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Which Elite NBA Team Poses Biggest Threat to Golden State Warriors' Title Hopes?

Jared Dubin@@JADubin5Featured ColumnistApril 8, 2015

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The Golden State Warriors are the favorite to win the NBA championship. There are other teams that can win, sure, but it's really not arguable at this point that any team other than the Dubs is the class of the league. But accepting that factand we really should—then the big question becomes who their challengers are. 

With apologies to the Portland Trail Blazers (too injured), Oklahoma City Thunder (ditto), Dallas Mavericks (not enough defense) and New Orleans Pelicans (not enough Anthony Davises), there are really only four Western Conference teams who could conceivably be a threat to knock off the Warriors in the playoffs: the Houston Rockets, Memphis GrizzliesLos Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs.

With apologies to literally nobody else, the same appears to be true of only three teams in the East: the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls, and we're really stretching it by even including the Bulls in the discussion. 

But who, then, is the biggest threat? Is it the Spurs, with their metronomic consistency and general Spurs-y look of late? Is it the Clippers, with their explosive offense and their Chris Paul? Or how about the Rockets, armed with James Harden and a top-10 defense? But maybe it's the Grizzlies with their even-better defense and bruisers inside? 

Or perhaps the biggest threat comes from the East, where the Hawks play a remarkably similar style of basketball and can spread even the best defenses thin with their cadre of shooting and cascading ball movement.

Do the Cavs, with the best player on Earth and his supporting cast of co-stars and stars in their role actually represent the best shot to knock off the Dubs? Or is this the year the Bulls finally break through, now that Derrick Rose looks like he'll be healthy(ish) to supplement that dynamite frontcourt and suffocating defense in the playoffs?

Let's break it all down.

Overall Performance 

Note: The numbers above, with the exception of strength of schedule and SRS (SRS is Basketball-Reference.com's Simple Rating System, which takes into account both point differential and strength of opponent)which are each current through Monday's gamesare current through Tuesday's games for every team except the Clippers.

The Warriors have the NBA's best record (.808 win percentage), scoring margin (plus-10.2 points per game), defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions; 97.8), and net rating (points scored minus points allowed per 100 possessions; 11.5), as well as the most double-digit wins (44), the best record against .500-plus opponents (31-10) and the highest SRS (10.32).

In most cases, the next-closest team isn't even in the same galaxy. 

As for who the biggest threat to their winning the title would be, basing it on performance throughout the regular season, the indicators are all over the place. The Hawks have the NBA's second-best winning percentage at .753, but point differential has historically been a better predictor of future success than actual record, and the Clippers check in second on that front. 

The best offense in the NBA belongs to the Clippers, while San Antonio sports the second-best defense, and the Clippers also have the second-best net rating. Atlanta has been the NBA's best clutch team by net rating this season, but no team (in this group of contenders) has a better record in games decided by three points or less than the Bulls. 

But just as point differential is generally a better indicator of team strength than winning percentage, so too are blowout wins more indicative of how good a team is than record in close games. The Spurs and Clippers are tied with the second-most double-digit wins in the NBA.

A strong record against the league's best teams is always good, and the Hawks lead the way with a .697 winning percentage in games against teams that are .500 or better. Nobody's played a tougher schedule among this group than the Clippers, who also check in second in the NBA in SRS.

Again, the indicators are all over the place. If you rank each of the seven teams from one through seven in each of the above categories, the Hawks lead the way, followed closely by the Clippers and Spurs, with a big gap before we get to the Grizzlies, Rockets and Cavaliers. Then there's another big gap, with the Bulls trailing the pack. But what if we narrow it down to just how these teams are playing lately—say, since the All-Star break?

Performance Since All-Star

We knocked off a few categories here since the data isn't quite as readily available: winning percentage against .500-plus teams, strength of schedule and SRS.

In the post-break portion of the season, no team has a better record than Cleveland, as LeBron's squad has been absolutely on fire lately, but the Spurs have the NBA's best point differential, demolishing teams by a Warriors-esque 11.0 points per game. The Spurs and Cavs are tied with the league's top post-ASG offense, and the Spurs also have the best defense and net rating after the break. 

The Hawks have once again been the NBA's best team in the clutch after the All-Star break, and neither them nor the Bulls have lost a game decided by three or fewer points in the season's second half. The Spurs, though, have won an astonishing 16 games by double digits since the All-Star break, more than any other team in the league. 

If we again rank each of these seven teams from one through seven in each category above, the Cavs come out ever-so-slightly ahead of the Spurs. The Clippers aren't far back from that duo, and the Hawks and Rockets are right on their tails. Memphis, what with their negative point differential since the break, trails far behind. 

If you combine season performance and recent performance, an inner circle of contenders among contenders emerges: the Spurs, Clippers, Hawks and Cavaliers. With that group in mind, it's important to take a look at how they match up with the areas in which Golden State is weakest.

The Warriors have the league's top defense and second-ranked offense, and they are generally in the top half or top third (or top five) in the league in most statistical categories.

But if we dig deep enough (and we really, really had to dig deep here) there are two specific areas where the Dubs can be considered relatively "weak," and it's there that teams may be able to find an advantage: They are a slightly below-average defensive-rebounding team, and they also foul slightly more than the average team.

Golden State's (Relative) Weaknesses

Now, a couple of things should be noted here as we look at this data.

First, the Spurs have long punted offensive rebounding in favor of getting back in transition defense, and indeed, they rank in the bottom third of the league in that area. Second, Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer was Gregg Popovich's lead assistant in San Antonio for years, and his team treats offensive rebounds the same way. Third, Doc Rivers was way ahead of this trend in Boston and has continued it in Los Angeles.

Analysis performed by Seth Partnow at Nylon Calculus in December showed that those three teams chased after offensive rebounds less often than almost any other team, with each of them ranking in the bottom six in offensive rebound contest percentage. It would not be at all surprising if they still ranked as such today. 

So, the offensive rebounding may not be able to tell us much. Cleveland has good offensive rebounders in LeBron, Kevin Love and Timofey Mozgov, but they're also basically the only team in this group that really actively tries to corral offensive boards. 

The fouls part of this is interesting, though, because every team certainly wants to go to the free-throw line.

The Spurs and Hawks, despite their beautiful ball movement, each rank in the bottom half of the league in free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt, while the Cavs and Clippers are right near the top (though the Clippers' foul rate is somewhat inflated by the hack-a-DJ routine teams occasionally play with DeAndre Jordan).

Armed with stars who head to the line a lot in LeBron, Kyrie Irving, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, it's possible one of those teams could get Andrew Bogut into foul trouble early on and force the Warriors to go small. The Dubs have played marvelous defense in those kinds of lineups, but they've most often been deployed selectively rather than as a reaction to foul trouble or the like.

Conclusion

The Spurs look like the strongest team of this group right now when considering both overall and recent performance. The other three contenders aren't far behind, but indicators such as margin of victory and blowout wins paint the Clippers and Cavaliers as being slightly better than the Hawks. After that, it appears to be a matter of personal preference. 

The Clips are not a deep team at all, but that matters less in the playoffs, where rotations shorten (unless Doc decides his kid is worthy of big playoff minutes because they're related).

The Spurs don't have strengths that align with Golden State's relative weaknesses, but they are still the Spurs, Kawhi Leonard is possibly not a human and they are setting fire to the league. Nobody's been better since the break than the Cavs, and they still have the best player on the planet on their side, as well as an easier conference to navigate in the playoffs. 

In the end, it's probably a toss-up between the Spurs and LeBron's team, which just feels right given the last few years, doesn't it? Forced to choose, it'd be really tough to pick against San Antonio right now.

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