Spurs? LeBron? Fatigue? Much stands in the way of the Warriors' repeat hopes this season.
SI.com periodically panels its NBA experts to ask a pressing question about the league. Today, we ask our writers which obstacle will present the biggest challenge to the Golden State Warriors' repeat hopes. The reigning champions have looked even better this year than last, starting the season 24–0 and taking their two-way prowess to new heights.
Lee Jenkins: I think they’ll have to clear a few major hurdles: boredom, injuries, Spurs, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. But in the end, the biggest obstacle will again be LeBron James, this time flanked with reinforcements. Let’s say the next six months unfold as expected. The Warriors would likely be favored in a Finals rematch, as they should, but James in Year 2 alongside a healthy Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love poses a stiff test for anybody. No one can go small as well as the Warriors, not even close, but at full strength the Cavaliers are deep enough and versatile enough to play different styles for stretches. Right now, the Cavs again look like the class of the East. They should theoretically cruise through opening rounds of the playoffs while the Warriors grapple with the Spurs or the Thunder or both.
Rob Mahoney: Remission. Golden State is a team fueled by slights, and it’s that disrespect—both real and perceived—that keeps the defending champs on edge. Every week brings new material for the bulletin board. The latest: Several Warriors were irked that, after their streak-busting loss in Milwaukee last week, certain Bucks players reveled in a fashion that was … well, almost Warriors-like. This is grounds for revenge in Golden State’s world; their rematch could well be a bloodbath, now that the Bucks have the undivided attention of the best team in the league. Their spiral of self-motivation works perfectly. A little perspective (or even indifference) would only stand in the Warriors’ way.
Chris Ballard: The Warriors are a remarkably well-balanced team. They kept winning without their coach and three of their better players (Harrison Barnes and, for a while, Klay Thompson and Andrew Bogut). But to win in the playoffs they'll need to be at near full strength. Despite the scoring pyrotechnics, Golden State relies an awful lot on a few players for its offense. If Steph goes down, so do the Dubs. But the same applies to Draymond Green, and it will be hard to win in the later rounds of the postseason without Thompson. The bench has stoppers, and facilitators, but no light-it-up scorers or knock-down shooters. I wouldn't be surprised to see the Warriors make a play for a proven bench scorer at the trade deadline.
Ben Golliver: The Spurs—talented, balanced, deep and healthy. There really isn’t a dependable or realistic blueprint to knocking off the Warriors, as so much of their record start has been driven by incomparable play from Stephen Curry. But San Antonio checks all the boxes for what Golden State’s theoretical foil would need to be, starting with an elite offense that thrives on generating easy baskets and a league-leading defense that features two Defensive Player of the Year candidates in Kawhi Leonard and Tim Duncan.
The Spurs’ offense utilizes all five players as scoring options, as always, while also leaning on true star power in Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge. The Spurs’ defensive plan on Curry can feature multiple looks, including two bigger, longer defenders in Danny Green and Leonard. The Spurs’ core has playoff experience and resolve; they won’t fold mentally if the Warriors rattle off one of their momentum-turning runs. The Spurs’ coaching staff has the personnel to shift between big and small lineup looks when needed. While both teams are deep, San Antonio has virtually no fall-off from its starting group to its other lineups, while Golden State is more centrally built around Curry and Draymond Green. Best of all, San Antonio has avoided any major early injuries. Add all of that up, and the five-time champs look like a pretty good “obstacle.”
Matt Dollinger: Picking the Spurs in a roundtable question is like picking The Beatles when someone asks you, "What's your favorite band?" It's a boring pick, one that has been given time and time again. But sometimes the most obvious answer is also the most correct one. The Spurs decided to zag this off-season while the rest of the league zigs, going big rather than giving into the small-ball peer pressure around the NBA. Realizing they can't beat the Warriors at their own game, Gregg Popovich and Co. decided to challenge the rest of the league to play theirs. Much like the Warriors' "death lineup" with Draymond Green at the five, there isn't a team in the league that can matchup with a frontcourt of Tim Duncan, LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard. The playoffs are dominated by halfcourt basketball and San Antonio will be lethal on both ends come this spring. Rather than try and catch up with the Warriors, the Spurs have decided to run the other way. We'll see who is chasing who this postseason.
DeAntae Prince: Fatigue. As Stephen Curry rolls out the basketball for pregame warm-ups, media members stare in his direction and fans perk up. His highly anticipated routine—which is unlike anything we’ve seen before—is emblematic of the attention heaped on Golden State at every turn. While the team tuned out distractions during its 24–0 win streak, it will need to remain just as locked in for the duration of the season. That could become an issue over the course of an 82-game grind, as the Warriors welcome Steve Kerr back into the fold and race toward the Bulls’ 72–10 record. With so much on their plate and tough competition in the West, Golden State could potentially take its eye off the ball.
Jeremy Woo: San Antonio. This is equal parts logic and wishful thinking, because the Warriors-Spurs series we missed out on last season somehow went away and came back ‘roided out with even more intriguing potential wrinkles. Imagine all of the extra passes, three-pointers and weird cross-matchups enabled by Kawhi and Draymond. It’s a series for hoop purists that would also manage to be incredibly entertaining, and also the proper dynastic impasse for both sides. Someone’s legacy will be shaped by this series. Only one can survive!
That said, incredible starts have positioned these guys well for a conference finals matchup, and it’s both bizarre and enticing to consider that both teams have improved. If San Antonio’s staggering defense holds up into the spring, they’ve got the talent, experience and know-how to manage a heavyweight series like this. Golden State’s pretty close to unstoppable, but this, to me, is clearly the team with the best chance to cause a problem.