Rountable: Who Is Golden State's Biggest Challenger?
Golden State of Mind
You made your pick, now our writers make theirs!
Dennis Dow: Houston Rockets Reading that team name makes you think that I might be confused and think that it is last year, but I assure you I am referring to this year. The Houston Rockets have had a difficult season and they have managed to stay afloat thanks to a historic stretch of scoring from James Harden, probably the NBA's least liked superstar. While the Warriors at times have looked unbeatable this season, Houston has won all three of their matchups to this point. To be fair, the Warriors were missing Stephen Curry in the first loss, but the Rockets were without Chris Paul in the second game and Harden in the third.
The Rockets do not fear Golden State and feel that they left money on the table last season. It is easy to argue that if Paul does not get hurt, the Rockets win the series. However, the Warriors would be quick to note that Andre Iguodala missed the majority of that series. Houston is capable of winning four games against the Warriors. It is just a matter of if they can get to the Warriors. The Rockets are currently the 5th seed and would have a first round matchup with the Trail Blazers. That would be a tough series for the Rockets, but if the Rockets maintain the 5th seed or are able to move up to the 4th seed a win in the first round would likely give them a rematch against the Warriors.
The Rockets are not the same team as they were last season, but they are a team that could slay Goliath in the Western Conference. Their scoring and ability to match-up with the Warriors make them a bigger threat in my eyes than the Denver Nuggets or Oklahoma City Thunder.
Michael Ryan: Houston Rockets
The Rockets are still the team that’s best equipped to beat the Warriors in a playoff series. To beat the Warriors, you need the necessary firepower to score with them and be able to withstand a Warriors scoring run.
James Harden is having another MVP type season and is scoring the basketball at level we’ve never seen before. Chris Paul and Clint Capela are back healthy and both are more than capable of changing a series. Eric Gordon, Austin Rivers, PJ Tucker, Kenneth Faried, Gerald Green, Iman Shumpert, and Nene are all talented depth players that match up with the style the Warriors want to play.
Although their record isn’t what it was a year ago, if the Rockets are at full strength in the playoffs, the Warriors probably would not want to match up with them. The Rockets are 3-0 already against the Warriors this season and that’s without playing with a full roster.
Gus Saltonstall: Houston Rockets
The team that poses the biggest threat to the Warriors quest for a fourth championship is the Houston Rockets. It’s the somewhat easy pick after the Rockets took the Warriors to seven games in last year’s Western Conference Final, but it is the correct pick for a very specific reason—the 1-5 pick and roll. DeMarcus Cousins is an offensive juggernaut, however he has real limitations on the defensive side of the ball. Opposing teams need to look to put Cousins in as many high pick and rolls as possible, yet they need to also avoid the elite defensive play of Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Kevin Durant. Using the 1-5 pick and roll to make Stephen Curry and Cousins defend together is hitting the Warriors in exactly their weakest spot, and the Houston Rockets have already proven they can excel with this game plan. Chris Paul is an absolute maestro with the ball in his hand during a pick and roll and it’s not a fluke that the Hardenless Rockets were able to beat the Warriors last Saturday using exactly this strategy. Paul finished the game with a season high 17 assists, which he was able to garner from a bombardment of high pick and rolls that ended with Clint Capela, Kenneth Faried and Nene combining for 36 points. The 1-5 pick and roll is the Warriors greatest defensive liability and Chris Paul and the Rockets run the set with the most efficiency. It’s not coincidence that the Rocket’s went 3-2 against the Warriors in last year’s Western Conference Finals and then 0-2 after Paul went down with the hamstring injury. The Rockets need to emphasize attacking Curry and Cousins every time they play the Warriors, and they just might have a chance at toppling the almighty team from The Bay.
Jorge Cantu: Milwaukee Bucks
For me, it's the Milwaukee Bucks. They have the perfect combination of a deadly offense and defense to give the Bay Area ballers more than enough problems throughout a seven-game series.
First and foremost, you have Giannis Antetokounmpo. He is arguably the hardest player to stop in the league at this point. Who are the Warriors sending his way on defense? Would it be smart for KD to spend so much energy guarding him? No defender, in Golden State or in planet Earth, can stop the Greek Freak. This is just where the problems begin.
It turns out that Giannis is led by one of the elite coaches in Mike Budenholzer. It also turns out Budenholzer has established a system designed to enhance Antetokounmpo's strengths by surrounding him with four three-point shooters at all times. And we're not talking about your usual squad of role players, Milwaukee has one of the most talented groups in the NBA. A deadly shooter in Khris Middleton, a do it all, mini-LeBron in Eric Bledsoe, an absolute cheat code of a center in Brook Lopez (who can comfortably shoot 30 feet away from the basket, mind you, at a high clip), and a full supporting cast perfectly suited to punish opposing defenses in multiple ways. The Bucks are currently top five in offensive rating, finding themselves in elite company.
As if that wasn't enough, they also have the best defense in the league. They are only allowing 104.0 points per 100 possessions, per BBall-Ref, which is bonkers to think about in an era in which every game is high-scoring. They have both the individual and team defensive talent needed to push the Warriors to their limits. It is hard to think that anyone could beat a team with five All-Stars, but Milwaukee might be the one that gives them the biggest fight in the NBA Finals.
Marc Cantave: Milwaukee Bucks
The Golden State Warriors are the team to beat this year, but there are a few teams that can give them a legit challenge. I’m pretty sure at least one of my contemporaries has chosen the Houston Rockets as their main challenger, but I’d like to take a different route and go with the Milwaukee Bucks. Here’s a few quick points on why. Milwaukee have length to frustrate KD In the two meetings this season, the Bucks held Kevin Durant to 17 and 11 points. The game in which he scored 11 points, he shot 3/14 from the field. It’s rare for a team to hold Kevin Durant under 20 points, but Giannis length has disrupted him in both matchups. Milwaukee have shooters Malcolm Brogdon, Khris Middleton, Ersan Ilyasova and now Nikola Mirotic; the Bucks have a plethora of shooters at each position. Put Giannis on the floor and they have a lot more space to shoot. They may not be as great as the Warriors shooters, but they definitely can hold their own and compete with the best. Milwaukee have Giannis Antetokounmpo Giannis is having an MVP season and he’s been crucial for the Bucks’ success. Although Giannis is not a great shooter, he’s a terror in the paint and that’s one of Golden State’s main weaknesses. With the Warriors inability to defend the paint and Giannis ability to score at will, it will be tough for the Warriors.
Jeremy Freed: Toronto Raptors
Though they might not make it out of the East, Toronto represents the greatest threat to the Warriors. Of all the competitors, they match up the best.
In Kyle Lowry, they have a pit bull point guard who not only won't shy away from Steph Curry, but will use his physicality against him. Danny Green is Klay Thompson-lite (super lite, but still) who can hit clutch threes and is tenacious on defense. Kawhi Leonard is one of the few wings that can actually play Kevin Durant to a standstill -- and even surpass him on some nights. Now that he's made the leap, Pascal Siakam with his speed and versatility can match up with Draymond Green. Lastly, newly-acquired Marc Gasol would relish the opportunity to face DeMarcus Cousins, and has the strength and offensive creativity to come out ahead. When they need to go small, Toronto can bring in a rejuvenated OG Anunoby or Serge Ibaka to parry the Warriors move toward a Andre Iguodala or Jordan Bell.
This is not to say that the Raptors will slay that dragon -- they will almost certainly have to down two of the Milwaukee-Philadelphia-Boston trio in the East just for the right to face them, but if they make it to the finals, the Raptors have the roster to make the Warriors sweat, and maybe -- just maybe -- bleed.
Cam Tabatabaie: Oklahoma City Thunder
I wrote about this last week actually. I believe it will be a Warriors-Thunder WCF, and a good one at that. I've openly mocked Playoff P for his stark lack of postseason success before, but it's hard to ignore the season he's having. Throw Russell Westbrook and a loaded OKC team in the mix, and baby you've got a stew going! I don't see another team in the West with so much impressive depth and versatility. OKC is 3rd in defense, which is critical against the Dubs. But at the same time, the Thunder are 3rd in pace, meaning on either end of the court they can go toe to toe with the Champs. In the East, any of the top teams might be able to run with GSW for a little while, but because of their leadership, talent, and deep playoff experience, my money's on the Thunder to give the Warriors the toughest go of it this spring.
Nikola Cuvalo: Toronto Raptors
It’s got to be the Raptors, and although I’m definitely biased, it just makes the most sense; Leonard and Lowry are a lethal roster-topping duo. The depth is there, especially on the wings, and that’s a must for any team hoping to make these Warriors flinch.
This Toronto team can conceivably go 10-deep in their playoff rotation, mixing up so many dangerous looks on both ends of the floor. Siakam has been the transcendent in-house success story that this team needed to convince viewers of their collective high-end talent. Gasol was an underrated addition, and that will become evident in the bright lights of the playoffs; this roster is made to win now, against these Warriors in particular, and the
Raptors are currently just waiting on maximum roster health and some last-minute chemistry. The mental and physical solidification that these last 20 games provide for Toronto will be immensely impactful, and I imagine everyone will see just how ready these Raptors are for their eventual Finals opponent.
Count on them sweeping through their first-round playoff matchup, going 6 or 7 games deep in the Eastern Conference Semifinals (where they will likely face one of the Celtics, Bucks, Sixers or Pacers), and then going 7 games deep again in the ECF before readying themselves for the defending champs. This is what all the resting was meant for, right?
Ryan Wheeler: Denver Nuggets
While the Houston Rockets never back down from a battle with the champion Warriors, the Nuggets from Denver pose the biggest threat in a seven-game playoff series. Sitting at an astounding 40-18 just after the All-Star break, the Nuggets are in 2nd place in the Western Conference playoff race. This means that any playoff matchup between the two squads would only take place in the conference finals. Nikola Jokic is a 1st team All-NBA player this year but he isn’t the reason the Nuggets can hang with the Warriors--the simple reason is depth. Denver has 9 players averaging double-figure scoring, which means taking away the superstar center isn’t the sole way of slowing the offensive attack. The Nuggets rank 28th in pace and 3rd in offensive efficiency, the story behind those numbers is that the offensive system is a scoring machine that doesn’t make many mistakes. Every player that enters the game is a threat to score. Adding in scoring dynamo Isaiah Thomas as firepower off the bench was a savvy front office move. His return as an instant offense dynamo means he can come into the game and rain fire upon other second units. Michael Porter, Jr. is now practicing with the team and could be yet another scorer for opponents to plan against, should he return this season. The Nuggets, essentially, have no weaknesses and plenty of options if anyone player is having an off night. You can’t game plan against depth as easily as shutting down one star. This is why the Nuggets could take down the Warriors in the playoffs.
Golden State is in the midst of one of the most dominant stretches the NBA has ever seen. Winners of three out of the last four championships, and with such a collection of unbridled star power that it’s almost laughable.
Kyle Russell: Philadelphia 76ers
I think the biggest threat to the Warriors will be the Philadelphia 76ers. Since the trade deadline with the acquisition of Tobias Harris, the 76ers boast enough talent and size in their starting five of Simmons, Redick, Butler, Harris, and Embiid to give the Warriors problems.
On defense the only weak link there is Redick, while offensively the only weak link is Simmons’ absent jumpshot. Embiid in particular could be a nightmare matchup for the Warriors by preventing them from going to their small-ball lineup, as Draymond Green would be eaten alive defending Embiid in postups.
While there’s concerns about depth with the 76ers, rotations shrink anyway in the playoffs and even more so in the finals. At this point the only thing holding the 76ers back is lack of chemistry, as two members of their starting lineup were acquired by in-season trades this year.
They’ll also get to go through the East, which looks to be extremely competitive for the first time in years. That said they easily have the highest ceiling of any team in the East and have enough games before the finals to get on the same page and topple the Warriors.
Evan Dyal: Boston Celtics
I still believe the Boston Celtics are the only real challenger to the Golden State Warriors. Boston has had its ups and downs this season, but when healthy and engaged, I believe they are the toughest most versatile defensive team.
It starts with Al Horford, who is one of the most defensive bigs in the game with the ability to protect the rim and switch out on the perimeter. On the perimeter, they have Marcus Smart who can legitimately guard positions one through four and is one of the few defenders in the league who can at least bother Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.
On offense, they have Kyrie Irving who has always given Golden State problems, as Curry and Thompson's can't hang with him and Draymond Green can’t contain him on switches. Brad Stevens has the chops to hang with Steve Kerr or even out coach him.
Boston also has multiple wing defenders to throw at Kevin Durant in Smart, Jayson Tatum(who by the way will make Durant work on defense), Gordon Hayward(who is starting to come around) and Marcus Morris. I don't think Boston would win, but they would give the Warriors all they could handle.