The Golden State Warriors enter the 2017-18 season as the prohibitive favorite to yet again win the NBA Championship.
Kevin Durant returns for his second year with the team. His comfort-level within the franchise will be enhanced from last season -- which should scare opponents even further. As if the team couldn't get any deeper, depth within the squad has been improved with the additions of Nick Young, Omri Casspi, and 2017 second-round steal Jordan Bell. Oh...and they're also bringing back the little-known quintet of Steph Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston.
Barring injury, the Warriors appear like a lock for (at the very minimum) the Western Conference Finals.
With LeBron James still in Cleveland (at least for this upcoming year), the Cavs will remain a major threat in potentially usurping the Warriors' title crown. San Antonio can never be counted out in any circumstance -- especially with Gregg Popovich and Kawhi Leonard patrolling the River Walk.
Houston made a major power move with the addition of Chris Paul in the offseason. One would be hard-pressed to find a better backcourt in the league than the Paul-James Harden duo. Boston also enhanced its starpower considerably -- as it traded for Kyrie Irving and signed Gordon Hayward.
While Cleveland, Houston, Boston, and San Antonio all have redeeming qualities as legitimate title contenders, there's only one team that can truly challenge Golden State: The Oklahoma City Thunder.
Before we delve into why we think the Thunder will pose the stiffest competition, let us look at the warts of the aforementioned quartet.
Cleveland will be relevant for as long as James is with the franchise. It was a tumultuous offseason for the Cavs -- as a messy behind-the-scenes divorce between James and Irving resulted in the 25-year-old guard requesting a trade. Cleveland acquiesced to this request, shipping him to Boston for a package including Jae Crowder, Isaiah Thomas, and the Brooklyn Nets' 2018 first-round pick.
Crowder will provide value as both a wing defender and as a floor spacer. He also is on one of the most league-friendly contracts in the NBA. Thomas was a revelation last year for the Celtics. The heart and soul of the team, Thomas averaged 28.9 PPG and 5.9 APG. He routinely took games over with his fearless demeanor and craftiness around the paint. The first-round pick is intriguing -- as it's slated to be within the top-five (if not higher). Should LeBron leave, it will be used as a re-set button for the future. Cleveland could also look to deal this intriguing asset for a veteran presence in the interim (such as DeMarcus Cousins?).
The team also went out and signed veteran guards Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose to shore up things on the perimeter. While this all appears to be a positive on the surface, there are some problematic areas to take into account. For one, both Wade and Rose have battled injury issues. The 35-year-old Wade has played in at least 70 games only once since 2010. Rose's health issues have been well documented. Both are going to be relied upon to play heavy minutes -- something that might not be feasible based upon recent memory.
Thomas is a terrific player when on the floor. However, it appears as if he won't be ready for action until January. He's been beset by a degenerative hip issue. Surgery is being avoided at all costs -- though no one knows how well Thomas will hold up over the final stretch run of the season. That's a lot of question marks for the vast majority of the team's backcourt. This isn't even taking into account how horrific the trio of Wade, Rose, and Thomas will be defensively -- nor does it address the potential missing of Irving during crunch-time playoff moments.
Boston certainly received an upgrade with Irving and Hayward. The Celtics have an All-Star guard to build around as he hits his prime. Hayward will be reunited with his former college coach. The familiarity schematically should help his transition in Boston. Look for the forward to be utilized in a myriad of ways -- specifically at the elbow where he can post up on smaller defenders. The team also drafted promising wing Jayson Tatum with the third-overall pick in this year's draft. Based upon his summer league performance, the Celtics have to be excited at the prospect of developing a youngster with an impressive skill-set.
While Boston wasn't the most talented team last season, it had immense team chemistry. It helped to make up for deficiencies from a talent standpoint. When comparing last year's roster to the current one, there's been a clear overhauling of the personnel. Thomas, Crowder, Avery Bradley, Gerald Green, Jonas Jerekbo, Ante Žižić, Amir Johnson, Tyler Zeller, and Kelly Olynyk are all gone. Essentially, Boston lost four starters (Crowder, Thomas, Bradley, Johnson) from a season ago.
Fast-forward to this year, and the Celtics will be breaking in an entirely new backcourt, a second-year player at small forward (Jaylen Brown), a journeyman at the power forward position (Marcus Morris), and a power forward masquerading at center (Al Horford). The team has a very young bench, and a severe lack of height/size across the board. As currently constituted, the only two members of the roster taller than 6'9" include Horford and free-agent signing Aron Baynes. Irving, Hayward, and Tatum are all very talented, but developing team chemistry within this group will take time. As the Celtics continue to tinker with their roster, it could be a year away until they're a serious contender for a title -- let alone a conference crown.
The pairing of CP3 with Harden is wildly fascinating. It's rare to see two Top-10 players next to each other in the same backcourt. Paul and Harden both are gifted passers, possess high intelligence levels on the court, and can take over a game if need be.
Acquiring Paul did cost the Rockets a considerable amount of talent -- starting with Patrick Beverley. While no one will confuse Beverley with Paul in terms of facilitating the basketball, the Chicago native is one of the toughest players in the league -- regardless of position. His ability in locking up opposing point guards is truly special. Paul is widely considered to be a plus-defender in his own right, though he does not compare to Beverley at this point in his career.
Losing Lou Williams could hurt scoring output from the second unit, and the departures of Montrezl Harrell and Sam Dekker signaled the Rockets' unwillingness in waiting for these youngsters to develop. The Rockets did add Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker to shore up things on the defensive end. Surely, these were moves aimed at slowing down Golden State's plethora of fantastic wing players.
Ultimately, the dynamic between Paul and Harden will be fascinating. For the first time in either of their respective careers, each will be playing alongside a fellow ball-dominant player. Harden has proven the ability to play off the ball -- though this past year indicated that his usage-rate may be best as the primary ball-handler. This doesn't exactly mesh well with Paul's game. Traditionally, Paul is adept in slowing the pace down with a magnificent mastering of the pick-and-roll.
In Mike D'Antoni's offense, pushing the pace at all costs is highly advised. This contradicts Paul's preference and playing style somewhat. While Paul most certainly can run the floor, his game isn't always predicated for the "seven seconds or less" style of play. Duly, Paul loves exploiting mid-range opportunities. Philosophically, this goes against a main principle of the franchise's philosophy. Houston stresses the importance of dunks, lay-ups, or three-point attempts. Anything else is viewed as a less-than-ideal shot.
Paul is no longer a young player. While fantastically competitive, some also view him as stubborn and a bit of a confrontational teammate. It will be worth watching how his strong personality fits in with the laissez-faire culture instituted in Houston.
We can laud Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti for having a fantastic offseason. He essentially traded Domantas Sabonis, Victor Oladipo, Doug McDermott, Enes Kanter, and a second-round pick for Carmelo Anthony and Paul George. Being an executive of a small market team, Presti is tasked with being creative. Not only did he provide Russell Westbrook with some much-needed help on the offensive end, but he brought in two massively huge names -- something almost unheard of for a franchise in OKC's predicament.
Shedding the horrible contracts of both Oladipo and Kanter will provide the team with much-need cap flexibility going forward. While this will be a boon in the future, we'll focus solely on the impact of the moves as they pertain to this year. We know George can (and likely will) leave after the season. But it does not change the fact in Presti having the cojones to radically make a bold move in the face of potential uncertainty. He could've played it safe with the core from last year. It likely would've resulted in a playoff spot -- and at the very best a second-round exit. Instead, he's swung for the fences in what appears to be a one-year experiment.
The trio of Westbrook-George-Anthony is a dynamic one -- particularly when one analyzes the rest of the roster. Last year, OKC struggled with the lack of spacing on the floor. We know André Roberson can't make a shot beyond five feet, and Oladipo provided next to nothing from the perimeter. It actually was a surprise to see Westbrook put up the numbers he did, particularly when the opposition was able to collapse on the paint with regularity.
With Anthony and George in the fold, the perimeter shooting capabilities instantly increase. Roberson will still be a black hole on the offensive end of the floor, but these issues are mitigated by the fact he's an elite defensive player. As demonstrated in the Olympics, Anthony can be a lethal player spotting-up in the corner. George also is more than capable from beyond the arc -- as he connected on 39.3-percent of his three-point attempts a season ago. This is far better when compared to Oladipo (36.1-percent). The respective perimeter skills of George and Anthony also should space the floor further for Westbrook to slash towards the basket.
From a versatility standpoint, OKC now has three interchangeable wings in virtually any scenario. It's become much more capable in small-ball situations -- particularly when the Thunder were previously forced into starting Sabonis or Taj Gibson at the four. Anthony could slide up to the three, and George to the two if the Thunder wanted to go bigger. A more offensively-inclined lineup could include Patrick Patterson as a small-ball five -- with Anthony and George running on the wings.
Westbrook's efficiency numbers should see a steady increase. During the playoff series, we specifically saw how much Westbrook meant to the team whilst out on the floor. Versus the Rockets in the first round, the Thunder's plus/minus rating hovered around even-to-slightly positive. Once off the floor, the numbers plummeted considerably. Head coach Billy Donovan now has the option of staggering his stars. Westbrook can now rest for chunks of time -- as George and/or Anthony then would assume the role as the focal point offensively. The drop-offs (in theory) will not be as severe as they once were.
Perhaps the biggest benefactor in all of this is Steven Adams. With Durant heading to the Bay Area, Adams was suddenly thrust into somewhat of a secondary scoring role. Known primarily as a paint-protecting goon, he was then tasked with picking up a bit of the scoring load. He did average career-highs in points per game (11.3) and rebounds per contest (7.7). With Anthony and George now in the fold, he can go back to this traditional defensive-centric role.
The potential tilt with Golden State in the playoffs is chock-full of intriguing storylines and compelling match-ups. To be clear, there isn't a single person on the planet capable of completely shutting down Durant. In OKC's case, it has two wings (George, Roberson) with the ability to hound Durant effectively. Roberson could literally expel all of his energy in defending Durant for a single playoff series. George can then switch onto Durant with little drop-off from Roberson. Should the Warriors go to a lineup with Durant, Livingston, and Iguodala on the floor, OKC would counter with George, Roberson, and freaky athlete Jerami Grant. All three can switch in pick-and-roll situations, and provide the combination of length and athleticism needed to remain competitive.
Patterson may ultimately be the most underrated free agent pickup during the offseason. The 6'9" power forward has long been an analytics darling. Patterson can rebound, score around the rim, stretch the floor to beyond three-point range, and create via his unheralded passing ability. While not an explosive leaper, he's a sound stationary defender. When Golden State goes to its vaunted "kill" lineup with Green as the de facto big man, Patterson can easily play the five. When situations call for a bigger group on the floor, Patterson can slot in at the four next to Adams without any issue. For the first time since Serge Ibaka, OKC possesses a big man with the ability to stretch the floor and provide production as a playmaker.
Lastly, there's the Westbrook factor. While not quantifiable by any metric or statistic, Westbrook is fueled by the motivation to beat Durant in the playoffs. One will not find a more competitive nor fiery player on the court than the former UCLA star. Without rehashing the entire scene from a year ago, one can be sure that a potential meeting between Durant and Westbrook will be met with plenty of hullabaloo.