(Reuters) - The Golden State Warriors have not even raised their championship banner, yet they are already defending their title from vocal challengers ready to debunk their success ahead of the 2015-16 NBA campaign that opens on Tuesday.
Led by league Most Valuable Player Stephen Curry and first-year coach Steve Kerr, the Warriors capped a 67-win season by winning their first NBA title in 40 years last June yet somehow failed to make believers out of their competition.
During an offseason of opining, Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers implied that Golden State were lucky to avoid injury and his team during their title run while Houston shooting guard James Harden said he should have won the MVP award over Curry.
Even a recent poll of NBA general managers revealed that most project the Cleveland Cavaliers to win this season’s title. The Warriors were voted third behind the San Antonio Spurs, reflecting skepticism in the current title holders.
“I apologize for us being healthy,” Curry sarcastically said. “I apologize for us playing who was in front of us. I apologize for all the accolades we received as a team and individually. I’m very, truly sorry, and we’ll rectify that situation this year.”
Golden State’s validity as champions will be severely tested in the Western Conference, and potentially again by the LeBron James-led Cavaliers whom they beat in the 2015 NBA Finals.
Cleveland return with All-Star forward Kevin Love, back after missing most of the playoffs with injury. Guard Kyrie Irving is recovering from a knee ailment and will also rejoin the team considered the clear favorite in the East.
The San Antonio Spurs made the biggest offseason splash by acquiring top free agent forward LaMarcus Aldridge as well as veteran David West.
Aldridge, a four-time All-Star, will be a huge jolt to coach Gregg Popovich’s championship core and, if he fits in, could shift the balance of power.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are trying to re-establish their own powerful standing with first-year coach Billy Donovan after missing the playoffs for the first time in six seasons.
Former MVP Kevin Durant played just 27 games due to a foot fracture last year. He enters a contract season, and recently publicly sparred with a media member over rumors that he will depart the Thunder and standout team mate Russell Westbrook following the upcoming campaign.
The Clippers had a busy offseason, initially losing free agent center DeAndre Jordan to the Dallas Mavericks before the big man changed his mind and returned.
Coach Rivers has upgraded the team’s bench in hopes of finally advancing past the second round for the first time during his tenure.
New Orleans standout Anthony Davis will take the next step in his rising career, while aging Kobe Bryant may be approaching his final steps in what is the last year of his Los Angeles Lakers contract.
In the Eastern Conference, the Chicago Bulls are hoping star-crossed talent Derrick Rose can overcome his health battles and make them a contender again.
Rose is currently out with a facial fracture, the latest in his long list of tough breaks, as the Bulls recalibrate with new coach Fred Hoiberg.
Atlanta were the Cinderella story last season by winning a franchise-record 60 games and reaching the Eastern Conference Finals, and will try to prove their run was not a fluke.
Washington and Milwaukee are a pair of young, talented rosters trying to advance forward while the New York Knicks are hoping to reach respectability following a 17-win campaign.
The Warriors may begin their new quest without coach Kerr, who is sidelined following back surgeries, but they will have ample motivation as they push to hit back at doubters with another banner year.
Reporting by Jahmal Corner in Los Angeles; Editing by Frank Pingue