“Can Anyone B̶e̶a̶t̶ Challenge the Warriors?”
Let’s get something straight – if the 2018/2019 version of the Golden State Warriors is playing at peak level (i.e. there are five All-Stars in their starting lineup and they’re each playing at their respective All-NBA ceilings), then there is no team in this league that can beat them in a 7-game series. Not in this league, not in the NBA of years past, and maybe not even in the NBA of the future (especially if the CBA is re-negotiated in a manner that significantly compromises the ability of franchises to form dynasties). These Warriors are simply too good, at too many positions on the floor, for any team to outlast them in a playoff series when at full strength.
But does that mean no franchise in today’s NBA can snatch the Larry O’Brien from their grasp? Well, considering that the Warriors are NOT functioning at 100% (yet), then yes – there is hope. That hopeful flame is stoked by the performance of the following teams over the course of the regular season thus far, in addition to their roster composition and playoff pedigree.
Threats from the East (In Order of Threat Level)
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Toronto Raptors; this Toronto team has the makeup necessary to stifle GSW’s stars on the offensive end and attack their (semi-)weak links relentlessly on defense. Lowry can hound Curry, Leonard matches up with Durant, Danny Green sticks to Klay Thompson, Siakam can play free-safety on D, and Gasol should be able to stifle the 75%-healthy version of Cousins we’ve seen so far. Also, this is a make-or-break season for the franchise, and that kind of pressure can form diamonds (dynasty-shattering diamonds, if the dreams of one Raptor’s beatnik are to be fulfilled). Should these Raptors pick up their 3pt-shooting while clamping down on D, they’ve got the best odds of any team to meet the Warriors at the sport’s peak, and possibly finish as the NBA’s newest king of the hill.
Milwaukee Bucks; the No.1 overall seed is pretty much locked up, and these Bucks look ready to translate their game-breaking basketball formula (4th in Offensive Rtg, and 1st in Defensive Rtg) from the regular season into the playoffs. The only reason they don’t trump Toronto for the top spot here is because of recent injuries to rotation stalwarts Malcom Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic. They will need every last shooter and defender on the roster to perform if they plan on riding their one-man wrecking crew into a championship-tinted sunrise. Make no mistake: if Giannis shows up, and the rest of the roster is hitting threes, GSW will at least break a sweat holding off this Eastern Conference wrecking ball.
Philadelphia 76ers; the Phantastic Phive assembled in Philadelphia represents the most dangerous weapon thus far crafted by any of Golden State’s opponents over their 5-year dynastic stretch (their +15.7 NetRtg can attest to that). That starting lineup - consisting of 6’10” Ben Simmons, 6’4” JJ Redick, 6’8” Jimmy Butler, 6’8” Tobias Harris, and 7’0” Joel Embiid – has the requisite size, skill, playmaking and shooting to go tit-for-tat with these Warriors right from tip-off. Once the benches begin to play, however, the scales tip back in GSW’s favor quite heavily. The Sixers lack of depth will ultimately hold them back from realizing their true potential, unless they successfully stagger their stars or extract consistently adequate to very good performances from their bench mob.
Boston Celtics; Although the Celtics were presumed to be the most serious threat to the Warriors coming into the season, that perception has changed quite a bit, no thanks to some untimely in-fighting and general malaise (especially from the team’s supposed locker room leaders). This fractured and disjointed version of the Celtics has no chance at stopping Golden State, but the version that we all tend to dream about certainly does. If the Celtics can quickly acclimate to the change in pressure that comes with the playoff transition, and use that change to spark the fulfillment of their roster’s overall potential, then perhaps their incredibly deep and star-studded team can be leveraged into the championship threat we all presumed they would become. As it is now, though, that appears extremely unlikely; there’s simply not enough minutes to go around, and the personnel/play-time issues will only be exacerbated by the short leashes and bright lights that come with playoff basketball.
Threats from the West (In Order of Threat Level)
Houston Rockets; the Rockets project as the greatest in-conference threat to the Warriors by virtue of their performance in last year’s playoffs. The mid-season additions of Iman Shumpert and Kenneth Faried have no doubt injected the slow-starting Rockets with depth and enthusiasm on both sides of the ball. In terms of in-house improvements, their roster continuity has helped James Harden do James Harden things, and that has him positioned to win another MVP award; all while elevating Houston’s ceiling back to the level they had reached one year ago.
Oklahoma City Thunder; the current version of the Thunder are a ball-hawking, court-running swarm of decidedly below-average 3-point shooters (shooting 34.7% from 3pt-land as a team, which ranks 23rd in the league). That may not sound like the formula for up-ending the Warriors, but we know how difficult it is to beat GSW at their own run n’ gun play-style. These Thunder are equipped to take the game in a different direction entirely, and that places them squarely in the running for top-threat to the champs – especially if Russell Westbrook and Paul George are saving their best basketball for the post-season.
Denver Nuggets; the least serious, yet still serious, threat to the Warriors are the Denver Nuggets. This team hasn’t made the playoffs in a little while, and they might be the sort of team that finds a lot of regular season success, yet can’t seem to make it past the first or second round of the playoffs. So even though the Nuggets are currently jostling with GSW for the 1 seed fueled by the play of Nikola Jokic (averaging 20.3ppg/10.8reb/7.5ast this season) and their well-rounded roster, it’s nonetheless difficult for the Warriors to perceive this inexperienced team as anything more than a blip on their radar.
All stats courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com