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Top 10 storylines for the 2016-17 NBA season

With the 2016-17 NBA season officially set to tipoff, there are a bunch of stories worth following throughout the year.

Can anyone compete with the Golden State Warriors after the two-time defending Western Conference champs added Kevin Durant in free agency? Are we primed for a third consecutive NBA Finals battle between Golden State and the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers?

These are questions more than anything else, but they are also stories to follow over the next six months.

In terms of stories themselves, we’re really interested in seeing how the New York Knicks perform with Derrick Rose manning the point. Equally as interesting, there’s a couple up-and-coming teams out west to keep an eye on.

These are among the top-10 storylines for the 2016-17 NBA season.

1. Golden State Warriors as overwhelming favorites

Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry

When you win 73 regular season games and add a former MVP that’s in his prime, you’re surely going to be favored to win the NBA title. Golden State is going to have a target squarely on its back this season. It’s a target that’s much larger than last year, and one that could create a whole heck of a lot of intrigue during the regular year.

Not only do the Warriors open the season as overwhelming favorites, the absurdity of just favored they are takes this whole thing to a completely new level. If you put money down on the Warriors to win the title in Vegas right now and they actually did hoist the Larry O’Brien, you’d win less than the cash you wagered. Think about that for a second.

The two-time reigning NBA MVP. A legitimate top-three all-around player in the Association. Two second-tier options who might very well be worthy of mentions among the top-10 players in the league. One of the top head coaches in the NBA. A historical two-year run that’s seen the team boast a 140-24 record with two conference titles and an NBA championship. That’s what opposing teams have to go up against this season.

Though, the pressure is surely on Golden State after it blew a 3-1 series lead in the NBA Finals. How the team handles this pressure is anyone’s guess. Will Draymond Green continue to be trouble both on and off the court? Will Stephen Curry and Durant coexist? Is there any way the Warriors remain as relatively healthy as they have the past two years? These are the questions that will need answering before we anoint Kerr and Co. the next great dynasty.

2. The Gasol dynamic in San Antonio

We’ve read the reports that LaMarcus Aldridge is not happy playing second fiddle to Kawhi Leonard. Didn’t he know this was going to happen when he actually signed with the Spurs as a free agent? Now that San Antonio has added a future Hall of Famer in Pau Gasol, it’s going to be interesting to see how this works out.

San Antonio’s primary motivation, much like the rest of the Western Conference, is to contend with Golden State. It’s in this that the team added a big man that flows directly away from the Warriors’ strengths. Gasol isn’t a pounder. He’s not going to beat up Draymond Green inside. Instead, he’ll be asked to stretch the court with the mid-range jumper. Maybe force Durant on to him as a way to free up Leonard out in the wing.

Listen, head coach Gregg Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford are not dumb. They have been the model organization around the NBA for a while now. There’s a reason for this. The signing of Gasol plays right into that. You can’t beat the Warriors playing their game, so do what you do the best.

Unfortunately for the Spurs, there has to be some concern about Gasol’s ability to actually perform at a high level against their conference rivals. He’s averaging just a hair over 10 points per game when taking on the Warriors over the past two seasons.

Add in  Aldridge’s tremendous struggles against the Warriors in 2015-16 and Tony Parker’s inability to defend Curry, and there should be some concern here. That’s where Gasol comes into play. He’s must up his performance in order for San Antonio to knock off Steve Kerr and Co.

3. Playing catch up against the Cleveland Cavaliers

LeBron James

While Golden State may be one of the most-talented teams in Association history, the defending champion Cavaliers seem to have an easier road to the Finals.

Looking at it from the outside, it seems that the Boston Celtics have the best chance to unseat Cleveland back East. Even then, there are matchup concerns aplenty. Can Jae Crowder seriously be tasked with defending LeBron James at the three? Last season saw James average 27.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and nearly seven assists in four games against Boston. It’s not a coincidence that Cleveland took three of those four games.

A bit further down in the pecking order, there’s just too many questions for other potential contenders in the Eastern Conference. How will Derrick Rose and Carmelo Anthony coexist in New York?

Did the Bulls really upgrade by trading the aforementioned Rose while adding Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade to the mix? Is any improvement there squashed after the team lost Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah in free agency?

Can the Indiana Pacers seriously expect to improve after downgrading at head coach? How will the Miami Heat perform without Wade in the mix? Is Kent Bazemore really a top-end secondary scorer in Atlanta? And will Dwight Howard rebound with his home-town team?

These are a ton of question marks. They also lend credence to the idea that Cleveland has a much surer path to the NBA Finals than the Warriors. This isn’t to say that the Cavaliers are lucky by any stretch of the imagination. As they proved last season, they’re an elite team. LeBron James is the best player on the planet. It is, however, a real dynamic to look at during the regular season.

4. One last run for these Los Angeles Clippers? 

This has to be it, right? Let’s say Doc Rivers’s squad goes through the season without any major injuries only to lose before reaching the conference finals again. Wouldn’t that be enough for the Clippers’ brass to end this charade?

We’re not sitting back here indicating that Rivers should be fired short of the Clippers reaching the NBA Finals. Instead, it’s about the big three and their inability to compete in a Western Conference ripe with elite-level teams. So much of the focus here has been on the Warriors. And in reality, the Clippers’ 1-7 record against that squad over the past two seasons tells us what we need to know there.

Instead, the focus should be on Los Angeles and its inability to contend with the likes of the San Antonio Spurs and other upper-echelon teams out west. Rivers and Co. finished with a 2-11 record against teams that concluded last year among the top-five seeds in the conference.

An injury-plagued season for Blake Griffin surely played a role here. But that excuse can only go so far. In order to be considered elite, you need to perform better against the elite. That’s something we have not seen from the Clippers over the past two seasons.

Whether it’s trading Blake Griffin for a king’s ransom or moving on from DeAndre Jordan for a more scoring-centric center, the Clippers will have to break up their big three if they fail to extend their season beyond the Western Confernce Semifinals.

That’s the harsh reality of the situation. And that promises to place a ton of pressure on Griffin, Jordan and all-everything guard Chris Paul.

5. From sweethearts to contenders

Courtesy of USA Today Images

While the Boston Celtics likely won’t have a target on its back this season, Brad Stevens’ squad is no longer that Cinderella story it has been over the past two seasons. After chasing Kevin Durant and ultimately landing Al Horford, the Celtics are true contenders in 2016-17.

As the unquestioned second-best team in the Eastern Conference, it’s going to be interesting to see how Boston handles the pressure. Can Isaiah Thomas continue to improve as a combo guard? Was last season’s All-NBA Defensive team performance the ceiling for Avery Bradley or will he improve on the offensive end? What is Jae Crowder’s ceiling at the three? And are the Celtics simply planning on using rookie top-five pick Jaylen Brown as trade bait to find another top-end veteran?

These are the questions we will need answers to before spring comes calling. What we do know is that Boston is in a position it hasn’t been in since Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett dominated the scene in the Atlantic. Whether that translates to the Celtics contending with Cleveland remains to be seen.

6. Derrick Rose’s New York Knicks? 

Is Rose now the face of the Knicks after an off-season trade from the Chicago Bulls? If not, how will he handle playing second fiddle to Carmelo Anthony? Heck, is Kristaps Porzingis actually the face the franchise? It’s definitely an interesting dynamic to look at heading into a season where the Knicks might very well contend for a top-five seed back east.

Both Anthony and Porzingis are coming off tremendous 2015-16 seasons for what was an otherwise bottom-feeding Knicks team. Prior to fizzling out late, Porzingis was right there among the top candidates for rookie of the year. He ended up averaging 14.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per outing.

Meanwhile, Anthony’s overall game improved leaps and bounds from previous seasons. Anthony may have tallied less than 22 points per game, but was able to add in 7.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists per.

With Rose in the mix, Anthony will likely be able to continue getting others involved, improving his all-around game in the process. And if Porzingis is able to somehow up his production, the Knicks might very well have a surprise up their sleeves. If that were to happen, it’s more than likely Rose himself would receive most of the credit.

7. Surprising the masses in the Pacific Northwest?

C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard. These two young guards proved that they can go up with the big boys out west in the playoffs last season. After dismantaling the Clippers in the first round, Portland was one Stephen Curry barrage from tying the Western Conference Semifinals against Golden State up at two games a piece.

Alone, McCollum and Lillard can will the Blazers to the playoffs. But if this team wants to find itself among the west’s elite, others must step up. Whether it’s high-priced free-agent addition Even Turner out in the wing or Noah Vonleh inside, someone has to find a way to become a secondary scorer behind the big two.

Heck, Allen Crabbe could potentially provide that when the Blazers go with a three-guard lineup. The former CAL standout more than tripled his scoring output from the previous season in 2015-16 and was tremendous in the playoffs. Crabbe actually averaged 12.6 points while shooting 60 percent from the field in the series against Golden State.

The talent is most definitely here for Portland to rise to the top out west. It’s just going to need multiple players to continue improving behind McCollum and Lillard. Should that happen, watch out.

8. NBA’s stardom looks to increase league’s popularity

Russell Westbrook

Broader context here for a second. It’s not a myth. It’s most definitely not a narrative being forced down our throats. Those who control the center court in today’s NBA seem to have a much better public perception than stars in the three other major North American sports leagues, the NFL itself included.

From Stephen Curry’s beautiful young family to Russell Westbrook’s community work and Kevin Durant’s wholesome relationship with his mother, there’s not a lot to dislike about these stars off the court.

LeBron James continues to do whatever he can to help the greater Akron area. Chris Paul has made it a point to help families through the Chris Paul Foundation. Meanwhile, the NBA itself has refused to back down in the face of deep south politics in North Carolina, politics that the Association views to be against its own standards (more on that here).

These are just a few examples of just how well received the NBA is within the broader construct of American society. Rarely do we see these players in the news for the wrong reasons.

And as the product on the court continues to improve, the NBA will remain an outlet for those sports fans that find themselves alienated by all the issues on the NFL gridiron today. It won’t be enough for the hardwood to take over for the pigskin as America’s pastime, but it will surely close the gap.

9. Building a winner in today’s NBA

It’s much different than what we see in other sports. NFL teams look to catch lightning in a bottle by spending on high-priced free agents. That’s usually a failed plan with the league’s most successful teams building through the draft. Meanwhile, in baseball, teams can spend top bucks to build a contender without having to worry about the salary cap.

The NBA is a completely different ballgame. Unless you’re picking in the top-five, the chances of adding a star player is just not too great.

And unless you’ve proven to be a stable and winning organization, free agents are not going to want to join your club. It’s in this that both the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors have proven to be model organizations. Using a combination of free agency and the draft, these two squads have been built in a way few others can claim to.

Look at the Warriors for a second. Common narrative will tell us that they’re attempting to (or have) built a super team in Oakland by using free agency to their benefit. That really couldn’t be further from the truth. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green all came up “through the farm” to use a baseball term.

It’s only after the Warriors’ organization proved itself to be capable that the likes of Andre Iguodala and Kevin Durant decided to sign on. Which teams are using this same formula? And of those teams, which ones are going to have success moving forward?

On the surface, we must look at the Minnesota Timberwolves, Utah Jazz and Portland Trail Blazers out west as case studies. None of these teams have been able to net that big free agent, but all three promise to be competitive in the Western Conference with young cores that was built through the draft. If one or more of these teams take that nex step in 2016-17, look for them to attract big-name free agent options next summer.

10. Elite young talent in Minnesota

Courtesy of Jeffrey Becker, USA Today Sports

What Karl-Anthony Towns did as a rookie was nothing short of amazing. As a 20-year-old rookie, Towns averaged 18.3 points and 10.5 rebounds while shooting 54 percent from the field. It was his ability to extend his game out to the perimeter that had to be shocking. This makes Towns a potential MVP candidate in the not-so-distant future. That’s not hyperbole. It’s the reality.

Andrew Wiggins can flat out score. That’s not in question. But he’s going to have to improve from all over the court in order to become that All-Star performer Minnesota thought it was getting when it dealt Kevin Love for the then wide-eyed Kansas product. Should Wiggins find a way to improve his all-around game, the Wolves will be in a great position to earn a playoff spot in 2016-17.

Add in the emergence of Zach LaVine last season as well as the selection of a true point guard in Kris Dunn during June’s draft, and there’s little doubting the talent in Minnesota. Whether it comes together with a playoff appearance this season remains to be seen.