The 2015-2016 NBA season tipped off on Tuesday night and now every team has played their season opener. The league is already in better health than a year ago, with every top star active to start the season.
Returning to action is Oklahoma City Thunder sharpshooter Kevin Durant, Indiana Pacers’ forward Paul George, and often-injured Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose. Kobe Bryant, who might be playing in his final season, is also back, but will be limited in his number of minutes. LaMarcus Aldridge, meanwhile, made the move from the Portland Trail Blazers to the San Antonio Spurs.
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 The 2015-2016 season may be remembered as the year the Cavs finally won a title. The Spurs, Warriors, and Bulls will likely be in the mix to stand in James’ way, but giving the City of Cleveland its first sports title since the Browns in 1964 will be James’ ultimate achievement. He remains the game’s most well-rounded player, and only achieving glory in his home state has eluded him. This league is LeBron's league.
2) Kevin Durant, SF, Oklahoma City Thunder He’s back and he’ll be as good as he ever was. There is a lot riding on Durant in his contract year, and he no doubt wants to impress after all of the pitfalls of last season. A hot start may mean that Durant jumps into early contention for the MVP award, but his ultimate prize will be another trip to the Finals.
3) Stephen Curry, PG, Golden State Warriors His MVP season was not a fluke. Curry is not only the best shooter in the league, but among the greatest ever. A floor general with swagger, the 27-year-old is actually an underrated playmaker. Another 60-win season is in the bag for the Warriors if Curry maintains his top form.
4) Anthony Davis, PF, New Orleans Pelicans A top candidate for MVP, Davis is coming off an excellent season and looks ready to dominate again. Expect the 22-year-old to post huge stats as the top low-post player in the league. The future is very bright for Davis, but he needs more help to lead the Pelicans.
5) James Harden, SG, Houston Rockets His step-back, outside shot is among the most difficult plays to defend in the league. Harden is a huge scorer and should continue to thrive after a breakout season. Will need to raise his game even more for the Rockets to advance past the Warriors or Spurs.
6) Russell Westbrook, PG, Oklahoma City Thunder When Westbrook is on his game, he is the best player in the league. His late stretch at the end of last season was absolutely mesmerizing. The athletic combo guard must stay healthy to keep the Thunder in contention.
7) DeMarcus Cousins, C, Sacramento Kings His huge numbers can’t be ignored. The averages of 24.1 ppg, 12.7 rpg, and 1.75 bpg would garner MVP consideration if only the players around him helped him make his first playoff appearance. Expect big stats again this season, and for the Kings to improve under new head coach George Karl.
8) Blake Griffin, PF, Los Angeles Clippers Still among the most athletic big men in the league, Griffin has polished his game in recent years and should continue to post big numbers. At age 26, he is in his prime and already has plenty of experience.
9) John Wall, PG, Washington Wizards Played with a chip on his shoulder last season, by averaging career highs in field-goal percentage (44.5), and assists (10.0) as the Wizards advanced past the first round of the playoffs. But more is expected of the 25-year-old as the Wizards seek a deep run in the playoffs.
10) Chris Paul, PG, Los Angeles Clippers At age 30, Paul is now a “savvy veteran.” He is arguably the smartest point guard in the league, and still a fine scorer, passer and defender. Few players want to win their first title more than CP3.
11) Marc Gasol, C, Memphis Grizzlies Gasol’s rightly praised for his defensive prowess, and stands head and shoulders above every other center in the league on that end of the court, but it’s the touch on his jumper to draw opposing big men away from the paint that truly separates him from the pack.
12) LaMarcus Aldridge, PF San Antonio Spurs Heightened expectations surround Aldridge as a new member of the Spurs, and he should be up for the challenge. The big man does so many things right, but is often overlooked due to his quiet demeanor. Last season, Aldridge finished eighth in points (23.2) and seventh in rebounds (11.1). He also owns perhaps the best mid-range game in the NBA.
13) Damian Lillard, PG, Portland Trail Blazers Big questions surround Lillard with the departure of Aldridge. Lillard plays with a great deal of confidence and is among the most consistent guards in the league. Defenses will hone in on him, but he has the talent to keep Portland competitive.
14) Jimmy Butler, SG, Chicago Bulls No player proved more last season than Butler. He can flat out score, and at times carried Chicago on his back. But more will be asked of the 26-year-old this season, and he will be under the microscope to prove last season was not a fluke.
15) Kawhi Leonard, SF, San Antonio Spurs With Aldridge now in town, talk will turn to whether he and Leonard can continue the Spurs winning ways with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili a year older. Already a Finals MVP in his short career, Leonard’s a defensive juggernaut capable of reining in some of the league’s best scorers and then punishing them on the other end. Few players are better at the intangibles than Leonard, and he should have another strong season.
16) Carmelo Anthony, SF, New York Knicks Starting maybe one of the most important stints of his career, Anthony will be judged on how he can lead the Knicks revamped roster back to the postseason and eventually into contention. We already know he can score, but can those points be meaningful once again?
17) Kyrie Irving, PG, Cleveland Cavaliers Bouncing back from a serious knee injury that derailed a solid postseason will be the biggest test in Irving’s career to date. When he’ll return to the Cavs lineup remains unclear, but when healthy he’s part of the handful of point guards that can swing a team’s title chances.
18) Paul George, SF, Indiana Pacers Back from injury, George is out to prove he is an elite player. When he was healthy, the slashing star was arguably one of five best perimeter players in the league. George’s progress in the coming months is among the most interesting storylines of the season.
19) Derrick Rose, PG, Chicago Bulls "Injury prone" is the phrase now most associated with the former MVP, but if his knees hold out for more than 51 games for the first time in four years, there’s very few players who can claim the same type of ferocious power and athleticism at Rose’s disposal.
20) DeAndre Jordan, C, Los Angeles Clippers A master of the paint who improved his rebounding and shooting even more to 15.0 boards per game and 71 percent from the field, Jordan’s a physical force that could lead the Clippers into the Finals for the first time. He is among the most athletic centers in recent memory.
21) Klay Thompson, SG, Golden State Warriors Often referred to as the other “Splash Brother,” Thompson came into his own last season with new career-highs in points (21.7), assists (2.9), steals (1.1), and even three-point percentage (43.9). While Curry is the Warriors' undisputed leader, without Thompson the Warriors wouldn’t be threats to repeat.
22) Kevin Love, PF, Cleveland Cavaliers Adjusting to a new team, especially in the role of third fiddle, marred Love’s first season in Cleveland, but that should all be prologue for a special and gifted player blessed with the kind of shooting touch and range that can be lethal anywhere on the court. Expect a more consistent season after a year under his belt in Cleveland.
23) Dwight Howard, C, Houston Rockets Howard said he played through two serious knee injuries in the postseason last year, which is scary because he still put up 16.4 points and 14.0 rebounds over 17 games. He missed half of last season due to injury, but if healthy he and Harden represent perhaps the best inside-outside combo in the league.
24) DeMar DeRozan, SG, Toronto Raptors Over the last three seasons DeRozan’s established himself as Toronto’s go-to scorer and most dangerous wing, and the Raptors have improved by 15 wins as a result. He does need more range on his jumper, which should improve during the season with teams afraid of his stellar slashing and finishing around the basket.
25) Mike Conley, PG, Memphis Grizzlies As reliable a floor general the league’s had in quite a while, Conley’s undoubtedly the Grizzlies leader on both ends of the floor. His return from injury in last year’s playoffs gave Memphis a shot against eventual champ Golden State, especially his and Tony Allen’s defense of Curry. The one area that needs work from last year is assist-to-turnovers ratio (2.40).
26) Andre Drummond, PF, Detroit Pistons A speeding train in the lane with the length to alter any shot that comes his way, Drummond leads a young batch of big men to enter the league in the last few years who stand to wrangle the spotlight away from all these pesky guards. Only 22, but plays like he is 28. Expect his numbers to rise this season.
27) Tim Duncan, PF, San Antonio Spurs Undoubtedly the best leader and captain in the league, Duncan’s possessed an uncanny ability to bury his ego and defer the ball to whoever proves they can score. He did it for Parker, then Leonard, and now he will do it for Aldridge.
28) Tony Parker, PG, San Antonio Spurs Other than LeBron, no one’s more difficult to keep out of the paint, even at age 33 and lots of miles on him. His career field-goal percentage of 49.4 frees up his teammates like Leonard and Danny Green to excel. Parker has excellent quickness for his age, and consistently takes quality shots.
29) Dirk Nowitzki, PF, Dallas Mavericks Don't sleep on Dirk. Capable of standing at the elbow and knocking down every shot even with a hand in his face, Nowitzki remains an automatic shooter and consummate leader for a Mavs squad that’s been in flux of late but is always a threat because of his presence. Even at age 37, he can still score.
30) Paul Millsap, PF, Atlanta Hawks One of several unheralded heroes found on the Hawks roster, Millsap’s a chameleon capable of filling any role necessary. Need an outside jumper, to draw a charge, a trip to the foul line, a timely rebound or steal, or a three? Millsap can do it all.
31) Kyle Lowry, PG, Toronto Raptors Lowry’s soared into the upper echelon of point guards with his dribble-penetration and pull-up jumper abilities. How he and DeRozan mesh further will make Toronto a powerful force in the East. Finished 10th in assists (6.8) last year, but he will probably do better than that this year.
32) Kobe Bryant, SG, Los Angeles Lakers As the twilight of Bryant’s career dims, he’s still a feared and tenacious scorer who should put up more than 23 points per game and shoot about 40 percent from the field. Bryant’s no longer a consistent member of the league’s elite, but he will have games this season that will remind us of how amazing he’s been the last 20 years.
33) Eric Bledsoe, PG, Phoenix Suns Though he’s often served as trade bait the last couple of seasons, there’s no denying Bledsoe’s incendiary abilities to score and distribute. Bledsoe would be higher on this list if he improves his three-point shooting (32.4 percent for his career).
34) Andrew Wiggins, SF, Minnesota Timberwolves Like many Rookie of the Year winners before him, Wiggins enters the season with even higher expectations as Minnesota tries to climb out of the a 16-66 finish last season. How well the all-around Wiggins envelopes new teammate Karl-Anthony Towns into the lineup, while keeping up his own production, will decide the Wolves future. It shouldn't be surprising if he's named to the West All-Stars.
35) Al Jefferson, C, Charlotte Hornets A reliable 17 ppg/9rpg guy for most of his career, Jefferson’s timeless work in the post is a big reason why Charlotte’s hovered around the No. 8 seed for the last few years and why Kemba Walker’s excelled. At age 30, he has shown little sign of slowing down and should put up strong numbers on a team seeking another postseason berth.
36) Bradley Beal, SG, Washington Wizards A gifted shooter who’s come into his own the last two seasons, Beal starts the season with a lot of expectations which could be met if he stays healthy. He missed 19 games last season, but if healthy Beal’s the perfect complement to Wall. Don't be surprised if he averages over 20 points per game.
37) Al Horford, PF, Atlanta Hawks Horford and Millsap are near-clones of each other, with the former really only missing a three-point shot. Otherwise he can defend and score on any other big in the league. Horford played 76 games last season after playing just 29 in 2013-2014.
38) Chris Bosh, PF, Miami Heat An unfortunate blood clot derailed Bosh’s best season with the Heat last season (21.1 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 37.5 three-point percentage), but he’s back and could be in the mix for second or third-team honors if he stays on the court.
39) Greg Monroe, PF, Milwaukee Bucks Perhaps one of the most versatile and underappreciated big men in the league, Monroe owns the paint with crafty post moves. Should post another 15 ppg and 10 rpg season after leaving the Pistons for the Bucks.
40) Draymond Green, PF, Golden State Warriors Finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting last year, and seems poised to improve on his breakout season. The workhorse got a huge, and well-deserved, pay raise from the Warriors.
41) Goran Dragic, SG, Miami Heat A trade-deadline steal by Miami last season, Dragic will benefit from Dwyane Wade taking a more complimentary role. The Slovenian is a deft passer and slasher, with a career 51.6 percent mark on twos and is good for at least a steal a game.
42) Jeff Teague, PG, Atlanta Hawks Teague’s a rarity in today’s league, a pass-first point guard who can light it up at will. But he's also more than willing to make the extra pass rather than score himself. A consistent scorer, Teague could also make his first all-defensive team while Atlanta hopes to remain atop the East.
43) Zach Randolph, PF, Memphis Grizzlies Blessed with long arms that help him knock down difficult shots from tight angles, Randolph complements Gasol perfectly on offense and is a solid defender, as well. He’s 34 now, but since 2007 he’s averaged better than 11 points and 10 rebounds in all but one season.
44) Monta Ellis, SG, Indiana Pacers Still possessing maybe the quickest first-step in the league after 11 years, Ellis is a career 19.3 points per game scorer and could fly as Indiana’s second or third option.
45) Joakim Noah, PF, Chicago Bulls After two straight All-Star games, Noah’s health has held back his scoring, rebounding, and defense, but he’s still one of the league’s toughest competitors and when healthy capable of boxing out the league’s best in the paint.
46) Dwyane Wade, SG, Miami Heat Wade turns 34 in January and he is definitely not the same player he was in 2010-2011 when he was 25-point scorer. Injuries have hampered his production, but if Miami manages his minutes well he’s still one of maybe 10 players opposing defenses don’t want to see in the finals seconds of a game.
47) Brook Lopez, C, Brooklyn Nets "Durable" is not a way to describe Lopez, but he appeared in 72 games last season and appears healthy this year. He’s especially savvy at cleaning the offensive glass for putbacks or second-chance points for his teammates, and should be the lone bright spot on the Nets this season.
48) Isaiah Thomas, PG, Boston Celtics A supercharged offensive sparkplug who helped Boston make the postseason with a blur of a second-half last season, Thomas could plant his name among the top point guards in the league this season and make the Celtics a playoff contender in the East.
49) Serge Ibaka, PF, Oklahoma City Thunder The 26-year-old Congolese dealt with injuries for the first time in his six-year career last season, and he was especially ineffective with Durant missing most of the season and Westbrook acting as the sole scoring option. But Ibaka (15.1 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 2.7 bpg) should return to the menace he was two seasons ago.
50) Nikola Vucevic, PF, Orlando Magic A physical double-double machine who's only this low because of some concerns on defense, Vucevic’s a wonder of a center in a conference that’s sorely lacking big men. The Magic could make great strides this season with Vucevic at the center of their young core.
An IB Times Staff Reporter contributed to this report.