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Next challenge for LeBron James: Preventing Warriors from taking throne
0:43 | NBA
Next challenge for LeBron James: Preventing Warriors from taking throne
Monday October 17th, 2016

Although the NBA preseason tends to be dull and often rings irrelevant within the season’s big picture, two legitimately notable things happened this weekend. This was largely because they involved the Warriors and Cavaliers, the two teams everyone picked to return to the Finals for a third straight season. 

The first thing was J.R Smith re-signing with Cleveland, which means the Cavs are whole again, and that our hero of the summer can finally afford a shirt. His return was very inevitable, although reports suggested the Sixers tried to tempt Smith. The defending champions will look slightly different this season, but perhaps not much worse for wear.

The second thing is that second-round guard Patrick McCaw hit two buzzer-beaters in one pre-season game, dialed up his own Internet hype to deafening levels, and appears to have a place carved out in the Golden State rotation. The largely unheralded UNLV product fell to 38th overall in this year’s draft, and was a player several draft analysts were high on. I ranked him 32nd on SI’s final Big Board. None of that really matters now—the point is, the rich appear to have gotten richer.

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So, these are two separate items related to one important issue as it pertains to the league’s intra-conference rivalry du jour: depth. And though that can matter less as benches shorten and things get serious come playoff time, pacing player workloads and simply getting to the finish line is still critical even for the most favored of favorites. What are new rotations for the Cavs and Warriors actually going to look like?

There’s a bit more certainty in Cleveland as roster cuts approach. Matthew Dellavedova is delivering bruises and eating cheese curds in Milwaukee, but all the other regulars are back. Bringing back Smith’s volatile but potent deep shooting keeps the puzzle together for Tyronn Lue. The Cavs did make what should be a sneakily good addition in veteran three-point specialist Mike Dunleavy, who has big-game experience and should allow for shooting-heavy looks. The backup point guard spot will likely belong to some combination of scrappy rookie Kay Felder and journeyman Toney Douglas. Chris Andersen has still not retired, and is here.

The surface-level issues for the Cavaliers aren’t that much different than last season: other than the fact Tristan Thompson should have earned your trust by now, the interior personnel skews thin and sits on the wrong side of 30 years old. Relying on Andersen, Channing Frye and stretchy lineups with Richard Jefferson to back up Thompson and Kevin Love isn’t ideal. The Cavs will look to outgun opponents enough to cancel out major concerns with defense and rebounding until the postseason—that’s assuming LeBron will just empty his tank out on that end of the floor, Smith will magically become a focused perimeter defender again, and Cleveland can make it work.

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The flaw in that presumption? Well, the Warriors figure to be even harder to guard, because, yes, Kevin Durant. So if we get a Finals re-re-match, the Cavs will be under a new kind of pressure to guard and also to score. This is why some type of clever mid-season move from Cleveland to reshuffle the deck (once they see what they might be up against) feels inevitable. Don’t assume too many of these smaller parts will look the same in April.

As for Golden State, well, there’s not much reason to be concerned about that new starting lineup. If there’s a concern, it’s how the rebounding holds up. Zaza Pachulia is consistent, but he’s not Andrew Bogut, who found ways to erase plays. There’s a ceiling on how much he can do around the basket by himself. Durant has to double down on his responsibilities inside, and Draymond Green might vie for more contested rebounds than before. It’s nitpicky and the Warriors’ inevitable scoring bursts offer a massive margin for error, but it bears some monitoring.

The bench is Golden State’s main uncertainty entering the season, though perhaps not its most crucial long-term concern. Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston are back, but after that it gets foggy. Pencil in David West as the first big off the bench. His contributions in San Antonio were sound, but also took place in a defined role and understandably limited how much he had to do defensively. That and the departed Mo Speights offer a rough blueprint for how the Warriors will use West, allowing him to screen and find mid-range jumpers. He does not, however, address the defensive snags that may crop up within bench-heavy lineups.

Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images

This is where McCaw might figure in. While his preseason exploits have been impressive, his defensive ability is going to be what ultimately gets him on the floor when it matters. He’s lanky, instinctive and cool-headed, and should be able to switch onto both guard spots and some small forwards. Don’t make the mistake of parlaying his preseason performance into instant stardom—there’s a bigger learning curve ahead, teams are going to try him, and he’s still going to give up body mass on his matchup much of the time. And while it’s easy to fall in love in the idea of McCaw as an instant regular, Steve Kerr has a tested option in Ian Clark.

Further down the bench, Damian Jones, the Warriors’ first-round pick, was more heralded, and eventually profiles as Festus Ezeli-lite, depending how fast he figures things out. JaVale McGee might be able to make some type of impact there, but he’s also JaVale McGee. It’s not too late for James Michael McAdoo or Kevon Looney, if you’re optimistic. Again, Golden State likely won’t have to play any of these guys when it truly matters, but if they’re serious about resting stars, the bench and its flaws will be put to the test.

Maybe none of this will matter in June, maybe all of it will. The path back to the Finals seems way too clear for both teams on paper to take that for granted in October. It takes an eight-man rotation to win a playoff game, and an entire team to get there. And as a rule of thumb, always bet on chaos to get in the way. For now, watch the role players closely… or don’t. It’s not like the Warriors and Cavs have anything else worth focusing on…

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