After four years of repeats, the NBA will finally have a new matchup in the Finals.
For the Golden State Warriors, the past four Finals have been about finding ways to stop LeBron James. After winning three of four, the Warriors—should they get there again—will have a new team to figure out, and that team will have different weapons and a new set of problems for the Dubs to figure out.
It's about time things got mixed up. With three heavyweights in contention, here's how much each of the teams should concern the Warriors on a scale of one to 10.
The Process Continues
After missing out on the LeBron sweepstakes, the 76ers didn't have a lot of other moves up their sleeves. They took on Wilson Chandler in a salary dump from the Nuggets and drafted Zhaire Smith from Texas Tech, but the rest was held constant, leaving the potential jump from challenger to contender up to internal development.
Ben Simmons had a phenomenal Rookie of the Year campaign and transformed the young Process into a 52-win mammoth. He's a transcendent passer who can get to any spot on the floor at will. If he can learn to shoot at all, it will make him completely unguardable. Few defenders have the combination of length, speed and size to challenge him, but the Warriors have three of them.
What Golden State doesn't have is an answer for Joel Embiid, who had the second-most post-ups in the NBA last year and scored 0.97 points per possession, tied for third in the league (min. 250 possessions). Draymond Green held opponents to seven percent below their season average on attempts within six feet from the basket. He held Embiid to five points on a very limited 14 possession sample last season, which should give Warriors fans hope, but even still, Embiid might be one of the few post talents who can give him trouble.
The Sixers traded up to draft Markelle Fultz with the No. 1 overall pick in 2017 for a reason. He still has the potential to be a special player. He's rumored to have figured out his jump shot. What happened to Fultz with his jumper is reminiscent of what happens when Charles Barkley swings a golf club. He got the yips and his muscle memory forgot how to shoot the way he used to. In college, Fultz shot 41.3 percent on three-pointers, many of which were off-the-dribble. If he can free himself from the mental block, he can become the third core piece that can solidify the 76ers' chances at a title.
That's a big if. While many teams try to beat the Warriors at their own game, the 76ers have found their own way to overpower teams, and their second-round out in the 2018 playoffs was just the beginning. Simmons and Embiid are not done growing. Robert Covington, JJ Redick, Dario Saric and Wilson Chandler are great depth pieces. If Furkan Korkmaz, Landry Shamet, Jonah Bolden and Smith can find a way to offer something, the 76ers are going to be a titan with the length, playmaking and versatility to give the Warriors problems.
Nylon Calculus' Jacob Goldstein projects the 76ers to finish third in the East and fourth in the NBA with 55.4 wins. If everything breaks right, that could be this team's floor. They have a proven defense that ranked third in the NBA last season, but their 11th-ranked offense suffered on the brightest stage. If they can come together and be a top-eight offense like Goldstein's model projects, they can be a real contender.
Threat level: 7/10
This is another team that got a whole lot better by virtue of James leaving...and by getting healthy. The Celtics were a sleeping giant in the playoffs last season without stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Now they'll have them back, in addition to another year of maturity from budding stars Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier.
With three playmaking wings in Hayward, Tatum and Brown, the Celtics can spread the wealth on offense, shoot, move without the ball and switch everything. With Irving, they have an established scorer to carry the offense. They have Al Horford, the ever-underrated big man who can do everything from command a top-defense to facilitate the offense.
Their depth is elite with Marcus Smart back, Marcus Morris and Rozier headlining the bench. Head coach Brad Stevens has a track record of getting more from his guys than the sum of their parts. With such a talented core, they can always have at least two stars on the floor at any given time and have a Death Lineup of their own that can be just as scary as the Warriors'. They were the league's best defense last season, and are primed to improve on their 18th-ranked offense.
If any team has the combination of star power, emerging talent and depth to contend with the Warriors, it's the Celtics. If anyone has the defensive versatility to switch with the Warriors and the length to give them problems 1-through-5, it's the Celtics. If anyone has the coach that can outscheme the Warriors, it's the Celtics.
Threat level: 8.5/10
One of the biggest offseason shakeups happened in Toronto this summer, as the Raptors promoted assistant Nick Nurse to head coach. Nurse helped revolutionize the offense the previous season, according to a team staffer, which took the sixth-ranked offense in 2016-17 (109.8) to third-ranked offense last season (111.0). That improvement doesn't seem like a ton, but along with the improved defense, eighth to fifth, their net rating went from 4.9 to 7.6.
Oh. And then they traded for Kawhi Leonard.
Leonard, a legit top-five player in the NBA, is a massive upgrade from DeMar DeRozan, if he can and does play. Even if LeBron stayed in the East, this would be the kind of upgrade that could get the Raptors over the hump. Leonard is the best perimeter defender in the league, if not the best overall defender, without sacrificing anything on the offensive end. In fact, Leonard is a better fit to play off the ball while Kyle Lowry runs the offense, but he can also be an incredibly efficient scorer. In 2016-17, his last full season, he scored 25.5 points per game on a James-level 61.0 true shooting percentage (compared to DeRozan's average 55.5 TS percentage last year).
Along with Leonard, Danny Green—another elite defensive wing and noted Steph-stopper—came to the Raptors, adding to their three-point shooting and perimeter defense. With those additions, the Raptors can move Norman Powell (18 starts) or OG Anunoby (62 starts) back to their elite bench.
With Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet, Powell, Anunoby, CJ Miles and Pascal Siakam, the Raptors have both the depth and the lineup combinations to give any team—including the Warriors—trouble. They can try Siakam and Leonard in the front court to match the Warriors' Hamptons 5 lineup, and they have the wing depth to support it. They can go big with Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas as the bigs and compete with the Warriors' lineup that features DeMarcus Cousins. They can try big or small lineups and have the defense, shooting and movement to compete at the highest level.
Goldstein's model projects the Raptors to win the East and finish with 60 wins, right behind Golden State. There's certainly some room for error, but on paper, this revamped Raptors roster has the goods, and now, the star-power, to give the Warriors trouble in the Finals.
Threat level: 9/10