Top 5 Teams That Can Challenge the Golden State Warriors for the NBA Title
The Golden State Warriors are the best team in the NBA this season. There can be no argument, as they have earned that right by beating every team they have faced this season (lost to the Milwaukee Bucks, then beat them the following week). With a 28-1 record, the Warriors don't have the makeup of a team that is suffering from a championship hangover.
To say any team can beat the Warriors in a seven-game series at this point in the season seems highly unlikely. But for as good as Golden State has been and for as great as Stephen Curry and Draymond Green have been playing, there are holes in this team. The Warriors turn the ball over a lot and they live and die by the three-ball.
It's not to say this will come back to haunt them later on in the playoffs—they just won a title doing this last season—but there are teams out there in the league that can make the most off creating turnovers on offense and can also defend on the perimeter. There are only five teams that have a realistic shot of overthrowing the Warriors in the playoffs this season, as you will see through the following slides.
It is important, however, to keep in mind that some teams in this ranked list are in the Eastern Conference and may not have the opportunity to play the Warriors in the playoffs. But at this point, it's anyone's guess as to who can defeat the Warriors, who are playing like champions once again.
5) Atlanta Hawks
The Atlanta Hawks are currently in second place in the Eastern Conference and seem to be off the league's radar for some reason. Not many people are talking about the Hawks and how they are currently on a six-game win streak, currently the best streak in the NBA.
They rank fourth in the NBA in team shooting (46.2 percent) and are second in the NBA in assists per game with 25.3, just 3.2 assists per game less than the Warriors. With the likes of Al Horford, Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap, the Hawks offense is dangerous against any team. But of those three players aforementioned, Millsap is the key for the Hawks in defeating the Warriors.
Golden State has a Swiss army knife in Green, who looks to be in good shape for making his first career All-Star Game this season. But Millsap is eerily similar to Green in many respects:
|Green (per-game averages)||Millsap (per-game averages)|
|14.6 points||17.9 points|
|1.2 steals||1.8 steals|
|1.5 blocks||1.1 blocks|
|7.1 assists||3.4 assists|
|9.0 rebounds||8.8 rebounds|
Both players average over one block and one steal per game, and both nearly average a double-double in points and rebounds. Both are great passers off the block, but Green has the edge because he is more ball-dominant than Millsap. Millsap has the potential of neutralizing Green in this matchup, who has become the Warriors' key player this season due to his outstanding defense.
In the video above highlighting Millsap's defense from last season, it is clear he can defend multiple positions and disrupt passing lanes. Millsap ranked in the top 10 in steals last season and was the Hawks' best defender on a team that ranked seventh in defensive efficiency. Although their defense hasn't been the same as last season so far, the Hawks have shown they can still defend good teams even without DeMarre Carroll.
While the same can be said about how Green can neutralize Millsap—which he did a good job of when the Warriors last played the Hawks back in March, winning 114-95—Millsap and the Hawks are healthy this season. Though it isn't likely they can win four games against the Warriors in a seven-game series, Millsap does offer the Hawks something the Warriors are not used to seeing as their opposition.
4) Oklahoma City Thunder
The Oklahoma City Thunder are one of the most interesting teams in the NBA. They have, arguably, the two best scorers in the league in Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant and some decent complementary players such as Anthony Morrow, Enes Kanter and Serge Ibaka. Although first-year head coach Billy Donovan is in charge, the Thunder's identity on offense hasn't changed much; isolation basketball with Westbrook and Durant is still the team's go-to option.
Durant has come back with a bang this season after an injury-riddled campaign a year ago, and the former Most Valuable Player is still seeking his first title.
To get his first ring, however, Durant will likely have to pass Curry and the Warriors.
But Durant and Westbrook are so good at what they do, they both put the Thunder on the map as contenders for the title each season and as a team that could knock off the Warriors. The Warriors have some weaponry of their own in Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes (when healthy) and Andre Iguodala, who can all score and defend well at their positions, but only Curry and Thompson are capable of going toe-to-toe against Durant and Westbrook.
|52.1 combined points per game||50.1 combined points per game|
In the video above, Durant and Westbrook show how and why are they are two of the most dynamic scorers in the NBA, combing for 56 points against the Denver Nuggets. This wasn't the first time this season the two have single-handedly won a game for the Thunder, as they combined for 91 points (48 for Westbrook, 43 for Durant) back on Nov. 1 in a double-overtime win over the Orlando Magic
It's no secret Durant and Westbrook are the main focuses on offense each and every night for the Thunder, which makes game-planning for the Thunder easier for the Warriors, who, on the other end, have multiple players teams need to strategize for. Thompson is a shutdown defender and would be given the responsibility of defending Durant along with Barnes and Iguodala, but that leaves Westbrook on Curry, which can be exploited since Westbrook is one of the most explosive point guards in the league.
Durant and Westbrook can keep up with the Warriors and their scoring, but for how long? Can they do it over a seven-game series? If any two-player combo can, it's these two.
3) Boston Celtics
The Boston Celtics, although unlikely to make it out of a competitive Eastern Conference in the playoffs, have given the Warriors fits the last two times they played against each other.
Back on Dec. 12, the Celtics almost gave the Warriors their first loss of the season, as they had opportunities in regulation and in overtime to win the game, but didn't. The same could be said for the other time they faced off against Golden State back in March, when they led by 11 points entering the fourth quarter. The Celtics lost 106-101 but showed that their perimeter defense can frustrate the Warriors, giving them an opportunity to win.
In the video above, it's clear Curry is finding life very difficult due to the defense of Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Evan Turner. Thompson didn't play in this game, but neither did Boston's Marcus Smart, who is renowned for his ability on the defensive end. The Celtics are one of the most efficient teams in the NBA this season on defense, ranking sixth in points allowed per game. With Smart healthy alongside Bradley and Crowder, the Celtics become a very scary defense for the Warriors to go against.
Not only is Boston's defense elite, ranking second in the NBA with a 97.4 defensive rating, according to CSNNE.com, but it also ranks eighth in the league in rebounds per game, fifth in assists per game and sixth in points scored per game. Head coach Brad Stevens has turned this superstar-less squad into Eastern Conference contenders this season and currently rank seventh in the East.
While seventh place in the East may not seem that impressive on the surface, Boston's 18-13 record would be good enough for fifth place in the West, tied with the Dallas Mavericks. What's even more impressive about the Celtics is they own one of the best away records in the NBA.
Since March 1, the best road records in the NBA are: the Golden State Warriors (19-3), Boston Celtics (16-6) and the San Antonio Spurs (14-8).
Going on the road isn't a problem for Boston, which is what would happen if it had a chance to face off against the Warriors in the Finals. It's unlikely Boston is ready to make the jump from a seventh seed to Eastern Conference champions this year, but if the Celtics were to face off against the Warriors, they have proved they can bring the game down to the wire.
2) Cleveland Cavaliers
With one minute, 33 seconds left in the fourth quarter on Christmas Day, the Cleveland Cavaliers trailed by just four points against the Warriors. LeBron James missed two free throws, which led to Curry converting a layup at the other end for a four-point swing.
With 49.8 seconds remaining, James once again missed—this time, a layup. With 20.3 seconds left and the game still within reach, James converted on just one of his free throws.
Cleveland lost that game 89-83 but were there in the end despite the lackluster performance from James. At the 7:00 mark in the video above, you can see how close the Cavs were in this game and how a couple of conversions from the field and charity stripe could've turned things around for the visitors.
The Warriors are a dominant team, but when Cleveland has a healthy Kevin Love, a 100 percent Kyrie Irving and James, this team will compete with the Warriors, and we could be looking at a Finals rematch next summer.
For the Cavs, the game plan against the Warriors is simple: stay healthy and make the easy shots. They weren't healthy in the Finals last year, and Irving had just come back from injury when they played on Christmas Day. James will always receive the bulk of the glory/blame on this team, but it really comes down to Love and Irving's ability to take the load off James in the fourth quarter of these types of games so he doesn't have to force anything against the run of play.
1) San Antonio Spurs
The San Antonio Spurs, just like every season, are one of the elite teams in the NBA. but this season is different. It's not because of Tony Parker, Tim Duncan or even Manu Ginobili. It's because of the team's next superstar, Kawhi Leonard.
Leonard showed the NBA last year he can become one of the league's best two-way players for the foreseeable future. Averaging 20.9 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.1 steals per game, Leonard has become the focal point of the Spurs offense this year even with the offseason addition of LaMarcus Aldridge
The video above is a clip of Leonard's ability to translate his great defense into easy offense with a steal leading to a transition dunk. The Spurs ranks first in the NBA in points allowed per game, better than any other team in the league. While the nation's attention has been fixated on the Warriors' record of 28-1, and deservedly so, the Spurs have quietly put together a record of 26-6.
The Warriors have the players to match up against Leonard in Barnes, Iguodala and Thompson, but don't forget Leonard was the Finals MVP two years ago and knows how to play in crunch time. He's the league's next superstar and is capable of dethroning the Warriors this season in the Western Conference Finals—if they both advance, that is.
All stats were obtained from NBA.com.