Challengers reload in big ways, but will it be enough to dethrone Golden State Warriors?
Handful of teams in East, West hoping to tackle task of topping Warriors in playoffs
> Power Rankings: Golden State starts off No. 1
In the aftermath of the trail of bodies left behind by the Golden State Warriors, who crowned one of the most dominant seasons of this generation by thumping LeBron James last summer, folks freaked out.
Rather than retreat and recoil, a handful of NBA contenders regrouped, emphasis on grouped. Yes, almost collectively, these teams decided not to roll over and surrender the next championship to the Warriors. They engaged in a frantic arms race in the offseason, snapping up future Hall of Famers, doubling and even tripling up on superstars, fortifying the roster and in some cases shoving all of their chips to the center of the table.
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In particular, eight players in particular with a combined 45 All-Star appearances changed uniforms, all going to places where there’s now a reasonable and understandable murmur about playing beyond May and into June.
Here’s the truly weird part about all the activity that took place over the last three months: It probably won’t change anything.
You could almost envision that, while the madness swirled around them, the team built for a dynasty eased back in their recliners, watched all the drama unfold and tossed back popcorn. As Draymond Green told GQ magazine: “It’s so funny sitting here and watching this (bleep).”
Perhaps the Warriors are flattered by all the commotion they’ve caused, the money they forced teams to spend, the panic they sent through the league and certainly the sour taste they left in the mouths of a half-dozen or so opposing stars. Yes, there’s a world of hurt feelings.
LeBron hasn’t gotten over that spanking in the NBA Finals or the sight of Draymond sashaying around in that “Quickie” t-shirt worn at the victory parade, mocking the length of the series. Russell Westbrook is still snapping at anyone who brings up His Name and sending cryptic trolling via social media to That Guy, the traitorous Kevin Durant. Meanwhile, Chris Paul must have deep red welts from the annual lashings he got from Golden State in the past.
After he was traded from Oklahoma City to New York, Enes Kanter wailed “please beat the Warriors for me” in his good-bye video to his ex-teammates.
One last time Okla-Home 💙🇹🇷 pic.twitter.com/4GK8nUO5JJ
— Enes Kanter (@EnesKanter) September 23, 2017
So here we are, tipoff time on the eagerly anticipated 2017-18 season. The next eight or so months will determine if that massive upgrading was all a waste of time and resources, in terms of the big picture, which will be the case if the championship trophy returns to the team that — get this — didn’t make a single significant change in an offseason of many.
Because, why should the Warriors react to the reaction?
They’re a collection of superb players in their prime, especially the core group, and you’ll need the superzoom lens to locate their weakness. Durant and Draymond, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and coach Steve Kerr and others are lava rumbling down the NBA mountain.
They’re capable of leveling everything on the path, and everyone in Oklahoma City, Houston, Cleveland, San Antonio and Boston is aware of this. (In the annual NBA.com GM survey, who were asked which team is the favorite in 2017-18, the Warriors won 93 percent of the vote.)
All the Warriors did was write fat checks to re-sign Iguodala, Curry and Durant, then pull enough loose change from the sofa for newcomers Nick Young and Omri Casspi, and boom, finished. None of the key players were ever a serious threat of bailing.
Iguodala toyed with the idea of taking his two championship rings to Houston or the Minnesota Timberwolves, but this was more of a leverage play on the Warriors. He loves the Bay Area and the business trappings of Silicon Valley.
Curry was getting his max money after four years of being the biggest NBA bargain since Michael Jordan signed for eight years and $25 million in 1988.
Durant did take less, although he knew that when he signed up two summers ago; anyway, he’ll get his money and, like Iggy, he’s taking advantage of his surroundings and sticking his toe in the lucrative dot.com business.
“Three years in a row in the Finals, trying to make it a fourth, very few teams in the league have done that … the challenge is obvious,” said Kerr.
Meanwhile, some of the brightest front-office minds in basketball — Daryl Morey of the Houston Rockets, Sam Presti of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Danny Ainge in Boston along with newcomer Koby Altman of the Cavs who is the early candidate for Kia Rookie of the Year — cooked up formulas designed to shock the world just in case one of the key Warriors grabs a body part. Or maybe these general managers genuinely feel they’ve got a shot even if the Warriors are healthy.
The common offseason thread they shared? They all pounced on the chance to steal a distressed property and roll the dice.
Morey did this with Paul, whose time with the Clippers had run its unfulfilled course as Morey didn’t trade anyone whose skills the Rockets can’t replace. Paul has remained remarkably consistent after 12 seasons and if anything is a better 3-point shooter (41 percent last year) for a team that lives and dies by the shot. As good as the Warriors are from deep, the Rockets are historic, with Paul joining James Harden, Ryan Anderson, Trevor Ariza and reigning Kia Most Improved Player winner Eric Gordon. In half court and in transition, the Rockets are fluid.
“You’re not going to stop them; it’s just not going to happen,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said about the Warriors’ offense. “They’re not going to stop us either.”
Defensively, Houston suffers in comparison to Golden State. Other than wing defenders Trevor Ariza and Paul and Clint Capela at the rim (and perhaps newbies Luc Mbah a Moute and PJ Tucker), nobody impacts the game on that end.
Paul and Harden still must prove to be on-court buddies. And most of this falls to Harden, who has overtaken playmaking responsibilities from every point guard since coming to Houston and shows no desire to play off the ball, especially after D’Antoni shoveled it to him last season. How will that dynamic work between Paul and Harden over 82 games and the playoffs? It’s fair to ask.
The same is true to a slightly lesser degree in Oklahoma City where Paul George, Carmelo Anthony and Westbrook might give the Warriors a run in a three-on-three contest. Westbrook’s ball dominance isn’t likely to be an issue with George, an unselfish star, but ‘Melo has never deferred to anyone outside of the Olympic teams.
Like George, Melo is playing for money and also respect after his health issues and declining play the last few seasons in New York. In a best-case scenario that’s not all that unrealistic, Westbrook will play nice and try to keep these guys happy so they’ll re-sign next summer and not leaving him holding the bag.
“You (reporters) keep asking about the chemistry every damn day,” sneered Westbrook. “It’s a season-long thing. It’s not going to happen overnight. We’re going to get it together.”
OKC’s bigger worry against Golden State is the support help, which is high on defense and absurdly low on intangibles and intimidation. Remember, not only are the Warriors good, they’re deep, much more than OKC.
The last time the Celtics underwent a major facelift was a decade ago when Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen linked with Paul Pierce. This facelift, however, will take some time to be fully realized. Challenging the Warriors with a pair of young pups (rookie Jason Tatum, second-year player Jaylen Brown) forced to do heavy lifting in the rotation is unrealistic. Plus, the Celtics might not get out of the East. So the Warriors don’t need to worry about Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving until the new arena is done in San Francisco.
Staying on the low-low are the sneaky Spurs. They subbed out bouncy, athletic Jonathon Simmons for aging Rudy Gay coming off Achilles surgery and won’t have a gimpy and rehabbing Tony Parker until midseason. Oh, and they chose not to trade LaMarcus Aldridge — the mild market for him perhaps had something to do with it — who did a belly-flop in the 2017 Western Conference finals after Kawhi Leonard got injured. And yet, Draymond recently said the Spurs, more than anyone else, are on his radar.
San Antonio folks will be quick to remind you that, before Zaza Pachulia’s dastardly foot trick that caused Leonard to sprain an ankle in Game 1, the Spurs were up 25 points on the champs. It’s true that Golden State was getting rocked and yes, Gregg Popovich’s Spurs are capable of spooking any team in the league. Maybe had the Spurs grabbed an A-list talent in a trade or free agency (something they rarely do), they wouldn’t feel like a team that’s a superstar short. But they do, and they are.
This brings everything back to the team and player who stared across the court from Golden State the last three summers. Look out: LeBron’s help in Cleveland has never been better than now.
“I can tell by the schemes we’re putting in, it’s all in place for that matchup,” said Jae Crowder, meaning a four-peat in June with the Warriors.
Dwyane Wade and Derek Rose are peak-2011 guys looking to steal a few extra golden years (and maybe a title) and if one of them gets going. Getting them both? That’s a bonus. Wade remains on the same wavelength the two shared with James, but just needs his body to cooperate with it.
Kevin Love seems prime for a big season, as he finally looks comfortable being on the same floor with LeBron. Remember when Love was benched during the 2016 NBA Finals? Hard to believe now. Plus, he brings much needed 3-point shooting to a team that finished near the bottom last season.
The mystery is Isaiah Thomas, obviously. Whenever he returns from his aching hip, he has the tools to give the Cavs every bit of offense that Irving gave. Plus, the pending free agent is in money overdrive; Thomas has never made more than $8 million a year.
As for LeBron, no need to weigh the merits: Amazingly durable, highly productive after 14 years, perhaps juiced to win another MVP and certainly to issue paybacks to the Warriors.
Yes, as a few teams concluded this summer, the best way to make a run at the Warriors is by making changes and come armed with more talent. Well: Too bad these teams couldn’t pool their best players together and form a super team. Now that would get our attention.
The one NBA team with few questions or issues or soft spots is the team that didn’t need to make wholesale changes last off-season. Golden State is simply playing a different game. You see, while everyone is frantically trying to form a lineup good enough to beat the Warriors, the Warriors are busy trying to form a dynasty.
“I think we’ll be better this year,” said Kerr.
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