Despite the fact that the Golden State Warriors put together a historically great season, the 2014/15 NBA campaign always felt a little bit wide open. This was due largely to the fact that LeBron James’s decision to go back to Cleveland left the league without a definitive preseason favorite for the first time in years. Most expected the Cavaliers to need a year or two to gel before James was once again piloting a title juggernaut; Miami was naturally depleted, and the West was simply too crowded for an apparent favorite to be declared.
One could have made the argument, even half way through last season, that about eight or nine teams appeared to have a shot at the NBA Championship. In the East, the Bulls and Cavaliers were genuine contenders, and it seemed foolish to discount the Hawks, who finished with the top seed despite boasting less star power. In the West, meanwhile, the Warriors, Rockets, and Clippers looked formidable heading into the playoffs, and no one wanted to count out the Spurs or Grizzlies.
This season looks a little different. The 2014/15 playoffs, combined with off-season developments, have solidified a smaller batch of contenders that look ready to lead the title chase this year, and sure enough, the five teams that first come to mind are the literal favorites. While NBA play is still a long way off, Betfair’s sports section has already compiled odds for which team will take home the championship next June. Here’s a look at the five favorites, which incidentally are the only true contenders in the league this time around.
After getting all the way to the NBA Finals and taking two games off of the Warriors despite injuries to bona-fide All-Stars in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, the Cavaliers are, rightfully, the consensus top pick to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy at the end of the coming season. Interestingly enough, they’re actually not a runaway favorite to dominate the regular season. Sports Illustrated’s recent win projections even settled on the Raptors leading the East with 52.9 win shares, with the top-six teams in the West also forecasted to have more success during the regular season. But we should think of the 2015/16 Cavaliers like James’s best Miami teams: the regular season will likely feature intermittent streaks of sensational play and lapses as Cleveland looks to rest its stars and stay healthy. Come playoff time, they’ll almost certainly be the team to beat, particularly after solidifying contracts for their stars and adding Mo Williams to fill a much-needed backup point guard role.
San Antonio Spurs
One of these years, it’s finally going to make sense to count out the San Antonio Spurs. But with all the organization has done to transition gracefully out of the Tim Duncan era and on to more prosperity, it might not be for a long time. Frankly, the Spurs are putting together an enviable model for sustainability that teams across all major sports are probably going to look to duplicate. It helps that Duncan is still playing at a very high level. However, with Kawhi Leonard having emerged as one of the best young players in the league, and LaMarcus Aldridge having come on board simply to pursue a title (and to go home to Texas), this team is set up to succeed long after Duncan finally retires. The 2015/16 season should be a strange but exciting hybrid season—a possible farewell tour for Duncan, and a look at the next era of San Antonio success. That adds up to a contender.
Golden State Warriors
It feels more than a little disrespectful to rank the Warriors third given the season they had in 2014/15 and the relative ease with which they cut through the playoffs. As long as Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are patrolling the back-court and Draymond Green (who signed a five-year contract this off-season) is around, the Warriors are going to contend. And yet a repeat of 2014/15 is pretty hard to imagine. Given the strength of the Cavaliers and Spurs, it’s not completely unfair that Golden State has only the third best odds to win the title. Throw in the fact that they lost reserve forward David Lee, who was a very important cog during the playoffs, and this team could take a slight step back.
Oklahoma City Thunder
There isn’t much disagreement about the top-five contenders, but expert opinions vary as to who’s fourth and fifth. ESPN’s panel of NBA analysts compiled some extensive projections for the season ahead this summer, and listed Oklahoma City fifth, with the Clippers at four. Meanwhile, the aforementioned betting odds have the Thunder at fourth. Really, though, it won’t matter. What matters is that, given good health, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Co. will be back in the playoffs at full strength and hungry to make up for what was basically a lost season in 2014/15. A number of roster additions made in the last year—Kyle Singler, DJ Augustin, and most notably Enes Kanter—have given Oklahoma City its best depth since Sam Presti traded away James Harden. They’ll be right in the mix once again.
Los Angeles Clippers
Finally there’s the Clippers, who flirted with disaster during this past summer’s Deandre Jordan fiasco, but ended up putting together a roster that looks to be arguably the best in the franchise’s history. The core of Chris Paul, JJ Redick, Blake Griffin, and Jordan will all return, and the small forward position (which has been a weakness) has finally been shored up by the additions of both Paul Pierce and Lance Stephenson. As if that wasn’t enough, the Clippers also made the improbable move of snagging Josh Smith from the Rockets. While Smith has always been inconsistent, he proved during the 2015 playoffs just how much he can change a game. This team has a lot of talented pieces, and if Doc Rivers puts them all together, they’ll have a chance to win it all.
Beyond these five, it’s just very hard to see any team rising up to be a legitimate challenger. Miami could rebound nicely, and Memphis will be its typically pesky self. The Hawks will probably have a good record in the regular season, and the Anthony Davis-led Pelicans will take another step forward. But if anyone but the five teams listed above wins the 2015/16 title, it will be a genuine shock.