With much needed help from Kyrie Irving, who was officially minted as a superstar by virtue of his stellar and clutch performance in June’s NBA Finals, LeBron James made good on his promise of delivering a championship to the city of Cleveland, its first since 1964.
Tuesday, James and the Cavaliers began the defense of their title on a night they were honored with a ring ceremony by serving notice to the revamped Knicks and the rest of the East—they are still kings of the conference. The 117-88 victory suggests the chasm between the Cavs and the Knicks, at least for the early part of the regular season, is still extremely wide.
After finishing as the top overall seed in the East last season with 57 wins, the Cavs will at least match that mark this season. No other team in the conference is built to equal or surpass them in the regular season, but the Celtics, with the addition of former Atlanta Hawk Al Horford, who was signed as a free-agent to a four-year, $113 million contract, could pose a legitimate challenge to the Cavs in the postseason.
At the very least, they should dethrone the Toronto Raptors as the Atlantic Division champions after finishing second a season ago. The Celtics should improve on their 48-34 record from a season ago, which placed them eight games behind the 56-26 Raptors. After a strong regular season campaign, the Raptors staggered into the conference finals, where they were dismissed by the Cavs 4-2. They will take a step back this season in both the regular season and playoffs as the Celtics, under their 40-year-old head coach Brad Stevens, widely considered one of the top 5 coaches in the NBA, will emerge as the second best team in the East.
Another team that could be an obstacle for the Cavs’ march to a repeat is the Indiana Pacers. Led by All-Star forward Paul George, point guard Jeff Teague, whom they acquired from the Hawks in a trade, guard Monta Ellis and rising second-year big man Myles Turner, the Pacers should add at least seven wins to their 2015-16 total of 45.
Although the Knicks will take a few months to gel and adapt to new head coach Jeff Hornacek’s system, an infusion of talent, albeit talent with serious injury histories in the persons of Joakim Noah, Derrick Rose and Brandon Jennings, should be enough—if, and it’s a questionable if—each can play 65 to 70 regular season games.
Adding shooting guard Courtney Lee didn’t receive as much fanfare as the arrival of the Noah, Rose and Jennings, but he is a solid veteran who will be an upgrade from last season’s starting two-guard Arron Afflalo. The Knicks will hit the 47-win mark and grab the sixth seed, ending a three-year playoff absence.
Conversely, the Brooklyn Nets, under new head coach Long Island native Kenny Atkinson, will struggle to reach 25 wins after ending last season with the third worst record in the league at 21-61. Center Brook Lopez will be coveted by many teams as the season nears the February NBA trade deadline and the Nets sink into the abyss.
MVP: Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
Rookie of the Year: Kris Dunn, Minnesota Timberwolves
Coach of the Year: Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics
Champion: Golden State Warriors