Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Warrior Assassins: Who can topple Golden State

It has been smooth sailing for this group all season (Noah Graham/Getty Images)

The Golden State Warriors have won 66 of the 73 games it has played thus far, that’s a win percentage of just over 90. If they can win seven out of their last nine regular season games, they would eclipse the 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls’ record win total of 72.  There is a large part of me that hopes that they don’t break the record.  Michael Jordan’s place in history as the consensus best player in history will change as the calendars do.  Even if it isn’t LeBron or Steph that supplants him, there will come along another gunslinger to topple MJ off his throne.

But before this team is hoisted into the Valhalla of All-time great squads, they will have to complete the season and win the championship.  Let’s take a look at the teams that could throw a damper on their coronation.

Blake Griffin's mistake has changed the dynamics of this team (Getty Images)

Los Angeles Clippers

This team may not have appeared in this group if Blake Griffin had taken much longer to get back, but any time an All-NBA caliber player becomes available on a team things can change. They have been good without Red Bull (he’s a redhead and has ups for days, the nickname fits too well not to be used, even if he weren’t already a paid endorser of the product) but when the possessions dwindle and teams know tendencies, stars dictate success. With the exception of Jeff Green and the ghost of Paul Pierce, this team is essentially the same as it has always been.  Perhaps Griffin will give them the jolt needed to challenge the Warriors.

J.J. Redick is having his best season of his career; it’s he, and not any member of the Warriors. that leads the Association in 3 point FG%. Chris Paul is having another fantastic season with averages of nearly 20 points and 10 assists a game.  They aren’t the Splash brothers, but the Clippers have star power to combat the Warriors’ backcourt. How will this team (specifically DeAndre Jordan) respond to the addition of a player the caliber of Griffin being re-introduced this late in the season after months without him?

Check the hair. These guys have been doing this for awhile.

San Antonio Spurs

You could set your watch by the Spurs in the playoffs.  They are as bloodless and ruthless as any Skynet disciple. This iteration of San Antonio is a throwback. The Spurs are the oldest team in the league, employing the two players furthest removed from their births (Tim Duncan and Andre Miller).  But moreso than their actual age, their style of play is one that would make Oscar Robertson blush. 

They are 25th in the league in 3 pointers attempted. In a time where teams are consistently going small, they start two seven footers. And while isolations dominate most offenses, the Spurs are third in the league in assists. Plus, the team that is 61-12 and undefeated at home has added Kevin Martin with Manu Ginobili finally back after his extremely painful injury. Perhaps most salient to the idea that they could beat the Warriors this postseason is the fact that they actually beat the Golden State a little over a week ago.  One old head just won a Super Bowl, why can’t an NBA team full of them follow suit?

Triple doubles and prolific scoring. Tell me these two can play together forever.

Oklahoma City

Unlike the Spurs that win with below-the-radar personalities and talent, the Thunder is the loud and gifted group that is perhaps watching its window close. If Kevin Durant leaves after the season, it will mean that years of KD and Westbrook netted an NBA Finals appearance and one underachieving label. In the Championship or Bust times that currently dominate the NBA, having two guys more talented than any duo in the league without a ring would leave an unseemly taste in the mouths of their fans.
The team is deeper than they were under Scott Brooks.  Head coach Billy Donovan has flexibility in the frontcourt with Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, KD, and Serge Ibaka all capable of playing either the power forward or center position (or both).  Moreover, Dion Waiters and Anthony Morrow are capable of reducing the scoring burden of the stars—and Randy Foye alleviates some of the play-making duties from the tireless Westbrook. Perhaps because of all of the new talent, it has taken most of the year to hit their stride, but a current eight game winning streak certainly buoys the chances of a postseason run. The team is as laden with talent as any other squad, can Donovan take them to glory in his first year?

While not a member of the Big 3, Smith will be instrumental in a Cavs run (Getty Images)

Cleveland Cavaliers

There’s been a lot written about what the Cavs aren’t. And with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love up and down in their production (particularly together) there is legitimate concern over Cleveland’s “Big 3”. But throughout all the subtweeting, disappointing play, and peculiar losses (this team just dropped a befuddling game to the listless Brooklyn Nets) they’re cruising to back-to-back number 1 seeds in the Eastern Conference. It’s easy to nitpick the Cavs for what they aren’t—namely, the Warriors. But what are they?

The Cavs are a team that is top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency (an accomplishment shared only by the Spurs and Warriors).  While they aren’t great in one area, they are significantly above average in a number of areas; namely, they are top ten in offensive rebounding percentage, defensive rebounding percentage, and effective field goal percentage. Plus, they have one of the greatest players to ever play the game on their team. Moreover, unlike the rest of these poor slobs on this list, if they meet the GSW in the playoffs, they are guaranteed to play them after having run the gauntlet of the Western Conference playoff contenders. Keep in mind, the Cavs don’t have to beat all these other teams, only the Western Conference title winner.  Perhaps after beating a couple of these teams (and having sprinted through the season to win a record-setting number of games), the Warriors will be at their most vulnerable.

Ultimately the Warriors will be the odds on favorite to win the title and take their place in the pantheon of great NBA teams.  But make no mistake, the Association will fight, scratch, and claw to keep the Warriors relegated to an interesting footnote in basketball history.

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