Ranking Potential First-Round Opponents for the Golden State Warriors
If the Golden State Warriors had a choice, they'd rather stay healthy and keep improving than worry about who they'll face in the postseason.
With David Lee day-to-day, Andrew Bogut just coming back and still out of shape and Stephen Curry always an injury risk, the Warriors would do well to emerge from the regular season unscathed.
With just 18 games left in the season, players won't look ahead to the playoffs, but us fans, bloggers and writers sure will. Why else are people so excited about a potential Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs/Oklahoma City Thunder matchup in the first round?
As of now, the Warriors are 2.5 games ahead of the Utah Jazz, who are in ninth place, but with Utah's recent slide and tough schedule, it's hard to see the Warriors suffering a total collapse.
Seeing as it's the Warriors' first time playing meaningful games through mid-March with this core, they won't really mind who they play in the playoffs as long as they have a chance to taste success. However, there is a ranked list with which we can analyze the Warriors' preference in opponents, from most desired to least.
We can safely throw out the Los Angeles Lakers, Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz as potential first-round opponents because the closest team, the Rockets, is seven games out of fifth place. Granted, if the Warriors had a choice, they'd be playing in the Eastern Conference where the competition is easier. A round-robin tournament with 16 teams would suffice, but I digress.
All the following teams are better than the Warriors, but there is a pecking order in how the Warriors would like to match up them.
Los Angeles Clippers
The game of basketball, like most sports, is one of matchups and schemes, so while it may seem surprising that the Los Angeles Clippers are the most desired on the list, it isn't unfeasible that the Warriors steal a couple games on the road for a chance at a Game 7.
Blake Griffin is an excellent low-post player, but the non-offensive play of DeAndre Jordan works in favor of the Warriors. The defense is also neutralized because the Warriors simply don't take it to the basket enough to warrant such an advantage.
If the Warriors shoot well, they'll have a chance; it doesn't matter that much whether the interior defender is great or not.
Curry has also played well against the Clippers in 18 career games, averaging 18.3 points and 47.1 percent three-point shooting. The Clippers shoot middle-of-the-pack from three-point range, while the Warriors are the best in efficient three-point shooting. They might have to shoot more than 20 a game to have a chance.
Also, Vinny Del Negro isn't a coach known for great adjustments.
Some of the season's most entertaining games—well, all Warriors games are entertaining when they are high-scoring affairs—have been against the Denver Nuggets. The first meeting saw the Warriors let a lead slip away because they couldn't make free throws. A couple meetings later, the Dubs held on despite Andre Iguodala making a shot after the buzzer.
But that was the beginning of the season, and this is now, as the Nuggets are fifth in the Western Conference and streaking while the Warriors are struggling.
It is well-known that the Nuggets have the best home-court advantage in the NBA, and that doesn't bode well for plodders like Bogut and Lee. Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee would eat them alive in a long series. However, the Nuggets simply cannot shoot from long-range, ranking in the bottom third of the league.
With the Warriors' shooting prowess, they can get away with a couple losses on the road and perhaps even steal one because of the Nuggets' inability to shoot.
Last season, the Nuggets were torched by the big men of the Los Angeles Lakers, and a healthy Bogut along with a rejuvenated Lee can have the same effect on the offensive end. Ultimately, the Nuggets are much faster and better defensively for this to get too far.
San Antonio Spurs
Any other year and this would be a hellish task for the Warriors—and it still is—but the San Antonio Spurs' up-and-down offense does suit the Warriors a little better than its previous defensive dominance.
The Spurs play the seventh-fastest pace in the league right behind the Warriors, according to Hoopdata.com, so this isn't the worst-case scenario. However, the Spurs have a top-five MVP candidate in Tony Parker (currently injured), the best power forward of all time in Tim Duncan, and still an incredible playmaker (when healthy) in Manu Ginobili.
Toss in excellent role players like Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter, and we have a problem.
The Spurs are also third in the league in percentage of buckets assisted, according to Hoopdata.com.
With the way the Warriors have defended the three-point line in the past two months, the Spurs offense would take them to task in what would be a short series and perhaps a sweep.
If they were to play a big lineup with Tiago Splitter and Duncan, it would be hard for the Warriors to account for the size down low. In the last game between the two teams, Splitter was able to manhandle Harrison Barnes down low.
Before winning their last game against San Antonio, the Warriors had lost 16 straight to the Spurs. That is no harbinger of future performance, but it's a depressing indication of the way the Warriors play against the Spurs' ever-changing style.
With or without Rudy Gay, the Memphis Grizzlies present a painstakingly tough matchup because of their suffocating defense on the wings and inside.
They own the second-best defensive efficiency, ranking only behind the Indiana Pacers. They also allow the fourth-least threes in the league, a paltry 17.8 per game. Because of Curry and Thompson's ability to stretch the floor, the Grizzlies defense will provide a tough task for the Warriors.
Without the ability to stretch the floor, and with Marc Gasol suffocating Lee's post play, the Warriors don't stand much of a chance.
With all that being said, the Warriors have played Memphis in close games this season, so it isn't an impossible task. It's just that the Warriors' toughness usually gets out-toughed by Memphis' stars.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The favorites and defending Western Conference champions, the Oklahoma City Thunder present the toughest series for any team besides the Miami Heat, but that's a breakdown for another day.
Without James Harden, the Thunder haven't missed a beat statistically—although one may argue they might in the playoffs—and they won't if they face off against the Warriors in the first round.
The defense for the Thunder isn't quite there yet, but it won't matter in a short series. No team can stay in front of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, but the Warriors will have an especially tough time with Lee guarding the middle.
If the Thunder can ever figure out when to bench Kendrick Perkins, Bogut would have a tough time staying in the middle with players like Serge Ibaka. It isn't that Bogut is a bad player, but his unwillingness to make a statement on the offensive end is stunting the Warriors' potential—yet they are still a better team with him.
Perhaps Andrew Bogut is the key to the Warriors' playoff success, but it doesn't seem likely this season.
None of the above teams are good matchups for the Warriors, but the team that's favored to head to the Finals would make extremely quick work of a most-likely fatigued Warriors team by April.