Losing third stringer Ian Clark while gaining assets like Nick Young and Omri Casspi during the offseason circus, the Golden State Warriors have remained as the team to beat in the Western Conference, not to mention in the entire NBA. There's no denying that the reigning champs are poised to win it all for the second straight season.
Just look at the league's annual general manager survey. The Dubs got a whopping 93% vote to repeat. Safe to say, those guys know what they're talking about. Never mind that they've lost a few preseason games, never mind KD's social media snafu, no one is overtaking the Bay Area Ballers as the West's top seed.
So, is there anyone who can truly give them a run for their money in their conference? Take a closer look at the three closest challengers and find out who is the best in the West next to the mighty Warriors.
Leading San Antonio's charge is the best two-way player in the game, Kawhi Leonard. From what we learned last season, The Klaw is as much of a beast with the ball as he is on the other end of the court. He looked unstoppable on many occasions, which also made room for Spurs snipers Danny Green and Patty Mills to launch and connect. Ultimately, Kawhi is the reason why Coach Pop's version of the pace-and-space is quite formidable. Once again, San Antonio is going to rely heavily on Kawhi.
This time, though, more help might be on the way. A firepower boost is expected upon the addition of standout swingman Rudy Gay, a redemption year by LaMarcus Aldridge, and a successful comeback from Tony Parker. Their real trump card, however, is their defense. Limiting their opponents to 98 ppg with a 7 ppg winning margin, they topped the league in that department last year. We're betting on the Silver and Black to be the same defensive monsters this time.
First, Gay, being automatic as a secondary or even a tertiary option will take the Spurs to a higher level. If he can maintain or just stay in the vicinity of his 18 ppg career average while playing within the confines of Pop's system, Spurs fans are going to have the time of their lives. Second, Parker must stay healthy. He's projected to return on December and he must find ways to stay off the injured list. As much as we love Mills, we really can't depend on him to be the lead floor general of this elite team.
Verdict: If none of the key players get hurt, we see another 60-win season for the Spurs, which is good enough for the second-best record in the league behind the Dubs. Their perennial excellence is more than enough proof that they are capable of playing like legit contenders.
Give Mike D'Antoni James Harden and a bunch of long distance bombers, and you've got a team that's an absolute offensive juggernaut. Give D'Antoni Harden and Chris Paul a bunch of long distance bombers, and you've got a team with a nuclear offense. That's what the head coach is counting on, in his efforts to give the Rockets a realistic shot at dethroning Golden State. Houston gave up a lot, like 30 people, including some of the fans, just to land CP3, but the core of the offense, which includes Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and Trevor Ariza, is still intact.
With the arrival of the Point God, The Beard will no longer get his 11 dimes a night, but might score more than his 29 ppg last year. Well, everyone in a Rockets uniform might just become a better scorer this season with CP3 as their quarterback. Scorching the nets won't be enough, though. The Dubs' success emanates from their high-level defense just as much as it does from shooting the rock. If the Rockets want to be in the class of the Warriors, they've got to crank it up on D as well.
To keep pace with the Warriors, the Rockets must find ways for their best offensive weapons to stay on the floor (Harden, Paul, Gordon and Anderson) at the same time without making a mess out of the defense. We highly doubt, though, that Houston will pay such attention to detail on defensive strategies. This soundbite from Coach D'Antoni on the Rockets facing the Dubs sums it all up: "We won't stop them, they won't stop us either."
Verdict: With a superb offense and a subpar defense, the Rockets will have the fourth best record in the West, behind the Warriors, the Spurs, and the team below.
The potential of the revamped OKC is scary. With three of this era's best playing for them, they can be as good as the super teams of the past who've went on to win multiple championships. The only thing that can stop Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony now is bad chemistry. But with 82 games ahead of them to figure it all out and being at a point in their careers wherein they are all itching to win a title, we can picture the Thunder's Big 3 making the necessary sacrifices in the name of winning the Larry O'Brien trophy.
The other two fellows completing OKC's star-studded starting 5 would be center Steven Adams, who always makes his presence felt with toughness and steady production, and defensive specialist off guard Andre Roberson. We do, however, want coach Billy Donovan to give Alex Abrines more minutes than Roberson. More playing time for the Spanish guard means more scoring for the Thunder. Trusting his offense and giving him more defensive responsibilities will be good for his development as a player and the team might just benefit from it in the long run.
Identifying the roles that the three superstars need to play is paramount for OKC. If we were Donovan, we'd like Russ to still be that "patay kung patay" Russ but with fewer forced shots. We'd want PG to focus his energy on defense—similar to Klay's assignment in Golden State—and just let the offense come to him naturally. And lastly, we'd want Melo to be a spot up three-point shooter for most of the game and an iso-player from the post during crunch time. We basically want Team USA Melo in OKC.
Verdict: We predict a third seed finish for the Thunder in the West, trailing the Spurs and the Dubs. But come playoff time, we like OKC's chances against Golden State better than San Antonio's. Talent for talent, only the Thunder can match up with the Warriors.