5-on-5: Next year's NBA champs?

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Friday, June 19, 2015

What are some of the biggest takeaways from the 2015 Finals? Who will be crowned champs next season? Our 5-on-5 panel weighs in.

1. Biggest takeaway from the Warriors' championship run?

J.A. Adande, ESPN.com:The Warriors were defined by this season, not by the past. Historically, teams with rookie coaches and/or a lack of deep playoff experience don't win championships. But the Warriors were the most consistently great team throughout 2014-15, and they responded to every challenge they faced throughout the playoffs. Will the championship lessons they learned give them the edge in what could be an even more challenging Western Conference next season?

Amin Elhassan, ESPN Insider:Absent significant rule changes, the power of the 3-point shot is here to stay. Whether your offense is designed primarily around the 3 or uses it as a deterrent to opposing help defenses, if you don't have spacing, chances are you have a low ceiling of achievement. In the words of Cotton Fitzsimmons, "You can never have too many shooters."

Israel Gutierrez, ESPN.com:You could see this coming. Not everyone was quite as bold as Ethan Strauss, picking the Warriors to win a championship this season. But anyone who paid close attention to the Warriors the previous two seasons knew something special was on the horizon. It just so happens management in Golden State made a bold move, replacing Mark Jackson, that seemed to expedite the process. Along with the continued development of the young core, the Warriors went from good to great quicker than expected.

Tom Haberstroh, ESPN Insider:They broke the mold. You can't win a championship by playing fast. You can't win a championship without playing big. You can't win a championship with the 3-ball. You can't win a championship with a first-year coach. You can't win a championship with a star point guard. You can't win a championship without a big three. Oh yeah? Meet the Golden State Warriors.

Ethan Sherwood Strauss, ESPN.com:Fun can win. The Warriors run up and down in games, but they don't run wind sprints in practice. They do, however, listen to blaring music all through their practices. Sacrifice is needed to win championships, but the process doesn't have to be miserable. The Warriors showed that as they won in style this season.

2. Biggest takeaway from LeBron's postseason run?

Adande:It was wasted. He can't have too many of these left in him, so the Cavaliers' inability to cash in might haunt them. It reminds me of the Dodgers' inability to convert Clayton Kershaw's historic season into a World Series appearance last year. But anyone who tries to use the 2015 playoffs as part of the argument against LeBron's greatness should just stop watching basketball.

Elhassan:Hard to admit this, but we are witnessing the slow decline of the game's greatest player. Of course, dropping from 100 feet above everyone else to 75 feet above everyone else still keeps you above everyone else, but the game does not come as easily and effortlessly to LeBron as it once did. He's had to work harder to achieve what he's achieved, with less efficiency, and as time goes by his effort level will have to continue to increase -- unless he accepts the need to concede some of the burden to talented teammates (not J.R. and Dellavedova!).

Gutierrez:LeBron's ring count might not be as high as we once imagined. He is the best player in the league and will be able to claim that title for a few more years. Yet it seems that his championship window is far narrower than we've considered. Not because he's losing ability, but because his teams can't separate from the other elite teams. The Spurs will be better next year. The Warriors could be as well. If the Cavs don't win it next year, when will they?

Haberstroh:He might be a cyborg. Remember when he turned his ankle at a 90-degree ankle against Chicago and walked it off? Remember when he had his head glued together and didn't miss a play? He has already played more NBA minutes than Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Allen Iverson. And he pushed the juggernaut Warriors to a 2-1 deficit. This is why teams bend over backwards for just a chance at him.

Strauss:He can still get it done, it's just less pretty these days. James ended this postseason with a true shooting mark of 48.7 percent. Even shot-happy Kobe Bryant never had a playoffs where he scored so inefficiently. Blame the stilted offense, blame the lack of help and, yes, blame Father Time. James doesn't quite have the burst he used to, and he lost lift on his jumper late this season. Still, despite all that, he's good enough and savvy enough to power a contender -- probably for years going forward.

3. Do you think David Blatt will return as Cavs coach next season?

Adande:Yes. Even though another NBA coach called the Cavs job the worst in the league because LeBron gets credit for the wins and the coach gets blamed for the losses, can any gig that ends just two victories shy of a championship with such a diluted roster be that bad? LeBron has fought hard to rehab his image. He doesn't want to be known as a coach killer. He and Blatt will continue their relationship, strained though it may be.

Elhassan:Oddly enough, I do. As Brian Windhorst intimated, there probably isn't another coach out there who will allow LeBron to run roughshod while simultaneously taking all the heat for bad decisions (who exactly was it running the subs?). The onus is on Blatt to find a way to progress their relationship beyond where it is now and gain the trust of his star.

Gutierrez:I can't see a situation where a coach who is openly disrespected by the star player can reasonably handle the rest of the roster well. I do think it's repairable, though. LeBron can always play the "emotions of the Finals got the best of me" card and move on with Blatt. But if this was a season-long issue and players already have their minds made up about Blatt, it would make sense for the parties to part ways.

Haberstroh:No. James will be playing for his sixth NBA coach next season because he has the power to call the shots. That's the cost of coaching the greatest player since Michael Jordan who also happens to have a region at his fingertips. Make him happy, or else. I don't think Blatt did that.

Strauss:Yes. If he has the backing of ownership, that's all he needs. This is a fascinating situation because Dan Gilbert and LeBron might have equal leverage. If LeBron leaves Cleveland, he takes the Cavs down, but he also takes his own reputation down. Also, as much as James disrespects Blatt, the superstar isn't indicating that he wants the coach fired yet.

4. Who's your early pick to win it all next year?

Adande:Cavaliers, presuming Kyrie Irving comes back at full strength. Their core will have a full season together, as opposed to this roster that was reconfigured in January. Tristan Thompson's emergence makes Kevin Love a luxury, not a necessity, so they'll be helped if Love comes back and OK if he leaves. Their best asset is geography: Playing in the East means a clear path back to the Finals.

Elhassan:Back in my day, there was a saying: "If you want to be the Man, you've got to BEAT the Man!" The Warriors were definitely the Man this year, from wire-to-wire the best team in basketball. With almost their entire operation returning intact -- only associate head coach Alvin Gentry, now the Pelicans' head coach, is guaranteed to be gone -- the Warriors return all the depth, all the stardom, all the defense and all the playmaking that made them one of the best teams in NBA history.

Gutierrez:Cavaliers. For starters, Cleveland should be better next year after a season of playing together. Second, envisioning a healthy and improved Kyrie Irving next to a beast-mode LeBron is kind of scary. Third, LeBron and his teammates can use these Finals as the rallying point, the way the Spurs did in 2014. This loss for the Cavs wasn't as devastating as the Spurs' 2013 loss, but there's enough there to inspire. And lastly, with the injured Anderson Varejao back, and the confidence of this postseason experience, the Cavs know their defense can be elite.

Haberstroh:Warriors. They just went 83-20 while having a roster younger than the league average. They're still growing. The Warriors should have all their key players back, a shrewd coach and a whip-smart training staff to maximize their talent. This is an easy pick for me.

Strauss:My first thought is to pick the Warriors again, but let's see how the rosters shake out this offseason. Golden State has decisions to make about whether some of its veterans come back (David Lee,Leandro Barbosa,Marreese Speights) and how to replace Alvin Gentry on the bench. The Cavs are also a strong choice, given that they just made the Finals despite season-ending injuries to Varejao, Love and Irving. It's hard to count on any of those guys for health, but at least one of them should make it through next season.

5. Who will finish with more NBA rings: LeBron or Steph?

Adande:LeBron. I think Steph has at least one more in him, but LeBron has the benefit of a head start and the fact that he is a one-man championship contender. Just think about who Curry has already leapfrogged in the ring race, though: Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul ... talk about a quick release.

Elhassan:LeBron, for two reasons: First, he already has a head start (2-1) over Curry. Second, playing in the Eastern Conference means an almost perpetually easier path to the NBA Finals.

Gutierrez:LeBron. Not to forecast gloom and doom for the Warriors in the near future, but every season won't be as magical as this one. The personnel changes. The coaching staff changes. And little things like that can alter chemistry. Besides, if the Spurs upgrade via free agency, the Warriors will have a heck of a time getting past them. To project two more titles for Steph right now is difficult. To project one more for LeBron, well, it's almost expected.

Haberstroh:I'll go with Stephen Curry, but predicting the next decade is a fool's errand. Curry just turned 27, his team has the makings of a dynasty, and I expect him to have the career longevity of Ray Allen and Steve Nash. Those are some pretty good indicators next to James, who will turn 31 in December and has the mileage of someone five years older.

Strauss:LeBron is a safer bet because Curry would need two more championships over their respective careers to take the lead. I'm pretty sure "two more championships" is one of those easier said than done things. Also, the Cavs get to go through a conference where teams like the Brooklyn Nets serve as playoff fodder.

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