Who will be the (2nd) best team in the NBA?

John Wall, James Harden
Wikimedia/Creative Commons

After a dramatic offseason that included a star trade request away from Lebron James, the end of the Phil-Melo Knicks era, the shuffling of numerous top-20 players and KD’s cringe-worthy Twitter behavior, the NBA is back and better than ever. Everyone knows Golden State is the title favorite, but instead of responding to the Warriors’ seemingly inevitable dominance with fear, many of the top teams loaded up hoping to be the spoiler. Which will give the Warriors the biggest challenge?

1. Cleveland Cavaliers

Let’s not get too excited about the moves some of these teams made this offseason — James still represents the largest threat to the Warriors’ throne, and will for at least the next couple of years. That being said, the Cavaliers have some significant questions they need to answer.

How soon will new point guard Isaiah Thomas be back to full form? By June, he should be healthy and performing well, but do not expect him to repeat the career year he had last season (28.9 PPG on 62.5 percent true shooting, first among starting guards).

What will the starting and closing lineups look like? Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue has already announced that Kevin Love would be starting at center, which would bump Tristan Thompson to the bench. A starting lineup of IT-Wade-James-Crowder-Love will miss Thompson’s ability to switch effectively on screens and move his feet well against the Warriors. His absence from the starting lineup will hurt their help defense. He was at least average, while Love has never been able to be effective on rotations. James and Jae Crowder will have a tough time rotating from their men (Kevin Durant, Draymond Green), so there will be wide open 3s and dunks to go around.

I still think we have all learned to never underestimate James. Last year’s 4-1 series was much closer than the score indicates. The Cavs could and should have won Game 3 (up 6, J.R. Smith open for three with 2:33 left), and we saw their ultimate offensive potential in Game 4, scoring 137 points with an NBA record 24 threes. Of course, that was a much different team with Kyrie Irving as second-banana, but Thomas and Dwyane Wade should be able to replace most of Irving’s playmaking when James needs a break. Don’t write off these Cavs just yet.

2) Houston Rockets

The combination of Chris Paul and James Harden is as dangerous as it is intriguing. You have to believe that offensive mastermind Mike D’Antoni can figure out a way to accommodate both of these ball-dominant superstars. Couple that with some shooters, rim-rollers, just a smidge of defense (Trevor Ariza, Eric Gordon, P.J Tucker, Clint Capela and Ryan Anderson) and you’ve got the third strongest team in the league.

The issue here is not whether Harden and Paul can figure out how to coexist on the court. Each should get their seven to eight minutes of controlling the floor while the other rests, and they can play off of each other’s pick-and-roll prowess and penetration.

The problem is with the defensive weak links. The Warriors are a special kind of cruel — they will single out their opponent’s one weakness (which wouldn’t necessarily be an issue against any other team in the league) and exploit it ruthlessly. Who is that? Anderson. Anderson is a fine player who provides the Rockets with abnormal, and crucial, levels of spacing — he regularly will let it fly and make threes from 5 feet behind the line. However, the Warriors have historically ran him off the floor by involving him in pick-and-rolls and defensive rotations that he simply cannot execute. The Rockets will also have to hope some of Paul’s defensive intensity rubs off on Harden, who has historically been a weak point, in order to contain the Warriors’ backcourt.

This year, Houston’s response will be free-agent signing Tucker. A lineup of Paul-Harden-Tucker-Ariza-Capela is pretty great both defensively and offensively, but putting Tucker in Anderson’s place will sometimes stall the offense and hurt the spacing that Paul and Harden need to penetrate. He is an average shooter in a position where D’Antoni’s scheme requires elite deep threats.

The Rockets can go nine-deep with Tucker, Gordon, Nenê and Luc Mbah a Moute off the bench. They still have tremendous shooting and finally have another playmaker to lead and allow Harden to breathe for a bit. Without an extremely hot stretch of shooting in the playoffs, I’m not sure what they can do to become a bigger threat to the Warriors than the Cavs.

3) Oklahoma City Thunder

After a subpar 2016 for general manager Sam Presti (signing mediocre shooting guard Victor Oladipo to a 4 year, $84 million contract), he bounced back and showed us why he still is one of the best managers in the business. Turning Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis, Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott and a second-round pick into Paul George and Carmelo Anthony was nothing short of masterful. He also made fantastic free agent signings in Raymond Felton and Patrick Patterson, both of whom should help the Thunder immediately.

The most significant problem for the 2016-17 Thunder was the minutes that reigning MVP Russell Westbrook spent on the bench. Without another suitable point guard or playmaker, the second unit crumbled and lost many games on their own, both in the regular season and the playoffs. With all of Presti’s additions, they seem to have solved this problem two times over. Carmelo still seems capable of carrying a team offensively for three- to four-minute stretches – but giving him anything more than that would be reckless. If head coach Billy Donovan staggers Westbrook’s and George’s minutes, George will have significant time as the primary ball handler as well.

Westbrook should be able to alter his incredibly ball-dominant style of play to accommodate these new stars; he has seemed genuinely excited and ready to share the floor during the preseason. The problem with the old group in the playoffs was his tacit refusal to share the ball down the stretch. Whether it was justified because of a lack of talent around him or shameful because of what many considered to be selfish basketball, I do not expect a repeat this year.

What kind of lineups can the Thunder throw out there? The projected starting lineup, Russ-Roberson-George-Anthony-Adams, has two significant liabilities: Carmelo’s defense and André Roberson’s offense. Last year, we saw Roberson take three seconds to wind up from the corner and clank it against the backboard time and time again. As for Carmelo, the Warriors will delight in screening with his man for either Durant or Curry. Against the death lineup, they will have little choice but to have both of these liabilities on the court and try and work around it, as Patterson and Steven Adams could not both be on the floor against a lineup with Draymond Green at center.

 

Against the Warriors’ regular starting lineup, do not be surprised if the Thunder counter with substituting Patterson for Melo. The Warriors only go to the death lineup for small parts of games, so this lineup of Russ-Roberson-George-Patterson-Adams is the single most threatening to the Warriors defensively. All of these players (Russ when he wants to be) are positive defenders and have the potential to truly stifle the defending champs.

This team’s ceiling against the Warriors is higher than Houston’s because of this and could even challenge Cleveland’s unit. However, it will be hard for them to get there. On offense, Westbrook, George and Donovan would need to figure out how work around the spacing issues presented by Roberson and two big men. If they end up piecing it together, the rest of the NBA should be on high alert.

4) San Antonio Spurs

Will this finally be the year the Spurs regress all the way to, say, 52 wins? On paper, it sure looks like it. LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Rudy Gay and Manu Ginóbili are all players that you would have rather had 3 years ago. None of their young players look like they will become solid starters, except for maybe point guard Dejounte Murray. Kawhi Leonard will need to put forth another superhuman effort to propel this team to 60 wins and a strong playoff seed.

Assuming Leonard’s full health, which is a potential issue (he has been ruled out for the whole preseason rehabbing his right quad), this team may be able to give the Warriors a good series. We saw the Spurs completely outclass them in the first half of game one of last year’s Western Conference Finals before Leonard’s injury, but I would not expect that success to carry over to these playoffs. The Warriors were caught off guard by Popovich countering their small-ball with both Aldridge and Gasol and the Spurs were making shots unsustainably. Murray will likely be the starting point guard for the majority of the year, considering that they cannot rely on the aging, injured Tony Parker for 30+ minutes a night anymore.

While their starting lineup of Murray-Green-Leonard-Aldridge-Gasol should have success in the regular season, they will have problems in the playoffs. Neither Aldridge nor Gasol are above average rim protectors; this lack of defensive upside should lead Popovich to put Rudy Gay in for either big man, increasing spacing and defensive speed. Still, Gay is coming off a ruptured Achilles that he suffered in January, and he has never been a player who thrives in a motion offense like that of the Spurs. Against the Warriors’ death lineup, he would have to guard Andre Iguodala, with Aldridge/Gasol on Draymond. The Warriors are too smart not to exploit both of these matchups by putting the ball in Green’s hands and spreading the floor out.

The Spurs bench is not looking too formidable either. Come playoffs, Pop will be counting on Manu, Patty Mills, Tony Parker and Rudy Gay off the bench. Compared to the depth that OKC, Houston and Cleveland will enjoy, this falls quite short.

Barring injury, it should be the Warriors hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy in June once again, but the road to the championship will be tougher because of the strengthened teams at the top.

Dev Navani writes for Bear Bytes, the Daily Californian’s sports blog. Contact him at [email protected].