We’ve been distracted by all of the back-and-forth through the media between certain Golden State Warriors skeptics and the Warriors themselves that the whole thing has turned to noise. Actual basketball has become secondary, because all we have until a couple of weeks or so from now is preseason, which rarely provides a lot of information we can use. But since this is the NBA, where everyone knows who the power players are by the time the free agency portion of the offseason concludes, we can already see which teams stand in the Warriors’ way of repeating.
— The Cleveland Cavaliers (5/2 odds to win the title) took the Warriors to six games in the Finals without two of their top three players. And hold on, let me check … they still get to play in the Eastern Conference.
— The San Antonio Spurs (7/2) were playing better than anyone else over the last month or so of the 2014-15 regular season, according to Steve Kerr, whose Warriors lost big to the Spurs the last time they faced them (April 5). Golden State never had to play them in a postseason series, and San Antonio kept its core together for yet another year while adding LaMarcus Aldridge and David West.
— The Oklahoma City Thunder (15/2) boast the most fearsome threesome in the NBA. They were one of the favorites to win the title last year until two members of that trio were lost due to injuries.
— The Los Angeles Clippers (12/1) talk a good game, and they added some interesting players in Paul Pierce, Josh Smith and Lance Stephenson.
But the Warriors’ toughest competition might come from a team that isn’t getting quite as much attention as a potential championship contender. In fact, their current title odds of 22/1 represent a pretty decent futures play if you’re into that sort of thing. They gave the Warriors all they could handle in Games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference Finals, a series that saw Stephen Curry land on his neck and Klay Thompson get kneed in the head by Trevor Ariza. And with all the talk about the Warriors supposedly getting lucky because they avoided the Spurs and Clippers and faced a Cavs team that was at less than full strength, the Rockets went through the playoffs without two starters in Patrick Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas.
At around 2 am, in the bowels of The Q on the night the Warriors clinched, I chatted with Ethan Strauss in a makeshift media room about the upcoming season. I can’t remember the team(s) he thought would present the most difficult challenge for Golden State (it was late and I flew in on a redeye the night before), but the Houston Rockets instantly came to my mind. While the Rockets are far more volatile than the Warriors or Spurs, their full-strength roster is impressively deep.
James Harden is back and presumably hungry after seeing “his” MVP go to Curry. Harden’s backcourt partners in the 2015 playoffs were ancient by NBA standards: Jason Terry and Pablo Prigioni. A healthy Beverley is the closest thing the NBA has to a Curry-stopper (sorry, Matthew Dellavedova), and Ty Lawson is a lightning-quick scoring point guard off the bench who’d start for several teams. Dwight Howard is coming off the worst year of his career, but he still played well during the playoffs on a bad knee. Terrence Jones is only 23. The wings — Trevor Ariza and Corey Brewer — aren’t pushovers. Then there’s Clint Capela, the 21-year-old center who could be a capable fill-in for Howard when he’s hurt and give Kevin McHale a reason to play Howard fewer minutes to keep him fresher.
Granted, the volatility this team has shown in recent years is tough to ignore. Denver made Lawson available due to multiple DUIs and rumors that he showed up to Nuggets practices smelling like alcohol, and weird stuff seems to follow Howard wherever he goes. But the Rockets are finally paying attention to chemistry in a way Daryl Morey seemed to almost fear in the past, namely continuity. They re-signed Beverley, Terry and Brewer, while losing only two players who did anything during the playoffs — Prigioni and Josh Smith (who isn’t necessary on a team with Motiejunas and Jones).
The NBA is about matchups, and the Thunder probably provide the toughest one for the Warriors … when healthy. If Kevin Durant’s foot issues linger — as they tend to do with seven-footers — another team will have a chance to knock the Warriors off their perch. The Spurs will count on Patty Mills and Ray McCallum to help make up for the step(s) Tony Parker has lost. San Antonio’s additions made a lot of news, but it’s hard to envision them running (literally) with the Warriors. And maybe I’m crazy, but I have a difficult time taking the Clippers seriously with Doc Rivers adding both Stephenson and the old superstar from his Boston days, then talking as if the basketball gods were against them last Spring when they gave away a huge lead to the Rockets at home in Game 6.
The Cavs are a wild card, but would anyone bet on their top three players staying healthy all season? At some point the incredible responsibilities placed on LeBron James will take their toll, plus Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving have missed an average of 35 games combined per year over each of the past four seasons. And call me old fashioned, but a coach who isn’t respected by his best player is at an extreme disadvantage, and coaching kind of matters in the Finals.
The Warriors probably won’t be quite as healthy on the injury front as they were last season, but they should still be the oddsmakers’ favorite to win their second straight championship (they’re actually behind the Cavs and Spurs, at 11/2), due to the offensive improvements they should achieve in Kerr’s second season. Then again, they’re the new kids on the block and the odds are based on where the money goes, not necessarily where the talent truly lies. However, if someone in the Western Conference is going to knock them off, don’t count out the team they’re facing tonight in a game that doesn’t count.