Zach Friesen, Staff Writer
As the calendar year moves closer to the winter months, a new NBA season is almost upon us. The new season does not come without drama or intrigue, with top teams atop both conferences having multiple question marks heading into the new season.
Heading into the new season, much of the attention will be focused on the team in South Beach. The Miami Heat come into the season the two-time defending champions, being led by their “Big Three”, comprised of Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and four-time league Most Valuable Player LeBron James. The Heat also have a supporting cast comprised of valuable role players such as Ray Allen, Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers, among others. Having a roster with this much star power along with other players who know their roles puts Miami in a great position to contend for their third consecutive title.
The road to the finals will not be a cakewalk for Miami, though, as there are multiple teams who could give them a run for their money in their quest for the title. One team that will give them good competition is the Indiana Pacers. In the past two seasons, the Pacers have given the Heat all that they can handle thanks in large part to a smothering defense. Led by emerging star, Paul George, as well as Roy Hibbert and Danny Granger, the Pacers will look to finally overtake the Heat as the top team in the East.
Also in the hunt to take down the Heat are the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls are engulfed in intrigue, as they surpassed almost all expectations last year, making it to the conference semi-finals before getting eliminated by the eventual champions. All of this was done without star point guard and former league MVP Derrick Rose, who spent the entire season recovering from knee surgery. With Rose back in action, and reportedly better than ever, the Bulls look to make a serious playoff run with the help of returners such as Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson.
In the Western Conference, the title of top team is up for grabs, with more than a handful of teams trying to lay claim to the title. To many, the favorites to win the West are the San Antonio Spurs. Coming into the season as the defending conference champions, many would think they were in a great position to defend their title, especially with the return of key players such as Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. However, much of San Antonio’s roster is aging, and though they have been able to hold off father time for a while now, this could easily be the year it all catches up to them.
Another team to keep an eye on is the Oklahoma City Thunder. After reaching the NBA Finals in 2012 and finishing the regular season last year as the conference’s top seed, the Thunder looked to be in a position to make deep playoff runs for years to come. Then, in the first round of last year’s playoffs, All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook was injured in a freak incident, tearing the meniscus in his knee and forcing him to miss the remainder of the playoffs as well as the start of this season. Despite the best efforts of Kevin Durant and Reggie Jackson, who stepped in for Westbrook, the Thunder were simply not able to make up for the loss of their catalyst, as they were eliminated in the conference semi-finals. This year, Oklahoma City has many question marks, as Westbrook will miss the first 4-6 weeks of the season, as well as failing to replace sixth man Kevin Martin. Instead, the Thunder will rely on developing the young players they already have, such as Jackson, Jeremy Lamb and the ever improving Serge Ibaka. Plus, they still have superstar Kevin Durant, and as long as he is suiting up, the Thunder will have a good chance to win.
There are also several up-and-coming teams that could lay claim to the title of the top team in the west. Teams like the Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers have improved significantly in the past few years, and each team is looking to make the final step to the NBA Finals. The Warriors come into the season with a relentless offensive attack, led by Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson. On the other hand, the Grizzlies rely on stifling defense and great low-post offense, anchored by big men Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. The Clippers may offer the biggest competition, with a very balanced roster led by Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and sixth-man Jamal Crawford.
With all of the question marks and things left to be seen this season, it is safe to say everything is wide open in both conferences. Even with the top teams from last season looking as strong as ever, many of the teams below them have gotten quite a bit better, making the race for the NBA Finals sure to be a good one this season.