Fourteen teams in the Western Conference wake up today realising they’re still living out a nightmare, but in this one they’re chasing a bogeyman who can never be caught.
Try as the rest of the NBA might to close their eyes and tell themselves it will all be over soon, the Golden State Warriors dynasty isn’t going away – at least not for another year.
The two-time defending champions remain firmly entrenched on the throne as the overlords of the league, nary a hole in their shiny armour. If anything, Golden State became even better this offseason when they added a fifth All-Star in DeMarcus Cousins.
The one-year deal for Cousins was nihilism-inducing for the rest of the league and its non-Warriors fans, but the fact that the hulking centre is coming off an Achilles tear and is a volatile personality means Golden State may only get back marginal returns.
Regardless, the gap between the Warriors and the rest of the West feels as wide as ever, even with the best player in the world now in the same conference.
After four straight years of duelling with his arch nemesis in the Finals, LeBron James has Golden State in his backyard as the new king of Los Angeles.
LeBron on any team is compelling, but the marriage of one of the greatest players ever and one of the most iconic franchises in team sports makes this Lakers season as fascinating as can be.
However, this isn’t a championship team just yet. No other star followed James to Hollywood this summer, leaving the Lakers with an eclectic roster that features a mix of headstrong veterans and up-and-coming youth.
No one has done more with less than James, but reaching the Finals year after year in the weaker East is one thing – going through the bloodbath that is the West playoffs is another.
Before the Lakers can focus their energy on toppling the Warriors, they’ll have to fight their way through a deadly field, like Beatrix Kiddo navigating the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad in Kill Bill.
The Houston Rockets were a Chris Paul injury and a bad shooting game away from ending Golden State’s reign in the Western Conference Finals, but it’s possible they never get as clean of a shot again.
Gone are Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute – two players who were crucial to their defensive versatility – while in the team now is Carmelo Anthony, whose production no longer matches his status.
Even still, between Paul, reigning MVP James Harden, their supporting actors and playing style, Houston appear to be the biggest threat to the Warriors.
The Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder could have something to say about that though.
In Oklahoma City, Russell Westbrook and Paul George form one of the best nuclei in the league, and while he’s nowhere near a star, Andre Roberson’s return from a knee injury has the potential to vault the Thunder’s defence to a near-elite level.
Speaking of defence, that’s the identity the Jazz have built their team on. In reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and Rookie of the Year runner-up Donovan Mitchell, Utah have two pillars on each end of the court.
The rest of the West includes a deep middle class that runs nine teams deep – including the Lakers – and is expected to fight for four playoff spots.
The Portland Trail Blazers finished third in the conference last season, but a first-round sweep and another offseason consisting of just minor moves makes them feel stale.
In New Orleans, the Pelicans have one of the top five players in the league in Anthony Davis, but will they be able to recreate the magic they found in the playoffs?
After trading away Kawhi Leonard and being hit with injury after injury, the San Antonio Spurs are dealing with their most adversity in what feels like forever, while the Minnesota Timberwolves are caught in their own saga with a disgruntled star as Jimmy Butler, as of this writing, still hasn’t been moved.
Only the Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings can be considered outside of the playoff bubble, with the Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers, Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies all having a shot at the postseason.
The West may be as competitive as ever, but it’s still a fight for second place.
There’s a reason the NBA is as popular as it is. As great as the action is on the court, everything that happens off it is what makes the league a complete entertainment package.
From locker room feuds to social media beefs and everything in-between, the NBA is so much more than just which team is winning and who’s scoring how many points.
With that said, here are the biggest personalities to follow as the new season gets under way – players who will be interesting for what they say and do, just as much for their play.
It seems obvious starting with the best player in the league, but highlights aren’t the only thing LeBron provides season after season.
Ever since he joined the Miami Heat in 2010, James’ teams have had no shortage of drama every year. That’s because even though they inevitably reach the Finals, it’s seemingly always a roller-coaster ride getting there.
Plus, he’s LeBron, so of course every move of his is going to be under the microscope. Still, he doesn’t do himself any favours when he subtweets teammates or throws shade in interviews. And now that he’s in Los Angeles with a group of divisive personalities, things could go to another level this season.
James is also one of the most outspoken people in the league when it comes to social issues, so when it comes to being more than just a basketball player, there’s no one better.
As far as personalities who are simply fun, there’s no one that comes close to matching the Philadelphia 76ers centre.
Embiid isn’t afraid to ruffle feathers with his non-stop trash talk on and off the court, or ask out A-list celebrities like Rihanna (can you blame him?) on social media.
While most athletes present a guarded, refined version of themselves on social media, Embiid has no issue being completely himself and saying what’s on his mind.
Follow him on Twitter if you haven’t already. You won’t be disappointed.
Russ makes this list on his wardrobe choices alone, which are must-see on social media before every Oklahoma City Thunder game.
in honor of russ' big night, my favorite russell westbrook outfits: pic.twitter.com/VuobSKaLxy— Becca Laurie (@imbeccable) April 8, 2017
If his rim-rocking dunks and triple-doubles weren’t enough to draw your eyeballs, then his carefree pregame dances, prickly interviews and general unintentional hilarity should do the trick.
NICK YOUNG, J.R. SMITH, JAVALE MCGEE
These three misfits deserve a category of their own because they almost solely exist in the NBA zeitgeist due to their antics.
Unfortunately for Young, Smith and McGee, we’re often laughing at them and not with them. But they bring a lot of it upon themselves, whether they’re having in-game gaffes, getting into a war of words with their peers, or just leaning into their goofiness.
Find a more meme-able trio, I’ll wait.
The star guard was expected to be one of the most sought-after players in free agency next summer when his five-year, $94 million contract comes off the books, but Irving isn’t planning on going anywhere.
At an event for Celtics season-ticket holders at TD Garden on Thursday, the 26-year-old verbally committed to re-signing with the franchise as he told the fans in attendance: “I’ve shared it with some of my teammates as well as the organisation as well as everyone else in Boston. If you guys will have me back, I plan on re-signing here next year.”
What Irving shared with the crowd is the same message he’s given the Celtics’ front office over the past few months, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania.
The public declaration on Thursday was the most definitive Irving has been about his future, but he’s implied his intentions in interviews over the past month leading into the season.
“Who wouldn’t be a part of this?” Irving said told ESPN in a story published two weeks ago. “Who wouldn’t want to be a part of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum and Al Horford and Gordon Hayward?
“People keep saying, ‘Why won’t he commit to Boston?’ Well, there are financial implications involved.”
Those financial implications refer to the discrepancy in money Irving can earn if he waits until free agency to re-sign, rather than inking an extension now. The difference could be nearly $80 million in Irving’s favour if ends up signing a max contract next summer.
Still, it’s somewhat surprising to hear Irving so forthcoming because nothing is set in stone until he officially re-signs. In terms of leverage, Irving gains nothing by making his intentions so clear this early.
However, by getting out ahead of all the rumours of where he could end up, the move may strengthen the Celtics’ chemistry even more heading into the season. With the questions over Irving’s future likely to die down, Boston will have one less distraction to deal with as they vie for a championship.
Irving’s proclamation may also allow the rest of the Celtics players to feel comfortable as they find their roles in a stacked roster. Young guys like Tatum, Brown and Terry Rozier should no longer feel as if they’re stepping on Irving’s toes by having an aggressive mindset, for fear of chasing him away.
With one of their primary concerns for the future already solved, Boston couldn’t be in a better position going forward.