Ranking the Warriors' Top Western Conference Foes by Playoff Threat Level

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 1, 2017

Ranking the Warriors' Top Western Conference Foes by Playoff Threat Level

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    The Golden State Warriors are short on peers. Leaders in wins as well as offensive, defensive and net rating, they've distanced themselves from the rest of the league.

    But they'll face a challenge at some point before they inevitably reach the NBA Finals.

    If your evaluative starting point is that no team in the West can beat the Warriors four times in seven tries—which it should be because 1) no West team has done so in the last two seasons and 2) this edition of the Dubs is better than ever by several metrics—you can still stratify the more intriguing possible foes into some kind of order.

    The first thing you do is eliminate several as threats altogether. Any team sneaking into the No. 8 spot in the West is nothing but target practice. That's not saying a sweep is guaranteed, but it is saying clubs like the Denver Nuggets, Sacramento Kings, Portland Trail Blazers or whoever else won't have a prayer of survival.

    From there, you can use head-to-head records, matchups and longer history to isolate prospective trouble spots other opponents might present in a postseason series.

    We have six teams organized here from least to most threatening, though it's impossible to say this enough: No in-conference opponent is likely to scare the Warriors—let alone beat them in a series.

    Relatively speaking, these are the Dubs' biggest in-conference concerns.

6. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Threat Assessment: Is Mark Jackson Still in Charge? No? Sweep.

    Next time the nail wins one against the hammer, let me know.

    It's been that kind of rivalry between the Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers since Steve Kerr took over for Mark Jackson in 2014-15. Following last week's 144-98 annihilation, the Clippers have lost nine of their last 10 games against Golden State.

    And no, you can't plausibly argue everything would have been different if Chris Paul had been healthy enough to play. Because while it's possible that 46-point pounding might have been mitigated, Paul isn't a cure-all. He played in all four meetings last season, and the Warriors outscored the Clips by an average of 14 points per game.

    Draymond Green neutralizes Blake Griffin's offense in the post, L.A.'s bench isn't remotely up to the task of defending the Warriors' offensive weapons and recent history suggests the Clippers aren't cut out to compete. Los Angeles isn't just the Warriors' least threatening opponent in this group; it might be their least threatening, period.

    Through two meetings so far, Golden State has beaten the Clippers by an average of 31.5 points per game—its highest per-game margin of victory against anyone in the West this season.

    So unless David Lee is starting at the 4, Kevin Durant is still in Oklahoma City, Green is being used exclusively as a reserve small forward and the Dubs are running Mark Jackson's zero-movement offense, I'm not seeing a way for the Clippers to do anything against Golden State.

5. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Threat Level: Flesh Wounds Only

    You have to give the Memphis Grizzlies credit. They engineered that incredible 24-point, second-half comeback Jan. 6, and the resulting 128-119 win forced the Warriors to do something they haven't often had to: calmly look in the mirror.

    "There's no panic at all. You go through these hiccups, these road bumps, and it pokes air out of the balloon a little bit, but that's what the regular season's for," Stephen Curry told reporters after the loss. "Last year, I don't think we had many opportunities to kind of self-assess and look ourselves in the mirror and see where we were at, just riding that wave."

    Memphis is the only team to beat the Warriors twice this year, and with the pace the Dubs are on, that's a distinction that will likely last. 

    Zach Randolph always seems to duck in for sneaky buckets against the Warriors, and Tony Allen has long occupied space in Durant's nightmares.

    But the Grizz are also owners of a plus-0.5 net rating, several highly exploitable non-shooting perimeter players (Allen chief among them) and, most importantly, Golden State's full attention.

    For a team as accomplished as the Warriors, coasting is a possibility even in the playoffs. But knowing the Grizzlies have already knocked them off twice and embarrassed them badly in that Jan. 6 meeting, the Dubs would take this potential engagement seriously.

    So the Grizzlies can beat the Warriors up and administer the typical grit-and-grind menu, but they'll be lucky to win a single game against a Dubs club out for vengeance.

4. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Threat Assessment: Defcon 5

    It's only right to use a military designation to describe the Oklahoma City Thunder's threat level.

    Russell Westbrook is as close to an actual weapon of war as there is in the league, after all.

    Because of Russ' relentless attacking and hyper-competitive approach, it's not so hard to see him leading the Thunder to victory once in a seven-game series. Maybe he erupts for 58 points. Maybe he notches an obscene triple-double with 40 points, 20 assists and 20 rebounds while playing all 48 minutes.

    With him, it's difficult to overstate the possibilities.

    It is, however, easy to imagine the Warriors calmly recovering after a possible slip and icing a series in five games. The Thunder lack shooting, secondary playmaking and wing depth—all death sentences against Golden State. Those weaknesses have contributed to an 0-2 record against the Warriors this year, and what should trouble OKC most is the way the Warriors have limited Westbrook.

    He's a combined 12-of-38 from the field in those two losses. And in fact, Durant, not Westbrook, is the one who looked like the weapon of mass destruction (KD averaged 39.5 points per game on 70 percent shooting in those two meetings).

    Westbrook might strike a blow, but Durant will end the skirmish in no more than five games.

3. Houston Rockets

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    Threat Level: Holster the Brooms

    As was the case with the Thunder, the Houston Rockets are another team that could secure a single win during a series on the strength of their transcendent star.

    James Harden is always liable to dominate a contest himself, and he put up 29 points, 15 rebounds and 13 assists to beat the Warriors in double-overtime back on Dec. 1

    If you had to break a tie between the Rockets and Thunder, though, the former's shooting prowess and embrace of a high-variance style offer a slight edge in a series. Houston fires up threes at a rate we've never seen before, and that's one way to juice the chances of a single-game upset.

    Knock down half of your 50 three-point heaves on a red-hot night, and you can beat anybody.

    Of course, Houston's 20th-ranked defense is the worst of any team we'll cover here, and inviting the Warriors into an uptempo shooting contest of any kind is courting disaster. The most recent meeting between these two teamsa 125-108 Warriors win in which the Dubs (15-of-38) badly outgunned the Rockets (7-of-35) from deepillustrates the danger of Houston's approach.

2. Utah Jazz

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    Threat Level: Molasses Protocol

    Here we have our first on-paper opportunity to see someone take more than one game in a series—even if the Dubs are already 2-0 against the Utah Jazz this season.

    The Jazz do things very differently than Golden State, and within those differences lie opportunities to annoy, frustrate and, maybe, physically overwhelm...in a series that won't go more than six games.

    But hey, at least we're past gentleman's sweep territory, right?

    Utah plays at an agonizingly slow pace—dead last in the league, a stark contrast to the Warriors' second-place ranking. The Jazz don't so much savor possessions as grind through them. Lacking a playmaker with penetrative burst or pick-and-roll zip, they flip the ball back and forth on the perimeter, hoping to shift the defense out of position to create daylight.

    Sometimes it works, but generally Utah is left struggling for looks as time winds down: No team takes a higher percentage of its attempts in the final four seconds of the shot clock than the Jazz.

    Maybe that's just a sign of a vulnerable offense, but it could also be an advantage insofar as it forces the pace of the game into territory the Warriors don't like. Combine that agonizingly deliberate offense with major size up front in Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors, and you have enough contrasts to talk yourself into them being advantages.

    Green and Durant will eventually run and space oversized 4-5 combos off the floor, but the Jazz just need to dominate on the offensive glass for a couple of stretches to steal a game or two.

    If you squint, you can almost see it happening.

1. San Antonio Spurs

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    Noah Graham/Getty Images

    Threat Level: Rise of the Machines

    You have to start with the San Antonio Spurs' 29-point opening night win over the Warriors. It was arguably the most vulnerable Golden State has looked all season, though it's easy to dismiss the result as a predictable consequence of insufficient superstar jelling.

    It was Durant's first official game with his new team. Kinks abounded.

    But because the Spurs never shut down and are able to replace outdated cogs with upgrades, they remain the Warriors' biggest in-conference obstacle. Kawhi Leonard's season has been most notable for its two-way stardom and the slight sacrifice he's made on D in the interest of expanding his offensive game.

    But anyone thinking he won't channel his most suffocating defensive self in a series against Durant and Golden State is dreaming—let's not discount the lingering motivation KD provided when he called Leonard a system player in 2014.

    Danny Green is a great option to throw at Curry, and LaMarcus Aldridge's mid-range shooting, size and post game make him one of few guys who qualify as tough covers for Green.

    Dewayne Dedmon offers more athleticism and mobility than Tim Duncan did last season, when the Warriors effectively eliminated him from San Antonio's rotation in head-to-head meetings. Pau Gasol probably shouldn't see the floor much, as he'll be badly victimized by the Warriors' small lineups. At the same time, a 4-5 combo of Leonard and Aldridge might be the best possible counter to the Dubs' use of Durant and Green in those same spots.

    Throw in a bench led by Patty Mills and Manu Ginobili whose energy and shooting could shock a sometimes lackluster Warriors reserve corps, and you have ingredients for a competitive series.

    It remains difficult to imagine anyone pushing Golden State to a seventh game, but the Spurs seem like the best bet to do it. We haven't seen these two square off in the postseason since 2013, and if we witness it this year, the current seeding picture means it probably won't happen until the conference finals.

    Fingers crossed for that.

    Follow Grant on Twitter @gt_hughes and Facebook.

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated. Accurate through games played Tuesday, Jan. 31.

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