Six years. That’s how long it took for Anthony Davis to transform from an unknown high school junior at a decidedly non-powerhouse Chicago high school to the 2016 NBA Most Valuable Player.
Wait—it’s done? What happened? Yep, you read it correctly. What?! Maybe that sense of shock will spark a memory. It’s last season, you’re watching highlights from the previous night’s league action. A Pelican misses a shot, a defender boxes out and waits to grab a rebound and—what?! From nowhere, a gangly phantom soars across the paint to flush the ball home. Just as quickly, he dashes to the other end. Now some earnest fool drives to the rim. The 22-year-old, two-time league leader in blocks has an answer. The clip ends, your jaw drops. It’s over.
So are you really surprised that the MVP race is done? Not sure if the man with the most explosive two-way game in the League has the trophy game locked in a chokehold? OK, let’s review.
Last season was an Olajuwon-esque tour de force that included buzzer-beaters, devastating put-backs, and the cementing of Davis’s must-watch status. The stat lines inspired double takes, too: 34-16-9-7 here, 26-17-9-3 there. He crushed the PER race with a 30.8 rating, ranking just below guys named Wilt, Michael and LeBron on the all-time list. In a must-win season finale against the Spurs, AD scored 31 and punched his first ticket to the Playoffs. The Pelicans were overmatched in Round 1 against the Warriors, but his 30-10 series average against the eventual champs left little doubt: Anthony Davis came to play.
Now he stares up at the next rung on the ladder: dominance. The uncertainty surrounding his status in New Orleans was wiped out like a weak layup attempt after he inked a five-year, $145 million deal in July. Alvin Gentry replaces Monty Williams as Head Coach, bringing the promise of a high-charged offense and, oh yeah, demanding AD work on his three-point range. Rumors of new muscle were confirmed with photos that had Pelicans fans on Bourbon Street ordering season tickets along with their big-ass beers. In a city obsessed with its history, the future is now. Let the Brow’s time roll. —Brian Boyles
Runners-up: James Harden, John Wall
David Kahn was the best thing to ever happen to the Minnesota Timberwolves. The franchise has long been a Fargo-esque comedy of errors deserving this punch line, but it’s still true. If they never put a third-year option in Kevin Love’s contract, none of this would’ve been possible.
Or maybe all the credit belongs to LeBron James? Without his return to Cleveland, Love’s departure would likely have been scheduled for the trade deadline, ending with a disappointing deal of pennies on the dollar.
Then again, it could be Flip Saunders. His patience paid off, ending with not only the Rookie of the Year, but the Rookie of This Year, too.
Whoever deserves our thanks, there’s no doubt we should be grateful. The rebuilding process for a team is never pretty. Game after game of tanking in hopes of a pick that never comes or a player who doesn’t pan out is more than a process. It’s purgatory, where winning is both a distant hope and a current impediment. The Wolves should’ve been stuck there for years. Instead, they’re now the League’s most watchable team.
We’ve seen it before—landing once-in-a-generation talent in consecutive drafts—but we never see it for long. They’re only allowed to exist for a brief moment before big contracts, prying eyes and hot takes tear them apart. But in that moment, what we see might be the NBA in its purest form: youth run amok, discovering their precocious talent is enough to overwhelm grown men.
Zach LaVine or Andrew Wiggins might dunk on you before this sentence is finished. Karl-Anthony Towns might make you think Anthony Davis was only the beginning. Ricky Rubio might drop a dime that makes you forget he can’t shoot and Kevin Garnett will mutter something to make you cover your ears. This team will dominate your Twitter timeline and leave you racing for the rewind button. But what they won’t make is the national TV schedule, and that’s why we have League Pass.
Thank God for that. Or David Kahn.—Myles Brown
Runners-up: Milwaukee Bucks, Sacramento Kings
As bad as the Sixers have been on the court—32-127—over the last two seasons, things could be worse. There’s no sex scandal; players aren’t dotting police blotters. But being happy your favorite franchise isn’t running a crime syndicate is a low bar.
Hopefully someone who plays PG will come through and can earn consistent minutes here. For a team drunk with constant turnover, the lead guard has been difficult to fill. Kendall Marshall was signed to a four-year deal over the summer, so it’s his job to lose.
At least the Joel Embiid cloud won’ t hang over the team this season. Out for the year, it’s hard to envision him ever suiting up. It’s not his fault, but life must go on with or without him.
Here’s the good news: The team is trotting out a respectable starting five. First is Nerlens Noel, who looks like the real deal. As does Jahlil Okafor, who will be the offensive focal point. His presence will dramatically make this team better. As will having Nik Stauskas, who has real ability but was lost in the abyss that is Sacramento. Stauskas can stretch the floor and play both backcourt positions. Crazy to say, but the Sixers might have gotten over. For once.—Khalid Salaam
Runners-up: New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets
Some things that will definitely happen this season: Teams will jell into powerhouses. Franchises will devolve into chaos. Records will be broken. Highlights will be made.
And if everything goes really well, maybe, just maybe, someone goes on a scoring streak that makes 30-point games look like child’s play and the basket look like a Pop-A-Shot. Or perhaps someone evolves into some form of post-human talent who bulldozes everyone in his path as he cements his superstardom.
Those possibilities, you see, are best-case scenarios. Things that happen when individual skills become so otherworldly that we, as basketball fans, get so wrapped up in what’s taking place that the mere act of these dudes stepping onto a basketball court becomes appointment television.
And they’ve both taken place, the previous two years, in the same city. Over the course of ‘13-14, Kevin Durant scored 25+ points for 41 consecutive games—the third longest such streak ever—breezing past Michael Jordan’s personal best mark of 40. KD finished the season averaging 32.0 points per game, putting on offensive clinics on a nightly basis with an unmatched ability to shoot from practically anywhere or drive past defenders and finish at the rim like a floating gazelle. There are advanced stats we could list that’d prove how insanely good he was, but please settle for this: When KD was playing, you had to watch. You never knew what kind of scoring explosion you might miss.
Durant’s follow-up campaign was pretty rough. He played in just 27 games through ’14-15, sidelined for most of the year with maddening foot problems. And yet the Thunder remained a team you couldn’t afford to look away from. They lost a bunch more—finishing 45-37 and falling just short of the Playoffs—but KD’s running mate became an absolute force in the process. Not only did Russell Westbrook’s ability to dominate with the ball improve—the guy could literally run through defenders at will and finish at the hoop with such brute strength that you actually felt sorta bad for the rim—but he also became good at…everything. He dished 8.6 assists and 7.3 boards per, numbers highlighted by a late-winter streak of four straight triple-doubles. He defended well. He dunked hard. Had his team won a few more games, he might have won MVP.
And now, we’re getting both. KD is healthy, per reports and his own words. Russ remains Russ, ever charged up. There’s only one ball, but the chemistry (and possibly ego) issues that plagued their first couple of years as tandem stars have seemingly dissipated. Yeah, everything could fall apart. Someone could get hurt (again). But it’s probably going to be wonderful. We’re about to get Full Strength Durant and Full Strength Westbrook at the same damn time. It’s going to be so much fun.—Adam Figman
Runners-up: Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin
A day after the announcement that Kawhi Leonard won the Defensive Player of the Year award, he rose through the air, past a helpless, earth-bound Blake Griffin, met a pass from Danny Green at the doorstep, and slammed home a vicious alley-oop with his right hand. The crowd at the AT&T Center roared to its feet for the noisiest 2 points of Leonard’s 32 during that Game 3. It was the game that put the NBA on notice—a new star had arrived.
Forget the fact that he led the L in defensive rating and steals per game last season and that he patrols the passing lanes and the rim like an apex predator looking for lunch. Forget that he never gets beat off the dribble and that he’s made closing-out into an art form. You can even forget that he’s already won DPOY and a Finals MVP. But be ready for the Kawhi Leonard offensive dominance that is about to add another dimension to the already super-packed Spurs lineup.
Leonard’s going to get a ticket to Toronto as a first-time All-Star. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has slowly taken the offensive restrictions off Leonard as the years have passed. His usage rate went from 18.3 percent in 2014 to 23.1 percent in 2015. He took a career-high 822 shots in 2014-15, way up from the previous year’s total of 645. Now entering his fifth season, Leonard’s going to have even more responsibility in the Spurs’ offense.
His game is trending upward. He’s already climbed the mountaintop with his teammates. This is the year Leonard ascends as an individual. The next step in Leonard’s progression is the All-Star Game. Expect to see The Claw throw down another one-handed-oop up north in February.—Max Resetar
Runners-up: DeAndre Jordan, Andrew Wiggins
On October 1, James Harden answered his door only to be met with a truck of brand new adidas sneakers. Literally. Surrounded by boxes of shoes, he looked around and said simply, “Swag.” The special delivery was just the beginning of Harden’s new partnership with adidas—The Beard left Nike this summer for a 13-year, $200 million deal with adi.
And before the Rockets superstar even laced up for a single game this season, his name was bandied about in tabloid headlines. No stranger to paparazzi thanks to his highly famous friends, Harden was unfairly criticized for rocking Nikes after his adidas deal was reported. Understand, once and for all: Harden’s contractual obligations to Nike were through the end of September, silly click-baiters. His adidas deal activated on October 1 and now in full swing, the H-Town king is looking to challenge his face-of-the-franchise counterparts at Nike (LeBron) and Under Armour (Stephen Curry) for caché in the closely monitored world of kicks.
Undeniably one of the L’s most popular players, Harden’s jump to the Three Stripes—and Nike’s decision not to match the offer (they had a match clause much like restricted free agency in the NBA)—might not impact either brand’s market share right away. But with Harden presumably about to get his own signature line as the best NBA player repping #teamadidas, there will be no shortage of, well, swag. He joins John Wall, Damian Lillard, Andrew Wiggins and Derrick Rose on the roster, though James might gravitate more to his celebrity compadre and brandmate Kanye West, at least when it comes to fashion.
For Harden, inking with adidas offers a chance to have more say in design, marketing and branding. Adidas Basketball GM Chris Grancio lauds Harden a “creator,” and it certainly sounds like he’ll be hands-on. Meanwhile for adidas, investing in Harden comes with a sizeable price tag, one ultimately softened by the brand’s simultaneous decision to let its uniform deal with the NBA expire in 2017. Adidas’ commitment to focus on product and players, like Harden in particular (whose name and game ring out from Houston to the Far East), is exciting.
We’ll be watching the MVP candidate’s kick game all season long.—Abe Schwadron
Runners-up: Air Jordan XXX, Under Armour Curry Two vs. Nike Kyrie 2
It's like a train whose vibrations you feel miles before it is actually in view. In August, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and new Players Association Executive Director Michele Roberts began negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement. If it's not hammered out by 2017—and only people who believe in the tooth fairy think it will be—there will be a player lockout or strike and fans will be left without the greatest game on earth. Unlike past labor battles, where a section of owners pleaded poverty, this time the fight will be over how to divide an undeniably massive pie. Thanks to the nine-year, $24 billion television contract the League signed with ESPN/CBS, the salary cap is going to explode from $68 million in 2015-16 to approximately $90 million in 2016-17. This would mark the largest percentage jump in over 20 years. In the short term, it means that role players will be angling for max contracts—hello, Tristan Thompson—because teams will be able to pay it off without worrying about taking a hit to their cap. It also means that the players for once have real leverage. No owner—even if they keep their financial books shut—can cry poor with a straight face. But if games are not played, that TV money doesn't get wired into their bank accounts.
And no one is going to pay to see Steve Ballmer shoot baskets. That's real leverage. That also means Michele Roberts can put issues on the table beyond how to divide the salary cap. She can settle old scores that the owners thought they had put to bed such as draft eligibility or lowering—if not demanding the elimination of—the luxury tax.
Michele Roberts has another arrow in her quiver that her predecessor, Billy Hunter, did not have: the active involvement of the League's most valuable "asset," Union Vice President LeBron James. Adam Silver knows he is in for a fight over this new collective bargaining agreement. If he is smart, he'll know that it's a fight not worth waging. Silver certainly has the skills to play poker with Michele Roberts. He just doesn't have the cards.—Dave Zirin
Runners-up: Clippers’ Front-Office Drama, Derrick Rose Allegations
Can this be it? The year the Cavaliers shake off decades of sports heartbreak and bring a title to Cleveland? YES. It says here that is exactly what’s going to happen.
And as much as the fans and players want it to happen, and as great a story as it will be, this year’s title will not be some sort of gift from the basketball gods. The Cavs are going to earn it.
The hard work started more than a year ago, when LeBron James came home, taking on an epic rebuilding challenge that honestly went faster than anyone should have expected. The ’14-15 roster was thrown together in a couple of weeks, their coach was an NBA novice, and then their second- and third-best players each suffered serious injuries. And still Cleveland was, at one point, up two games to one in the Finals.
The storylines and questions seem familiar. Is the roster stable (WTF is up with the Tristan Thompson situation?)? Are Kevin and Kyrie healthy? Does David Blatt know what he’s doing? The resolutions, by Playoff time, will be resoundingly positive. Aided by some easy games in the Leastern Conference, and a Title-or-bust perspective that was not entirely in place a year ago, we see LeBron smartly pacing himself this season, taking semi-regular days off from practices and games to stay rested for the long haul. If the Cavs are smart, they’ll take the same approach with Love and Irving. You know, like a Spurs East type of thing.
Relatively rested, and with the prospects of a true challenge in their side of the Playoff bracket looking unlikely (we spared you the traditional Preview package but here’s the super-short version: The Bulls and Hawks will be worse and the East in general stinks), the Cavs should find themselves back in the NBA Finals.
Things will unquestionably get tougher there (super-short WC Preview: The Pelicans and Thunder will be better and the West in general is incredibly tough). But, whether it’s the Spurs or Warriors (or one of the aforementioned upstarts) who survive the gauntlet of the left side of the Playoff bracket, how much will they have left?
For argument’s sake, let’s put the Spurs in the Finals. They will be tired, but we also know they will be tough. If Cleveland has home-court advantage (which they should, even if their “Big Three” only averages 65 games played), we can see the first four games being split. Game 5 will be won by the Cavs at home. The Spurs will win game 6 back in San Anton. ABC and NBA execs will be shipping ad dollars to overseas bank accounts faster than the Union’s lawyers can get a look at them. Game 7 will be in Cleveland. The world will be on edge. And then, just maybe, LeBron and his beloved Land may get a little special treatment from the “gods.” A loose ball here. A convenient call there. And then, finally, it will be time to party in Cleveland. And the last men standing will crumble in joy.—Ben Osborne
Runners-up: San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors