NBA Teams That Could Make the Golden State Warriors Sweat Next Season

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistJuly 17, 2018

NBA Teams That Could Make the Golden State Warriors Sweat Next Season

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    With free agency mostly in the rearview mirror, no NBA team has significantly closed the gap on the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors. If anything, the Warriors got even stronger, as they added All-Star big man DeMarcus Cousins on a one-year deal for the taxpayer mid-level exception of $5.3 million.

    No matter how Cousins looks coming back from the torn Achilles that destroyed his market in free agency, the Warriors are still the prohibitive favorite to win their third straight championship and become the first team to three-peat since the 2000-2002 Lakers.

    With LeBron James now in the fold, this year's Lakers will be one of the most fascinating stories in the NBA. But without a second star to pair with James, they won't have a serious chance of dethroning Golden State.

    Few teams in the league have much of a chance against the Warriors, but a handful will give it their best shot nevertheless. Some even have a compelling case as to how they could pull off the unlikely upset.

Boston Celtics

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    With James having left Cleveland, the path is clear for the Celtics to become the Eastern Conference's new juggernaut. And when it comes to beating the Warriors, just getting to the NBA Finals is half the battle.

    The Celtics are expected to go into training camp with a fully healthy roster. That includes Gordon Hayward, who suffered a season-ending ankle injury five minutes into the 2017-18 season, and Kyrie Irving, who missed the end of the regular season and the playoffs after undergoing knee surgery.

    Irving already has a proven track record of playing well against the Warriors in the playoffs, while Hayward will add solid two-way play to a defense that ranked second in the league last year, per NBA.com.

    The Celtics matched up well against the Warriors in the regular season, beating them in their Nov. 16 matchup in Boston and losing by only four points in their Jan. 27 rematch in Oakland. Even their youngest rotation players—Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Terry Rozier—have serious playoff experience now.

    No team in the league will be favored against the Warriors in any playoff series, but Golden State-Boston is the most widely expected Finals matchup, and the Celtics aren't going to go quietly into the night.

Utah Jazz

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    Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

    With the Rockets weakened and James' Lakers still a work in progress, the ascendant Jazz look to be one of the most dangerous teams in the Western Conference.

    Last season, they rebounded from the loss of Hayward to advance to the second round of the playoffs before the Rockets knocked them out. Center Rudy Gobert took home Defensive Player of the Year honors, while rookie Donovan Mitchell displayed superstar attributes.

    Like the Celtics, the Jazz played the Warriors tough in the regular season, winning three out of their four matchups. No team will beat the Warriors at their own game with a high-scoring attack, but the Jazz's defense will give them a chance as anyone to slow Stephen Curry and Co. down.

    If Mitchell can make Curry and Klay Thompson work defensively, Utah might be able to steal a game or two. After that, anything can happen.

Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Joe Murphy/Getty Images

    Paul George's decision to re-sign with the Thunder keeps them relevant in the playoff picture next season. But the more impactful development for Oklahoma City will be the health of defensive ace Andre Roberson, who suffered a season-ending patellar tendon rupture in January.

    It can't be overstated how transformative Roberson was on the Thunder's defense. With him on the court last season, Oklahoma City allowed opponents to score only 95.3 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. With him out, the Thunder's defensive rating skyrocketed to 106.9 points allowed per 100 possessions.

    With George and Roberson together, the Thunder have the defensive wings to hang with Curry, Thompson and Kevin Durant, and Russell Westbrook always gets up to play against his former teammate.

    Outside of a matchup with the Lakers, a Warriors-Thunder playoff series would be the best theater the Western Conference has to offer. Oklahoma City's personnel could make things interesting.

Philadelphia 76ers

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    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    Outside of Boston, Philadelphia looks to be the most dangerous team in the Eastern Conference. The Sixers brought back sharpshooter JJ Redick and added veteran forward Wilson Chandler in a trade with the Denver Nuggets.

    There are two keys to Philly's chance in a theoretical matchup with the Warriors. One is the health of All-Star center Joel Embiid, who's a game-changer at both ends of the floor. The other is Philadelphia's involvement in the ongoing Kawhi Leonard trade talks.

    If the Sixers can add Leonard to their nucleus of Embiid and Ben Simmons, their defense would become even more stifling. Even as presently constructed, Simmons' playmaking and the rest of the team's shooting would make Philly a fascinating matchup against Golden State.

Houston Rockets

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    The Rockets have indisputably gotten worse this offseason, following a 65-win campaign in which they took Golden State to seven games in the Western Conference Finals. They lost starting small forward Trevor Ariza to Phoenix and one of their most important wing defenders in Luc Mbah a Moute to the Clippers.

    But they still have a newly re-signed Chris Paul, as well as reigning MVP James Harden. Assuming they re-sign restricted free agent center Clint Capela, they'll still be one of the toughest teams in the West.

    Before their free-agency losses, the Rockets were right there with the Warriors. They even held a 3-2 series lead through five games in the Western Conference Finals before Paul suffered a hamstring injury that sidelined him in Games 6 and 7. The loss of Ariza takes away any chance the Rockets would be favored in a series against Golden State, but their top-end talent is still there.

    If Paul stays healthy in the playoffs and the Rockets don't miss an unprecedented 27 straight three-pointers again, they should still be able to give the Warriors a compelling challenge in the playoffs.

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