5 Teams the Golden State Warriors Must Outperform to Make the Postseason

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 26, 2012

5 Teams the Golden State Warriors Must Outperform to Make the Postseason

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    Someday, the Western Conference schedule won’t feel like a nightly death march through a trip-wired minefield. Someday, there may not be 14 teams who’d easily make the top eight if they played in the East.

    But that day is not today.

    The Western Conference is as tough as ever this season. So the Golden State Warriors will have to soldier on, doing battle with yet another insanely competitive slate of games in their quest for a playoff berth.

    The top six spots out West are earmarked (in rough order) for the Oklahoma City Thunder, L.A. Lakers, L.A. Clippers, San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets and Memphis Grizzlies. Each of those squads were playoff teams a year ago, and each one has either gotten better (the Lakers) or gotten hungrier (the Thunder). Consider these six teams playoff locks.

    The Utah Jazz also made the dance last season, and have a very young, very capable frontcourt quartet of Derrick Favors, Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Enes Kanter. Plus, they added Mo and Marvin Williams to their areas of greatest need: point guard and small forward. Tentatively, they’re penciled in as the No. 7 seed.

    On the flip side, we can flatly rule out the mismanaged, mismatched and essentially homeless Sacramento Kings. It'll be a while before they're out of the Western Conference cellar.

    The rebuilt, Jeremy Lin-led Houston Rockets aren’t going to make it, either. They’re too young and lack anything approaching superstar talent.

    So where does that leave the Warriors?

    Well, it’s possible that everything could break right for the Dubs in 2012-13, which might allow them to climb up to the sixth or seventh spot. Conceivably, they've got enough depth and talent on the roster to hop over Utah, and possibly even Memphis.

    But however you cut it, there are still five teams the Golden State Warriors absolutely must outplay this year if there’s to be any hope of a visit to the postseason.

Phoenix Suns

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    Aside from the Kings and Rockets, the Phoenix Suns will be the easiest Western Conference foe for the Warriors to outclass this season.

    The Suns blew the whole thing up after parting ways with Steve Nash and now find themselves squarely in rebuilding mode. Goran Dragic, Luis Scola and Michael Beasley will provide scoring punch in the starting five, but none of the Suns' three biggest additions plays a lick of defense. Of course, the Suns haven't been north of the league average in that area for a decade, anyway. So don't expect that to change now.

    Phoenix boasted the NBA's eighth-most efficient offense last season, but watch for that rating to take a serious hit, as the offense will be without a certain ultra-efficient Canadian element.

    The Suns are starting over, and they're doing it the right way. They've created almost $7 million in cap space, have five first-round picks and five second-round picks over the next three seasons and Dragic is the team's highest-paid player at just $7.5 million a year.

    All that's great for the future in Phoenix, but it also means the current roster isn't ready to compete with the Warriors. Going down the lineup, a healthy Andrew Bogut is better than Marcin Gortat at center, David Lee is at least as good as Scola, whoever the Warriors start at small forward will be a better team player than Beasley, Klay Thompson's superior to any of the Suns' options at the two and Stephen Curry is a step up from Dragic.

    Starter for starter, the Suns aren't in the same league as the Dubs.

    Factor in Phoenix's lack of bench depth—Channing Frye, the Suns' best substitute, is out indefinitely with heart trouble—and it's no contest.

    Golden State can and must finish ahead of the Suns—who are rising, but a long way from shining—in the West.

Portland Trail Blazers

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    Last season, the Portland Trail Blazers won 28 games to the Warriors' 23, but neither squad sniffed a postseason berth. So, in order to make the playoffs, the Dubs must improve in general, but they've also got to make more progress than the Blazers do.

    Fortunately, they've done both.

    Golden State played nearly half a season last year without their starting backcourt. Stephen Curry missed all but 20 games and Monta Ellis was shipped out after playing just 37. Plus, the Warriors shut down David Lee for the season's final eight contests. There were only a handful of games that saw Golden State playing at full strength last year.

    Andrew Bogut will be a monstrous upgrade over the cavalcade of D-League call-ups and undersized replacements the Warriors fielded at the 5 last year. And Klay Thompson should improve as a full-time starter. Plus, the bench is deeper, with Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry the team's new key reserves. So, there's clear reason to believe Golden State stands to make a marked improvement.

    On the other hand, Portland won't have starting center and leading rebounder Marcus Camby (traded to Houston after 40 games last year, and now with the Knicks), starting point guard Raymond Felton (also now a Knick), Gerald Wallace (traded to Brooklyn after 40 games in Portland) or key reserve Jamal Crawford, who left as a free agent..

    Rookies Damian Lillard and Meyers Leonard will take the places of the Blazers' departed.

    While both of the Blazers' lottery picks have bright futures—especially Lillard, a dynamic scoring point guard—neither figure to make major impacts as first-year players.

    LaMarcus Aldridge is still a borderline All-Star, but the Blazers haven't surrounded him with much scoring punch or veteran help. So, overall, Portland figures to slip in the standings this season while their young additions mature.

    There's no question the Blazers—who actually have star-quality players in Aldridge and, eventually, Lillard—present a bigger threat to the Warriors than the Suns. But given Golden State's improvements since last season, it shouldn't be a problem for the Warriors to beat out the Blazers for a playoff spot.

New Orleans Hornets

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    Behold the Brow!

    The New Orleans Hornets will feature a ton of new pieces this season. Chief among them will be No. 1 overall selection Anthony Davis. Davis figures to be a top-flight NBA big man and elite defensive force immediately. Not to mention, he's a ridiculously efficient offensive player with tons of room to grow. He'll single-handedly reshape the Hornets' future, and he makes them a playoff threat right now.

    But he'll have help, too.

    Eric Gordon, whom the Hornets maxed out in order to retain, will be healthy and starting at shooting guard. Gordon's been just a hair away from All-Star caliber so far in his career, but at just 23 years old, his return to health and likelihood of big minutes should push him into the league's upper echelon of back court scorers. He and Davis form a very young, very dangerous one-two punch.

    New Orleans also signed one of the league's best young shooters in Ryan Anderson. He'll stretch the floor with his 39-percent three-point stroke, opening driving lanes for Gordon and rookie Austin Rivers. Anderson also averaged nearly eight rebounds per game last year, so in addition to hot shooting, he'll help Davis out on the boards.

    The Hornets aren't particularly deep, with Rivers, Robin Lopez and Xavier Henry providing most of the reserve minutes, but they've got three very good NBA starters.

    Part of the reason New Orleans is a little thin—which is the main advantage the Warriors have over the Hornets—is that Golden State is now in possession of two players who started for them last year. Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry have switched allegiances and figure to give the Warriors one of the NBA's deepest benches.

    If the Hornets suffer an injury to any one of their "key three," they're cooked. But the Warriors can stomach an injury or two (as long as those two aren't Bogut and Curry) because of their bottomless supply of bench help.

    The Hornets are in the early stages of building a perennial playoff team, but until they surround their core with more capable role players, the Warriors should be able to outpace them in the Western Conference playoff race.

Minnesota Timberwolves

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    If Ricky Rubio was guaranteed to play a full season, this would be a very different slide. But as it is, the Spaniard has optimistically put his own return date sometime in December, meaning he'll miss at least a full month of games.

    Without their catalyst and on-court offensive coordinator, the Timberwolves were pretty darn awful last year, amassing a 5-20 record sans Rubio. As long as Rubio's sidelined—or playing at less than 100 percent—the Timberwolves aren't a playoff certainty.

    Whenever Rubio does return, he'll be joined by resident stat monster and rebound devourer Kevin Love. Love's cartoon numbers of the past two seasons would probably have put him in a few MVP conversations if his team had performed a little better. He's as sure a double-double lock as there is in the league.

    In addition, the Timberwolves have signed a couple of very interesting, if very risky, veterans to shore up the wings. If Brandon Roy stays reasonably healthy and Andrei Kirilenko is mentally present, the Wolves could be scary. After all, it's pretty rare to haul in a pair of recent All-Stars for relatively little money in one offseason.

    Center Nikola Pekovic broke out in his sophomore campaign last year, tallying 13.9 points and 7.4 rebounds while shooting 56 percent from the floor. He's a true bruiser who gives the Wolves some real toughness on the inside.

    Chase Budinger, newly acquired from the Houston Rockets, gives Minnesota some insurance if Roy or Kirilenko don't work out, and in the backcourt, J.J. Barea and Luke Ridnour are solid vets. And there's still the chance that last year's No. 2 overall pick, Derrick Williams, develops into a capable rotation player.

    On the whole, if the Timberwolves catch a few breaks on the health front and see a little progress from their young players, they can absolutely be a playoff team—and a very serious threat to the Warriors' postseason hopes.

    Golden State is certainly not without its own health issues, so the battle for a playoff spot between these two squads could come down to who has the best luck in the injury department. This one could truly be a toss-up.

Dallas Mavericks

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    Of the five teams on the Western Conference bubble, the Dallas Mavericks pose the most serious threat to the Warriors' playoff hopes—partly because the Mavs always make the postseason (12 years running), and partly because everyone on their roster has something to prove.

    Think about it. The players left over from last season—notably Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion—are out to show that their championship hangover was just a one-season thing. New shooting guard O.J. Mayo needs to prove he's a legitimate NBA starter after failing to do so in Memphis.

    Elton Brand and Chris Kaman are out to show they can still produce and stay healthy, respectively. And point guard Darren Collison, who averaged just 4.8 assists per game last year, will want to silence critics calling him an undersized off guard. Even backup guard Delonte West must feel the need to show he's still relevant in the NBA landscape.

    It seems like every Maverick has a chip on his shoulder, and that's usually a pretty good motivator.

    Make no mistake, Dallas underwent a major overhaul during the summer of 2012 and there's no way to know how the pieces will fit together this year. But despite missing out on Dwight Howard and Deron Williams, the Mavs recovered nicely by filling the roster with a half dozen capable newcomers.

    Head coach Rick Carlisle is as sharp a strategist as there is in the NBA, so if anyone can figure out how to engineer a playoff machine out of all the new components in Dallas, he's the guy. And don't count out a big move during the season, either. Mark Cuban isn't going to settle for mediocrity if this roster isn't cutting it after a couple of months.

    In the end, the Mavericks are precisely the kind of old-guard, perpetual playoff team the Warriors need to unseat if they want to make the postseason a regular spring appointment. These aren't the same Mavs that won a ring in 2011, but they've still got a Hall of Famer and a great coach. Sometimes, that's enough.

    Expect Dallas to push the Warriors to the limit in their quest to crack the top eight out West. With a balanced roster full of quality big men, a defensive anchor and capable shooters, Golden State is more prepared than ever to break into the postseason.

    But to do it, they'll have to knock off the Mavericks.