The Top 5 Challengers to Golden State’s Crown

Published by Dodsy.

Let’s be clear: The Golden State Warriors are favourites to win another ring this year. Clear favourites in fact. However, for the first time this season, cracks have appeared and a little bit of daylight has shone through, illuminating the way for other teams.

Disclaimer: This is under the assumption that no major injuries occur and all teams are in the positions they are at the time of writing this.

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Before we get started: Perhaps the greatest challenger to Golden State is actually Golden State themselves. Even by their laidback standards in the regular season they are losing games they shouldn’t be losing. Embedding Cousins has been up and down and relationships have been strained. We’ve seen this before but somehow this feels different. If they cannot pull themselves out of the funk then maybe a few other teams may steal their crown.

Teams like:

5) Oklahoma City Thunder

Any team in the West is at an immediate disadvantage. They have to get out of the conference with Golden State in, just to compete in the finals. Because of this, only 2 Western teams have made my ‘Top 5’ and OKC are one of them. Here’s why:

Russell Westbrook is everywhere. If ever there was a player who would give his last breath to compete, it was Russ. The man is on course to average a triple-double for the third season in a row (a feat so remarkable and yet now routine that we don’t bother even talking about it anymore!). Whilst he cannot carry the load as the first option for a team trying to take down the Warriors, having him as a leader and facilitator is a real plus. Especially when you pair him with Paul George.

Paul George has become a completely different animal this year. George is the league’s leading scorer for anyone not called James Harden (who let’s face it is in a league of his own). He brings in over 8 boards a night and is a leading candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. Suddenly, with Russ and George, Oklahoma have a hope of slowing down Durant and Curry. Do that and it is a different ball game.

OKC are a strong defensive team, which any group hoping to stop the Warriors needs. They out-rebound Golden State and record more blocks a game, helped in part by the size of Steven Adams. Dennis Schroder was a big pick up for them too. Do I think OKC will beat the Warriors in a 7-game series? No. But they have a chance and that is more than you can say for most of the rest of the league.

4) Milwaukee Bucks

It makes sense that the team with the best record in the NBA should be a threat to the Champions. They have a team full of shooters and a true MVP candidate in The Greek Freak. If they are to challenge for a ring they are going to have to play to their strengths.

Giannis Antetokounmpo may be the most unstoppable player since Lebron James when attacking the rim. Even Golden State’s solid defence cannot slow him down. If they don’t double him or collapse on him when driving he will score every time. So what is their only option? Surround him and stop him for going for 50. The problem then comes from his ability to share the ball, where he can hit any of his other starters and reliably expect 3 points. Antetokounmpo is supported by a plethora of talent. Khris Middleton is still underrated as Giannis’ sidekick, despite earning an All-Star call up, and Lopez continues to set records for 7-footers shooting the 3.

The Bucks are a young team and Bud has them playing fantastically but until Giannis really develops a jump shot, the Warrior’s defence should be able to force him into enough difficult shots to get through the series. But throughout this regular season, the Bucks have a much better record, especially in 3 point % which could be important.

So why only have them as fourth favourites? This one comes down to who wins the East and earns the right to take on (presumably) the Warriors. I like the Bucks and, although I think they have a real chance, I don’t see them winning their conference.

3) Houston Rockets

This one relies on one thing: James Harden. Now, granted we’ve all been here before. You know the script; the Rockets get a lead against the Warriors, look like winning and then choke. Harden is yet to prove his true worth in the playoffs and most people doubt he can perform under the brightest spotlights. But you cannot deny the form Harden is showing. It is probable that for the Rockets to win, Harden would need 4 games of 50+ but it is perfectly possible that he produces this. The man is unstoppable on the offensive end. At times this season he has picked up his team and carried them single-handedly on his back to victory.

I still rate Chris Paul and had he not gone down injured in Game 6 last season, they may well have closed out the series. He is definitely a player the Warriors don’t want to face. Throw in Capela and PJ Tucker’s defence and you have a chance. Interestingly, these 2 teams have met 4 times this year so far, with Houston winning 3 and losing out in a very tight game for the fourth.

The West is a dangerous place, especially come playoff times and seedings/matchups may determine whether these 2 even face one another but given their history, their squad and the greatness of James Harden, they are the most likely to challenge Golden State out west.

2) Toronto Raptors

As Skip Bayless will often tell anyone who will hear it, Kawhi had the Warriors down 23 points in Game One of the San Antonio series a couple of years ago, before he was injured (whether deliberately or not). Kawhi has the offensive grit and defensive prowess to stop anyone and in Toronto, he has found a home to match his lofty ambitions.

Thoughts that Lowry might sulk at the Raptors trading his best mate away disappeared when we saw his form this year. He is second in the league in assists and showing the kind of play that earnt him All-Star consideration so often. Danny Green is a really underrated pick up, Ibaka is having a dream season as are a lot of the other players on the roster, and the most promising thing is how well they play when Kawhi rests.

As with all the other Eastern Conference teams, they will have to survive the lottery of the early rounds, but to me, with Leonard on that squad they have a better chance than the Celtics or the Bucks to take down the Champions.

1) Philadelphia 76ers

The 76ers probably offer the best opportunity to match-up to the Warriors’ star-studded starting 5. Philli have 4 All-Star standard players in Embiid, Simmons, Butler and Harris and have the sharp-shooting Redick who cannot be left open. Of course, Golden State will cause problems but do they have an answer for the dominance of Embiid? Can they limit the facilitating ability of Simmons without just opening the lane for him to finish? If they can close down the two young superstars, do they have enough defensive support to stop Butler or Harris taking over? The defensive effort required to slow down a team like Philli will take a toll and it will be up to the 76ers to make them pay. After 2 games, the head-to-head sits at 1-1. Both games have been close; both games have shown how competitive this series would be.

Somewhat surprisingly, the numbers back them up as challengers. Comparing the 2 teams, the 76ers have a higher average of points, assists, rebounds and blocks as well as better FG% and FT%. Of course, this is against the regular season Warriors, and the numbers need to be taken with a pinch of salt, but it shows they can stay with them. Golden State can boast 5 legitimate All-Star starters but even the defensive powers of Draymond or Durant may not be enough to slow down The Process.

The other benefit the 76ers have is if this matchup is going to happen, the Warriors will have had to go through three tough rounds in the West to make the final. Sure, so will the 76ers, but if there was ever a better opportunity to beat the best team in the league, it is going to come when they are worn down and tired. The East is still regarded as the weaker conference, and as such, should provide an easier path through the final.

The bench is a concern for the 76ers and Golden State have all the experience of having been here for the last four years in a row but Philli have youth and with that comes a naïve belief that anything is possible. And maybe, just maybe, this year it will be.

Notable Absentees:

Boston Celtics: All the drama has shown they are not a cohesive enough team to really challenge this year.

Denver Nuggets: A fantastic season and some great guys around Jokic but lack of playoff experience will be their downfall.



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Shin Pads & Angry Dads

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