For the fourth straight season, the Golden State Warriors are running through the Western Conference. They are currently 33-9 and despite a loss last night to the lowly Los Angeles Clippers thanks to a career-high 50 from Lou Williams, they are a lock for the number 1 seed in the West. It is almost a foregone conclusion at the beginning of the NBA season that the Finals are going to consist of the Warriors and Lebron (although that doesn’t seem to be the case this season).
So, as I was sitting and watching the Minnesota Timberwolves beat up on the Oklahoma City Thunder last night, a thought came to mind; what teams have the best chance of dethroning the Warriors in the West? I don’t mean knocking them off their pedestal with an upset or two. I mean knocking them out of the playoffs and being the first team not from the Golden State to represent the West in the playoffs since the 2013-14 season. There are a few teams that come to mind.
Tier 1 – Legitimate Contenders
Why they can do it: The Rockets are currently sitting at 29-11 on the season, the third best record in the NBA and second in the West. They’ve achieved that while having both Chris Paul and James Harden miss extended periods of time due to injury. Harden is arguably the best player in the NBA and is in every discussion for MVP. With him, Chris Paul and Eric Gordon coming off the bench, the Rockets have more than enough offensive firepower to keep up with the Warriors in a seven game series. The Rockets are currently first in the NBA in offensive efficiency and are averaging 115 points per game this season. This is just 0.7 points behind the Warriors who average the most. Simply put, the Rockets can put the ball in the basket, something you need to do night in and night out against the Warriors if you expect to win.
Why they can’t do it: Despite being one of the best offensive teams in the NBA, the Rockets are careless with the ball. They are currently averaging just over 15 turnovers a game. When you’re going against a team like the Warriors that can get out and run with the best of them, turnovers can be a backbreaker if your transition defense is poor. And unfortunately for the Rockets, this is one of their biggest weaknesses. Houston is currently 22nd in the NBA in defensive fastbreak efficiency which measures the amount of points given up on the fastbreak versus the amount of fastbreak opportunities. On the opposite side of the coin, you have the Warriors offense which is the most efficient fastbreak team in the NBA, scoring almost a quarter of their points on the fastbreak. So, if there is a chink in the armor for the Rockets, it is their defense.
San Antonio Spurs
Why they can do it: On the opposite side of the spectrum from the Rockets you have the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs are currently
ranked in the top 5 in every single major defensive metric. They do not give up a lot of points and more importantly, they only give up 27.4 points per game from the three point line. This is crucial when going up against the Warriors who are not only one of the best three point shooting teams in the NBA this season, but possibly in NBA history. This great defense stems from the excellent coaching of Gregg Popovich. Pop is the main reason that the Spurs are not only in every game, but they have been since 1997, which was the last time the Spurs missed the playoffs. There are fans of the Spurs that are 20 years old that do not know what it is like for their team to not be competing for a championship. Coaching and defense wins championships, and that’s what you need against Golden State.
Why they can’t do it: Unlike the Rockets who could easily trade buckets with the Warriors back and forth, offense is not a strength of the Spurs. They are currently 26th in the NBA in points per game and their leading scorer is Lamarcus Aldridge who averages just over 22 points per game. While the inside game is something the Spurs could exploit against Golden State, they would eventually need to hit some jump shots which is not something the Spurs do very well. Now this could all change if Kawhi Leonard is able to come back and be the force that he was prior to his injury issues. However, he has only played in 8 games so far this season and one has to wonder if his capabilities will be limited when he comes back. With a legend like Gregg Popovich as your head coach you are never going to be out of a game or a series, but I find it hard to believe that the Spurs would have the offensive firepower to outlast the Warriors in seven games.
Tier 2 – Possible Contender/Possible Pretender
Oklahoma City Thunder
Why they can do it: Now I know I started this piece by talking about how I was watching the Thunder get rocked by the T’wolves and while that is true, I still believe this team has the pieces to shock the Warriors if given a chance in the playoffs. The biggest news in the NBA this past offseason was the new big three in OKC, led by MVP Russell Westbrook, perennial all-star Paul George and pure scorer Carmelo Anthony. However, there was little to no chatter about another member of the Thunder starting five: Steven Adams. Adams has grown into one of the better big men in the NBA, averaging 13.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1 block per game this season. If there is a weak spot for the Warriors, it is their interior defense. They currently give up 46 points per game in the paint, which ranks in the bottom half of the NBA. If Adams can continue his possible all-star caliber season and OKC’s big three can elevate their level of play, this team can be a force to be reckoned with.
Why they can’t do it: The issue with the Thunder this season is the exact same issue that had them bounced from the 1st round of the playoffs last season: depth. The Thunder starting five is excellent when they are clicking on all cylinders, however there is a dramatic drop off between the starters and the bench. While a decline in offensive and defensive efficiency is expected between your starters and your reserves, the decline is too significant for OKC. Their leading bench scorer is Jerami Grant who is currently averaging 7.3 points per game. Aside from Grant, the Thunder have no other reserves that currently average more than 7 points per game. This is not going to get the job done when going against a team that brings the likes of Nick Young and Shaun Livingston off the bench, players that would easily be starters at their position if on a different team. For this reason, the Warriors would likely run the Thunder out of the building in a 7 game series and leave them gasping for breath.
Why they can do it: For some reason, the Timberwolves seem to be flying a bit under the radar this season. This is a team that is currently
27-16 on the season and has two players in the top 25 in the NBA in scoring (Jimmy Butler with 21.6 PPG and Karl Anthony-Towns with 20.2 PPG). Jeff Teague, their big point guard acquisition is finally getting healthy, all of their starters average double digits in points per game and they are coached by Tom Thibodeau who has been a mainstay in the NBA for years. The main strength of the Timberwolves is Karl Anthony-Towns. Towns is an absolute beast inside the paint, however is able to stretch his game all the way out to the three point line where he is currently hitting at a clip of just over 40%. As I stated in the Thunder section, the Warriors main weakness is interior defense so if KAT is able to continue to be a force inside, then a 7 game series between these two teams would be a long and grueling one that could see the T’wolves come out on top.
Why they can’t do it: The three teams listed above all have something in common that the Timberwolves do not have and that is playoff experience. While the Timberwolves have some players that have competed in the playoffs in the past, namely Jimmy Butler and Jeff Teague, the team and organization as a whole is oblivious as of what to expect when you actually get there. Minnesota has not made the playoffs since the 2003-04 season, which is currently the fourth longest playoff drought in professional sports. While I believe this drought will come to an end this season, I do believe that there is a psychological toll this kind of drought takes on not only a team, but a city. Not to mention, most of the players on this team don’t know what it is like to have to compete in a 7 game series. When going up against a battle-tested Golden State Warriors team, this does not play into your favor and is one of the main reasons why I believe the Warriors would still clean up against Minnesota.
Tier 3 – Not Quite There Yet
Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets, New Orleans Pelicans
In closing, I think it is safe to say that the Warriors are going to be a perennial power for many years to come. With the likes of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green, it is going to be nearly impossible for anyone to unseat them as the kings of the West. And with the severe drop-off between the Western and Eastern Conferences, it seems pretty clear that the Warriors are not only the favorites to win the West, but the favorites to win it all as well.