The road to the title goes through Miami, and the Heat's path to a three-peat depends on the health of Dwyane Wade's knee. (Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images)
Miami: The road to the title goes through Miami, and the Heat’s path to a three-peat depends on the health of Dwyane Wade’s knee.
Oklahoma City: Last season’s second-round exit notwithstanding, the Thunder still have Kevin Durant, the league’s second-best player, and the most athletic point guard in Russell Westbrook, who’s slated to return from injury. The clock is ticking on Oklahoma City’s window, though.
San Antonio: The grumpy old men will have to pick themselves off the Game 6-inflicted canvas to go for another ring. If anyone can do it, it’s the Tim Duncan-Gregg Popovich combo. And if Kawhi Leonard can elevate his game to All-Star status, new blood can give this old franchise life.
Chicago: Derrick Rose is back, and assuming he stays healthy, the Bulls play the league’s stingiest defense and have the superior shot creator to challenge the Heat in ways the Pacers can’t.
Kevin Durant: He’s not the best player, but he’ll have to carry the Thunder with Russell Westbrook out early. If nobody noticed his extremely efficient offensive season last year, Durant truly will turn heads again. If he’s serious about being tired of finishing second, he’ll put together a better 82 games than anyone else.
LeBron James: The best player in the game — period — has played more than anyone the last three seasons. And if he senses his teammates are lagging through the dog days of the season, he’ll have to take more of the load. But then again, MVP voters tend to get fatigue giving the same guy the award year after year.
Chris Paul: Perhaps the Clippers won’t be as spectacular as they’ve been the last two years, but they’ll likely be better armed for the postseason, and Paul will be the catalyst. His play has bordered on historic, and if there’s anyone who can join Magic Johnson, Steve Nash and Derrick Rose as point guards to win the award, it’s him.
Derrick Rose: If he’s fully healthy — and it looks like the “if” is becoming less of an issue — then Rose will be on his personal revenge tour. His boundless energy and improving jumper will make him a favorite for voters who love a comeback story.
Rookie of the Year candidates
Victor Oladipo: He’ll get plenty of opportunity to put up big numbers in Orlando, and he has a motor unlike anyone in his rookie class. Oladipo won’t start at first, but will get every opportunity to succeed despite not being a natural point guard or great shooter.
Ben McLemore: The best shooter on a Kings team that’s looking to grow, he can get shots playing with DeMarcus Cousins and with his talent, can force his way into playing time in a crowded backcourt.
Kelly Olynyk: Losing breeds opportunity, and there looks to be plenty of losing in Boston this season. Olynyk has impressed during the exhibition season, and assuming Rajon Rondo comes back soon, Olynyk will be a prime recipient of Rondo’s assists near the rim.
Michael Carter-Williams: Carter-Williams is likely the best pass-first point guard in this draft class, and with Utah’s Trey Burke out with injury, Carter-Williams will learn on the job as Philadelphia struggles.
Coach of the Year candidates
Doc Rivers: He knows how to work magic outside Boston, and he doesn’t have to try to coax wins out of an aging team, like he did with the L.A. Clippers.
Mark Jackson: He didn’t just stand on the sidelines while Golden State became the team everybody wanted to see and nobody wanted to play in the playoffs last year.
Monty Williams: New Orleans has added a couple more pieces and a year of seasoning to F Anthony Davis. If Williams’ wishes of having a strong defense comes true, they’ll have enough in the backcourt to make a playoff run.
Kevin McHale: He was able to engineer bringing C Dwight Howard from the Lakers and has the charge of meshing the Howard-James Harden partnership with the Rockets.
Coaches on the hot seat
Mike D’Antoni: He can’t control getting the job over Phil Jackson last season, but rebuilding won’t be tolerated with the Lakers, especially with the Clippers being the new, shiny toy in the same building. He has to coach a roster headlined by Pau Gasol and Steve Nash, and handle Kobe Bryant’s ego and health. A slow start could lead to more drama.
Scott Brooks: He didn’t exactly show off his coaching chops during the Thunder’s playoff exit last season, and he’s always had his critics who believed Russell Westbrook took blame meant for him. Kevin Durant has made it clear he’s losing patience, and if there’s a slow start in a competitive Western Conference, the coach gets the blame.
Duane Casey: When a coach survives after a new general manger is brought in, he’s usually not on the longest leash. New Raptors GM Masai Ujiri could look to bring in his own coach if there’s a slow start. If that happens, it could be a mercy firing for Casey, who hasn’t distinguished himself in two years.
Mike Woodson: There’s never patience in New York, even after the Knicks went to the second round for the first time in over a decade. Carmelo Anthony’s free agency is looming and the Knicks didn’t do a whole lot in the way of roster improvements. Woodson could be viewed as expendable if the Knicks underachieve.