The first Friday of the 2015-16 NBA season is upon us, with two must-see matchups on ESPN and WatchESPN.
First up, LeBron James welcomes his former teammates back to Cleveland as the Cavaliers host the Miami Heat (7 p.m. ET). Then, two MVP front-runners face off as James Harden's Houston Rockets host Stephen Curry and the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors (9:30 p.m. ET).
Ahead of the action, our expert panel breaks it all down.
1. Which of these four teams had the best offseason?
Amin Elhassan, ESPN Insider: Miami. Getting Chris Bosh and Josh McRoberts back to health, retaining free agent Goran Dragic, adding depth by signing Gerald Green and Amar'e Stoudemire and drafting Justise Winslow have given the Heat a deeper and more talented roster than they had last season, one that might be good enough to compete for a title in June.
Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com: Cavaliers. Going into the summer, Cavs management targeted seven of its own free agents it wanted to re-sign and spent whatever it took to retain all seven. Sure, the Tristan Thompson situation wasn't ideal, but the Cavs resolved it before the regular season started. They were able to shed Mike Miller's contract while adding Mo Williams to fill in for Kyrie Irving and a capable vet in Richard Jefferson to back up LeBron James, both on the cheap -- it was a stellar offseason.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, ESPN.com: Houston. The Rockets got Ty Lawson without much risk attached, stocked up on young talent (Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell) and signed the intriguing K.J. McDaniels to a cheap three-year contract. If not for Dwight Howard's recent back ailments, this choice would be obvious. General manager Daryl Morey made some bold, respectable moves.
Michael Wallace, ESPN.com: Cavaliers. Despite the injury rehab concerns with Irving and Iman Shumpert, the Cavs reloaded admirably from last season's run to the Finals by adding productive vets Jefferson and Williams while also averting disaster by re-signing both Kevin Love and Thompson. LeBron's influence forced owner Dan Gilbert to pay a steep luxury-tax price for this roster. But will they cash in and finally win a title?
Calvin Watkins, ESPN.com: Miami. Bosh returns healthy, and Dragic will be there for a full season. Add in Green and Winslow, and the Heat are the best team in the Eastern Conference to knock off LeBron James and the Cavs. You might want to add a healthy Dwyane Wade in there, too, and if you ignore the age (33) on the man and believe his health issues are behind him, then it was a pretty good offseason for Miami.
2. Fact or Fiction: We've seen the last of "peak" LeBron.
Elhassan: Fact. Mind you, he's still really, really, really good. Top-three player in the league good. Best player in the league when he's putting in the effort and feeling healthy good. But the end rarely comes crashing down all at once; rather, it manifests itself in nagging minor injuries and moments of mortality (such as the blocked shot by Pau Gasol on Tuesday night). Although legions will swear that peak LeBron is still in effect, the slippage is noticeable now and unlikely to reverse.
McMenamin: Fact. Will he ever have the type of historically elite season he had in 2012-13 as a 28-year-old, when he put up 26.8 points, 8 rebounds and 7.3 assists with a player efficiency rating of 31.6 and 64.0 true shooting percentage? No way. Does he still have years left in him that will end up being better than about 95 percent of the peak years every other player in league history can claim? Oh yes.
Strauss: Fact. A stat I'll reference: one. That's the number of games in which LeBron hit a majority of his shots last playoffs. For a comparison point, he had 14 such playoff games in his last Miami season. Obviously his Cavs role has required taking some bad shots, but we're lying to ourselves if we say he's the same guy. Is he still great? Yes. But LeBron is the rare player who's so excellent that "great" can be well below previous standards.
Wallace: Fiction. If anything, these preventive treatments and medical leaves of absence show that LeBron is doing all he can to sustain his peak level of performance for as long as he can. No question, the miles of five straight trips to the Finals have built up on LeBron's 30-year-old body. But his approach to preparation, performance and preservation should keep him at the top of his game -- even if he misses a few.
Watkins: Fiction. Sure, he's got back problems, and yes, the minutes and practice time will be monitored, but we're talking about LeBron James here. He's not coming off minor or major surgery to some body part -- it's his back, and he's been dealing with it for a long time. James was outstanding last postseason and just got tired. If you get the man some help, meaning Love and Irving are healthy, expect the Cavs to make another deep playoff run without too many problems. I do expect Miami and Chicago to make strong charges at the Cavs, but it's hard to go against pound-for-pound the best player in the sport.
3. Fact or Fiction: The Heat are the Cavs' top competition in the East.
McMenamin: Fiction. Can Dwyane Wade stay on the court? Can Hassan Whiteside be relied upon? Can anybody on that roster outside of Chris Bosh make an outside shot? Will there be driving lanes for both Wade and Goran Dragic with no reason for defenders to do anything but pack the paint because of Miami's lack of perimeter threat? Too many questions for me. Washington and Chicago pose bigger threats. But if healthy, Cleveland really doesn't have a viable foe in the East.
Strauss: Fiction. I'm not sure which team is the Cavs' top competition in this wacky conference, to be completely honest. I'll take a wild guess and say the Wizards, thanks to their new small-ball approach. As tempting as taking the Heat would be, I don't trust a team that relies on Whiteside and Green to go deep in the playoffs.
Wallace: Fiction. Even Wade doesn't shy away from acknowledging the Heat feel they match up very well with Cleveland. They split the regular-season series last season, despite the Heat spending much of the season ravaged by injury, which left them out of the playoffs for the first time in six years. But the Bulls are closer to a true threat to the Cavaliers based on chemistry and confidence. Miami falls behind Chicago.
Watkins: Fact. You could add the Bulls in there, too, if you like, but a healthy Bosh and Wade makes things easier for Miami. Goran Dragic wants to handle the ball more, and in the early portions of the season, I suspect there will be some growing pains. I have confidence in Heat coach Erik Spoelstra that he'll make things work, and if Wade wants another legit shot at LBJ, he'll give up some ballhandling duties. Bosh makes the Heat so much better, his health is cleared up now, and some forget that he's one of the top five players in the league at his position.
4. Fact or Fiction: The Rockets are the Warriors' top competition in the West.
Elhassan: Fact. There's an understandable excitement about teams like OKC (finally healthy), San Antonio (adding LaMarcus Aldridge) and the Clippers (overhauling their bench), but I think the Rockets' own health resurgence combined with the advantages of continuity and the addition of Ty Lawson make them the more logical choice to be an obstacle in the West.
McMenamin: Fiction. Houston might have been the West runner-up last season and might have had a major upgrade at point guard in Ty Lawson, but the team that can really give the Dubs problems is the Clippers. Lance Stephenson, Josh Smith and Paul Pierce give them so much more depth, and the rest of their roster has a greater appreciation for one another after DeAndre Jordan almost left town. That's a team whose players believe they are together for a reason.
Strauss: Fiction. The Warriors will regard the Spurs as their top competition, on account of Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard guarding Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. After that, it's probably Oklahoma City, on account of Golden State never being able to stop Kevin Durant. Then it's Houston's long, athletic, versatile squad.
Wallace: Fiction. Despite meeting them in the conference finals last season, the Rockets hardly scare the Warriors in any aspect of the game. I'd go as far as to suggest the Rockets are tailor-made for Golden State's playing style. Teams that relatively slowed the Rockets last season are the ones that forced them to slow down the game. I'd put the Rockets behind the Grizzlies, Thunder, Clippers and Spurs in this department.
Watkins: Fact. Rockets won 56 games last season with all sorts of injuries, which included winning the division. What would a healthy Rockets team mean to the West? (And I'm ignoring the 20-point loss to Denver to open the season.) The West is a beast, but adding Lawson to the mix gives the Rockets an added push to challenge the Warriors. Sure, Durant returned to OKC; yet I believe Howard and Lawson make a difference. And please don't forget James Harden is still there.
5. More MVP votes in 2015-16: James Harden or Stephen Curry?
Elhassan: Harden. Although I think Curry is the better and more effective player, voters have a tendency to try to overcorrect for the past, and if Houston has the kind of dominant season I expect it to, I expect the voters to "reward" Harden for it.
McMenamin: Harden. Curry will be judged against his own standards he set last season when it comes to awards time. Harden won't have that burden. Plus, the bearded free throw conjurer has been fuming ever since Curry won it last season, by all accounts. He's set up to have the stronger individual season, even though I'd be remiss not to credit Curry for how he came out of the gates on ring night.
Strauss: Curry. He looked like the sharpest Warrior in the preseason, and he scored 24 points in his first regular-season quarter. In contrast, Harden is already dealing with minor injuries to start the season. That swings this decision that's currently based on very little information.
Wallace: Curry. His formula won't change. So as long as Curry's numbers are nearly the same and have an identical impact to last season, there's really no reason to snatch the award from his hands.
Watkins: Curry. This is difficult. I picked LBJ to win the award this season, and last season I thought Curry edged out Harden. The first-place votes weren't even close between the two, which surprised me. People forget just how special Harden was last season, given the Rockets' health. But Curry was amazing wire-to-wire and deserved the award. It's going to be harder to repeat, and more people are aware of Harden's game now. Still, I think Curry gets more votes.