Christian Cieri, Illustrator

The 2015-16 NBA season is underway, and the true contenders are already distinguishing themselves from the pack.  With the start of a fresh 82 games, there are many questions waiting to be answered. Will LeBron James’ problematic back injury hinder him from leading the Cavaliers to another championship? Can Steph Curry continue to dominate the league with his beautiful offensive game? Can LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard help lead the winningest trio in NBA history to yet another Finals victory?

Although the Western Conference is loaded with talented teams, I believe there are only three legitimate title contenders.  The Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors are the teams with the most legitimate chance at a title.

With Russell Westbrook playing arguably the best basketball of his career and the addition of Kevin Durant to the lineup, the Thunder finally have a chance to make a serious playoff run.  With Ibaka’s consistent jumpshot, a healthy Durant and a Russell Westbrook capable of nightly triple-doubles, the Thunder seem finally to have established an offensive groove, allowing them to dependably record wins.

There is one rule in the NBA: never count out the Spurs. Even with an aging Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan, Gregg Popovich remains the NBA’s best head coach and is capable of making a deep playoff run with any team.

The addition of LaMarcus Aldridge gives the Spurs a versatile scorer to help propel their offense.  His fadeaway jump shot allows him to get a clean release from anywhere on the floor, and his superb rebounding helps to make up for the loss of Tiago Splitter.

Many consider the Clippers and Rockets to be title contenders in the coming year, though I doubt this is the case. Mark Cuban summarized the Clippers’ franchise well when he jabbed, “You can change the owner, you can change the players, but the Clippers are who they’ve been for the past 30 years.” Despite their acquisition of new talent, they still have the same culture, which will prevent them from having a real shot at the title.

The Houston Rockets started off the season 0-4, blowing a 21-point lead in their loss to the Miami Heat this past Sunday night. They scored a meager 26 points in the entire second half of the game.

To put things into perspective, Steph Curry scored 28 points in the third quarter against the Pelicans last Saturday night. Houston’s inconsistent isolation offense will not be able to sustain victories in an extremely powerful Western Conference.

There is really no need to analyze the Golden State Warriors, as their 2014-15 campaign demonstrated their miraculous combination of strong defense and small ball offense, which few teams have historically been able to cultivate. With Curry and his supporting cast continually improving, the Warriors have an incredibly high ceiling as we look to the postseason picture.

In the Eastern Conference, the Cavaliers and the Bulls are the only teams I consider to be capable of making it to the later rounds of the playoffs.  The Bulls are off to a hot start; but, with a new head coach and a serious rearrangement of playing time—with players like E’Twaun Moore getting significant time each game—their depth will be greatly challenged.

Unless Chicago can maintain their stingy defense while scoring efficiently, a healthy Cavaliers team will emerge from the East. The problem here is that the Cavaliers have so many injury-prone players, so the team will likely not have some of their stars every game of the season. As long as the Cavaliers can nurture their health, they are poised to make another championship run.

All things considered, the dominant Golden State Warriors are likely to meet the Cavaliers in a rematch of the 2014-15 NBA Finals. The skillset of the Warriors on both sides of the ball, their health and the depth of the bench will allow them to outlast LeBron, winning in seven.

Sehnert is a member of the class of 2019.

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