With the clock ticking down toward the start of the NBA season, fans are already expressing their excitement toward a new year, one filled with hope and parity after the relative dismantling of the Golden State Warriors' hoops monopoly.
However, some teams who were able to make the playoffs last year face challenges in returning. Here are three who could find themselves looking from the outside in come postseason.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Chris Paul's NBA career began as the face of a franchise stationed in OKC. Then, it was the New Orleans Hornets. Now, it's the Thunder, who begin a new era under Paul's possibly temporary watch with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden's next appearances in Thunder uniforms more than likely coming in a future number retirement ceremony.
Fans in The Big Friendly welcomed the Hornets with open arms and established themselves as one of the more vocal fanbases in the NBA during their time in the spotlight. Now, we may find out exactly how much the population likes basketball, as hard times could be ahead. Paul is one of just three players on the roster who's at least 28 years old (fellow newcomers Danilo Gallinari and Mike Muscala are the others). The rest of the roster is compiled of career role players, whether homegrown (Steven Adams, Andre Roberson) or acquired (Nerlens Noel, Dennis Schroder). Combine that with Paul's lingering trade desires, and the Thunder could finally subside after some relative prosperity.
San Antonio Spurs
There are four certainties in life: death, taxes, the Knicks being stuffed down our eye sockets on Christmas, and the Spurs in the playoffs.
One such staple is taken from us this year (alas, it's the Knicks' Yuletide carnage that's departing), but could another be at risk?
In the Eastern Conference, San Antonio would probably be a shoo-in, or at least on far better ground. But things are different in the wild, wild West. The Warriors (their legendary legacy perhaps keeping them from this list) are on the relative decline, but Los Angeles is building a basketball empire. Continued improvement from Denver, Portland, Houston, and Utah will make it hard to move forward, and the Lakers' fellow redemption-seekers in Dallas, Minnesota, and New Orleans sniff blood in the Western waters. If the aging Spurs aren't careful, they could be the real victims.
It was uplifting, even awe-inspiring, to see the Raptors, perennial playoff punching bags of the East's finest, cash in on a big opportunity. The absences of LeBron James and Kevin Durant shouldn't take a single thing away from their playoff trek, as a strong team effort spearheaded by Kawhi Leonard allowed the Larry O'Brien Trophy to finally cross the border.
Now, what can they do for an encore?
Last season's heroics make it easy to forget the Raptors' prior playoff mishaps. Sure, new strengths have been added, and, even in defeat, the team was usually reliable for a series win or two before running into a James juggernaut. But times are different. Plenty of teams, primarily in Toronto's own division, have gotten better (namely Brooklyn and Philadelphia). With divisional standings rendered kaput, the Raptors have to be careful not to land into a brutal logjam that will presumably follow Milwaukee and Philadelphia. Otherwise, up-and-coming talent from Miami, Atlanta, or Chicago could come for their spot.