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With the NBA season starting on October 17th, it’s clear the competition will be tougher in the Western Conference, whereas the battle between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics will steal the spotlight in the East.

Western Conference: Can the Thunder shock the Warriors and the Spurs?

Golden State Warriors: Ready for the back-to-back

The defending champions, Golden State Warriors, enter the season without having made many changes to their roster. However, the squad is so powerful that they are considered the number one favourite to finish first in the standings once again.

Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and the rest of the Warriors look ready to make history and win back-to-back titles for the first time in the side’s franchise history.

Based on their run’n’gun playing style and excellent shooting percentage, the Warriors will try to dominate their opponents from the beginning, with coach Steve Kerr being pleased with the club’s superb quality.

San Antonio Spurs: “Quiet, but dangerous”

On the other hand, the San Antonio Spurs were very “quiet” during the off-season, yet they retained most of their key players in the roster.

Although Jonathan Simmons left the Spurs and joined the Orlando Magic, Patty Mills, Pau Gasol and Manu Ginobili signed new contracts with the team, while Joffrey Lauvergne and Rudy Gay will come off the bench to offer decent solutions inside the paint and from beyond the arc.

Certainly, Kawhi Leonard (who will miss the season opener) and LaMarcus Aldridge will be the undisputed leaders, with Tony Parker returning to action sooner than expected, as San Antonio will rely on the great and quick ball movement to prevail over their opponents.

Coach Gregg Popovich has many “weapons” on both ends of the floor and the Spurs will probably be among the favourites to win the title.

USA Today
Photo: USA Today

Oklahoma City Thunder: Can Westbrook, George and Anthony bring the title to OKC?

What a summer this was for the club. General Manager, Sam Presti, did his best to strengthen the squad and did a tremendous job.

Having many draft picks and active players available for a trade, OKC sent Victor Oladipo and Enes Kanter to the Indiana Pacers and the New York Knicks, respectively, signing both Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, who will help the 2017 MVP, Russell Westbrook, win his first championship.

This super-team, with Andre Roberson and Steven Adams as the supporting cast, seems determined to go all the way to the end.

Although their roster is not so deep, the presence of three All-Stars gives OKC the talent and ability to dethrone the Warriors and claim the title.

Their biggest issue, though, will be to ensure that George, Westbrook and Anthony will find the necessary chemistry that will enable them to co-exist and play at very high standards. If that happens, then the club will be an equal title contender.

Houston Rockets and Minnesota Timberwolves: The underdogs ready to make the surprise

The Houston Rockets have seen their performance get better year after year, but they are still unable to overcome the Warriors and Spurs.

This year, though, the arrival of Chris Paul has raised the expectations. The latter is expected to have a leading role in coach Mike D’Antoni’s tactics, alongside James Harden, yet the Rockets may need to change their playing style, in order to be successful.

More specifically, Houston should stop focusing on that run’n’gun playing style that ends up in a great number of three-pointers and take advantage of Paul’s great pick’n’roll talent and ability to create open shots for his team-mates.

Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and Clint Capela will be the supporting cast, while the co-operation between Harden and Paul will determine whether the Rockets will become a title contender.

On the other hand, the Minnesota Timberwolves made many changes to their roster and have created an extremely talented squad.

With Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins retaining their place in the team, the arrival of Jimmy Butler, Jamal Crawford and Jeff Teague has made the side deeper and tougher on both ends of the floor.

With Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad offering decent solutions, both offensively and defensively, experienced coach Tom Thibodeau has plenty of “weapons” that can help the “Wolves” play great basketball and become the league’s pleasant surprise.

Although their target will be to qualify to the playoffs, I believe they can go further than the first round and challenge their opponents for a place in the Conference Finals, if they remain healthy and competitive.

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 7, 2015; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves guard Andrew Wiggins (22) celebrates with center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) against the Los Angeles Clippers at Target Center. The Clippers defeated the Timberwolves 110-106. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The Jazz, Clippers and Blazers will fight for a play-off spot

Utah need to deal with Gordon Hayward’s departure, but the arrival of Ricky Rubio and the presence of versatile players, like Rodney Hood, Rudy Gobert and newcomer (and Euroleague champion) Ekpeh Udoh can ensure the squad will play at high standards.

Similarly, the Clippers saw Paul leave the club, so Blake Griffin became the leader. DeAndre Jordan will again be the reference point inside the paint, yet it’s the performance of newly-acquired Danilo Gallinari, Milos Teodosic and Patrick Beverley that will determine the team’s success.

Coach Doc Rivers needs to help the side be at their very best in every game, while he should also deal with the departure of J.J. Redick and Crawford, who both had an impressive three-point percentage.

Concerning the Blazers, Damien Lillard and C.J McCollum will be the key players, executing most plays and doing their best to fight for place in the postseason.

If Portland plays consistently during the regular season, they will maintain a play-off push.

What about the others?

The remaining clubs are (pretty much) on the same level.

Denver Nuggets (Nikola Jokic, Kenneth Faried and Paul Millsap will be the reference points), New Orleans Pelicans (Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins can form a dominant duo, with Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday as the supporting cast) and Memphis Grizzlies (with Marc Gasol, Mike Conley and Chandler Parsons as the leaders) seem to be one step ahead of their opponents.

Moreover, the Phoenix Suns (Eric Bledsoe, Devin Booker), Sacramento Kings (George Hill, Zach Randoplh) and Dallas Mavericks (Wesley Matthews, Dirk Nowitzki) are in a rebuilding process and they will struggle for success.

The LA Lakers (Lonzo Ball, Brook Lopez) will play better than last year, yet it’s not so likely they will qualify to the playoffs, with the administration already having their sights set on the 2018 off-season, when they will try to sign either Paul George or LeBron James.

Eastern Conference

The battle for the first place intensifies

What an off-season this was for both the Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Following a series of rumours that included plenty of players and draft picks, Boston traded Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and a lot of draft picks to Cleveland to acquire Kyrie Irving, with GM Danny Ainge hoping the latter will lead Boston to the coveted title.

Alongside Irving, newcomer Gordon Hayward will be the leader as well, with Al Horford having a versatile role on both ends of the floor.

Although the roster is not as deep and talented as last year’s one, coach Brad Stevens will rely on Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Morris to be effective and productive as the supporting cast.

On the other hand, the Cavaliers (in what can be James’ last season in Cleveland) added plenty of depth and talent to the roster, already being considered one of the grand favourites for the title.

Apart from Thomas (who is still injured, though) and Crowder, who will be the X-factor on both ends of the floor, coach Tyron Lue has many players ready to make the difference.

Kevin Love, Derrick Rose, J.R Smith (who will come off the bench) and, certainly, Dwyane Wade have the ability and skills to lead the Cavs not only to the top of the East, but also to the NBA Finals.

If they remain healthy, only Boston will be able to stop them, with the two squads facing each other on the season opener on Tuesday, October 17th.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Washington Wizards: Can they challenge Boston and Cleveland?

The Wizards seem to be the only team that can fight tooth and nail for the first place in the Eastern Conference, yet they should be at their very best in every game.

With the duo of John Wall and Bradley Beal being unstoppable, Markief Morris, Otto Porter Jr and Marcin Gortat will have a central role in the tactics, with Ian Mahinmi coming off the bench to score points and grab rebounds.

Washington’s starting five plays great basketball, so continuity will be the key factor this year, in their effort to finish first in the standings.

Philadelpia 76ers: An interesting project in the making

For me, the 76ers can make the surprise and easily claim a play-off spot. After many years, Philadelpia have a very tough team, which can play excellent, both defensively and offensively.

If they remain healthy, they will undoubtedly be in the postseason. Behind Joel Embiid, who is ready for a breakout year, there are many talented players that will act as the supporting cast.

Number one pick in the draft, Markelle Fultz, Ben Simmons and Dario Saric will be the reference points inside the paint and from beyond the arc, while the acquisition of veterans J.J. Redick (three-point specialist), Emeka Okafor and Chris Humphries adds depth and experience to the squad.

For his part, big man Jahlil Okafor needs to be consistent this season, otherwise his presence in the team will be in jeopardy, with the 76ers hoping to have a tremendous season.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 19, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) reacts after a defensive stop against the Phoenix Suns during the second half at Wells Fargo Center. The Philadelphia 76ers won 120-105. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Can the Raptors and the Bucks defy the odds?

The Toronto Raptors are a decent team. There is no doubt about it. However, they have continuously failed to go all the way to the end.

This year, though, Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas want to turn things around. Although their squad is not so deep, they are expected to be very productive, especially offensively, even though they will play with not much pace.

Defensively, Serge Ibaka will need to be a tremendous rim protector, with his team-mates being decent defenders as well. Toronto will certainly be in the postseason, but what matters is to reach the Conference Finals (at least).

Concerning the Bucks, Giannis Antetokounmpo is the undisputed leader and has his sights set on winning the MVP Award.

What I think is that the “Greek Freak’s” team-mates will determine whether Milwaukee will go any further that the first round of the playoffs.

The side’s supporting cast is great (Greg Monroe, Khris Middleton, Jabari Parker, Matthew Dellavedova, Thon Maker, Mirza Teletovic and Malcolm Brogdon), but they need to remain healthy (Middleton and Parker suffered serious injuries last year) and play consistently, otherwise they will probably struggle again.

Stacy Revere / Getty Images
Photo: Stacy Revere / Getty Images

Indiana, Detroit and Charlotte to fight for the remaining play-off spots

The Pacers saw George and Teague leave the club, yet their roster is more talented than it was initially expected.

With Victor Oladipo and Myles Turner as the leaders and plenty of versatile players ready to take over (Darren Collison, Bojan Bogdanovic, Thad Young, Lance Stephenson and Cory Joseph), the squad can secure a place in the postseason.

That said, if their chemistry is at high levels during the season, then they will combine decent basketball with a play-off push.

On the other hand, the Pistons saw Reggie Jackson return to action and look ready to create a dominant duo with Andre Drummond, but, this time, they should both exceed the expectations.

For their part, Avery Bradley and Tobias Harris will be game changers and need to play at very high standards in order to give coach Stan Van Gundy extra “weapons”, both defensively and offensively.

The Hornets have to deal with Nicolas Batum’s injury (he is expected to miss the first games of the season) and Dwight Howard’s ups and downs, with Kemba Walker as the number one “threat”.

If they remain competitive, they will fight for a play-off spot, with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams as the key players.

Can Miami and Orlando make the surprise?

Both teams consist of talented and versatile players that are able to claim many victories (European champion Goran Dragic, Justise Winslow, Dion Waiters, Hassan Whiteside for the Heat, Elfrid Payton, Evan Fournier, Jonathan Simmons, Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic for the Magic).

What is important for both squads is to retain their performance at high levels and avoid suffering a series of losses that will prevent them from challenging the Pacers and Pistons for a spot in the postseason.

Especially Orlando has a rather deep roster, with great players coming off the bench as well (Arron Afflalo, Terrence Ross, Bismack Biyambo), so coach Frank Vogel has plenty of players capable of playing great basketball.

Chicago, New York, Brooklyn and Atlanta in a rebuilding process

All four teams try to rebuild their rosters and it’s not likely they will fight for a place in the postseason.

The Bulls saw most key players leave the side (Butler, Wade, Rajon Rondo), with Justin Holiday executing most plays and Lauri Markannen as a candidate for the Rookie of the Year award.

The Hawks will rely on Dennis Schroder to take over and make the difference, and the same goes for the Knicks, too (Kristaps Porzingis now is the undisputed leader).

Last but not least, the Nets have a rather deep roster (Jeremy Lin, D’Angelo Russell, Allen Crabbe, Timofey Mozgov, DeMarre Carroll, Trevor Booker), but I am not sure they will be so competitive during the regular season.

Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 26, 2016; New York, NY, USA; New York Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis (6) slam dunks the ball against the Orlando Magic during the second half at Madison Square Garden. The Knicks defeated the Magic 108-95. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Overall, the favourites (Cavs, Celtics, Warriors, Spurs, Thunder) will easily prevail, one way or another, and will fight against each other for the title, as most of the remaining clubs are on the same level (pretty much).

What I want to see, though, is the Thunder reaching the top of the league and winning the title as well as the 76ers and the “Wolves” defying the odds and advancing to their respective Conference Finals.