It's the fourth straight year the Golden State Warriors will enter the NBA playoffs with the best odds to go all the way (they were tied with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2015). However, as Boy Meets World's Jack Hunter famously taught us, "There's no such thing as a sure thing."
Perhaps it's just another midseason blip on the radar for a team that understandably saves an extra gear for the playoffs, but Golden State has looked—dare we say—vulnerable of late.
In their last eight games, the Warriors are 3-5. They're 1-3 in their last four, and two of those losses came against the sub-.500 Miami Heat and Orlando Magic. Sure, those two games were a back-to-back in the middle of a four-game road trip, but they hinted at a level of mortality we don't often see from the Warriors.
This season also has the added element of Kevin Durant's pending departure free agency. If things tighten up in the postseason, will some of the emotions that showed up in November's incident between Draymond Green and Durant bubble to the surface again?
Are the second-place Denver Nuggets a challenger for the throne? Will the Houston Rockets rediscover the magic that almost got them past Golden State last season? Are the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors or anyone else in the East good enough to challenge the Warriors in a seven-game series?
Any of the above potentialities seems like a long shot, but for the first time in a while, it also feels like we have a decent number of long shots. Taking the field over the Warriors might not be so wild.
As of Friday, FiveThirtyEight had Golden State as a 53 percent favorite to win it all, so which teams have a shot to break up the Warriors' dynasty?
The best chance of beating the Warriors is likely in the hands of this season's best player, Giannis Antetokounmpo. If you sort every player with 500-plus minutes by the average of his ranks in 10 catch-all metrics, he is No. 1.
His per-game numbers (27.1 PTS, 12.6 REB, 6.0 AST, 1.5 BLK, 1.4 STL) look like something off Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's Basketball Reference page. Only Antetokounmpo is doing it in just 33 minutes per night.
"There is no apt historical comparison for Antetokounmpo because the league has never seen anyone quite like him," Scott Cacciola wrote for the New York Times. "He is too long and too strong, too quick and too skilled, a 6'11" power forward who can defend point guards at one end and post up the league's stoutest centers at the other."
While the Warriors have a unicorn of their own in Durant, even his MVP campaign wasn't quite on par with what we're seeing from Giannis.
- 2013-14 Kevin Durant: 31.3 PTS, 7.2 REB, 5.4 AST, 1.2 STL, 0.7 BLK & .232 Win Shares per 75 team possessions, .635 TS%, 8.8 Box Plus-Minus
- 2018-19 Giannis Antetokounmpo: 28.6 PTS, 13.4 REB, 6.3 AST, 1.5 STL, 1.5 BLK & .205 Win Shares per 75 team possessions, .636 TS%, 10.4 Box Plus-Minus
He's not a one-man show, either. If we go back to that average ranking exercise we cited earlier for Giannis, all five Bucks starters are in the top 50. Eric Bledsoe is No. 17. As dominant as Golden State's starting five can be, there's an argument that the Bucks' has been better this season.
The net rating (net points per 100 possessions while given players are on the court) of the Bledsoe/Malcolm Brogdon/Khris Middleton/Giannis/Brook Lopez lineup is plus-6.1. The Warriors' starting five of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Durant, Green and DeMarcus Cousins is minus-0.9.
That naturally leads to the Boogie question. The individual net ratings of both Curry and Durant are significantly worse when sharing the floor with Cousins, and the idea that he'd guard Lopez on the perimeter is tough to imagine. Maybe that was the point of the Andrew Bogut signing, but if he suddenly takes Cousins' role, is that another potential chemistry issue?
This is a Bucks squad that's talented enough to exploit even hints of weaknesses.
Simple rating system (SRS) combines point differential and strength of schedule, and not only is Milwaukee first in that stat, but the team is 23rd in league history.
As good as the Bucks are, it wouldn't be shocking to see a fully healthy Raptors squad represent the East in the NBA Finals.
The matchups across the starting fives between Toronto and Milwaukee are interesting—even at power forward, where Pascal Siakam may be as well-equipped as anyone to at least make Giannis sweat.
"We've sung Siakam's praises throughout the 2018-19 season, highlighting his value as a 6'9", 230-pound uber-athlete who can guard every position and initiate the offense," The Ringer's Dan Devine wrote. "But after making the leap between his second and third seasons to establish himself as an integral role player on a Raptors team with championship aspirations, Siakam seems to have taken another major step forward of late—the kind that means his ceiling might be a hell of a lot higher than 'integral role player.'"
According to NBA.com, Toronto is plus-10 points per 100 possessions when Siakam is on the floor and minus-5.3 when he's off. He may have already surpassed "integral role player" a while back.
Where the Raptors really have a chance to make hay is with their bench. That was a critical component of the team's success last season, but it wasn't quite as potent in 2018-19—hence the additions of Marc Gasol (who has started a few games for Toronto) and Jeremy Lin.
Those two, in combination with Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and Norman Powell, should give the Raptors the edge over just about anyone in depth.
The Rockets were up 11 at halftime in Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals. Then, as surely as they lived by the three all season, they died by it in stunning fashion.
Houston missed an NBA-record 27 straight threes in that game, but that hasn't deterred the Rockets from hoisting this season.
In 2017-18, they set an NBA record for three-point attempt rate (3PAr). A whopping 50.2 percent of their field-goal attempts came from beyond the arc. This season, 51.5 percent of their shots have been threes. In fact, the Daryl Morey-era Rockets own each of the top three 3PAr seasons. James Harden is averaging a ridiculous 36.7 points and 13.5 three-point attempts all by his lonesome.
"It's a little easier to settle a direction," Morey told The Ringer's Zach Kram, "when you can say, 'We've done it, we know it works, we know it helps you win,' than, 'Hey, I've got something that on a piece of paper seems like it might work.'"
Barring that anomalous 0-of-27 stretch, Morey might've had an even more convincing sales pitch. Houston is the only Western Conference team that's had Golden State on the ropes since this dynasty started.
After a rocky start, the Rockets are starting to look like the team that had Golden State on its heels.
What a difference a year has made for the Oklahoma City Thunder. After getting ousted by the Utah Jazz in 2018's first round, OKC looks more ready for a playoff run, thanks in large part to Paul George.
George has led the NBA in ESPN's real plus/minus for the better part of 2019, and he's almost singlehandedly solved the Thunder's shooting woes.
Obviously, it helps that Jerami Grant is up to 38.4 percent from downtown, while Terrance Ferguson, Markieff Morris and Abdel Nader are all above average, but George is converting 39.1 percent of his 9.8 attempts per game.
With Russell Westbrook as willing to defer to George as he's ever been with any teammate, OKC has a top two that might fit even better than the one it boasted in the Durant era. Yet while Westbrook and George going toe-to-toe with Curry and Durant seems plausible, Thompson and Green give Golden State a clear edge.
With apologies to "the rest," the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, Jazz and Denver Nuggets combine for a 5 percent shot at the title, according to FiveThirtyEight. Even the Bucks (18 percent) and Raptors (17 percent) are long shots.
The Warriors are still overwhelming favorites over any individual team. But thanks in large part to stellar individual play from the likes of Antetokounmpo, Harden and George, the field is not out of the question.