The 2015 NBA Finals were the most-watched finals since 1998 when Michael Jordan’s now-infamous jump shot in Game 6 topped Utah for his (and Chicago’s) last title.
Just as the ’98 series was a rematch of the ’97 set, we could be in for another repeat matchup in 2016.
Unlike in 2014, when East-Champion Miami’s Big Three each had impending free agency decisions to make and NBA-Champion San Antonio’s aging stars were overdue for a decline, Golden State and Cleveland look poised to only get better.
Cleveland Was Operating on Fumes
While the Cavs came up two wins shy of winning the title, they did it despite being without the services of All-Stars Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving.
Was Love the best fit as the third-option in Cleveland? No, and the Cavs gave up way too much for him (Andrew Wiggins), but his offense was desperately needed against Golden State as he could have forced Draymond Green to guard him out on the perimeter.
Ditto for Irving who, like Love, would have hurt them on defense but has enough offensive skill to make up for it.
Love has a player option for next season while Irving is signed through 2020. In addition, four-time MVP LeBron James has a player option for next season. And even if he declines it, he’s not going to go through another “Decision” summer like he did five years ago. He’s staying put.
East Is Least
Meanwhile, unless something crazy happens in free agency, the Eastern Conference doesn’t look that imposing.
Washington has a great backcourt but lacks an elite post player. Atlanta has a great starting five and tremendous team chemistry, but they were summarily swept by a limping Cavs team in the conference finals—despite home-court advantage.
Chicago, which replaced head coach Tom Thibodeau with Fred Hoiberg, may have the best shot at dethroning the Cavs. But they’ll need a lot from Derrick Rose, who hasn’t been the same player since returning from numerous leg injuries this past season.
Anyone for Lee?
Golden State won the title despite getting little contribution from their highest paid player—David Lee—who lost his starting job to Draymond Green early in the season.
Lee is scheduled to make $15.5 million in 2015–16, the final year of his contract, but Golden State will be highly motivated to move him in order to make sure they can re-sign Green, who’s one of the best defensive forwards in the league.
West Is Best
Should they keep Green, they would certainly be early favorites in the albeit still-loaded Western Conference.
It’s tough to count out the Spurs as long as Tim Duncan and coach Gregg Popovich are around, but the 39-year-old Duncan hasn’t announced if he’s coming back yet. Meanwhile, it’s believed Popovich will retire if Duncan does.
The Thunder still have MVP candidates Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but the only time they made the NBA Finals (2012) was when they still had James Harden.
Harden, who’s blossomed into a star in Houston, has paired with Dwight Howard to turn the Rockets into contenders, but the two stars can’t do it all themselves.
The Clippers may be Golden State’s toughest out, but Los Angeles needs to come up with a boatload of money to keep center DeAndre Jordan—and a plan to counter the Hack-a-Jordan that plagued them in the postseason.