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The NBA season is almost upon us, but Hot Take SZN is here, and at the end of another eventful summer we will see how close to the sun we can fly and still stand the swelter of these viewpoints.
• Hot take we might actually believe: LeBron’s Lakers won’t make the NBA playoffs
• Hot take we might actually believe: The Celtics will win the NBA championship
• Hot take we might actually believe: These Rockets already reached their peak
When concocting this season’s list of NBA teams that could even remotely think of having a chance at taking down the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors — a dynasty that stumbled into adding another All-Star onto a roster full of them this summer — one must first look within.
The only things that have stood between the Warrirs and the NBA’s first string of four straight championships since the 1960s Boston Celtics were 1) a superhuman performance by LeBron James and 2) themselves — namely, a Draymond Green punch to LeBron’s groin that resulted in Game 5 suspension and opened the door for the Cleveland Cavaliers’ epic 3-1 comeback in the 2016 Finals. Even then, the Warriors won a record 73 regular-season games before adding Kevin Freakin’ Durant.
In 2015, after Golden State’s first championship run, Andre Iguodala informed us that the only way to beat his Warriors was “going to the gun range and learning how to shoot. Kill us all.” Last year, following their second title in three seasons, Draymond Green reminded us, “These motherf—ers, they know. That’s the fun part about it: They know they don’t stand a chance.” And this year, after winning a third ring, Green warned us, “If we stay together, only old age will get us — and not anytime soon.”
It is that “If we stay together” that lingers now, a flicker of hope in the otherwise dark reality that this season is merely the same mundane exercise in inevitably as the two before it. The rumblings of Durant leaving his cushy gig have grown louder in recent months, culminating in the prediction from The Athletic’s Marcus Thompson II this week that “Kevin Durant is gone after this season,” which outlined why the two-time Finals MVP’s lack of commitment has the organization concerned.
Then, there’s DeMarcus Cousins, the fifth All-Star who signed on this summer, and his proven track record of not keeping it together. Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey called the signing “curious,” openly wondering “how to make it work” on paper, which might have just been a man obsessed with beating the Warriors trying to convince himself that it was still possible. But there are real questions about how a post-Achilles injury Cousins fits on and off the court in Golden State.
There are also questions about the Warriors’ depth, behind Cousins at the traditional center spot and beyond his four potential USA Basketball teammates everywhere else. There are worse problems to have than wondering where the production will come from after your first five All-Stars, but there’s no debating the impact Iguodala and Shaun Livingston have had as super-subs these past four years. Those two are 34 and 33 years old, respectively, and the rest of Golden State’s bench is as young and unproven as they are old and battle-tested. These are threads of hope the league is hanging onto.
Mostly, though, Iguodala is right. The rest of the league is just hoping that Durant and/or Stephen Curry, both of whom turned 30 this year and have dealt with a series of leg injuries in their careers, aren’t firing on all cylinders when the playoffs come around. This and the potential that the forthcoming free agencies of Durant and Klay Thompson fuel some questions about cohesiveness.
There is a toll that a fifth straight chase for the Finals will put on the Warriors. Both David West and Livingston expressed relief after this most recent title, suggesting that it took some mind-melding from coach Steve Kerr for Golden State to hold it together during a “B.S.” regular season. Kerr wasn’t shy about telling us how difficult it is to motivate a group that’s been there and done that.
“To say you’d feel the same excitement and enthusiasm as the first time, that’s a lie,” Green told reporters at media day last month. “It’s just not possible. You get to the point of finding games within the game. This year it’s about the center spot, making up for guys who left, just trying to get better.”
So, the Warriors are counting on Cousins to be their motivation this year. That seems, well, uninspired.
In other words … there’s a decent chance the Warriors are pretty vulnerable this season, right? RIGHT?!
Let’s take a look at the few teams that might be able to talk themselves into that being a thing:
The Boston Celtics
As we already discussed, the Celtics are younger, hungrier and deeper than the Warriors, which may not matter a whole lot when Golden State essentially starts a U.S. Olympic team against them, but it was enough to convince Klay Thompson, “I think that they are going to be a team to reckon with.”
Boston’s starting lineup features three established All-Stars and a pair of recent No. 3 overall picks with that kind of potential. Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown can spread you out on offense, with all five starters capable of creating shots and draining them from distance, and they can shrink the floor on defense, where their length and switch-ability should limit the leverage that Golden State creates in mismatches. And then the Celtics can unleash a wave of players off the bench who started 42 games during their run to the 2018 Eastern Conference finals.
If the Warriors can’t stay together — this year or next — the Celtics are primed to take advantage.
The Houston Rockets
Houston lost gritty wings Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute from the team that took the Warriors to Game 7 of last season’s Western Conference finals, replacing them with Carmelo Anthony, James Ennis and a cast of defensive-challenged options. I’m not convinced that’s the best recipe to close the gap with Golden State, but Morey won’t stop obsessing over ways to bridge the divide, starting with his rumored interest in acquiring Jimmy Butler, and there’s plenty of time to get there.
There’s also the chance they were already there, if not for the hamstring injury to Chris Paul at the end of a Game 5 win that gave Houston a 3-2 lead against Golden State. The rest was history, and the Rockets are hoping it doesn’t repeat itself, counting on a 33-year-old Paul to stay healthy and continue pairing with reigning MVP James Harden in the rare backcourt that rivals Golden State’s.
Harden and Paul’s Rockets may still be able to wreak havoc against the Warriors on both ends with the help of Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker and Clint Capela. Maybe there’s still hope for a rejuvenated Melo. Maybe Butler will ride into town, cursing the entire team into competitiveness. That’s a lot of what-ifs, but this is the currency you must trade in when you’re chasing (arguably) the greatest team ever.
Maybe the Oklahoma City Thunder
Never underestimate Russell Westbrook, for he won’t ever stop trying to destroy you.
The back-to-back triple-double artist still has Paul George and Steven Adams and (a hopefully healthy by season’s end) Andre Roberson from a team that gave the Warriors problems a season ago — a team that seemed prepared to do some damage before the ball starting roll back downhill by midseason.
Jerami Grant will eat most minutes created by Melo’s move to Houston, which may prove as beneficial to OKC as it might be detrimental to Houston. Patrick Patterson is a bounce-back candidate. The new arrivals of Dennis Schroder and Nerlens Noel have as much potential for success as they do failure.
It’s an interesting cast of characters capable of giving anyone fits on a given night. Whether or not they can scrape enough consistency together to do it four times over a series is the real question.
Possibly the Toronto Raptors
Toronto is a 59-win team that replaced perennial postseason under-performer DeMar DeRozan with Kawhi Leonard, a two-way monster of a man who almost single-handedly had the Warriors on the ropes in Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference finals, before he injured his ankle, a 20-point lead vanished, and his 61-win San Antonio Spurs lost all hope of upsetting the Warriors.
Questions have followed Leonard from San Antonio to Toronto since — over the mysterious quadriceps injury that cost him all but nine games last season and his commitment to the team amid reports of his interest in signing with his hometown Lakers next summer. But, if Leonard becomes that monster again — a two-time Defensive Player of the Year winner and MVP contender who Michael Jordan called the game’s best two-way player — the Raptors are another East force to reckon with.
They have Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka, all of whom have been to conference finals before, and Danny Green, who won a title with Leonard in San Antonio. There bench is loaded with young, improving and highly switch-able talent capable of matching any lineup you throw at them. It all comes back to Leonard, though, and whether he can be a one-man wrecking crew again.
Maybe, possibly the Philadelphia 76ers
Philadelphia has Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, two under-25 stars with MVP potential, and if ever they were to realize it this season, the sky’s the limit for the 76ers. First, Embiid has to play more than 63 games in a season, Simmons has to find a jumper and the Sixers have to figure out whether Markelle Fultz can give them anything, but there’s a lot of untapped potential here. That’s all it is now.
We’re not even sure his young and oddly constructed Lakers have enough talent to make the playoffs in a loaded Western Conference, but this is still LeBron James — one of the game’s greatest ever players, who hasn’t been kept out of the Finals since 2010, and who went supernova to take down the 73-win Warriors in 2016. As long as he’s still playing, there’s always a chance, even if it’s a slim one.
The Utah Jazz
Who are we kidding? The Warriors aren’t vulnerable. That’s just a hot take. But we had you believing.
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