Kevin Durant is back in uniform, LaMarcus Aldridge is back home in Texas and the Golden State Warriors are back intact.
All over the Western Conference, there are teams who look capable of winning it.
In the East, one team appears to stand out — and maybe it’s finally Cleveland’s time to stand above everybody else in the NBA.
The Cavaliers, who fell just short last season, have big goals and a bigger payroll as they try to finally bring a title to their championship-starved city.
“Yes, we were able to get to where we wanted to get to, but we didn’t close the deal,” LeBron James said. “So we look forward to the opportunity once again to be able to go out there and continue to try to play at a high level.”
The Cavs might not look like championship material when they open the season Tuesday night at Chicago, with James battling a bad back in the preseason, Kevin Love only recently returning from shoulder surgery and Kyrie Irving still recovering from knee surgery.
But they have the pieces, after shelling out big bucks to assemble one of the most expensive teams in NBA history, to get the job done this time.
“The Cavaliers, man, they are loaded,” TNT’s Charles Barkley said. “I just want to see them healthy.”
The Warriors were too good for them and everyone else last season, winning 67 games in Steve Kerr’s first season as coach. Kerr will miss the opener Tuesday while recovering from back surgery but MVP Stephen Curry and every other important piece from last season is back.
“What’s great about us, we’re all so competitive, that I don’t think complacency will be an issue,” All-Star Klay Thompson said. “But we love having the bullet on our back.”
Many of their pursuers return stronger, with Oklahoma City getting former MVP Durant back from last season’s broken foot. Aldridge left Portland for San Antonio and a spot on a tantalizing front line next to Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard, while Houston (Ty Lawson) and the Los Angeles Clippers (Paul Pierce) added potential missing pieces.
Memphis will be rough and tough as always and New Orleans has a top talent on his way to dominance in Anthony Davis, making it impossible to predict the path in the West. There were seven 50-game winners there last season, and count on Oklahoma City getting there after finishing with 45 mostly on the back of Russell Westbrook while Durant was sidelined.
The West may be wild, but drama is harder to envision back East. The Cavs might only be vulnerable until they’re healed and whole.
“I think it does give the Chicago Bulls an opportunity if they’re able to get off to a quick start to maybe challenge Cleveland for the top seed in the East, but at the end of the day, it’s still going to be hard if Cleveland is healthy at the end of the year to beat them in a seven-game series,” ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy said.
“So they’ve got a really good shot at winning it all.”
Other things to watch this season:
LAst call for Kobe? Back from a couple of injured-shortened seasons, Kobe Bryant begins his 20th and perhaps final NBA season. He’s 37 and entering the final year of his contract, and said even he doesn’t know if this is his last season with the Lakers, or as a player.
Colleges to contenders: Oklahoma City and Chicago had successful runs under their previous coaches, then dipped into the college ranks when they decided it was time for a change. Billy Donovan finally left Florida to take the Thunder job, Fred Hoiberg went from Iowa State to the Bulls, and both will have to adapt to the pro game quickly on teams that are built to contend for titles now.
Hoping for health: From Bryant to Durant, Carmelo Anthony to Chris Bosh, too many superstars had to shut it down early last season for health reasons. The NBA is trying to do its part to help players stay healthier, trimming back-to-backs to a record low of fewer than 18 per team.
The boss is watching: The U.S. plans to pick its Olympic team without a tryout, naming its 12-player roster sometime around the June draft. So this season is the last chance to make an impression on USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski.
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