At this point in the season with both the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors at the top of their respective conferences, it seems like all signs are pointing to a Cavs vs. Warriors Finals, which would be the first time in league history where two teams met three consecutive times in the NBA finals. However, before we call off the season and the first three rounds of the postseason, let’s look at some teams with somewhat legitimate cases to take down one of these two conference goliaths.
And if you are a Jazz, Grizzly, Thunder or Celtic fan, I’m going to forewarn you, your team did not make the cut, but I’ll give you a quick explanation why for each team:
The Memphis Grizzlies and Utah Jazz both didn’t make the cut because they are two of the three slowest teams in the league, and their personnel does not necessarily give them the ability to play faster lineups. The closest thing that the Grizzlies have to a small-ball five is JaMychal Green, who has only actually played one percent of his minutes at centre, while the closest thing that the Jazz have is Trey Lyles, who has only played five percent of his minutes there, and is not nearly quick enough to keep up with a guy like Draymond Green.
Even if you would like to make the case that Russell Westbrook would be the best player in the series (which I disagree with, but the argument is understandable), that would really be the only thing that these Oklahoma City Thunder have over the Golden State Warriors, and at this point, you must be one delusional cupcake-shirt wearing Thunder fan to disagree, as the Warriors have simply mopped the floor with the Oklahoma City Thunder, with their closest game being a 16 point blowout, in which OKC was at home, and Russell Westbrook had an incredible 47/11/8, on an almost un-Westbrook 69.3% true shooting percentage, and sure, he had 11 turnovers, but that was more the Warriors suffocating defense than him being off his game. If the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder do face off in the playoffs, I predict that the Thunder will suffer a bigger loss than Kevin Durant.
The Boston Celtics did not make it for the simple reason that they are too small. LeBron usually eats up teams that can’t out-rebound the Cavs, no matter how close they are in the standings, and with a team like the Celtics, whose best rebounder, in Tyler Zeller (14.1 rebound percentage), gets no minutes, and whose leader in rebounds per game is a 6’2” shooting guard, in Avery Bradley (6.9 rebounds per game), the Celtics will just get eaten up by the Cavs. Don’t believe me, ask Celtics’ center, Al Horford, who is currently sitting at a solid 0-8 in the NBA playoffs against the Cleveland Cavaliers, and who the Cavs held to an atrocious 4.1 rebounds per game in those two series. Although I don’t think that the Cavs would necessarily sweep the Celtics, like they did with Horford’s Hawks teams, as they do have a stronger roster than those Hawks teams. However, they certainly would beat them by a large margin.
5. Houston Rockets
When the Golden State Warriors won the NBA Championship in 2015, then Warriors assistant coach, Alvin Gentry was quoted on saying that this NBA championship was “vindication for Mike D’Antoni.” This is because Steve Kerr built the Warriors on Mike D’Antoni’s principles of ball movement, quick decisions and boatloads of three-point shooting, or as the Warriors would call it, wagon-loads of three-point shooting, similar to the style that Gentry assisted on with the Steve Nash led Phoenix Suns.
Now, it’s unarguable that Steve Kerr has seen more success playing this imitation style of D’Antoni’s seven seconds or less offense, but since coming back into the league as head coach of the Houston Rockets, D’Antoni has come back to form, putting the Houston Rockets back into championship contention, making NBA fans forget both the 2015-2016 Houston Rockets regular season and D’Antoni’s stints in New York and Los Angeles.
This is mostly because Rockets general manager, Daryl Morey, has put together almost perfect pieces for Mike D’Antoni. They run a nice nine to ten man rotation, filled with offensive load carrying guards, in James Harden and Eric Gordon, three-and-d options, in Patrick Beverley and Trevor Ariza, stretch fours, in Ryan Anderson and Sam Dekker, and quick pick-and-roll flourishing, and board grabbing bigs, in Clint Capela and Montrezl Harrell.
This roster makeup really is the ideal group of players for D’Antoni to work with, as it gives him a consistent playing style, with many lineup options, almost custom-fit for D’Antoni’s fast pace style. This team can definitely keep up with the Warriors, and although they do not necessarily have the star power that the Warriors have, they do matchup pretty well, as the Warriors two best scorers, in Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, will be matched up with the Rockets two best defenders, in Patrick Beverley (1.5 defensive box plus-minus) and Trevor Ariza (1.1 defensive box plus minus).
The chances are that if the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors meet in the playoffs, the Warriors will likely come out victorious, as they would probably be just a bit too much to handle for the Rockets. However, this is not definite, and I expect the Rockets to put quite the fight up against the Warriors, with their similar playing style, capable defense, strong three-point shooting, and of course, the beard himself, James Harden will be sure to put up a fight.
4. Washington Wizards
If their nail-biting overtime loss earlier this month says anything, it’s that the Washington Wizards have the ability to scare the Cleveland Cavaliers if the two teams meet in the playoffs. After starting off slow, with a record of two and eight, the Washington Wizards have turned it around completely, with a current record of 33-21, with career seasons from starters John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter, and now the team is sitting comfortably at third in the Eastern conference. New Wizards head coach, Scott Brooks has seemingly turned, what seemed like Randy Wittman’s tired formula of last year, into a contending team in the Eastern conference. But how did he do it?
For starters, the Washington Wizards starting unit of Wall, Beal, Porter, Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat is tied for best in the league, with a plus/minus of +255, which is +138 better than the Cavs highest plus/minus lineup of Kyrie Irving, DeAndre Liggins, LeBron James, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson. This starting lineup has contributed to most of their success, and will likely be the biggest threat to the Cleveland Cavaliers if the two teams meet in the playoffs. John Wall’s constant driving (11.3 drives per game) to the basket frees up a lot of space for terrific shooters, Bradley Beal (59.6% catch-and-shoot effective field goal percentage) and Otto Porter (67.5% catch-and-shoot effective field goal percentage), while Morris is a good complementary player and Marcin Gortat is a great rebounder (18.7% rebounding percentage), and a good post up player with a 65.9% field goal percentage on shots from the post, and those shots could come easier against the undersized Tristan Thompson. The Wizards starting lineup has really built some terrific chemistry this year, and are getting great results because of it, and if the unit can keep playing as well as it has, it could give the Cavaliers a very hard time.
However, there is a glaring problem with the Washington Wizards, which does not look like it will be fixed. The team lacks depth and has given just one player consistent playing time off the bench, in Kelly Oubre at 20.8 minutes per game. It is pretty unlikely that this will change for the Wizards at this point in the season, but if the Wizards can somehow get better minutes from their bench players, they will definitely be a handful for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
I know that the last time the Los Angeles Clippers beat the Golden State Warriors was on Christmas Day, 2014 and that the Warriors are currently on a nine-game winning streak against the Clippers, however, the Clippers may have a bit of an excuse, as in six of those games, one of Blake Griffin, Chris Paul or JJ Redick sat out with injury, and out of the three remaining losses to the Golden State Warriors, two were within four points, meaning that when healthy, the Clippers have the ability to keep up with the Golden State Warriors.
Much like the Houston Rockets, the Los Angeles Clippers are well matched for the Golden State Warriors, as they also conveniently have two great defenders, in Chris Paul (1.6 defensive box plus-minus) and Luc Mbah a Moute (1.6 defensive box plus minus), at the same positions as Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. However, the Clippers also have the luxury of athletic big men, in stars Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, which could possibly counteract the impact of the Warriors Death Star Lineup, as they will have the ability to keep up with them and out-rebound them in those circumstances. Also unlike in previous years, the Los Angeles Clippers have actually built themselves quite the bench, as they have added savvy veterans, Raymond Felton and Marreese Speights to their bench core of Jamal Crawford and Austin Rivers, to create some decent lineup combinations. However, their bread and butter is still their starting lineup of Paul, Redick, Mbah a Moute, Griffin and Jordan, who have put together the third best plus/minus lineup combination in the league, only trailing the Golden State Warriors and Washington Wizards starting lineups, which have both spent significantly more time on the floor together than the Clippers unit.
But that really is the biggest problem for the Los Angeles Clippers, as they have been very injury prone for the majority of the Clippers Paul-Griffin-Jordan era, especially throughout the past two years, as last year Paul and Griffin were both injured mid-playoff series against the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the playoffs, causing them to lose that series in six games, despite starting the series up two to nothing. And this year, their struggles have only continued, as Blake Griffin missed 19 games this season with a right knee injury, and Chris Paul has been out since January 17, with a hand injury. However, if by some miracle, the Golden State Warriors can play a healthy LA Clippers team in a playoff series, the team might actually put up a good fight against the Warriors.
2. Toronto Raptors
Before I get yelled at in the comment section for it, yes I am aware of the Raptors recent play, where they have only won four of their past 15 games, and have tried starting six different players, in Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell, Lucas Nogueira, Jared Sullinger, Patrick Patterson and Jakob Poeltl, with their starting regulars, Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll and Jonas Valanciunas. But on Tuesday, the Toronto Raptors finally eradicated that problem, by trading Terrence Ross and a first round pick to the Orlando Magic for a power forward Serge Ibaka.
With the addition of Serge Ibaka, the Raptors now get to try out many different lineup options, as he is the perfect combo big. He is definitely quick enough, and a good enough shooter (38.8% three-point percentage) to play power forward, and his rim protection (2.4 career blocks per game) and size (6’10”, 7’3” wingspan) are perfect for that of a small-ball five. This means that when the Cleveland Cavaliers inevitably go small against the Raptors in a potential playoff series, the Raptors do not need to settle for having guys like Valanciunas, Nogueira or Patrick Patterson play centre, which in Valanciunas’s case, stunts their speed, in Nogueira’s case, stunts their offense, or in Patterson’s case, stunts their rim protection. And let’s not forget that the Raptors did take the Cavs to six games last year with no Ibaka and an injured Valanciunas. And now if the team improves with the addition of Ibaka, which they probably will, the Toronto Raptors could be the most versatile team they’ve ever been, matching the Cavs in depth, with a nice bench unit of Cory Joseph, Norman Powell, Patrick Patterson and Lucas Nogueira, and they could possibly even match the Cavs starting lineup, with the addition of Ibaka.
They also now have the have the ability to play four capable defenders on LeBron James, in DeMarre Carroll, Serge Ibaka, Patrick Patterson and Norman Powell, rather than putting one guy on LeBron for an entire series, which usually ends with LeBron exploiting the hell out of them, while throwing the occasional dunk on, or making the occasional crazy pass by the defender, just to remind all of us that he still is LeBron James. But if the Raptors look good with this new power forward, we could quite see a tight series between the two Eastern conference teams.
But that’s always been the problem with the Toronto Raptors, as just like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get. They can go three and one on a team in the regular season, and then get swept by that team in the first round of the playoffs (2015 NBA playoffs first round versus the Washington Wizards), they can go 56-26, and then barely come out alive against a 44-38 team (2016 NBA playoffs first round versus the Indiana Pacers), and then a 48-34 team (2016 NBA playoffs second round versus the Miami Heat), where their two best players, having career years, get cold in the blink of an eye come April. So for that reason, along with the simple fact that the Cleveland Cavaliers do have LeBron James, the Cavs would still probably beat the Raptors in a playoff series, but this move is definitely a step in the right direction.
1. San Antonio Spurs
How could number one not be the San Antonio Spurs? For about the 1000th time in league history, the team has pretty much gone unnoticed, while sporting a 75% win percentage. Led by the GOAT of all coaches, Gregg Popovich and the certifiable superstar, Kawhi Leonard, the team has been destroying this year with the league’s sixth-best offensive rating (112.3) and of course, the league’s best defensive rating (103.9).
The thing that separates the Spurs from everyone else on this list is the fact that when the Spurs and Warriors hopefully play each other in the playoffs this year, the Warriors might have to adjust to the Spurs, rather than the other way around. This was quite evident on the NBA’s opening night when the Spurs beat the Warriors by 29 points, as the Spurs played the offensively skilled, but slow, LaMarcus Aldridge over 35 minutes, and Aldridge made use of his time, with 26 points and 14 rebounds. And although that was just the first game of the season, and the Spurs have not played another game against the Warriors this year, it showed that against the Spurs, the Warriors need to do more than just play quick, as that is exactly what the Spurs are great at stopping, as the team has played the sixth least possessions per game in the NBA, at 94.6. And with their offensively savvy big men, Aldridge, Pau Gasol and David Lee, they might even force the Warriors to play a bit slower. And more so than any other team on this list, the Spurs have the perfect defender to match up on Kevin Durant, in Kawhi Leonard, who is a two-time defensive player of the year, currently sporting a 1.3 defensive box plus-minus and a 43.7% opposing field goal percentage.
More than any other team in the NBA, the Spurs have the possibility to break up this potential NBA Finals’ rubber match, and that is because the team model is just so hard to break. While the NBA changes to a quicker, faster model, the Spurs have pretty much stayed the same. In fact, since 2010-2011, the team has always played with between 92 and 95 possessions per game, have had 21 to 23 three-point attempts per game every year but 2015-2016, have had between 22 and 26 assists per game, and between 41 and 44 rebounds per game, while rostering a wide variety of players.
However, somehow because of Gregg Popovich, the San Antonio Spurs have consistently been able to utilize new players in the same manner as their old player, similar to the philosophical idea, known as Theseus’s Paradox, where throughout time a ship has replaced all of its parts with new parts, but still technically remains the same ship. Similarly, without franchise GOAT Tim Duncan, the San Antonio Spurs have still been able to remain the same great San Antonio Spurs team, just with a couple new faces. The Spurs will consistently be one of the best teams in the league, and if they maintain their slower pace, and make the Warriors adjust to them, I could very much see the Spurs coming out of this series victorious.