The Golden State Warriors remain the NBA’s undefeated team, running their record to 17-0. They certainly look like the most likely candidate to win the championship next June, behind the clear early season MVP Stephen Curry, who’s shooting more frequently than last season and putting up a career high in points per game at 31.9.
Curry is making five three-point field goals per game on average, up from 3.6 per game last season. He’s practically unstoppable on offense, but he’s improved his defense as well. His defensive rating per 100 possessions is down from 101 last season to 97 this season, and he’s setting a career best in steals at 2.6 per game. The running joke that Stephen Curry is essentially a cheat code isn’t so much a joke as it is a reality of today’s NBA.
His high level of play on a team that seems unbeatable brings comparisons to Michael Jordan and the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls that set the league mark with a 72-10 record. It’s prompted debate from current players, former players, coaches, analysts, and fans. Zach Harper of CBS Sports even dug into it, simulating a video game matchup between the current Warriors and the Bulls circa 1996. The arguments are fun to have, but it’s hard to compare teams across different era’s of basketball.
The Bulls won 72 games in an era that was physical, when you could put two hands in the back as a defender and could hand-check on the perimeter. They played great defense at a time that allowed teams to do so. They have fantastic individual defenders, such as Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, and Ron Harper. In the current era of small ball, three-point shooting, and fastbreaks, the Warriors dominate because they have mastered those aspects of the game.
The question these days shouldn’t be whether the Warriors are better than the 1996 Bulls, because it’s possible they’ll break the 72 win record whether they’re better than that team or not. The question should be whether there are any current teams in the NBA that can stop the Warriors from winning their second consecutive championship. The answer is that there may be a few that could get in the way.
The Dallas Mavericks
This could seem like a stretch, particularly since the Mavs haven’t made it out of the first round since winning it all back in 2011, but there are some legitimate reasons. In many ways, Dallas play similarly to the Warriors. Like the Warriors, they play with one of the faster paces in the NBA. Like the Warriors, they put up a ton of three-pointers. And like the Warriors, they are a bit lighter in the middle and resort to some smaller lineups. The thing that makes the Mavs the dark horse on this list is that, so far this season, they’ve been a fairly average team.
The Mavs are hovering right around average in offense and defensive terms (right now they’re a top 10 defensive team and a bottom 10 offensive team — not what you expected, is it?). But they do have an ace in the hole, which is that they have good perimeter defense between Deron Williams, Wesley Matthews, Raymond Felton, Devin Harris, and Chandler Parsons. While they allow a ton of three-pointers to go up on the defensive end, they are one of the best teams in the NBA in opponent three-point percentage.
The Mavericks will likely need to play at the height of their game to have a chance in the playoffs against the Warriors and might also need some good luck, but if there is a team in the Western Conference that has the skill-set and perimeter defense that could make life miserable for them, it might be Dallas.
The San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs are no slouch in the deep Western Conference, themselves. At 12-3, they’re completely overlooked due to the hot story that is the Golden State Warriors. The Spurs also won 55 games last season, but they lost in a seven-game series to the Los Angeles Clippers, paving the way for the Warriors to avoid the then-defending-champions in the playoffs.
The Spurs are a very different team than the Warriors, and that may be where they have an advantage. They still have Hall-of-Famers Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker to go along with younger star players Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge. They play with one of the slower paces of any team in the NBA, which stands in contrast with the up-tempo Warriors. A team that can slow down the game and make the Warriors play defense has a chance at beating them four times in a playoff series.
The other advantage the Spurs could have involves their interior players. Aldridge and Duncan are a monster duo, even if Duncan is still inching incrementally toward hanging it all up. While the Warriors best lineup is a small lineup, the Spurs could slow the game down by pounding the ball inside. If the Spurs can run into the Warriors in the playoffs at full health, they could have a legitimate chance of winning the series.
The Cleveland Cavaliers
If the two aforementioned teams can’t take care of the Warriors in the playoffs — and it seems likely they won’t be able to, because the Warriors are really, really good — the Cavaliers might be the last resort to stop them. This would be a rematch of the NBA finals from last season, which the Warriors won 4-2 after the Cavs blew a 2-1 series lead.
But this season could be different for the Cavs. They have arguably the best “Big Three” in the NBA with LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving. Love is back playing at the high level he was in Minnesota prior to being traded to Cleveland last season, essential to the Cavs’ chances at winning the first professional sports championship Cleveland has seen in somewhere around a million years.
The Cavs brought Mo Williams back in the offseason, giving them extra scoring outside of their three best players and JR Smith. Irving is out with a knee injury but could return sometime in the next few weeks, giving the Cavs a few months to gel together and head into the playoffs ready to storm the Eastern Conference and take their shot at beating the Warriors.
And that’s not even really mentioning James, who may have ceded his title as best player in the NBA to Curry but is still in the conversation. He still can flip a switch and carry a team when he wants to, and he shouldn’t have to as much with so many great players around him. Many forget that the Miami Heat took some time to figure things out in their first year together, losing in the finals to the Mavericks before winning the next two NBA titles.
The Warriors may never lose another game, stomping all over their opponents to the tune of a 15 point margin of victory en route to another ring ceremony. But if there are any teams with a legitimate chance at knocking them out of the playoffs, it could be these three.