Who is the biggest threat to the Warriors in the West?

The rich only got richer this offseason, as the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors added a four-time All-Star to shore up their biggest weakness.

Last season, the Warriors had a plethora of centers – from veterans such as JaVale McGee, Zaza Pachulia and David West to younger prospects like Kevin Looney, Damian Jones and Jordan Bell – but none of them were well-rounded enough to be a fixture next to Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green. Unless Looney or Bell take a major step forward this year, that again figured to be the case.

That is, until the Warriors signed DeMarcus Cousins with their taxpayer mid-level exception. 

Cousins, who is recovering from a torn Achilles tendon, may never be the same do-it-all
offensive dynamo that he was prior to his injury. The Warriors will not rush him back into
action, as they have the luxury of letting him take his time recovering to avoid any further
setbacks. But if Cousins is even 60% of his former self once the playoffs roll around,
Golden State figures to be the commanding favourite in the Western Conference playoff
bracket once more.

Who will pose the biggest threat to the Warriors in the West? Whereas the Houston Rockets were the clear answer last season, some offseason maneuvering makes it far less certain this time around.

Houston Rockets

The case for: The Rockets were 42-3 in the regular season last year when all three of James Harden, Chris Paul and Clint Capela played. All three will return this season, joined by a retooled supporting cast.

Though the Rockets lost Trevor Ariza to the Phoenix Suns and Luc Mbah a Moute to the Los Angeles Clippers, they patched up those holes by signing swingman James Ennis, who is a career 35.9% shooter from deep, and spending a second-round pick on De’Anthony Melton, a pre-draft favourite of the analytics community. They have also finally completed the signing of Carmelo Anthony, which will give them yet another offensive weapon alongside Harden, Paul and Eric Gordon.

If Paul can coax Anthony into embracing a smaller role – namely, that of a spot-up and catch-and-shoot threat (Olympic Melo!) – he could be the missing piece to push Houston over the top against Golden State. If nothing else, having him on board reduces the likelihood of the Rockets missing 27 straight threes again. 

The case against: Anthony has given clear indication that he is willing to accept a diminished role at this point of his career, which doesn’t bode well for his fit in Houston. If he bristles at being the third banana like he did during his lone season with the Oklahoma City Thunder, he may wind up being subtraction by addition for the Rockets.

Even if Anthony dials back his shot attempts, his defensive apathy could undermine Houston. Teams like the Warriors will relentlessly target him on defence, which may make him all but unplayable in high-leverage situations. Between the losses of Ariza and Mbah a Moute and Anthony’s arrival, Houston may struggle to field a top-eight defence, as it did last year en route to its franchise-record 65-win season.

The Warriors inarguably improved this offseason, whereas there is a case to be made that the Rockets got worse. Houston may still wind up with the second-most regular-season wins in the West, but the gap between it and Golden State has only widened.

Oklahoma City Thunder

The case for: Defence, mostly. With Andre Roberson back in the fold, Anthony gone and free-agent addition Nerlens Noel around to serve as a second-unit rim protector, the Thunder could flirt with having a top-three defence this season. And between Roberson, Paul George and Jerami Grant, they will have the versatile, rangy wings to switch assignments interchangeably on that end.

In February, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr acknowledged the Thunder were “a very good defensive team”, adding, “They’ve got a lot of size and length, and if you try to go through them one-on-one, you’re not going to have a lot of success.” Considering how readily Golden State fell into that iso-ball trap against Houston in the Western Conference Finals this past season, OKC could attempt to replicate that strategy.

If Dennis Schroeder willingly slides in as a super sub, he could provide the Thunder with the microwave bench scorer they sorely lacked last season. That would make OKC one of the NBA’s few teams capable of going toe-to-toe with Golden State on either end of the court.

The case against: Much like Anthony, there is no guarantee Schroeder embraces a smaller role. If his time as the Atlanta Hawks’ starting point guard over the past two seasons emboldened him to continue jacking up shots unabashedly, the Thunder will have to rein him in to have any chance against Golden State.

In general, offence figures to be a far tougher slog for OKC than defence. Schroeder, George and Russell Westbrook are capable scorers, but Roberson, Grant, Noel and Steven Adams are far more equipped to make an impact defensively than offensively. Patrick Patterson figures to fill the void Anthony left at power forward, but he’s far less capable of creating offence for himself.

The Thunder were one of the NBA’s worst three-point-shooting teams last season, which could be their downfall against the trigger-happy Warriors. They’ll have to lock in defensively, limit Golden State’s barrage of triples and pray for an offensive eruption from Westbrook, George or Schroeder- no more 2-of-16 nights from Playoff P – to have a chance in a series against the defending champions.

Utah Jazz

The case for: Much like the Thunder, Utah’s road to toppling the Warriors starts on defence. With reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert leading the way, the Jazz allowed the second-fewest points per 100 possessions last season. Remarkably, they may be even better this go-round.

Lockdown swingman Thabo Sefolosha went down in mid-January with a season-ending MCL injury, while Jae Crowder didn’t arrive in Utah until the Cleveland Cavaliers hit the self-destruct button at the trade deadline. Pairing both of them with Joe Ingles, who can in fact defend a bar stool, will give the Jazz enough switchable wings to hold their own against the Warriors.

Rookie of the Year runner-up Donovan Mitchell already proved his ability as an electric scorer, while Ricky Rubio’s dazzling passing and Derrick Favors’s steady play gives Utah a top seven as good as any team in the West. If Alec Burks and Dante Exum stay healthy, the Jazz will have the depth to avoid running out of gas against Golden State in a seven-game playoff series.

The case against: Other than Mitchell, do the Jazz have a go-to crunch-time scorer? An egalitarian offence is all well and good – Utah ranked seventh last season in passes per game – but if the Warriors shut down Mitchell, how do the Jazz produce enough buckets to keep up? 

Last season, Utah was tied with the Portland Trail Blazers and Miami Heat as having the 20th-ranked offence in the league. Rubio, Gobert, Ingles and Favors can all put up points, but none of them are adept at creating for themselves. That weakness was exposed against the Houston Rockets in the second round of the playoffs, as the Rockets sold out defensively against Mitchell and dared the rest of the Jazz to beat them.

So long as Gobert and Utah’s wings stay upright, the Jazz are certain to have a top-five defence again. However, concerns about their scoring output could upend them against a Warriors team with a multitude of offensive weapons.

San Antonio Spurs

The case for: Yes, the Spurs lost Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Kyle Anderson and Tony Parker this offseason, but they had Leonard for only nine games last season and still finished 47-35. So long as head coach Gregg Popovich remains in place, San Antonio could field a G League-calibre roster and likely win 35-plus games. 

LaMarcus Aldridge flourished in Leonard’s absence, putting together his best season since coming to San Antonio in 2015. After Aldridge no-showed against Golden State during the 2017 Western Conference Finals, much to Popovic’s chagrin at the time, the two men had an offseason meeting of the minds that helped them get on the same page. This past spring, Aldridge was one of the Spurs’ lone bright spots in their first-round loss to the Warriors.

Joining Aldridge in San Antonio this season will be four-time All-Star DeMar DeRozan, the main piece of the return package for Leonard, and promising young center Jakob Poeltl. Though the Spurs may not look like much of a threat to the Warriors on paper, the combination of Aldridge, DeRozan, Popovich and some high-upside youngsters make them a potentially sneaky contender in the West. 

The case against: Given Aldridge and DeRozan’s affinity for long-range two-pointers, San
Antonio may set basketball back about 40 years this season.

The Spurs already finished with the third-most mid-range shots of any team last season – and the fourth-fewest three-point attempts – and those splits figure to get only more drastic this coming year. They shot only 40.8% on those mid-range attempts, so it is difficult to imagine them having the offensive punch to keep up with the Warriors.

Even if the Spurs do muster enough scoring, the loss of Leonard, Green and Anderson could prove devastating defensively. San Antonio finished with the league’s fourth-best defence last season, but it now finds itself woefully short on versatile wings, which would prove particularly crippling against Golden State. The Spurs could win 50-plus games this season, but the Warriors would relentlessly exploit their defensive weak spots in the playoffs.

The others

Denver Nuggets: The Nuggets’ starting five of Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic has the firepower to keep up with any team, including the Warriors. If Isaiah Thomas can move past his disastrous 2017-18 season and resemble the form that helped him finish fifth in the MVP race the previous year, he’ll be a leading candidate for Sixth Man of the Year.

Outside of those six, however, Denver lacks the reliable depth needed to defeat Golden State. Michael Porter Jr. could develop into a major weapon for the Nuggets down the road, but there’s a non-zero chance he misses his entire rookie season due to the back issue that caused him to tumble to No. 14 in this year’s draft. Even if head coach Mike Malone shortens his rotations in the playoffs, the Nuggets would likely run out of steam before taking four games off of the Warriors.

Los Angeles Lakers: Bet against LeBron James at your own peril. Though his eight-year NBA Finals streak appears to be in grave jeopardy, James proved he is capable of nearly single-handedly toppling the Warriors, as he did in Game 1 of this past year’s Finals. If he can get the Lakers’ collection of unproven young prospects and veteran misfits to coalesce by mid-April, L.A. could be the team no Western Conference foe wants to draw in the first round of the playoffs.

As currently constructed, though, the Lakers don’t appear to have enough shooting to threaten the Warriors. They were 29th in three-point percentage last season, as only three of their rotation members – Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – shot better than 37% from deep. James and Rajon Rondo can pinpoint passes right into a teammate's shooting pocket, but relying on the likes of Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley to knock down shots against Golden State seems like wishful thinking.

Minnesota Timberwolves: The Timberwolves have a rock-solid starting five in Jeff Teague, Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins, Taj Gibson and Karl-Anthony Towns, assuming internal strife doesn’t get the best of them. Minnesota had the league’s third-best offence last season despite Butler playing only 59 games, so a healthier season from him could lead to an even more impressive output.

However, head coach Tom Thibodeau’s insistence on relying heavily upon his starters threatens to upend the T-Wolves before they even reach the playoffs. Even if Butler, Towns and Co. dodge the overwhelming likelihood of an overuse injury, they figure to be running on fumes by mid-April. Unless Thibs sees the light and begins giving more minutes to reserves such as Tyus Jones, Anthony Tolliver and rookies Keita Bates-Diop and Josh Okogie, Minnesota doesn’t project to be a serious threat to Golden State.

New Orleans Pelicans: Anthony Davis turned into the NBA’s version of Thanos when DeMarcus Cousins went down with his torn Achilles in January, averaging 30.2 points, 11.9 rebounds, 3.2 blocks, 2.2 assists and 2.0 steals over his final 33 regular-season outings. Paired with a stretch-4 in Nikola Mirotic and a new combo big in Julius Randle, Davis and the Pelicans may tout one of the NBA’s best frontcourts this season. 

However, outside of that trio and Jrue Holiday, New Orleans is also short on reliable scoring options. Between that and perhaps the worst wing rotation in the league, the Warriors made quick work of them in the second round of the playoffs this past spring even as Davis continued on his world-domination tour. Barring a midseason overhaul, the Pelicans don’t have the wings to slow down the Warriors.

Portland Trail Blazers: So long as Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum remain in Portland, the Trail Blazers have one of the most potent backcourt duos in the league. If Jusuf Nurkic and/or Zach Collins give them some low-post scoring and some combination of Evan Turner, Maurice Harkless and Evan Turner can knock down an occasional three-pointer, the Blazers are always a threat to erupt offensively on any given night.

However, Golden State can throw Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala at Lillard and McCollum, which all but neuters Portland. Seth Curry may provide a nice scoring boost off the bench, but the Warriors will abuse him defensively, and the losses of Shabazz Napier and Ed Davis significantly weaken the Blazers’ reserve unit. After they got swept by the Pelicans in the first round last year, why would they suddenly be a threat to take down the Warriors now?

The verdict

After taking into account everything needed to knock off the Warriors in a seven-game series – namely, multiple shot-creators, long-range shooting and defensive versatility – the Rockets and Thunder stand out as the biggest threats to the two-time defending champions. Which of them surpasses the other largely depends on how much they can get their potential malcontents to buy in.

If the Thunder convince Dennis Schroeder to embrace a sixth-man role, he could become invaluable to them as a microwave scorer off the bench. The same goes for Nerlens Noel, who would give them 48 minutes of rock-solid rim protection behind Steven Adams if he doesn’t bristle at playing limited minutes. Long-range shooting is their biggest concern against Golden State, but their defensive potential and the offensive upside of Westbrook and George help to mitigate that. 

The Rockets, meanwhile, can only pray Carmelo Anthony doesn’t hijack their offence with 20-second jab-step-filled isolations. If he accepts being no greater than the third option behind James Harden and Chris Paul, he could become a significant weapon for Houston, especially against second units. If he is unwilling to embrace reality, well…godspeed to head coach Mike D’Antoni.

For now, the Rockets get the edge, if only because they are the favourites to finish with a top-two seed in the West again. However, their margin for error is far slimmer this year, as the Thunder, Jazz and others are hot on their tails.

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