Lee Jenkins: Cavs over ThunderEAST: CAVALIERS OVER BULLS
WEST: THUNDER OVER WARRIORSThe LeBron James Cavaliers may never be as loaded as they are right now, and he has to know it. In Year 1, the young Cavs survived early dysfunction, learned to win with two totally different styles, experienced their first taste of playoff success—and ultimately, disappointment. It was as if they crammed three seasons of development into one. Cleveland is now poised to stampede through an Eastern Conference that could be even weaker than it was a year ago. The Cavs might not be truly tested until they meet the Thunder, who will have to endure the Warriors/Spurs/Clippers/Rockets/Grizzlies gauntlet. Injuries will ultimately decide the Western Conference, but if the Thunder can finally maintain a modicum of health, they will win it with their most balanced, motivated and mature group since James Harden left. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, in their prime and with their future at stake, will be a spectacle to behold.
Chris Mannix: Cavs over ThunderEAST: CAVALIERS OVER BULLS
WEST: THUNDER OVER WARRIORSAfter the Drive and the Catch, the Fumble and the Decision, 51 years of sports futility on the shores of Lake Erie will come to an end next June. Yes, the four heavyweights in the Western Conference will beg to differ. But by the time Oklahoma City, Golden State, the L.A. Clippers and San Antonio finish throwing haymakers at one another, a rested, relaxed and ridiculously talented Cavaliers team will be waiting to finish off OKC in the Finals. There is no stopping Cleveland now.
Ben Golliver: spurs over CavsEAST: CAVALIERS OVER BULLS
WEST: SPURS OVER WARRIORS
There’s just too much talent assembled in Cleveland to pull the trigger on an upset pick: no team in the East can match the Cavaliers’ potency and versatility from 1 to 10. Full credit to Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert for ponying up to keep the whole band together: re-signing LeBron James, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and James Jones while adding Mo Williams and Richard Jefferson could wind up running Gilbert’s 2015-16 bill to roughly $170 million in salary and luxury taxes. At that price, the Cavaliers better win the East. On the other side, forecasting the West is as difficult as it’s been in years. There are five teams with enough talent, on paper, to win a title: the Warriors, Spurs, Thunder, Rockets and Clippers. But San Antonio and Golden State lack the fatal flaws of the other three and boast previous championship credentials. Would it surprise me if the 2016 Finals winds up being a rematch between Golden State and Cleveland? Of course not. But I like San Antonio to win an epic West finals on the strength of a defense that will present a greater challenge to Stephen Curry and company than any of their 2015 playoff opponents.
While I see the 2016 Finals playing out more like the dead-even 2013 Finals (Miami squeaked by San Antonio) than the one-sided 2014 edition (San Antonio squashed Miami), I think the series will turn on 2014 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. No player in the NBA is better equipped to limit LeBron James than the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, who will be a far better all-around player come June than he was two years ago. It’s difficult to imagine the Cavaliers, as deep and talented as they are, taking home the title if James’s impact is meaningfully neutralized. LaMarcus Aldridge also looms as a potential Cavaliers killer because of his length and inside/outside ability. Add in Danny Green’s defensive versatility and the Spurs’ veterans making meaningful contributions and I think Gregg Popovich and Duncan can best James for the third time in the Finals.1:33 | NBAFast Breaks: San Antonio Spurs team preview
Chris Ballard: Cavs Over SpursEAST: CAVALIERS OVER BULLS
WEST: SPURS OVER WARRIORS
It would be fun to pick a dark horse in the East but let’s face it, unless LeBron James gets injured, it’s not happening. David Blatt is a good enough coach, the team is deep enough and they now boast both experience and confidence. The Bulls will be fun to watch—Nikola Mirotic is a wonderful old-school player—but don’t have the firepower to knock out James & Co. The West is a complete toss-up. But in such cases, always bet on Pop. In what could be Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili’s last ride—though who knows with Timmy, who might play until he’s AARP eligible—the Spurs will edge the Warriors, who are unlikely to stay as healthy as they did last season. Once again, though, the Western playoffs should be a blast to watch, what with the half-crazy Clippers and Kevin Durant’s potential final OKC run and the rest. But I'm taking LeBron and the Cavaliers to prevail in the Finald—the boring pick but also the likely one. Who knows how many titles LeBron has left in his legs, but he’s got at least one more, and it’s hard to see him not grabbing it this year.
Rob Mahoney: Warriors over CavsEAST: CAVALIERS OVER BULLS
WEST: WARRIORS OVER THUNDER
The West alone offers so many potential finalists, but I have a hard time picking against what was a historically great team last season with room yet to grow. Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, and Harrison Barnes are all on the sunny side of their playing primes; with further growth from those four, Golden State stands to be that much more versatile and that much more deadly.
I prefer the Warriors even over the Cavs for their ability to bend and adjust as a series needs. We saw that dynamic in action last postseason as Steve Kerr made all the right adjustments down the stretch. I trust that he'll be able to do the same again with a flexible group of players empowered by their continuity. Cleveland had some of that same potency but more questions; when comparing two teams this deep, I lean towards the outfit that has had more success sustaining high-level offense and high-level defense within the same lineups.
Matt Dollinger: Cavs Over SpursEAST: CAVALIERS OVER RAPTORS
WEST: SPURS OVER THUNDERThe Cavaliers face a relatively easy path to a second consecutive Finals appearance. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love will begin the season healthy. Tristan Thompson is back with the team after ending his starring contest with the front office. And the rest of the Eastern Conference landscape isn't particularly threatening. Chicago will be Cleveland's most formidable challenger once again, but injuries, age-related decline and a first-year head coach could saddle them this season. The combination of the Cavaliers being at full strength and the rest of the conference sitting several rungs down means Cleveland should be able to afford rest for its superstar trio and pace itself during the grind of the 82-game season. No one in the West will be given the same luxury. With the Warriors retaining their championship core, the Spurs going all-out in free agency and the Thunder getting Kevin Durant back, it's a conference loaded with heavy hitters. Health will likely be the determining factor, but San Antonio's insane depth, talent and experience makes them the West's favorite in my eyes. San Antonio got the best of LeBron James last time they met in the Finals, but The King will have his revenge this season.
DeAntae Prince: Warriors over CavsEAST: CAVALIERS OVER BULLS
WEST: WARRIORS OVER SPURSThe Cavaliers are the clear favorite in the Eastern Conference. Atlanta is no match for Cleveland as we saw last season, and Chicago has injuries, a new coach, and reports of infighting. Cleveland has health problems of its own, but Tristan Thompson's new deal and the return of LeBron James, the great equalizer, give Cleveland the edge in the mediocre East. The path out of the West, on the other hand, is a bit more muddied, but the Warriors remain better than the pack. They'll have to run the gauntlet to win out, because the Clippers and Spurs are unlikely to wear each other out in the first round for a second straight year. Still, Golden State has too much going for it—including the MVP, the NBA's second-best shooter, versatile wings, and a host of bigs—to falter in the West or Finals.