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Warriors Look Like Championship Contenders in December, but Hurdles Remain

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 2, 2014

Nov 28, 2014; Charlotte, NC, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) stands on the court during a time out in the second half of the game against the Charlotte Hornets at Time Warner Cable Arena. Warriors win 106-101. Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports
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While their name invokes visions of a Midas touch, it's been decades since the Golden State Warriors left their fingerprints on anything and watched it turn into...well, gold.

Since successfully scaling the NBA's summit in 1975, the franchise has sandwiched brief moments of excitement in between prolonged stretches of inefficacy. The low points have measured barely above sea level, and the highlights have included a grand total of four 50-win seasons and a single playoff trip beyond the second round.

The NBA Finals have been a foreign land since that magical journey nearly 40 years ago. But with a deep, talented group of players who excel on both sides of the ball, the Warriors (14-2) have finally reopened their door to the championship stage.

As challenging as it's been to reach this point, progressing from here could be even more difficult. The Dubs face a series of obstacles—both internal and external—on their path to championship contention.

Crowded Championship Field

Nov 19, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) drives against San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan (21) and forward Kawhi Leonard (2) in the second quarter at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY
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From the early look of things, the NBA's championship chase features a host of worthwhile contenders. It's hard to say whether that's a reflection of a growing upper class or the line between it and the second tier blurring, but something is responsible for a number of teams holding somewhat reasonable title odds.

"There might be as many as 10 teams with legitimate championship chances—even if each one has a major question mark or two," wrote Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes. "So in some sense, we really might see a wide-open season."

Ask five different hoop heads for their championship favorites, and you might hear five different responses.

The Warriors and their league-best plus-11.7 net efficiency rating deserve to be on that list. They are, after all, one of only two teams with top-seven efficiency rankings on both sides of the floor. And history cannot stress enough the importance of two-way balance.

But there are a host of other teams with similarly intriguing championship credentials.

The San Antonio Spurs, who finished the 2013-14 campaign at the top, are not going to willingly give up their throne. Some team is going to have to snatch it away from a group led by mastermind Gregg Popovich and the decorated trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.

"I retired 12 years ago, and the same three top players and the same coach are still over there," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said, per Bay Area News Group's Diamond Leung. "I mean, it's insane. I wish they would just go away, but they're not going away."

SAN ANTONIO, TX - OCTOBER 28: Tim Duncan #21, Marco Belinelli #3 and Tony Parker #9 of the San Antonio Spurs present their championship rings before the game against Dallas Mavericks on October 28, 2014 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio,Texas. NOTE TO USE
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

In order to have a shot at beating the Spurs—something the Warriors have only done twice in their last nine regular-season meetings—Golden State will have to successfully traverse the minefield that is the Western Conference.

With a top-10 offense to match their always stingy defense, the Memphis Grizzlies have sprinted out to a league-leading 15-2 start. The Portland Trail Blazers own top-six efficiency marks on both ends. The Dallas Mavericks are nipping at the Warriors' heels with a plus-10.9 net rating. The Los Angeles Clippers have rebounded from a sluggish start with five consecutive wins.

And the ceiling for either the Houston Rockets or the Oklahoma City Thunder at full strength still cannot be seen from the ground floor.

"Once again, the NBA’s Western Conference remains ridiculously loaded, with teams capable of winning 50-plus games—enough to be a top-four team in the East—potentially on the outside looking in when the playoffs roll around," wrote Comcast SportsNet's Aggrey Sam.

Assuming the Warriors somehow survive the treacherous West, they would then need to hold court with a beast from the East. Whether that's a healthy Chicago Bulls, an immensely talented Cleveland Cavaliers or second-tier contenders like the Washington Wizards or Toronto Raptors, it's going to be a team capable of testing the Warriors' limits.

The external challenges facing Golden State are daunting—and the internal hurdles could be even harder to clear.

Injury and Chemistry Concerns

Apr 27, 2014; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors forward David Lee (10) celebrates with forward Draymond Green (23) during the second quarter in game four of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs against the Los Angeles Clippers at Oracle Arena. T
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Injuries can crush any team's championship dreams, but the Warriors seem particularly susceptible to medical red flags.

This franchise found its winning formula by taking health risks. The Warriors could not have secured Stephen Curry on a four-year, $44 million contract in 2012 had a nagging ankle problem not greatly impacted his price tag. And Andrew Bogut's injury history—he hasn't cracked the 70-game barrier since 2007-08—surely helped Golden State acquire him for diminutive scoring guard Monta Ellis in March 2012.

Those two players, in a nutshell, are the team's offensive (Curry) and defensive (Bogut) catalysts. Without them, the Warriors would be nothing more than a blip on basketball's radar.

So forgive Warriors fans for holding their collective breath when Curry tweaked his left ankle during their 104-93 win over the Detroit Pistons on November 30. Luckily, they have since been able to exhale thanks to a promising report from Leung:

Still, even a minor scare shows how quickly championship bubbles can burst. The Warriors have outscored their opponents by 21.3 points per 100 possessions with Curry on the floor. When he sits, Golden State's net rating plummets to minus-9.5.

With all due respect to lanky reserve floor general Shaun Livingston, he is not equipped to fill Curry's shoes. The same can be said of Marreese Speights, Festus Ezeli or any other interior option Kerr would have to try if this team lost Bogut to a serious injury.

"As great of a player as Curry is, Golden State’s championship odds reside just as much in Andrew Bogut’s ankles as Steph’s," wrote BBall Breakdown's Rafael Uehara.

Oakland, CA- OCTOBER 24: Andrew Bogut #12 of the Golden State Warriors handles the ball against the Denver Nuggets at the Oracle Arena in Oakland, California on October 24, 2014 . NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading a
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But staying healthy—or getting healthy in the case of David Lee, who has been limited to only seven minutes by a hamstring problem—is only one of the challenges facing this group. With new players, new coaches and guys cast in new roles, there are potential chemistry issues to address.

Career starter Andre Iguodala has been forced into a sixth-man role, both to put a playmaker behind Curry and to help revive Harrison Barnes' production. Barnes has looked like a different player back in the starting lineup (11.1 points on .500/.400/.792 shooting), but Iguodala has struggled to find his rhythm. The 30-year-old is on pace to post career lows across the board, including points (6.9), assists (2.4) and field-goal percentage (44.1).

As a unit, the bench mob has had problems with consistent production. Golden State ranks 19th in bench scoring at 30.6 points per game, via HoopsStats.com, and that's with Speights pouring in 24-plus points on three separate occasions—something he did once in 79 games last season.

Getting Lee back into the mix should breathe some new life into the second team, provided he signs off on a reserve role. With the ability to both get his own shots and find them for others, he could give this bench something it currently lacks, as Hughes explained:

The Warriors' second unit needs an offensive hub who can create and finish plays. As of now, the Warriors have personnel capable of doing one or the other: Leandro Barbosa and Marreese Speights have been effective gunners, while Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston have facilitated nicely but have hardly glanced at the rim on offense.

The result has been a reserve attack that turns the ball over too often, gets into ruts and has surrendered leads amassed by the starters.

But there are logistical hurdles in getting Lee to embrace a reduced role. He is the team's highest-paid player, and just last season he was its third-best scorer (18.2 points) and second-best rebounder (9.3). He might feel as if he has already earned a starting gig, and his track record suggests he would not be off-base for feeling that way.

Still, Kerr might prefer keeping Draymond Green in his starting role. The Swiss army knife has helped the Warriors claim the top spot in defensive efficiency, and his three-point stroke (37.5 percent on the season) has helped maintain the proper spacing for Kerr's ball-movement-based offense.

Even if Lee is open to the idea of taking on a reserve spot, the Warriors have to hope the one they have available is big enough for him. Speights is only getting 15.8 minutes a night. Ezeli, in the 12 games he's played, has seen just 9.6 minutes of action.

Speights has been too good to completely pull off the floor, and Ezeli is the best rim protector behind Bogut. There are a finite number of minutes, and the Warriors don't have an easy avenue to carve out a bunch for Lee.

At best, this is a sticky situation.

The Warriors, like any championship contenders, need everyone on the same page.

Their whole is significantly bigger than the sum of their parts. That is most easily seen in their league-leading 60.6 points created by assists per game, via NBA.com's player tracking data.

If Kerr can keep his guys healthy and playing on a string, it might not matter what the rest of the NBA does. Golden State appears to have the talent needed to snap its Finals drought.

Provided, of course, that this scorching hot start is something the Warriors can maintain all season.

Sustainability

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

If this is the new normal for the Warriors, then life is incredibly good by the Bay.

"The Warriors are going places they've never known," wrote Comcast SportsNet's Monte Poole. "Best start ever. Best road record ever. Shooting the highest percentage in the league, limiting opponents to the lowest. The sheer numbers are impressive."

But the real test will be proving that the numbers are tenable. Exploding out of the gate is encouraging, but marathons aren't won on the opening stretch.

"We’re off to a great start. We’re having fun. We’ve got great guys," Kerr said, per Leung. "But it’s going to get a lot harder. I know that."

The Warriors are 3-2 against the seven other teams currently in the West's playoff picture, holding wins over the Rockets, Clippers and Trail Blazers along with losses to the Spurs and Phoenix Suns. Golden State has yet to face one of the East's top six teams.

That doesn't mean the Warriors' schedule should be held against them, but it's a good reminder that this 16-game journey needs to kept in perspective. They haven't done anything to spoil their championship plans, but they haven't reached their goals either.

There is a chance this team could continue to improve. Having former All-Stars Lee and Iguodala anchor the second team is an incredible luxury that speaks to this roster's depth. The Warriors are continuing to find ways to maximize Livingston's value. Guys like Ezeli and Brandon Rush are still shaking off the rust following long absences due to injury.

Golden State has the chance to be both strong at the top and deep, a special circumstance enjoyed only by the NBA's elites.

But the Warriors cannot afford to let up off the gas—and they still have some on-court issues to address.

Their production could still be cleaner (17.2 turnovers per game, second-most in the league). They need to create more high-percentage shots (26.8 attempts within five feet of the basket a night, ninth-fewest) to help them survive games when their perimeter looks aren't falling. Their 74.5 rebounding percentage (13th overall) has plenty of room for improvement.

They aren't a perfect team—but neither are the contenders now standing alongside them.

The Warriors have a tremendous opportunity to climb higher than this franchise has been in nearly four decades. They have to capitalize on this chance, regardless of all the obstructions littering their path to the podium.

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.