The 5 Biggest Threats to a Warriors Championship Repeat in 2017-18
It's them or the field—and smart money isn't too fond of the field.
But before parade-planners plot another celebratory route through the Bay Area, the Dubs must orchestrate the first successful title defense in franchise history. And the number of potential pitfalls between now and June is enough to trip up even a world-beating superpower like this.
External obstacles arise from both conferences. An offseason defined by All-Star movement has reshaped the basketball landscape into a relative minefield of dynamic defenses, explosive offenses and two-way terrors. Internally, the Warriors are tasked with blocking out their own hype and avoiding the natural inclination to ease off the gas pedal.
Any of the five upcoming threats could derail the Dubs off their championship course, and each has been ranked by its severity.
5. San Antonio Spurs
The San Antonio Spurs, fresh off the franchise's first consecutive 60-win seasons, had an opportunity to strike with the iron red-hot this summer. They were not only financially flexible, but they were also said to be intriguing to All-Star floor generals Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving, per Marc Stein, then with ESPN, and ESPN.com's Chris Haynes, respectively.
But they couldn't procure a top-shelf point guard. Or broker a deal for Paul George. Or turn the plateauing LaMarcus Aldridge into a top-10 pick. Or give their aging frontcourt necessary boosts of athleticism and defensive versatility.
San Antonio's biggest external addition was Rudy Gay, a 31-year-old isolation scorer who ruptured his Achilles tendon in January. Beyond that, the Spurs became the 25-year-old Joffrey Lauvergne's fourth NBA employer and the 26-year-old Brandon Paul's first. They also spent the 29th pick on Derrick White, a late bloomer who only played one of his four collegiate seasons at the Division I level.
It wasn't a wasted summer—the basketball world collectively won when Manu Ginobili decided to return—but it could have been so much more. That's why last season's No. 2 team in wins (61) and net efficiency rating (plus-7.9) only stands as Golden State's fifth-biggest hurdle (Tony Parker's ruptured quad also doesn't help).
That said, the Spurs are always a problem with Gregg Popovich at the helm and Kawhi Leonard wreaking havoc. Remember, before the All-NBA first-team forward exited the third quarter of Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals with an ankle injury, he was the best player on the floor (26 points on 13 shots, eight rebounds) and San Antonio was the better team (up 78-55).
4. Boston Celtics
The Boston Celtics' embrace of modern basketball has heightened their chances of at least pestering the Warriors over a playoff series. The following quote from Celtics skipper Brad Stevens sounds like it was plucked from Steve Kerr's blueprints.
"I don't have the five positions anymore," Stevens said, per Kareem Copeland of the Associated Press. "It may be as simple as three positions now, where you're either a ball-handler, a wing or a big. ... We've become more versatile as the years have gone on."
Boston's roster has the length, athleticism and mobility to physically match up with Golden State. Nine different players stand between 6'6" and 6'9". Then there's 6'4" guard Marcus Smart, who brings the strength of an interior enforcer. And there's 6'10" center Al Horford, who can man the perimeter at both ends.
Versatility is an obvious strength, and it could be an elite one depending on Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum's maturation. Do-everything All-Star Gordon Hayward simultaneously fits that bill and answers the need for a second high-volume scorer.
With Kyrie Irving officially on board, the Celtics have an elite isolation scorer (95th percentile, fourth-most possessions per game) to guide them through critical crunch-time playoff possessions. And since Irving has much better size (6'3" to 5'9"), Boston won't face the same matchup problems Thomas encounters both ways.
The Celtics had the East's best record last season and own a 2-2 mark against the Warriors over the past two years. But that didn't keep them from dramatically reshuffling the deck after a humbling 4-1 series loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals.
With Boston's blockbuster having gone through, it will only return four players from last year's roster, and several of the newcomers are young and unproven. The Celtics could be looking further down the line than 2017-18, perhaps planning for their peak to coincide with the Warriors' decline.
3. Houston Rockets
In the past three years, the Houston Rockets have been eliminated by the Warriors twice and seen them claim the championship crown in the other. If anyone had reasons to abandon win-now plans because of Golden State, Houston seem one of the likeliest candidates.
But the Rockets, who own three 54-plus-win campaigns over James Harden's five-year tenure, see the Warriors as something other than an insurmountable juggernaut.
"They are not unbeatable," Rockets general manager Daryl Morey said in June, per ESPN.com's Zach Lowe. "There have been bigger upsets in sports history. We are going to keep improving our roster."
Morey wasn't kidding. Between then and now, he lured in point god Chris Paul, re-signed Nene (twice) and addressed deficiencies in defense and toughness with the signings of P.J. Tucker, Luc Mbah a Moute and Tarik Black.
Houston's defense—18th in efficiency and 26th in scoring—could transform from liability to asset. Between Tucker, Mbah a Moute and Trevor Ariza, the Rockets should have malleable wing stoppers for whatever the Warriors throw at them.
The Rockets already had an elite offense—second in efficiency and scoring—but even that unit has the potential to grow. Patrick Beverley wasn't a playmaker; Paul might be the NBA's best, and he's surrounded by more shooting than ever. And look out if Carmelo Anthony's New York Post-reported wish for a ticket to Space City gets granted.
Houston still lags behind Golden State in star power, and a lot of this roster is taken up by one-way contributors (or, at least, players with a strong end and a weak one). But if the Warriors catch a dry spell or slack on their defensive efforts, the Rockets have the firepower to engineer an upset.
2. LeBron James
It's been a minute.
James is on the miniature list of the NBA's realistic G.O.A.T. candidates and is the most dominant force of his generation. He's a 6'8", 250-pound blend of freakish athleticism, advanced intelligence and preternatural instincts. His body was built by the basketball gods, but his brain might be his most potent weapon.
"I just try to do everything to just try to help this team win," James said, per ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst and Tom Haberstroh. "And I just try to put in the work. I put in the work individually, in the film room, in my mind, my body every single day to prepare myself for whatever obstacle that this ball club entails."
For the past three years, the Warriors have been his obstacle. And even though James' team has gone 1-2 in those championship clashes, he has been individually absurd: 32.8 points, 12.2 rebounds, 9.2 assists and five triple-doubles over 18 contests.
And that's with the Warriors possessing the best possible defensive options against him.
That's why it wouldn't have mattered if the Irving-Thomas swap didn't go through. Or if Jae Crowder, now set to bolster the perimeter coverage, were still in Boston. Or if Dwyane Wade finds his way out of the Windy City and back on to the banana boat.
James is the primary threat, a red-alert one at that. He might be fighting against both Father Time and the Dubs' superior depth, but if you're going to bet on an underdog, take the cyborg with knockout power. Externally, there is no greater challenge awaiting Golden State.
Egos exist inside every NBA locker room, but they are controlled in unique ways on the Warriors—by an offensive system that just produced the league's most assists in over 30 years and a spotlight big enough to shine on four All-Stars.
Even still, the threat of supersized senses of self-worth is a challenge unlike any awaiting this group.
It just completed the Association's first three-year run of 65-plus victories (67-plus at that) during a season in which it integrated two new starters, retooled the second unit and adjusted to more than a month without Kevin Durant.
Oh, and this roster has never looked better on paper. The core four stars are firmly entrenched in their primes, and Durant has a full offseason with which to grow more ingrained in the culture. Twelve players return from last year's banner-raisers, and the three new faces should all be upgrades—Nick Young over Ian Clark, Omri Casspi over Matt Barnes and Jordan Bell over James Michael McAdoo.
It's difficult to paint any of that as a bad thing—unless complacency rears its ugly head.
"They understand what it means when a 67-win team goes 16-1 in the playoffs and then gets better," Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes wrote. "And they, being human, can't ignore the knee-jerk thought that follows, which is: 'This is going to be easy.' ... It's going to require a monumental effort to avoid the usual post-championship malaise."
That's not the only potential thorn. There's also the fact Durant has lost 85 regular-season games to injury over the past three seasons. Even with his ailment, Golden State enjoyed one of the league's healthiest seasons. If its fortune changes, it could lose its biggest advantage—a quantity-plus-quality edge in All-Stars.
There's also the tempestuous, albeit productive, relationship between Kerr and Green to consider. And Young's arrival as another chemistry puzzle for the Warriors to solve.
If being the best requires beating the best, Golden State's internal hurdles are the toughest it will face in 2017-18.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.