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Could the 73–win Warriors lose in the playoffs and fail to repeat as NBA champions? Sure, it's possible. But likely? Not so much. With Golden State back in the postseason, SI.com's Lee Jenkins and Andrew Sharp examine how the Warriors could conceivably, possibly, maybe be beaten in the playoffs.
The Mighty Spurs
By Lee Jenkins
For anyone tired of hearing that the Warriors are the greatest team ever assembled, that they have revolutionized basketball, that they have triggered a cultural phenomenon, that they're smarter than everybody else and more likeable and have so much more fun, then the Spurs are now your team.
The Cavaliers, Clippers and Thunder all have a chance to topple Golden State, and record arguably the biggest upset in NBA history, but get real. The Spurs—Golden State's likely Western Conference finals opponent—are the only legitimate hope.
The Warriors talk a lot about their rhythm, which they call their "flow," and for the past 10 months no one has been able to disrupt it. The Grizzlies did, in last year's West semifinals, and the Cavs did also, in the Finals. Since then the Dubs have dropped a game here and there, but their flow has continued unabated.
The Warriors in general and Steph Curry in particular admit they feed off confidence. The confidence they earned from the championship last season led to more confidence from the streak that started this season which led to more confidence from their current six-month joyride. The team that beats them is the team that shakes them—the team that makes them feel fallible again.
The Spurs cannot outgun the Warriors, but they can make them clank a few shots, if such a thing is possible. What Golden State has been to offense this season, San Antonio has been to defense. The Spurs have allowed just 92.9 points per game, almost three fewer than any other team. In the NBA good offense typically trumps good defense, which is why the Warriors would be favored in a series. But the Spurs' D can rattle anybody.
So how would they do it? Downsizing, with Boris Diaw spending more time at center and Tim Duncan more time on the bench, as LaMarcus Aldridge punishes counterparts; switching pick-and-rolls, with Tony Parker and Danny Green hounding Curry and the bigs chasing him as well; Kawhi Leonard suffocating Klay Thompson. That was the recipe the Spurs employed in their second meeting with the Warriors, when they did what the Clippers, Thunder and Cavs could not: finish the damn game.
Leonard has taken his star turn this season, morphing from stopper to centerpiece, but this series will test him. He can't fade into the background anymore, the way he did in the first round against the Clippers last spring, deferring to the bygone Big Three. He has to piggyback the Spurs, on offense as well as defense, delivering at both ends every night. No one expects him to match missiles with Curry, but he can put up a string of 25-point performances. He proved as much all winter.
Many NBA players, plugged into their League Pass accounts, were demoralized by the Warriors. The Spurs, institutionally insulated from hysteria and immune to hype, kept grinding. They finished a tick below Golden State, and they couldn't care less if nobody noticed. While others were hand-wringing, they were searching for a way to beat the unbeatable team. If there's a formula, they're the best bet to find it.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
The Ultimate Trump Card: LeBron
By Andrew Sharp
There have been cryptic tweets. There have been team meetings. A coach has been fired. There was an Instagram post by the franchise player posing as a morose cartoon Batman. There is uncertainty clouding the future in Cleveland, and angst in the present. But in the end, there is still LeBron.
From a basketball standpoint, LeBron James remains a cheat code. He is the size of Bill Russell with a point guard's vision and the power of Karl Malone. He's averaging 25.5 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.4 assists since the All-Star break. He is the only player in the NBA who can make Draymond Green's versatility look ordinary, and he outplayed Curry through most of last year's Finals.
Yes, Golden State destroyed this Cleveland team in January, but I'm not sure a matchup this June would be so lopsided. Golden State will have to survive wars with two of the other teams on this list, and they'll have to stay healthy. The Cavs should have a much easier road.
Whether they go big or small, Cleveland has more talent to throw at the Warriors than any team in the league. Tristan Thompson can punish them on the glass, and Kevin Love can chip in from the perimeter. Iman Shumpert is a capable foil for Klay Thompson. Kyrie Irving can do damage on offense, and his defensive shortcomings can be hidden on Harrison Barnes. J.R. Smith.... Well, he can't play any worse than he did last year. And while nobody is stopping Curry, Matthew Dellavedova is the most obnoxious defender this side of Chris Paul, so that's a start. The Cavs can make these games ugly, and that's the first step to beating the Warriors.
But mostly, this is about LeBron. Imagine how disgusted he must be reading this, a series of pieces whose premise is that any scenario in which the Warriors lose should be considered theoretical.
So the ball is in the King's court now. Toward the end of last year's Finals, LeBron announced that he wasn't concerned. "I feel confident because I'm the best player in the world," he said after a loss. "It's that simple." At the time, it was that simple. Now nobody is so sure.
Given the sudden rise of Curry, there's a real chance that LeBron will be known more for what he didn't win than the titles he did. There are plenty of people mocking and doubting him. It's not all that different from where he was in Miami once, when the Heat had lost to the Mavericks in the 2011 Finals and were roundly considered a failure. Back then, the basketball world wondered in hushed tones about LeBron's future—until he went off and dominated the Finals the following season.
I don't know whether LeBron has it in him to do that against Golden State. He almost did last year, but the Warriors are a better team now. All I know is that LeBron has no better opportunity to cement his place in history than in a head-to-head matchup with Curry. And if the Warriors want to go down as the greatest team of all time, they'll have to go through a pissed-off superhero to do it.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images Sport
Western Wild Cards
By Lee Jenkins
Among all NBA teams the Clippers have the best odds ... of embroiling the Warriors in a brawl before Game 1 that results in mass suspensions.
The rivalry—almost certain to be rekindled in the second round—remains the most volatile in the league, and while it has mellowed a bit recently with Golden State's dominance and Blake Griffin's absence, Griffin is back and a playoff series will restore tension. If Griffin's quad injury limits him in any substantial way, the Clippers have no shot. But if he is at or near full strength, they have, well, a puncher's chance.
The Clippers lost all four games with the Warriors this season, but they blew 10-point fourth-quarter leads in two of them. There are a couple ways to look at that. 1) The Clips can't finish the Dubs even when everything is going their way. 2) They are closer than you think. Within the L.A. locker room, players believe in their formula against Golden State: using DeAndre Jordan and Griffin at center in small-ball lineups, switching pick-and-rolls relentlessly and unleashing Jordan on Steph Curry when Chris Paul isn't hounding him.
Two years ago the Clippers ousted the Warriors in the first round, and that was in the midst of the Donald Sterling fiasco. The principals haven't changed much, even if the outlook has. The Clippers need Griffin to heal, Paul to saddle Curry with foul trouble, J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford to set arenas on fire with their shooting. And a Draymond Green suspension wouldn't hurt.
Clippers coach Doc Rivers uses the term "emotional hijack" when players succumb to their anger. Usually he employs the phrase when discussing his own team. In this case the Clips have to aggravate the Warriors—which they've proven capable of doing.
Let's assume the Warriors eventually vanquish the Clippers. They'd be on track to face the Spurs in a dream conference finals. But what if it's the Thunder, imbued with confidence from a second-round surprise?
With Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder can score with the Warriors. Their problem is slowing them. The OKC defense, while solid, is not elite. Like the Clippers, the Thunder can play small with Durant at the four, and they can switch pick-and-rolls, with Serge Ibaka hopping out on Curry.
But Oklahoma City has also looked good with bigger lineups featuring Enes Kanter and Steven Adams. The Thunder are deeper than the Clippers and can tinker with formulas, tabbing Andre Roberson for his defense, Anthony Morrow for his shooting or Dion Waiters for a combination of both. But all those players carry risk. The Thunder will likely rely most on Roberson to blanket the perimeter, but he can't shoot reliably and the Warriors could give him the Tony Allen treatment, sagging off him and clogging the paint to impede Westbrook and Durant.
In the end Russ and KD will have to simultaneously deliver the best series of their lives. They'll have to outshine Curry and Klay Thompson. They'll have to hit the clutch baskets that eluded the Thunder all season. They are still the best duo in the NBA, two of the top five players in the league. They won't be an easy out for anyone.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
By Andrew Sharp
Nobody needs Captain Obvious to come through and remind everyone that a Steph Curry injury could derail everything. But if we're surveying potential nightmares at the end of a dream season, let's be honest about this: Injuries are the biggest threat on the board.
Well injuries, plus the very real possibility of a Joe Lacob Ted Talk on what Gregg Popovich can learn from venture capitalists. Also, we still don't know exactly what happened with Draymond Green in the Oklahoma City locker room back in February, but a mid-Finals meltdown would be less than ideal.
For now, though, we'll focus on the most apparent catastrophes lurking out there for Golden State. This team is great for two reasons. First, Curry is one of the best players of all time. He may not officially be in that conversation yet, but he will be in a few years. And if the Warriors lose him, obviously, it's over.
The other force driving this Golden State season is the best chemistry the NBA has ever seen. On defense almost everyone can switch and guard multiple positions. On offense the Warriors' passing overwhelms opponents and their shooting at every position makes them more or less unguardable. It all adds up to a lineup that nobody can stop. The flip side of that equation is interesting, though.
If chemistry is this elemental to the team's success, then removing one piece makes the entire formula vulnerable. Take Andre Iguodala. His shooting helps spread the floor on offense, while his versatility on defense allows the Warriors to put Green at center without missing a beat. If there were any questions about Iguodala's value, those ended when he missed 16 of 24 games to end the year, and teams realized they could hide weaker defenders on Harrison Barnes. (Three of the Dubs' losses came in those 16 games.)
There are other potential risks too. Andrew Bogut is on the wrong side of 30, and he's a perpetual injury candidate. (He hasn't played more than 70 games in a season since 2007—08, when he was 23.) His backup, Festus Ezeli, only recently came back to the court after missing 31 games with a knee injury. Barnes sprained an ankle in November, and he was out until January.
None of the injuries derailed Golden State during the regular season, so maybe it won't matter in the playoffs. In fact, it probably won't. Curry is still good enough to elevate Golden State past anyone. Whatever happens, I will not go on record doubting the Warriors in 2016.
If you'll remember, though, that the most vulnerable this team looked came during the beginning of the NBA Finals last year, when Green was battling mysterious back issues. We may never know what was wrong. All that's certain is that Green stopped shooting, trapping Curry started working and for a few games there, the Warriors' offense froze.
It worked out in the end for the Dubs—but only when Green's back loosened up and Kerr inserted a healthy Iguodala into the starting lineup. What happens if they don't have those luxuries this year?