There will be a parade this June in Oakland. Everything is less established, city officials have already begun the planning in silence. The Golden State Warriors are going to win the NBA title and there's nothing anyone can do about it …
Or can they?
The Warriors are the favorites for the NBA title. Again. As they should be. However, there are teams that can challenge the Warriors, this is not going to be a cake walk. And unlike in recent years, the Warriors' biggest challenge will be in the Finals.
Here are the five teams that have the opportunity to beat the Warriors this season.
1) The Toronto Raptors.
Do not get stuck in the past of "the Raptors are not a playoff team", that is, by design, a very different list of Toronto that goes to the playoffs. And it is a team that matches well with what is Golden State: they are long and interchangeable in defense, they know how to obtain buckets and now they have a clear approach.
No one is going to stop Kevin Durant, but Kawhi Leonard can delay him, make KD work and stay on an island against him (relatively) by allowing other defenders to stay at home with their boys. While I do not have many stocks in the regular season games as predictors of the postseason, in November, Leonard and Durant had a round-trip showdown that was one of the most entertaining games of the year.
Danny Green is a strong defender who can put on the best of Klay Thompson or Stephen Curry, then Kyle Lowry can do a solid job on the other. Pascal Siakam can get Draymond Green and help him while he challenges Green to shoot the jumpers, and Siakam can be five when the Warriors get small with Green in the center. Marc Gasol will probably start with DeMarcus Cousins, but Serge Ibaka can also get time. Then, the Rockets bring Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet as needed.
The fifth offense in Toronto this season is still going to score points against the Warriors. They can score inside and out. And when the game is on the line, Leonard will have the opportunity to show why he was once MVP of the Finals.
The Warriors would be and should be favorites in this possible pairing of the Finals, but the Raptors are ready to make it work.
2) The Milwaukee Bucks.
A team needs long and interchangeable defenders and an elite offensive to beat the Warriors. The Bucks had the fourth-best offense in the NBA last season, led by the MVP's best player, Giannis Antetokounmpo. So check that box. As for the long and commutable defenders, the Bucks are built around the Greek Freak, Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon and the physicist at the point Eric Bledsoe. Check.
The Bucks are one of the few teams that can take and do three to the pace of the Warriors and may be willing to play that way. If the defenders of the Warriors have to slide out to stop the shooters, especially the Cousins who chase Brook Lopez out of the paint, the way is opened for the impulses of Antetokounmpo, and nobody stops them.
What the Bucks need is for Brogdon to be back and healthy to put Klay Thompson. In addition, Milwaukee would have to find a way to continue playing his base defense, which has Lopez dropping selections to obstruct the paint, without delivering too many groups of three to the Warriors. Finally, when the Warriors get small, the Bucks can go with Antetokounmpo in the center lineups.
It would be a big step for the Bucks to challenge the Warriors, but on paper they have the tools.
3) The Houston rockets.
This is the same team that went ahead at halftime of Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals on their home court less than a year ago …
Well, they are not exactly the same team. But they are playing closer to that level than in the whole season: Chris Paul looks more like his old self, Clint Capela looks fit, Danuel House Jr. and PJ Tucker have found a rhythm as role players, and from the Stars game. Break the Rockets has the second best defense on earth and the best net score (+10.7).
The Rockets still have James Harden and nobody, in the Warriors or on the planet, can stop him. If he has other players knocking down some shots around him and the Rockets are still defending, they are the only team in the West with an opportunity. The Rockets do not have Trevor Ariza or the same depth that made them a real threat to the Warriors, a Rockets team that could have a ring if CP3 had stayed healthy. But the Rockets are still the second best team in the West and the only team with a shot in the Warriors.
If the Rockets and the Warriors face off, it will be in the second round, and that could be good for Houston. What has stopped the Rockets in recent seasons was that Harden was running out of gas in the load he had to carry, or Paul was injured. Does the meeting in the second round make it less likely that some of those things will happen, which means that the Rockets have a better chance? Perhaps. The Rockets will have to fight to overcome a very good Jazz team to find out.
4) The Boston Celtics.
The favorites of the preseason in the East have shown flashes this year in which you can not avoid thinking that "that is a contender, they can push the Warriors". Boston simply has not been able to sustain it.
The duel on paper is interesting. Kyrie Irving has pitted Stephen Curry to a stalemate in the Finals earlier. Al Horford can be effective against Golden State if Cousins is in the paint (Horford is a better defender later than people think, and on offense he could get Cousins to the three point line to defend his shot ) or if the Warriors are small and Green is at five. Horford exploits the imbalances in the Golden State banks.
The Celtics would need Marcus Smart back and healthy. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier need to play as well as they did in the last playoffs. Many things must go well and the Celtics have not been able to sustain that this year.
But Boston has the pieces to be a potential threat to Golden State.
5) The Philadelphia 76ers.
The fact that Philly is on this list is reduced to one thing: they have the second best five initial in the league. The one that starts at five that can challenge the best formations of the Warriors.
Joel Embiid (who can beat Cousins, but did not play well against the Warriors this season), Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and the staunch J.J. Redick has a lot of potential. When on the court together, the unit has been dominant at both ends.
The problem is that they have not been together on the field and there are chemistry questions. Also, behind these five there is little depth.
Philadelphia has a long way to go to really be a threat to the Warriors, but if they can get out of the East they can be that team by June.