The Western Conference is once again so loaded that one of any number of teams could reach the NBA Finals, but the easiest answer remains the most obvious one.
The Golden State Warriors are the reigning champions for a reason after a historically dominant season culminated in the franchise’s first banner in 40 years.
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They won 67 games in the regular season, including a sparkling 39-2 mark at Oracle Arena, while leading the league in scoring at 110.0 points per game, in defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) at 109.6 points per game, in pace (number of possessions per 48 minutes) at 100.69 possessions per game, all of which resulted in a massive plus-10.1 average point differential.
Golden State returns this season with nearly the entire title team intact, including MVP Stephen Curry, as they now have the experience of winning a ring and until proven otherwise, remain favourites to repeat.
Chasing the Warriors are a myriad of teams with their own claim to the throne. Maybe the biggest threat to the team from The Bay is a franchise that didn’t even make the playoffs last season.
Despite a talented, young roster, the Oklahoma City Thunder are in win-now mode thanks to the possibility of superstar Kevin Durant leaving when his contract is up next summer.
The 2014 MVP played in only 27 games last season due to a crippling foot injury as the Thunder lost the tiebreaker for the eighth seed to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2009. If Durant returns to his destructive form, he and explosive guard Russell Westbrook will be out for blood.
In Houston, not only did James Harden fall short of Curry for MVP honours, but the Rockets were also taken out by Golden State in the conference finals. After adding Ty Lawson to bolster their biggest positional weakness at point guard, however, Houston have as good as chance as any team to knock off the Warriors this year.
It’s another year into the Gregg Popovich-Tim Duncan era, but the aging San Antonio Spurs are now pillared by two young stars in Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge. Leonard is fresh off claiming Defensive Player of the Year, while the Spurs landed Aldridge, the most significant free agent on the move this past summer, to give them an ideal bridge into the future when Duncan finally retires.
The final contenders in the top tier of the West are the Los Angeles Clippers, who are still searching to get past the conference semi-finals, and the Memphis Grizzlies, built on their identity of ‘Grit & Grind’.
The continued emergence to superstardom of Anthony Davis makes the New Orleans Pelicans interesting, while at the bottom of the West, the play of future Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant will be fascinating.
From top to bottom, the Western Conference has storyline after storyline, but more importantly, contender after contender for the NBA crown.
Another NBA season, another year of the Eastern Conference running through LeBron James.
After a herculean effort to drag the injury-riddled Cleveland Cavaliers within two wins of what would have been the franchise’s first title and his third, James remains firmly entrenched atop the shallow East.
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The Cavaliers won 53 games last term despite a slow start and Kevin Love not appearing fully comfortable playing alongside James and Kyrie Irving until the playoffs.
Just as Cleveland appeared to be finding their groove, Love suffered a dislocated shoulder to end his postseason, while Irving was later banged up and appeared in only the first game of the Finals.
Love will begin the new campaign playing limited minutes, but Irving remains sidelined along with Iman Shumpert, who is recovering from wrist surgery.
Another slow start for Cleveland is likely but James and Co are well aware that the season is marathon, not a sprint, and the Cavaliers have plenty of time to get to full speed.
While the Cavaliers bide their time to get to full strength, the Chicago Bulls are poised to take advantage in the short term.
Derrick Rose’s return has continuously been one of the top storylines, but Chicago has one of the more talented rosters in the conference and not at the mercy of their point guard’s health as much as they have been in the past.
The bigger question surrounding the Bulls this season is how new incoming coach Fred Hoiberg will fare in his first season after making the jump from college. Chicago won at least 45 games and made the playoffs in each of former coach Tom Thibodeau’s five years, but reached the conference finals once and couldn’t advance further.
Flying under the radar heading into the season are the Atlanta Hawks, who topped the East last year as one of just two teams in the NBA to win 60 games.
The loss of key two-way forward DeMarre Carroll to the Toronto Raptors via free agency, coupled with a sweep at the hands of Cleveland in the conference finals last season, means Atlanta has plenty to prove again.
After the Hawks, there is a large tier of middling teams in the East that will mostly battle for the second half of the playoff seeding.
Toronto surged quickly out of the gates last year and appeared to be legitimate challengers to the Cavaliers, before slowing down towards and finally finishing fourth in the conference. A quick start will be a tougher prospect this season with the Raptors playing 12 of their first 19 games on the road.
The Boston Celtics failed to add a star in the offseason despite a gluttony of assets, but still have the potential to surpass their 40-win total of last year.
After they acquired Isaiah Thomas at the trade deadline, the Celtics had the East’s second-best mark at 20-11 the rest of the season.
Washington, Milwaukee, Indiana, Miami, Charlotte, Detroit and the New York Knicks are all expected to fight for a playoff berth, while Brooklyn, Orlando and Philadelphia round out the bottom.
Abel Sanchez will never forget the day his life changed forever.
It was March 2010 and Sanchez, already a great if unheralded trainer, was kept busy as owner of a construction company, while his gym in Big Bear Lake, California, was a hive of activity. Then came a call out of the blue. One which gave him an opportunity of a lifetime. A fighter by the name of Gennady Golovkin was coming to the United States and wanted to meet.
Sanchez had absolutely no idea who the Kazakh was. Five years down the line, Golovkin is now the name on everybody’s lips.
His brutal destruction of hard-hitting David Lemieux in New York last weekend added the IBF middleweight title to the WBA belt the 33-year-old already owned.
His push for total unification is one step closer. Legendary status becoming a reality with every swashbuckling power show.
Golovkin is the kind of exciting, all-action warrior boxing has been desperate for. In this allegedly post-Floyd Mayweather era, the sport needs a new leader.
Sanchez’s man has all the qualities and if the 20,000-strong crowd packed into Madison Square Garden is anything to go by, ‘Triple G’ is the undisputed people’s champion. Yet it was under the watchful guidance of a wily guru who never courts the limelight where this supremely skilled son of Kazakhstan honed the devastating tools which have allowed him to brutalise his way to the very top.
Sanchez’s transformation of Golovkin has rightly drawn comparisons with the job Freddie Roach undertook when first working with Manny Pacquiao.
So it’s no wonder a smile breaks out across Sanchez’s face when asked about his pairing with one of the best pound-for-pound boxers on the planet right now.
“I got a call from his managers in March 2010. They wanted to see the gym and come meet me. We all met up, we watched some videos together and then went out for dinner that night,“ Sanchez told Sport 360. “When I went home afterwards, I did some research on the computer and thought ‘wow, this guy is great’. I had never heard of him before. I couldn’t even pronounce his name.
“The following day we had breakfast and said our goodbyes. Gennady said he would me see me in a couple of months. I said ‘oh yeah, sure’. After seeing how good he was on the videos, I thought I would never see him again. Two months later I got a call to pick him up from the airport. Five years later and here we are.
“He is a coach’s dream. It’s fun. I am blessed that they called me to start training him and he walked into my gym. He is the kind of kid a lot of the great trainers could have done very well with. I feel blessed.“
Golovkin’s astonishing amateur record of 345 wins from 350 bouts laid the foundations for his transition into the big time. It was left to Sanchez, however, to create a monster. His all-out, attacking ‘Mexican style’ approach is why the Kazakh is one of the hottest tickets around. There is none of the safety-first approach displayed by Mayweather in his later, ultimately disappointing, final appearances. Fight fans, especially those in the US, want blood and thunder. Golovkin always delivers.
“Gennady is a special talent,” added Sanchez. “He’s something we don’t see very often. I saw it straight away when we started working together, I saw it in the Olympics. He is by far the best fighter I have ever worked with – and I have been with guys who have got to the Hall of Fame. It’s his intelligence in the ring. He does nothing which isn’t premeditated. He does everything with a purpose. He will go rounds just to find a spot, to let someone into the fight because he is so confident of what he can do.
“Big shows like the one we had against Lemieux don’t faze him. His vast amateur experience, the situations he’s found himself in the ring during the Olympics in 2004 are standing him in good stead right now. It has made him smarter, more relaxed in the ring. His boxing IQ helps him stand out.
“To me, being the best pound-for-pound or not doesn’t really matter. People in the media and the critics can say what they want, we just want him to keep getting the big fights. I think Gennady has the character and the style to be a leader in boxing. One of its star attractions for sure. When you’re selling out Madison Square Garden, that says something.”
Golovkin’s decision to move his family to Los Angeles has proved crucial. To see a Canadian and a European sell out the mecca of boxing speaks volumes. Golovkin has broken into the mainstream – he has starred in an Apple Watch TV advertisement which his backers believe will be huge for his future in the United States and beyond. There is no Mayweather-esque vulgarity when dealing with Golovkin. The respectful nods, his charming broken English and warm smiles for the camera have helped turn him into a box-office superstar, something made all the more remarkable considering the challenges he overcame growing up in Karaganda.
The unexplained death of his brothers in the army when he was a child steeled an intensity and drive within his character which has seen him rack up an incredible 91 per cent knock-out rate in his professional career. Golovkin, who has a twin brother who works with his team, has an enduring humbleness to his character. A deep love for his family remains. When Curtis Stevens taunted him before their encounter last year, the American had crossed a line. The repercussions were felt in the ring.
“I have never seen him react like that,” said Sanchez. “His brother was very mad, they thought what Curtis was saying was very disrespectful. That’s not sport and the fact that his brother was so upset enraged Gennady.
“He really went out to punish him. Did I think he had that sadistic side in him? I thought his brother did. He never smiles. But they are twins so maybe it translates from one to the other.
Love to fight! pic.twitter.com/XzeZco6VVN
— Gennady Golovkin (@GGGBoxing) October 23, 2015
“When his brothers died, it changed him dramatically. His outlook on life and his responsibilities changed. They were killed in very suspicious circumstances and his whole attitude changed. The responsibility of looking after the family grew even bigger.”
Last Saturday’s Big Apple crunch was Golovkin’s first big pay-per-view show. It was his chance to shine – and it was taken with ruthless aplomb. HBO revealed sales of over 150,000 at around $50 which generated a cool $8 million in revenue, thoroughly decent figures for a fighter’s maiden pay-per-view.
Now he is in line to face the winner of next month’s super fight between Miguel Cotto and Canelo Alvarez in what would be a blockbuster bout, and his promoter Tom Loeffler never doubted he could make it this far.
“I knew his career would have this kind of trajectory. I have been close to Abel for 20 years and he never overhypes a fighter. Straight from the start with Gennady he knew he was very special. He hits harder than anyone,” Loeffler said.
“Abel has really honed his professional style, great experience in the amateurs but his style has changed from the old Soviet school to what he calls a ‘Mexican style’. It’s really seek and destroy, putting on a great show for the fans. Gennady works harder than anyone. What you see is what you get. There is nothing fake about him.”