the first team in NBA history to field four current All-NBA players in the same line-up now they have Kevin Durant. They also won 73 regular-season games last year, signed arguably one of the best players in the entirety of basketball, and have the colossal weight of overturning that shambolic 3-1 collapse.
All things would point towards the Warriors enjoying another easy ride in the West, right? Not necessarily. It’s unlikely that they win 70+ games again, although the Spurs have become weaker without Durant and the Clippers are yet to put together a deep playoff run with their current core. So the onus falls on the likes of the Portland Trail Blazers, Memphis Grizzlies, Houston Rockets or even the Utah Jazz to become serious players in the West, which again seems unlikely.
Even if the Warriors don’t ‘gel’ as they would like with Durant, they will still be better than most teams. So it may well come down to – can the Warriors beat the Cavs with Durant? That remains to be seen, but if they don’t, that would make for two historic ‘failures’ in successive seasons, and a whole load of questions. The answer to ‘will the Warriors win a ring?’ remains to be seen, because you can never rule out what LeBron James alone has up his sleeve.
2 – Can anyone challenge Cleveland in the East?
Speaking of the greatest athlete alive, LeBron James’ Cavaliers side have themselves quietly assembled the most expensive team in the NBA after bringing back all their key components (James, Smith, Thompson, Jefferson), so the pressure is also them to come up trumps once again.
The East last year was a class below the Cavs, and this year, it’s unlikely to see any scenario manifest that doesn’t involve Cleveland winning their third-straight Conference title, and fourth overall. The Celtics will continue to improve, but perhaps not enough to seriously contend and the Raptors are relying on more above-average output from DeRozan and Lowry, so whilst the challengers in the East come with a few questions of their own.
The Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat, Atalanta Hawks and Washington Wizards are of no serious threat to the Cavs, whilst despite being strong dark horses, the Indiana Pacers still seem a season or two away from serious contention in the East.
Unlike Golden State’s quest for another crack at the NBA Finals, Cleveland’s route looks a lot more certain, barring any injuries.
3 – Who wins the MVP Award?
With Kevin Durant/ Steph Curry/Klay Thompson/Draymond Green all tied up on one team, James likely to see his regular-season minutes reduced and uncertainties over how far the likes of Chris Paul, Damien Lillard and James Harden can take their respective teams, the MVP race is anyone’s at this point.
Anthony Davis will be playing with a chip on his shoulder after a ‘disappointing’ 2015/16 campaign with the Pelicans, despite elite production. Karl-Anthony Towns may even force his way into the debate if the Minnesota Timberwolves can find quick success under Tom Thibodeau. But if I had to one player, I’d go for Russell Westbrook – the man who lives for finding new chips for his shoulder, that has just been presented with the biggest chip of them all.
In 61 games without Durant, Westbrook put up 28 points, 7.1 rebounds and 8.4 assists per game, attempting almost 6 more field goals a night than he does with the now-Warrior sharing the floor with him. With Durant, his points fall by 8 points, rebounds by 1.7 and assists by 0.9. Granted, any team is better with both of these players, but we can’t rule out a Westbrook-super-show this season, so if anyone’s got their eye on firmly on the MVP award, it’s him. Although if the Thunder aren’t that successful, that may hinder his bid, but it’ll be fun enough to watch him try.
4 – Three potential break-out stars
Here are 3 potential ‘break-out’ stars for the 2016/17 season.
Giannis Antetokounmpo – The Greek Freak has just been handed the reigns at point guard for the Bucks, and after an incredibly promising mini-breakout last year, he looks good to become an All-Star, as early as this season. Zach Lowe of ESPN sums it up nicely here:
“Fans will probably vote LeBron, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony into the three staring Eastern Conference “frontcourt” spots, leaving Antetokounmpo to battle Paul Millsap, Hassan Whiteside, Al Horford, Kevin Love, Andre Drummond, Dwight Howard, Nicolas Batum and Nikola Vucevic and a bunch of others for one of five backup slots.”
Bradley Beal – Beal has said himself he has his eyes set on making the “All-Star game, All-NBA first team, and All-NBA first team defensively and looks very locked-in and focused on this upcoming season”, per BulletsForever. The Wizards are also in desperate need of Beal and John Wall becoming the elite back-court every Washington fan had hoped for, but is also yet to witness. This could be the year Beal goes from the fringes to the centre of attention.
Damien Lillard – By break-out, I mean, Lillard is about ready to become a serious MVP candidate, if he wasn’t one already. After helping his Trail Blazers side over-achieve and sporadically test the Warriors in the Playoffs, everything is set for Lillard to become a firmer defender and perhaps take his scoring total closer to 30 points per game. Basically, the stage is set, if Lillard wants it.
5 – What’s the deal with this salary cap rise?
Before this season, the NBA salary cap was set at $70m, but now, that figure has risen to $94m, which marks a 34% increase on the previous year. Thanks to the NBA signing a new TV deal worth $24 billion over the next nine years, some 169% more than the last deal, all 30 NBA teams now have far greater spending power.
For example, if a player earned $15m per season in the 2015/16 season, that would account for roughly 21% of the total salary available. That same contract in 2016/17 only accounts for 16% of a team’s total salary, making everybody’s money go a lot further. Now, over-spending is about to become the norm as our perception of contract values slowly begins to shift.
As a result, we’ve seen some crazy pieces of erratic spending this summer on the behalf of teams spending at will, knowing they’ll have even more wiggle room next summer when the salary cap is projected to increase to $102m. Notably, Timofey Mozgov’s 4-year, $64m deal with the Lakers joins Bismack Biyombo and his 4-year, $72m deal as two of the stranger deals this summer. Deals that probably would never had taken place under the old cap.
So what all this means is teams can spend more with fewer consequences, and that financial clout is only set to increase.
By Ajay Rose