6 Storylines to Follow as the NBA Season Tips Off

LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers prepares to shoot a free throw against the Chicago Bulls on October 20, 2014 at Schottenstein Center in Columbus, Ohio.
LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers prepares to shoot a free throw against the Chicago Bulls on October 20, 2014 at Schottenstein Center in Columbus, Ohio.Gary Dineen / NBAE / Getty Images

When we last left off, the San Antonio got revenge on the Heat, soundly beating the Big Three and Co. to prove to any remaining doubters that the Spurs deserve to share the post-Jordan dynasty crown with the Lakers, by winning the franchise's fifth championship since 1999. 

Historic? Absolutely. It was the type of win that could only be eclipsed by a crazy summer filled with the best player in the world going back to his hometown, a star forward suffering a freak injury, ownership drama, and former MVPs on the comeback trail. Nothing less than that would make us stop talking about San Antonio's dominance in the Finals. 

Of course, all of that stuff happened. That's why this is the most anticipated NBA season in recent memory. 

Will LeBron James bring a championship to Cleveland?
Cavaliers fans have been suffering since LeBron James left for Miami in 2010. Upon his return, he’s been hailed as the savior for all of Northeast Ohio's blues — including turning around the economy and bringing sunshine to gray Lake Erie winter days. Can he really push the city to its first major sports championship since 1964? The pieces are there, no doubt. The Cavs traded the last two No. 1 overall draft picks to Minnesota in a three-way deal with Philadelphia to get Kevin Love, an All-Star forward, to pair with James. Kyrie Irving, one of the league’s top young guards, was a Cavs draft pick in 2011 and is expected to mesh well with James. Irving and Love looked good in a series of Pepsi commercials they shot together a couple seasons ago, so they have that going for them. David Blatt, an unknown in North America who had a long playing career in Israel and won the Euroleague title last season as Maccabi Tel Aviv’s coach, comes over to direct the team. The pieces are there for a 70-win season, but all Cleveland fans care about is that elusive title. Is this the year?

Will Miami suffer without James?
After James left Cleveland for South Beach, the Cavs won just 19 games after going 61-21 the season before. Will the Heat, who advanced to the NBA Finals for the fourth consecutive season but lost to San Antonio last June, suffer the same fate? It’s unlikely, since Miami retained franchise cornerstones Dwyane Wade (slowed by knee troubles but still productive) and Chris Bosh (looking to expand his offensive role after the departure of James) and recruited Luol Deng as a free-agent. It’s a trio any team would be happy with, except for the fact that Heat fans got used to having James on the court of American Airlines Arena while their team was the most-watched in the league. Bosh recently said he had to adjust to playing with James after having been the primary option with his former team. Liberated, perhaps he will put up MVP-level numbers for a Heat team that could catch the Eastern Conference by surprise.

Is this the year the LA Clippers reach the Finals?
Donald Sterling's history of making racist comments finally caught up with him last spring just as the Clippers were playing some of their best ball in decades. They won the division championship, were a game from eliminating the Golden State Warriors in a tight first-round series (which they did) and were getting ready to face Oklahoma City in the conference semis when Sterling’s secretly recorded comments were released. There was talk of a player walkout while the league dealt with the Sterling fallout, and it’s no doubt the Clippers were affected on the court. With the organization more settled since Steve Ballmer (of Microsoft fame) took ownership (in $2 billion deal), will the Clippers finally win the West? Stars Blake Griffin and Chris Paul are more than capable, while head coach Doc Rivers has won the title before with the Celtics. A trip to the conference finals would be the franchise’s deepest-ever playoff run — even going back to its early days in Buffalo.

Kevin Durant is out for two months. Is Oklahoma City sunk?
Kevin Durant scored 40 points or more in a game 13 times last year as he cruised to the league’s scoring title with an average of 32 per game. When he gets hot, like he did in an overtime win against Toronto last April when he dropped 51 on the Raptors, he’s worthy of being compared to the game’s all-time great scorers like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. So what happens to a perennial playoff team like the Thunder when you subtract 32 points from the lineup for two months? Out due to surgery to repair a stress fracture in his right foot until sometime in early December (perhaps he will return Dec. 11 vs. Cleveland), Durant will miss the team’s first 20 games. While it’s likely the Thunder can recover from his absence behind established players like Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, it will be a good opportunity for the team’s front office to see what its team might look like without Durant, who will be a free agent after the 2015-16 season.

Can Derek Rose and Kobe Bryant show us their old form?:
Is there anyone left who remembers how good the Chicago Bulls’ Derek Rose was in 2011 when he became the league’s youngest-ever MVP as a 22-year-old? Gosh, it seems like a long time ago. Rose has only played 49 regular-season games since then due to a collection of knee injuries. Somehow Chicago managed to make the playoffs each season, but it’s been sad to see the Bulls try to play without their transcendent star. He’s looked good in the preseason, but everyone said that ahead of last year, too, when he struggled early in the regular season and went out again after 10 unimpressive games.

Last year in Los Angeles, Kobe Bryant worked his way back from a torn Achilles and then found himself out for the season due to a fractured knee after just a handful of games. There was a time when Bryant and the Lakers were NBA royalty — the best player had the best coach (Phil Jackson) and a great supporting cast — but those days have passed. And a recent ESPN the Magazine story suggests that as long as Bryant is still playing (he signed a 2-year, $48-million extension last November) the team is going to continue to toil in the basement, because he doesn’t play well with other stars. It looks like the team in LA that’s going to be a hot mess is the Lakers, not the Clippers, this year.

Can the Pacers settle the waters?
Just when it seemed Indiana would be able to tread water after bombing the second-half of last season, star Paul George broke his leg in a Team USA scrimmage during training camp for the summer’s World Cup tournament. It’s unlikely the 24-year-old — who showed such promise going shot-for-shot with LeBron James in the 2013 playoffs — will make it back until late this season. Without George on the floor, the Pacers look primed for a precipitous fall from earning the Eastern Conference’s top seed to possibly missing the playoffs this year. And while no one could have anticipated George suffering a freak injury this summer, many saw the Pacers’ slump after opening last year 39-10 (and then going 17-16 before the playoffs) as a sign of things to come. Some thought coach Frank Vogel was on the verge of being fired before the Pacers saved face, beating Atlanta and Washington in the playoffs before losing 4 games to 2 to Miami in the conference finals. With the conference’s balance shifting to the Midwest the Pacers may be left behind after peaking a year too early.

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