Basketball is popular largely because it’s an easy sport to discuss. There are a limited amount of players, most of which are among the most famous athletes in America, and it’s a fairly easy game to understand. Because of this, basketball conversations have flourished online and in real life. Comparing players, debating teams greatness, and predicting which teams will win the championship are all discussions that happen constantly.
The Warriors have worsened that last topic of conversation. Try and persuade a casual fan that another team other than Golden State has a chance to win it all. You may get some Cavaliers believers, but finding some outside of Ohio may be difficult. Whenever someone tries to make the case for another team’s chances to win it all, the closing arguments on the opposing side are always the same, “But the Warriors.”
It is a really good closing argument and usually the only one they need. The Warriors are that good. There are, however, plenty of realities in which the Warriors do not win it all this season. There are good teams around the league outside of the Bay Area. So here are a few teams that could potentially win it all and the reasons why they have a shot.
The counter-argument to all of these teams is, well, they’d be facing the Warriors.
The Celtics began their year with a trauma shock and have been winning lots of games with an adrenaline-fueled power ever since. Brad Stevens, Al Horford, and Kyrie Irving have been leading that unit with precision. Irving has continued to do what he does best without the problematically paternal LeBron James by his side, Horford has been a great communicator on the defensive end and Jayson Tatum is one of the most pro-ready draftees in years.
Something that was truly exciting at the beginning of the year was Irving’s defense. It was well above average but has now regressed to simply bad. Luckily, Al Horford and the defensively inclined players on the Celtics roster have led them to the number one ranked defense in the league. A defense that boasts a defensive rating that is a full point better than second place.
This defense is the truly championship caliber qualification that these Celtics boast. Only six teams since 1997 have had the best defensive rating by one whole point or more. Four of the six went to at least the Conference finals and two of them won the whole thing. Guys like Jaylen Brown, who has proven capable at guarding the likes of Kevin Durant and LeBron James, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, and even Jayson Tatum have shown their defensive ability this season.
The Celtics option to mix and match players, never giving the superb offensive players in the league the same look, has proven vital to their success. Each of their defenders has their own personal defensive strong suits. Brown is lengthy and unbelievable at fighting through screens. Smart and Rozier are defensive aggressors and cause players to lose their sense of composure. Tatum is fundamentally sound and won’t often mess up in a major way.
In an offensively charged league, a stellar defense could be the necessary counter to the juggernaut teams that roam the NBA landscape. Pair the inarguably clutch Kyrie Irving (who has had plenty of Finals experience) and the possible (yet, unlikely) return of Gordon Hayward with the brains of Horford and Stevens, and you can start to see the outline of a championship team.
The major misconception about the Rockets heading into the season was that they lost a bench when acquiring Chris Paul. In reality, the additions of Luc Mbah a Moute and PJ Tucker may be as important as bringing in the point god himself.
After posting top-five defensive rating in the first 26 games, the Rockets defense dropped off with the injury of Mbah a Moute, cratering to 27th in the league during the 14 games he was gone and 14th overall.
Both him and Tucker give the Rockets needed lineup flexibility with their two Hall of Fame-bound players. If they need to play big, they can insert Clint Capela or even Nene. If they need to play fast and guard small they can play PJ at the five at Mbah a Moute at the four without losing anything on the defensive end.
In the 457 minutes those two have played together, they have posted an offensive rating of 114.1 and a defensive rating of 93.9. Both metrics would lead the league by a healthy margin.
The Rockets could also simply heap a ton of three-point jumpers on a team’s head, or Harden and/or Paul could go berserk. The goal come playoff time is to have the most options. The team with the most options tends to win because during a seven-game series, the better team ultimately finds the opposing team’s weakness. If you have no weaknesses, no lack of options that can be exploited, you have a much better chance. (This has been the Warriors’ M.O. for years.)
Luckily, the Rockets have lots and lots of options.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder have plenty of issues. They have a tendency to lose focus, and their best player hasn’t yet maximized the talent on his team. Luckily, the pieces that surround him have proved willing to change their game in order fit inside the mold that only Russell Westbrook has.
Carmelo Anthony is beginning to play much more off-ball and is barely posting up anymore. This has made him an insanely overqualified catch-and-shoot player who can be called on to do more when necessary. Paul George has become a defensive menace who is coming off screens better than the King Off-screen Shooter himself, Klay Thompson (George is at 1.13 points per possession off screens to Thompson’s 1.05.)
Steven Adams has long been a willing passenger on Westbrook’s trip to personal accolades. Adams is remarkable at ceding rebounds to Westbrook so he can lead the fastbreak with ferocity (and boost those triple double chances) while being a stellar screen setter and box out man. He also has been showing an increasingly efficient touch around the rim, shooting a career-high from 0-3 feet.
Finally, Andre Roberson is one of the three best perimeter defenders in the league with an insane defensive rating of 96.5. The talent in the starting five would put the Thunder as one of the clear favorites for a Finals appearances in a normal year.
LeBron James has been to seven straight NBA Finals. In a time period that encourages players to be fanatical about their career choice, this is an especially impressive feat. The strangest thing is that LeBron continues to get better and has been an MVP caliber player in his 15th year in the league.
The Cavaliers have been disastrous defensively, but this has been their way for years now. Continually playing that many games of basketball can wear down the effort levels in games that are not the NBA Finals. This is certainly not an ideal attitude to have, but Cleveland is still teeming with talent.
Isaiah Thomas has struggled after his initial return to play but he has already showcased a great connection with LeBron, and his year with the Celtics last season was not a fluke. They also have a nine to ten man rotation that has the potential to allow LeBron to rest without feeling anxious to get back on the court.
That bench is scoring about 41 points per game, good for fourth in the entire league. This is not only important because it gives their 33-year-old megastar some needed rest but allows the Cavs to constantly be a threat. This is something that has been severely lacking in years past as they would fail miserably in the minutes that LeBron was not on the court.
They not only have a player that has been to the NBA Finals more often than the average person gets their teeth cleaned but a rotation that makes sense together and can score points consistently. They have the history, the best player in the league, and depth. Even if they still might be a move or two before the deadline away from being as fearsome as they need to be.