LeBron back home, Spurs back on top as NBA returns

Before you go, we thought you'd like these...
Defending Champs Open Season


LeBron James returned to Cleveland, Kevin Love joined him and suddenly the Cavaliers had the makings of the latest superteam.

The San Antonio Spurs are already one.

No big changes were necessary for the Spurs, who simply kept the gang together. They brought back nearly every piece from the team that annihilated James and the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals for their fifth championship.

James set off shortly after for a new start in his old home, where he will renew the quest for a championship that's eluded Cleveland's pro teams for half a century. The Spurs on Tuesday will begin chasing about the only thing that's escaped them in the Gregg Popovich-Tim Duncan era: back-to-back titles.

"We know that every team is going to come out and give us everything they've got," Spurs guard Danny Green said. "We've got a bigger target on our chest now and that's what we want. ... We've got to take on the challenge and be the ultimate competitors that we are."

Teams will be coming just as hard at the Cavaliers, who didn't win much more than draft lotteries after James bolted for Miami in 2010. But they were elevated to instant Eastern Conference favorites when James joined Kyrie Irving, the MVP of the All-Star game and the Basketball World Cup, and Love, the longtime Minnesota Timberwolves star.

Neither of those guys has even played in a postseason game, but inexperience - or anything else - won't work as an excuse now that James is back in his familiar No. 23.

"It's going to be a different challenge for them," James said. "They were so accustomed to being the prey sneaking up on the predator. Now it kind of changes."

James and the Spurs could meet for the third straight June, a familiar NBA Finals plot with a new stage and co-stars. But both face significant challenges just to get there.

Derrick Rose's return could lead a running of the Bulls right to the finals. Maybe Oklahoma City, once MVP Kevin Durant recovers from a broken foot, or the Los Angeles Clippers, looking to pay back record-spending new owner Steve Ballmer with a championship, could stand in the Spurs' way.

"I don't see it as a big question mark in the East. LeBron and Love and Irving will be in the Eastern Conference finals. I think Chicago will find their way there if their 2 and 3 hold up and if Rose is Rose again," ABC/ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy said. "But out West, to me there are like five teams you could say, `I could see them advancing to the finals.'"

None has the continuity of the Spurs, who brought back 14 of the players who had confetti falling on their heads after Game 5. They won't be in top form for a while because of injuries, especially NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard's eye infection, but they still stand out even among the other top teams in the loaded West.

"I think we're all right next to each other - other than the Spurs," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. "The Spurs are better than all of us. I don't think there's any question about that and so we have to catch the Spurs."

---

Here are other things to watch as the NBA season begins:

WILL OKC BE OK? Durant is likely out until December because of a broken bone in his right foot. He carried the Thunder through the absence of Russell Westbrook last season, and now Westbrook may need to raise his game to keep Oklahoma City among the West leaders.

WELCOME BACK: Rose and Kobe Bryant are back after knee injuries kept both former MVPs sidelined most of last season. Only Rose has realistic title hopes, as Bryant's Lakers could be headed for another rough season after losing a franchise-record 55 games in 2013-14.

KEEP PACE? Eastern Conference finalists last season, the Indiana Pacers lost All-Star Paul George to a broken foot and Lance Stephenson to Charlotte in free agency, leaving a team that struggled to score without its two best offensive players. The Pacers will still defend, but can they find enough points to stay in the playoff picture in an improved conference?

OH, CANADA! Even with Steve Nash's career possibly over because of a back injury, there could be around a dozen Canadians on NBA rosters, topped by Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, the last two No. 1 overall picks who were dealt from Cleveland to Minnesota in the Love trade.

TAKE A BREAK: Look for fresher players to start the second half of the season after the NBA extended the All-Star break to give teams at least a week off around the Feb. 13-15 weekend in New York.

25 PHOTOS
NBA All-Star Dunk
See Gallery
LeBron back home, Spurs back on top as NBA returns
Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicks dunks against Brandan Wright #34 of the Dallas Mavericks on January 5, 2014 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Danny Bollinger/NBAE via Getty Images)
Paul George #24 of the Indiana Pacers drives to the basket and dunks the ball against the Washington Wizards in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at the Verizon Center on May 15, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)
LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat dunks the ball against the Indiana Pacers in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs on May 24, 2014 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Eastern Conference goes up for a dunk during the 2013 NBA All-Star game at the Toyota Center on February 17, 2013 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Eric Gay/Pool/Getty Images)
Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat dunks against the Indiana Pacers in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs on May 26, 2014 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
Chris Bosh #1 of the Miami Heat dunks against the Golden State Warriors on February 12, 2014 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
Raptors DeMar DeRozan slams a backward dunk during NBA matchup between Toronto Raptors and Houston Rockets, on Sunday, December 16, 2012, at Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario. (Photo by Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Roy Hibbert #55 of the Indiana Pacers dunks over Shane Battier #31 of the Miami Heat in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2012 NBA Playoffs on May 17, 2012 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
Joe Johnson #7 of the Brooklyn Nets attempts a dunk during a game against the San Antonio Spurs at the AT&T Center on December 31, 2013 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by D. Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images)
Paul Millsap #4 of the Atlanta Hawks dunks against Jared Dudley #9 of the Los Angeles Clippers at Philips Arena on December 4, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Joakim Noah #13 of the Chicago Bulls dunks against the Dallas Mavericks on February 28, 2014 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images)
John Wall #2 of the Washington Wizards goes up for a dunk against the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on March 21, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder goes up for a dunk against the San Antonio Spurs in Game Three of the Western Conference Finals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs on May 25, 2014 at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers dunks the ball against the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game Six of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center on May 15, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
Kevin Love #42 of the Minnesota Timberwolves dunks against the Portland Trail Blazers on December 18, 2013 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)
Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers goes up for the dunk against David Lee #10 of the Golden State Warriors on March 25, 2013 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors dunks against the Los Angeles Clippers in Game Seven of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center on May 3, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)
LaMarcus Aldridge #12 of the Portland Trailblazers dunks the ball against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Moda Center Arena in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images)
Anthony Davis #23 of the New Orleans Pelicans goes up for the dunk against the Los Angeles Clippers during an NBA game on March 26, 2014 at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images)
James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets dunks the ball during the game against the Minnesota Timberwolves on April 11, 2014 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)
Dwight Howard #12 of the Houston Rockets dunks over Wesley Matthews #2 and Robin Lopez #42 of the Portland Trail Blazers during the first half in Game Two of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center on April 23, 2014 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 1: Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers dunks against Chris Kaman #9 and Pau Gasol #16 of the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on April 1, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
Dirk Nowitzki #41 of the Dallas Mavericks dunks against the Boston Celtics on March 17, 2014 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Danny Bollinger/NBAE via Getty Images)
Tony Parker #9 of the San Antonio Spurs goes up for a dunk against the Orlando Magic at the TD Waterhouse Centre on February 3, 2002 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Fernando Medina/ NBAE/ Getty Images)
Chris Paul #3 of the Los Angeles Clippers dunks the ball during the game between the Los Angeles Clippers and the New Orleans Hornets at Staples Center on December 19, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE
SHOW CAPTION +
HIDE CAPTION

Read Full Story

People are Reading