Last season, the Golden State Warriors performed on another level — competing against Michael Jordan and his 72-10 Bulls to stake their claim as the greatest team of all time. The Warriors went 73-9 before running into their first real test in the Western Conference Finals. Kevin Durant and his Oklahoma City Thunder put these Golden State Warriors on the ropes. OKC lost the series in seven games after being up 3-1.
In the 2016 NBA Finals, LeBron James returned the favor, with “The Block” and “The Shot” forever replacing “The Drive” and “The Fumble” in Cleveland sports lore. The Cavaliers themselves came back from three games to one — to finally bring a championship back home to Cleveland after 52 long years.
This offseason, the GSW signed Kevin Durant to a two-year, $54.3 million contract, while the streets of downtown Cleveland still remained littered with confetti. Analysts and fans immediately anointed the Warriors as the greatest offensive juggernaut in the history of basketball, with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Kevin Durant set the fill it up from the wings, while Draymond Green drives the lane to make plays as a point forward.
These knee-jerk coronations, however, don’t address the fact that there will only be one basketball to go around. At the same time, the Warriors lack bench depth and are soft on the inside. For 2016–17, three NBA teams have the personnel to shock the world and stop the Golden State Warriors.
3. San Antonio Spurs
In typical Tim Duncan fashion, the Big Fundamental wrote a short statement for the San Antonio Spurs‘ website to announce his retirement. The greatest power forward of all time walked away from the game at age 40, after totaling 26,496 points, 15,091 rebounds, 3,020 blocks, and most importantly, five championship rings. Without Duncan, the Spurs open up another wing of their long running dynasty, with Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge leading the way, while graybeards Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili look on.
It was destiny for Pau Gasol to sign on with the Spurs this offseason. The Spaniard fits right in with the international Spurs and their motion offense. Gasol is especially dangerous out of the high post, where he is a matchup nightmare against opposing big men. Out of the triple threat, he can knock down the mid-range jump shot, drive the basketball, or hit open cutters as a willing passer. Now, with this skilled big man in the fold, the Spurs can go big against the Golden State Warriors and work high-low action between Gasol and Aldridge.
The Warriors are thin up front. These Spurs can take turns pounding the likes of Zaza Pachulia, Green, and David West for easy buckets. The Spurs, over the course of a seven-game series, may very well force the GSW out of small ball. Meanwhile, Leonard has rapidly emerged as the best two-way player this side of James. Expect Pop to sic Leonard upon the hot hand, whether it’s Curry, Thompson, or Durant. To mix things up, the Spurs can even zone up the half-court, with Leonard roaming the back-line of the defense, as a help defender. On the other side of the floor, Leonard can reach into his bag of tricks to school any Golden State perimeter defender.
Parker, Ginobili, and Danny Green will pick their spots within the offense, while Leonard, Gasol, and Aldridge draw the majority of attention. One of the better “3-and-D” role players in the game, Green can catch fire at any time. Also, Spurs fans can expect Parker and Ginobili to be relatively well-rested and ready to turn back the clock for at least one more signature performance in the playoffs. Certainly, the Spurs have been chomping at the bit to make a run at the Golden State Warriors. They won 67 games last season, only to lose to OKC in six games in the Western Conference Semifinals.
2. Los Angeles Clippers
Los Angeles Clippers versus Golden State Warriors is rapidly emerging as one of the fiercest rivalries in all of sports. These two teams demonstrate a real and open hatred toward each other, as an extension of the ongoing SoCal vs. NoCal regional warfare. Last October, the Warriors clearly sent a message, blowing the doors off the Clippers in a preseason game, 120-75. This rivalry, like the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals, has a big-brother-versus-little-brother feel to it. The Warriors, of course, are coming off a back-to-back tour of the NBA finals, while Chris Paul and these Clippers have never advanced beyond the Western Conference Finals.
Basketball junkies should not forget that the LA Clippers feature the most exciting roster in basketball. The high-wire act begins with CP3 calling for a high screen from Blake Griffin at the top of the key. After running his man off the pick, Paul can hit Griffin with a bounce pass, as he rolls into the paint. While on the move Griffin can either sky for his own tomahawk jam, or throw a weak-side lob for DeAndre Jordan to slam down right at the front of the rim. If the Golden State Warriors defense collapses, the Clippers can reset, with Paul working over Curry out of isolation for timely buckets. To stretch the defense, J.J. Reddick can run his man ragged through pin-down screens. For even more scoring punch, the Clips can bring Jamal Crawford and Marreese Speights off the bench.
The Warrior bench is now suddenly thin, with Speights, Leandro Barbosa, and Festus Ezeli serving as salary cap casualties to make way for Durant. Expect J-Crossover to have his way with the second unit, before dropping off dimes for a motivated Mo Buckets to go off against his former team. The Clippers, however, are admittedly weak at small forward, and will be left to throw out the likes of Alan Anderson and Wesley Johnson to grapple with Durant.
In a seven-game series, the Clippers may simply back off KD and bait him to ignore teammates and “get his,” while clamping down upon the perimeter. Last year, the Thunder offense sputtered at the worst possible time, with Durant and Westbrook taking turns playing “hero ball” and clanging contested shots off the back of the rim late in the fourth quarter. For this, the Thunder gave up a 3-1 WCF lead over Golden State, and Durant ultimately packed his bags for Oakland. For Durant, the same [stuff], different uniform could very well happen again.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
At one point, Kyrie Irving seemed completely delusional when he suggested that the Cavaliers would win the 2016 NBA Finals. However, he made good on his word, torching the Warriors for 27 points-per-game through the 2016 NBA Finals. This scoring outburst included the 40-40 Game 5 — when Kyrie and LeBron both dropped 41 to save their season. It also involved the Shot to ice the championship on the road in Game 7, when both teams turned cold. Curry simply could not stay in front of Irving in the open floor. It exposed Steph as a defensive liability that simply pads stats with cheap steals.
King James, of course, completed his journey and silenced critics to finally bring a championship to star-crossed Cleveland. In claiming MVP honors, James was the first man to lead both teams in points (30), rebounds (11), assists (9), steals (3), and blocks (2) through the finals. For his signature moment, LeBron chased down Andre Iguodala on the fast break late in the fourth quarter of Game 7 for the weak side block. Moments later, after The Block, Irving squared up to knock down The Shot over a flat-footed Stephen Curry. To ice the game, James rattled in one more free throw. Then, Curry missed a three-point heave in front of a shocked crowd at Oracle Arena.
For 2016–17, the Cavaliers and Warriors appear to be on a collision course to meet in the finals for the third straight year. The once-happy-go-lucky Golden State Warriors, again, reloaded with Kevin Durant and will play the part of villain, as did James, Wade, and Bosh in Miami. Like James in South Beach, Durant will quickly discover that rolling the ball out to a cast of All-Stars does not immediately translate into team chemistry. Expect a more physical Cleveland to wear down the small ball Warriors yet again over the course of seven games. Like Eli, the New York Giants, and “18-1,” King James will see to it that “73-9” is never avenged.