The 2014-2015 NBA season tips off on Tuesday night under great anticipation and expectations, particularly due to the power shift within the Eastern Conference. In perhaps the most-discussed basketball transaction since 2010, the Cleveland Cavaliers signed free agent LeBron James to a two-year contract, and then traded for big man Kevin Love to immediately vault to one of the title frontrunners.
Yet, the ageless San Antonio Spurs still lurk as favorites. The defending champions needed just five games to defeat the Miami Heat in the 2014 NBA Finals, despite James averaging 28.2 points per game.
The start of the season also marks the return of several notable guards. The Chicago Bulls welcome back former MVP Derrick Rose to full strength, while three-time All-Star Russell Westbrook looks to play a full season after missing 36 regular season games. After sitting out 52 games in 2013-2014 due to an anterior cruciate ligament tear, Boston Celtics star Rajon Rondo is expected to be back in action this week.
The Thunder seek a return to the NBA Finals after being eliminated by the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, but will be without superstar Kevin Durant for about two months. The sharpshooter has been sidelined with a broken bone at the base of his small toe. Meanwhile, the diagnosis for Paul George is much worse, with the Indiana Pacers’ star expected to miss most of the regular season with a leg injury.
The upcoming season also marks perhaps the most talented rookie class in over a decade. Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, Dante Exum, and Elfrid Payton are just some of the promising young newcomers to the league.
Here is how we rank the players based on how we project them to perform this season. Let the debate begin.
1) LeBron James, SF, Cleveland Cavaliers King James has lived up to the enormous expectations, and should continue to dominate the NBA next season. Anything short of an NBA title and an MVP season would be a disappointment for one of the greatest players in basketball history. Sure the 29-year-old is one of the most exciting players ever, but James is also an exceptional passer, defender, and rebounder, and often does so many of the little things it takes to win. Surrounded by a collection of young players in Cleveland, he will be called upon to be more of a leader than ever before, and should be up for the challenge.
2) Kevin Durant, SF, Oklahoma City Thunder Perhaps the best shooter in the NBA, Durant barely cracks the No. 2 spot due to his injury, which should sideline him for roughly 20 games. But knowing his resilience, Durant should return at full strength by late December to help lead the Thunder to one of the top seeds in the West. A two-way player, he is not afraid to take the big shot, and is an under-appreciated defender. Expect another high-scoring season from the reigning MVP.
3) Chris Paul, PG, Los Angeles Clippers Coming off another stellar season, Paul seems more determined than ever to reach the NBA Finals. A deft distributor and ball handler, CP3 also has excellent shot selection and is among the best defensive players in the league.
4) Anthony Davis, PF, New Orleans Pelicans The high riser of this list, Davis is hitting his stride at age 21 and should be poised for a monster season. Don’t be surprised if he finishes in the top 10 in points, rebounds, and blocks. The former Kentucky star has a great attitude and seems hungry to improve.
5) LaMarcus Aldridge, PF, Portland Trail Blazers Does so many things right, but is often overlooked due to his quiet demeanor. Last season, Aldridge finished eighth in points (23.2) seventh in rebounds (11.1) and there is no reason to believe those numbers will decline. He also owns perhaps the best mid-range game in the NBA.
6) Carmelo Anthony, SF, New York Knicks A scoring machine, his game should become a bit more refined with Phil Jackson in charge of the team. Anthony’s defensive shortcomings could be attributed to overwork, having led the league in minutes (38.7) last season, and because of his importance on offense. The right complimentary players would really bring out the best in him.
7) Stephen Curry, PG, Golden State Warriors A lethal and clutch perimeter threat, Curry is also one of the best passers in the NBA. A confident floor general, he often makes the players around him look better.
8) Blake Griffin, PF, Los Angeles Clippers One of the most athletic players in the league, Griffin is coming off easily his best season as a professional in 2013-2014. Once considered just a high-flying dunker, Griffin became a more polished player last season, setting a career high in scoring (24.1) upon improving his free-throw percentage (71.5) and stretching out his outside shot.
9) Derrick Rose, PG, Chicago Bulls There is still plenty of debate as to whether Rose will return to his previous form following a season in which he played just 10 games. At his best, he has an exceptional crossover, first step, and outside shot to go along with his tremendous court vision. More than likely, Rose will be a notch below where he was when he won the 2010-2011 MVP, but that’s still good enough to be considered among the elite players in the game.
10) Russell Westbrook, PG, Oklahoma City Thunder Another guard coming off injury, Westbrook is expected to be in strong form. It might be a stretch to think he can dominate the way he had in 2011-2012, but Westbrook plays with a great deal of intensity and should be able to rebound from setbacks last season.
11) Tony Parker, PG, San Antonio Spurs Entering his 14th season, Parker remains a star point guard with an excellent outside shot and the ability to create space for himself to penetrate. There is no reason to believe that Parker will lose a beat this season.
12) Kevin Love, PF, Cleveland Cavaliers There might not be a more interesting player to follow this season. After suffering through the mediocrity of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Love can finally compete for a title playing alongside King James. An adept shooter and passer, Love has a unique skill set that might flourish with a superstar forward and some quality young players. Love would be much higher on this list if he picked up his intensity on defense. That might very well be the case because he is on a legitimate contender.
13) James Harden, SG, Houston Rockets Would be much higher on this list if he was even an average defender. Only James and Durant are better scorers. What makes Harden such a threat is his ability to create his own shot. Houston teammates often just stand around as he punishes defenders with his clever isolation moves and deadly jumper.
14) Kobe Bryant, SG, Los Angeles Lakers Questions plague the Black Mamba as he tries to win with an uninspiring unit. Is he too old? Is he fully recovered from his injury? Will he try to do too much without a star teammate? Will he run out of gas should the Lakers struggle after the All-Star break? Bryant’s fierce determination and tremendous talent should be enough to keep him among the top scorers in the NBA, and keep the Lakers competitive.
15) Dirk Nowitzki, PF, Dallas Mavericks Quietly had another stellar season (21.7 ppg), and is still one of the most difficult players to guard in the league. At age 36, he is probably close to calling it quits, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have something left in the tank. With some added talent on the roster, the Mavs may surprise people with Nowitzki still contributing with clutch shots.
16) Joakim Noah, PF, Chicago Bulls One of the best defenders in the NBA, Noah is a tenacious player who is a terror on the glass. His scoring opportunities are often limited to putbacks, and jump hooks, but that’s crucial on a blue-collar Bulls squad.
17) Damian Lillard, PG, Portland Trail Blazers There was no “sophomore slump” for this 24-year-old in 2013-2014, and the secret is out that he is among the most dynamic playmakers in the NBA. On the offensive end, he is skilled at creating his own shot and playing in the open floor. On the defensive end, he is improving and getting smarter.
18) John Wall, PG, Washington Wizards Seems to improve after every season, and is coming off a year in which he dramatically improved his three-point shooting from an atrocious 27. 1 percent in 2011-2012 to ho-hum 26.7 percent in 2012-2013, to a highly respectable 35.1 percent in 2013-2014. He's also doing a better job of distributing, and has emerged as a high-energy defender.
19) Kyrie Irving, PG, Cleveland Cavaliers After demonstrating that he has the skills to be an elite point guard, Irving will be asked to carry the point guard duties on starting five that includes James and Love. He should be up for the challenge, having helped the Cavs make inroads in three seasons. Irving has excellent scoring ability and court vision, but will need to improve on his sometimes lackadaisical defense.
20) Tim Duncan, PF, San Antonio Spurs Sure his stats have been down, and are not expected to go up at age 38. But do you want to bet against him? Duncan is still a very good rebounder and defender, but his best quality is that he does what he needs to do to keep the Spurs in the title hunt every year. Expect more of the same in 2014-2015.
21) Dwyane Wade, SG, Miami Heat While the athleticism has slid in recent years, to go along with his scoring average, Wade remains a top two-guard. His field-goal percentage (54.5) actually reached its highest level in 2013-2014. Life without James will almost certainly mean less wins, but an uptick in his statistics.
22) Dwight Howard, C, Houston Rockets Some may question his interest in winning, but nobody questions his work ethic on the court. Howard is still one of the best interior defenders in the NBA, and still manages to score over 18 points per game.
23) Goran Dragic, SG, Phoenix Suns Took advantage of his added playing time with the Rockets in 2011-2012 to become a legitimate scoring threat with the Suns in two seasons. Plays good defense, but his main asset is his ability to slash and knock down three-point shots.
24) Al Jefferson, C, Charlotte Hornets Improved his defense, and raised his intensity on the boards in 2013-2014 to become of the better big men in the NBA. The Hornets can rely on Jefferson for another season of roughly 20 points and 10 rebounds.
25) DeMarcus Cousins, C, Sacramento Kings The hard-nosed big man has played in relative obscurity in Sacramento, but anyone who has watched him knows he is a talent. Coming off his best season, Cousins averaged 22. 7 points and 11.7 rebounds per game. Made a big jump in WARP, from 7.6 to 13.6.
26) DeMar DeRozan, SG, Toronto Raptors There is no denying DeRozan’s athleticism, but he now has a polished game to go with it. The swingman saw his scoring average jump from 18.1 in 2012-2013 to 22.7 in 2013-2014. DeRozan’s improved shooting should cause much consternation to opposing defenders.
27) Kenneth Faried, PF, Denver Nuggets An absolute beast under the boards, Faried is perhaps the most energetic big man in the league, and has even found a way to create his own shot over the past two years. His stats should climb again in 2014-2015.
28) Chris Bosh, PF, Miami Heat Despite the many suggestions that his skills were on the decline, Bosh remains a fine contributor on both ends of the court. He could use another big man alongside him to offer more help against bruising teams, but Bosh has proven to still have a knack for scoring and rarely makes mistakes.
29) Marc Gasol, C, Memphis Grizzlies Still hitting his stride as perhaps the best traditional center in the game. While a strong low-post scorer, his main asset is his defense. There is no reason to believe he won’t continue to be reliable on both sides of the court, especially in a contract year.
30) Kawhi Leonard, SF, San Antonio Spurs Part of the new “Big Four,” Leonard has become a crucial part of a championship-contending squad. He is an intense, active player who is not afraid to attack the basket. The 23-year-old’s only problem is that nobody will take him lightly any more.
31) Andre Drummond, C, Detroit Pistons A machine on the boards, Drummond saw his rebounding numbers skyrocket in only his second season, from 7.6 to 13.2. What’s scary, is he can be called up on to be a top scorer in Detroit, and has the ability to do it. If he can improve his post moves, he should be among the top 10 or 15 players in the league in two years.
32) Brook Lopez, C, Brooklyn Nets Injuries. Injuries. Injuries. Lopez hasn’t played a full season since 2010-2011, but should he stay healthy this time around, he will be a major force for the Nets. Has a great feel for the game, and is a hard worker. Rebounding remains an issue, though.
33) Monta Ellis, SG, Dallas Mavericks A pillar of consistency, Ellis finds a way to maintain his high scoring average after all these years, and will likely average 19 points a game this season. Can still draw fouls with attacks to the basket. His biggest drawback has been his so-so defending.
34) Al Horford, PF, Atlanta Hawks Does so many things well, and has battled back after missing 53 games last season due to a right pectoral muscle injury. A hard worker with skills, he simply needs to stay healthy.
35) Klay Thompson, SG, Golden State Warriors One of the best catch-and-shoot players in the league, if not the best. Also, an underrated defender. Must continue to improve his game if the Warriors expect to make noise in the West.
36) DeAndre Jordan, C, Los Angeles Clippers Had his best season of his career last year, using his superior athleticism to grab 13.6 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game. Also, he knows to stay down low and take advantage of his size. Though he’s 26, it’s a scary thought to think about his potential.
37) Rajon Rondo, PG, Boston Celtics Many eyes will be on Rondo, as the clever playmaker competes in perhaps his last season in Beantown. An excellent defender and distributor, Rondo is expected to bounce back from injury-plagued seasons in 2014-2015.
38) Rudy Gay, SF, Sacramento Kings Because he makes things look so easy, Gay’s versatility is often forgotten. He can post up, but he is most effective in the pick-and-roll. Gay put up big scoring numbers with the Kings and Raptors last season, and more can be expected this season.
39) Paul Millsap, PF, Atlanta Hawks An all-around solid player, Millsap is coming off his highest scoring season (17.9 ppg), and pulled down 8.5 rebounds. Every NBA coach would love to have him on their roster. He is tough defensively, a good passer, and somehow found a way to develop an outside shot.
40) Chandler Parsons, SF, Dallas Mavericks Quietly developed into a versatile scorer, but also has proven that he can be a solid perimeter defender. When opposing defenders gives Parsons room to shoot, and he makes them pay. Should be a nice fit in Dallas.
41) Serge Ibaka, PF, Oklahoma City Thunder Only 25, but he already has five years of experience. Developed a fine scoring touch last season, to go along with great defensive presence. One of the toughest workhorses in the league. Will need to step up in Durant’s absence.
42) Kyle Lowry, PG, Toronto Raptors Numbers jumped from 11.6 ppg in 2012-2013 to 17.9 ppg in 2013-2014. An under-rated shooter, he knocked down 38 percent of his three-point shots. Expect more good things from Lowry, as the Raptors look to build off their strong effort last season.
43) Eric Bledsoe, PG, Phoenix Suns Put up by far his best numbers of his career when he left the Clippers for Phoenix, though in just 43 games due to a knee injury. Bledsoe appears eager to become an elite player in the NBA, and might have the tools to make it happen. He has tremendous athleticism, which helps him on both sides of the court.
44) Zach Randolph, PF, Memphis Grizzlies Consistently overlooked despite gaudy numbers, age might be catching up to Randolph. The Grizzlies allowed 3.1 more points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, but he can still give you consistent points. His 17.4 ppg and 10.1 rpg in 2013-2014 are impressive considering it was his 13th season.
45) Josh Smith, PF, Detroit Pistons Scoring numbers continue to slide, but could easily see an uptick this season. New head coach Stan Van Gundy loves his work ethic, and leadership on a rather young roster. Smith is also still an athletic big man, which helps a lot.
46) Joe Johnson, SG, Brooklyn Nets Saw his scoring numbers dip for the second year in a row, but the 33-year-old still shows flashes of brilliance, like his 34-point outburst in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Heat. Should see an improvement this season under new head coach Lionel Hollins, who finds a way to get the most out of his players.
47) Manu Ginobili, SG, San Antonio Spurs Still among the smartest players in the NBA. The crafty veteran should see his numbers decline, but he remains a key figure on a team that relies on team basketball to win.
48) Bradley Beal, SG, Washington Wizards Would be higher on this list if not for a wrist fracture that will sideline him for about two months. Just 21, he made major strides in his second season, and could be ready to emerge as one of the best young guards in the NBA by the end of the season.
49) Jabari Parker, SF, Milwaukee Bucks There is finally some reason for optimism for the Bucks, with this budding rookie. Expect Parker to be a quality player for years to come, and he should be ready to be a major contributor this season. The 19-year-old is very athletic, and has an excellent step-back jumper, and most importantly, has the determination to take his game to another level.
50) Mike Conley, PG, Memphis Grizzlies There are plenty of more prolific point guards in the league, but Conley continues to be a steady presence on the Grizzlies. He has good shot selection, and does many little things right like pick-and-roll plays, and controlling the pace of the game. He’s also a solid defender.
An IB Times Staff Reporter contributed to this report.