- Eight teams are going about beating the Warriors in drastically different ways. Some have gone all-in on this season, others are eyeing down the line. The Crossover examines their strategies.
It seems silly to preview an NBA season without asking who is going to win the title, but when you have a team as gifted as the Warriors, coming off titles in two of the last three years, it seems trivial to discuss who is the favorite.
Rather than treat the 2017-18 season like an open race, we're looking at it like an arms race. Golden State is likely to win the title—everyone else is chasing them. Injuries and trades can change everything, but as is, it'll take a drastic change to bump the Warriors from the top spot.
But eventually, the mighty do fall. If not this season, then maybe the next. Or the year after that. The point is: Even the greatest NBA dynasties eventually come to an end.
So when will Golden State meet its demise? And by who? We examined the eight NBA teams constructed or remodeled this offseason to beat the Warriors. Some are geared toward this year, some are focused down the line. All need everything to break their way in order to challenge the champs.
The Strategy: Fight Fire With Fire. Cleveland’s hopes of derailing the Warriors’ dynasty begin and end with LeBron James. If James is playing at the level he did in the 2017 Finals—when he became the first player to average a triple double in the championship series—the Cavs will always have something resembling a chance to beat Golden State. It’s not only that James himself is such a brilliant talent, but his unselfishness and IQ genuinely makes players around him better. If James continues playing at such an incredible level, Cleveland’s odds rest on him being a bigger superstar than the Warriors’ group of stars combined.
Cleveland seems to function best when he is surrounded by teammates capable of hitting open threes and defending multiple positions. Well, the Cavs certainly have players who can shoot. Isaiah Thomas, J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver and Kevin Love are all lethal threats from outside. Meanwhile, Jae Crowder’s stretchiness dovetails nicely with his ability to guard multiple positions in small-ball lineups. With all the outside firepower, Cleveland is one of the few teams that can match Golden State shot-for-shot, as we saw in their only win in the most recent Finals.
So the blueprint remains mostly the same: Surround LeBron with shooters, and leverage his insane gifts into enough open threes to keep up with the Dubs. Where may this plan fall apart? Simply put, on defense.
Cleveland’s defensive issues are numerous. Tristan Thompson isn’t really feared as a shot blocker. Smith’s attention can be inconsistent, while Love, Thomas, Korver and Derrick Rose are all serious liabilities. Crowder will help the team match up much better with the Warriors’ death lineup, but he can only do so much if the Cavs are playing small units that also include Thomas and Love. Basically, most Cavs players can score or defend well enough to hang with Golden State, but most can’t do both.
Ultimately, Cleveland lacks the number of two-way players needed to truly challenge Golden State. The Warriors are too talented and too well-coached to not pick apart a team’s slightest weakness. For the Cavaliers, those weaknesses will be glaring. Even if Cleveland is favored to make it back to a fourth straight Finals, it likely won‘t have the proper personnel to execute the plan needed to conquer the Warriors. — Rohan Nadkarni
San Antonio Spurs
The Strategy: Run It Back. The Spurs need not rely on self-delusion or wishful thinking to fuel their title dreams. No, they must only re-watch Game 1 of the 2017 West finals for validation of their blueprint. Before Kawhi Leonard was lost to a series-altering ankle injury, San Antonio had built a 25-point lead through heady execution and determined defense. The Spurs’ traditional big men, LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol, used their size and passing ability to create good scoring opportunities inside. San Antonio’s tested, savvy defenders forced turnovers aplenty, raced to contest shooters, and frantically chased down transition plays. Leonard had a bigger impact than any of Golden State’s four All-Stars, and the ageless Manu Ginobili helped the Spurs easily win the bench battle.
It was stunning to see the Warriors floundering on so many fronts after they had cruised through the first two rounds, but the Spurs’ success was no fluke. Gregg Popovich’s formula was unconventional but devastatingly effective. With the rest of the league going to small lineups, he opted to stay big. With everyone else playing fast, he slowed it down. With the NBA in the midst of a three-point boom and an offensive golden era, San Antonio conceded the second-fewest threes and ranked first in defensive efficiency. Those counters, coupled with excellent ball movement, elite three-point shooting and a disciplined cast of high-IQ veterans, delivered 61 wins, the NBA’s second-best record.
Of course, the loss of Leonard prompted a dramatic Warriors comeback and effectively ended the Spurs’ season. But unlike Houston and Oklahoma City, who responded to their postseason failures with major overhauls, San Antonio had seen enough to justify running it back with the same group. The Spurs’ offseason was eerily quiet, with Gasol, Ginobili and Patty Mills all re-signing. Rudy Gay, currently rehabbing an Achilles injury, was the only notable addition.
The jury is still out whether the Spurs can hang with the Warriors for a full series. Gasol, 37, struggled to keep up with younger, friskier players as the West finals unfolded. The Spurs had no positional answer for Kevin Durant other than Leonard, and their perimeter defense was eventually drenched by the Splash Brothers. Instead of scaling up his scoring, Aldridge shrank. Nevertheless, San Antonio reached the reasonable conclusion that a larger roster overhaul—and perhaps a youth movement—could wait another year. Why not give Leonard, on two healthy ankles, a shot at revenge first? — Ben Golliver
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Strategy: Stockpile Talent. Long viewed as the quintessential draft-and-develop small-market franchise, the Thunder have approached the post-Kevin Durant era with a sharp change in strategic thinking. Rather than building from the ground up one lottery pick at a time, GM Sam Presti has chased high-wattage quick fixes in Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. The rationale for Presti’s bold offseason trades was simple: Russell Westbrook badly needed more help on the court and more convincing that Oklahoma City should continue to be his home.
One might be tempted to paint Presti’s about-face as an overreaction to Durant’s surprising 2016 departure, but Oklahoma City’s new stars arrived at a shockingly low cost. All told, Presti added George and Anthony for four mediocre rotation players and a second-round pick, which doesn’t exactly amount to mortgaging the future. While the new-look Thunder still lack the depth to match the Warriors, they should pair a versatile defense with a more potent and better-balanced attack. Westbrook’s usage, which reached a record height last year, should return to more acceptable levels now that he’s flanked by two All-Star forwards with three-point range and explosive scoring ability. George, meanwhile, joins stopper Andre Roberson in an ideal defensive pairing to handle Golden State’s many perimeter weapons.
Oklahoma City has clearly improved its lineup versatility thanks to a pair of under-the-radar offseason signings. Forward Patrick Patterson will help the Thunder field credible small-ball lineups when center Steven Adams is off the court, while veteran point guard Raymond Felton gives coach Billy Donovan the option to move Westbrook off the ball, unlocking even more scoring potential. The 2016-17 Thunder were an early out because they lacked the ability to adjust and adapt in the postseason; this year’s version is better prepared to keep up in shootouts and to downsize for match-up purposes.
The vast talent gap between the Warriors and the Thunder has narrowed, but sustainability and chemistry remain open questions. At 33, Anthony is a subpar defender and has slipped noticeably from his days as the NBA’s 2013 scoring champ. George, a free-agent next summer, could prove to be a short-term rental. Westbrook must keep all mouths fed after relishing his solo gorging act. And even if the trio clicks seamlessly—a big if—the Thunder’s weak bench may undermine their title aspirations. However, Presti’s new calculus is clear: The best way for a one-man team to keep up with a constellation is to collect as many supporting stars as possible and sort out the details later. — Ben Golliver
The Strategy: Build A Faster Car. The NBA’s arms race ramped up in full this summer. Count the retooled Rockets chief among the hopefuls. Their secretive summer recruitment of Chris Paul was a clear declaration of intent: Houston is in on the superteam conversation and aiming to contend. And while teams around the league have begun to mimic the Warriors’ fast-paced approach to the game, the Rockets want to build an even faster car. Last season they threw James Harden the keys to Mike D’Antoni’s offense and reaped the benefits with the fourth-most wins in franchise history. Add the league’s dominant two-way floor general to the mix in Paul, and things get serious.
Trying to beat the Warriors at their own game might seem foolhardy at surface-level, but no club looks better-tailored for a serious attempt. The Rockets already ran the league’s second-most efficient and third-fastest attack, and with Paul in the mix, they can keep the pressure on with at least one superstar on-court at all times. A step forward from center Clint Capela could elevate the interior play on both ends, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson will snipe threes, and the signings of P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute deepened an experienced rotation. By surrounding their studs with elite shooters and athletic, switchable defenders, Houston is more ready than ever to aborb Golden State’s best shot.
It won’t be that easy, obviously. The Rockets look set for another top-three finish in the West, but still must reckon with the ghosts of playoff meltdowns past. Speedy chemistry between Harden and Paul would be nice, but Houston will still have to bridge the gap defensively against a Golden State team that’s been historically difficult to defend. On a good day, the Rockets can shoot and score on the Warriors’ level, but banking on Trevor Ariza to slow Kevin Durant, hoping Paul can shadow Curry and finding somewhere to hide Harden on that end requires some wishful thinking. While it’s prudent to bet on elite talent winning out... the Warriors still have more of it. — Jeremy Woo
The Strategy: Lurk In The Shadows. Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder are in Cleveland. Avery Bradley is in Detroit. Kelly Olynyk is in Miami. Celtics fans may still be in shock.
Rather than doubling down on a nucleus that may have already peaked, Boston management spent this summer turning over 75% of a roster that finished with the best record in the East last season. And now, if I had to bet real money on the next team to beat the Warriors in a playoff series, I'd pick the Celtics.
It won't happen this season, but that's not the point. If contending this season had been the top priority for GM Danny Ainge, Boston would've dealt for Paul George to play alongside Isaiah Thomas and Gordon Hayward. Even then: would George, Hayward, and Thomas have been enough to beat Golden State? Would they be close enough to a title to justify betting on the 30 year-old Thomas and his balky hip when he hits free agency next summer? The Kyrie Irving trade was our answer.
Nobody will beat the Warriors by lying to themselves. Look around the league, and certain teams think they are closer than they really are, while others are busy talking themselves into aging superstars who won't really close the cap. Boston's playing a different game.
Irving is 25 years old, Hayward is 27 years, and neither one has peaked. As they enter their prime over the next few years, a number of factors could alter the NBA landscape we have now. For one, the Warriors will become extremely expensive. Klay Thompson is a free agent in 2019 and Draymond Green will follow in 2020, and the combination of rising salaries and punitive luxury taxes could cost Golden State more than $1.2 billion over the next four years. It will create some tough choices.
And as Golden State's financial reality possibly begets a little bit of Warriors mortality, Anthony Davis will be approaching free agency in 2020.
If the Pelicans don't improve soon, it will make sense for New Orleans management to entertain a trade rather than risk losing Davis for nothing. In that case, Boston still has a high lottery pick coming from the Lakers or Kings in one of the next two years (depending on protections) and a slew of other assets and picks in their back pocket.
Over the past few years Celtics trade rumors have generated enough internet page views to power a small country's economy, and that business will continue to boom. The Celtics are one star short, and if Davis is available, there won't be a better deal than what Danny Ainge can offer. Then, with Davis next to Hayward and Irving, a good team in the East could become the scariest team in the league.
It's not a perfect blueprint, and there are a dozen variables that could alter the equation over the next two years. But in October 2017, this is the one plan of succession that actually looks plausible. — Andrew Sharp
The Strategy: Build The Next Juggernaut. Six months ago, the Wolves were promising rebuilders set to benefit from the pending ascendance of Karl-Anthony Towns as the NBA’s top center. It’s safe to say that timeline has accelerated. With the acquisition of Tom Thibodeau’s star pupil Jimmy Butler, Minnesota raised the ante and now boasts a pair of two-way stars. The combined promise of that duo plus the still-improving Andrew Wiggins makes this one of the league’s most intriguing rosters. It’s tough to expect a team with this many new faces to emerge as a fully-fledged contender, but the door is wide open for a leap into the league’s upper crust over the next few seasons. When it comes to true contention, the longer view is advisable.
The key to the equation is Towns, whose size, skill level and burgeoning offensive game could already create a major edge for Minnesota, not to mention the fact he’s just 21. In a best-case scenario, he’s swallowing up Steph Curry on high ball screens, keeping Draymond Green off the glass, initiating fast breaks and anchoring a well-drilled defense capable of grinding the game to a halt. For Wiggins, the presence of Butler should relieve scoring pressure, create additional room to operate and allow him to take a step forward as an all-around player. Assuming both sign long-term contracts, Minnesota can boast three foundational players well-suited for the uptempo game and easy to complement with specialists year to year. If there’s one major prerequisite for matching up with Golden State, it’s elite, versatile talent. Consider those boxes checked.
Starry long-term outlook aside, it would be unwise to let the Wolves’ future undersell their present. After adding go-to scorer Butler, veteran point guard Jeff Teague, Thibodeau favorite Taj Gibson and the ageless Jamal Crawford, the Wolves are squarely in the playoff picture. Thibodeau will have them well-drilled, the defense could be elite, and that creates a promising baseline for success. Will they play uptempo? Will they try bully-ball? The possibilities are intriguing, and some immediate cohesion will be critical to keep up with the Western Conference’s deepest field in years. As it stands, the Wolves’ ascension seems less a matter of if than when. — Jeremy Woo
The Strategy: Let The Process Play Out. It’s the summer of 2020. Joel Embiid will be named the MVP in the NBA’s summer awards show, hosted by Lil Uzi Vert. Markelle Fultz is a clean-shaven, right-handed version of James Harden. And Ben Simmons is something of a Draymond Green 2.0—not quite as good a defender, but a much more versatile offensive player, perfectly suited for Brett Brown’s positionless system.
Meanwhile, the Warriors are still reeling from the departure of Klay Thompson a summer ago. Green has one eye on his upcoming free agency. And Andre Iguodala seems more interested in his tech investments than playing more than 20 minutes a night with an ailing back as he approaches retirement.
This at least is one somewhat plausible scenario in which the Philadelphia 76ers could find themselves challenging the Warriors for league supremacy in the future. It’s obvious the Sixers’ current plan revolves around their three high-potential prospects: Embiid, Fultz and Simmons. If those three grow together and reach their ceilings, Philly could have a legitimately terrifying squad. Embiid is a bonafide backline defender with a scintillating offensive repertoire. Fultz and Simmons have obviously yet to make any mark on the NBA, but both were consensus No. 1 overall picks for a reason. The Sixers’ best bet is for their young core to blossom into full-blown stars, and then call on the help of championship hungry or championship savvy veterans to round out the roster.
As tantalizing as that future sounds, it’s also more fantasy than reality. Embiid hasn’t proven he can stay healthy, and it’s unclear if his knees will ever be able to handle the rigors of professional basketball. And there are also concerns over Simmons’s ability to shoot and how he’ll fit with Fultz, both of whom want to play point guard. If only one of Philly’s troika reaches superstardom, the 76ers will have a long way to go to catch the Warriors. — Rohan Nadkarni
Los Angeles Lakers
The Strategy: Make Magic Happen. Look, everyone should be realistic about what's possible for Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka in Los Angeles. We're nine months from 2018 NBA free agency, but there are already rumors swirling about L.A.'s plans, impending superteams, and a King who could arrive to restore the empire. Fine.
Let's also remember that there were Carmelo Anthony Lakers rumors a few years ago. The next summer, Mitch Kupchak was apparently all set to trade for DeMarcus Cousins. Then they were going to sign LaMarcus Aldridge. Then, in 2016, they were the dark horse that was going to steal Kevin Durant. "Never count out the Lakers," the insiders said.
But no. That's the wrong lesson. Look at recent history. Be smart. Never listen to Lakers rumors.
[slips on purple no. 24 Kobe Bryant jersey]
[listens to audio of Jeannie Buss telling ESPN that any free agent who doesn't want to play with Kobe Bryant is a loser]
[spends $2,000 outfitting my entire family in Big Baller Brand sneakers]
The Lakers are signing LeBron next summer. The Lakers are signing Paul George, too. Russell Westbrook re-signed with OKC because he wasn't ready to compete with Lonzo, but that's fine. It probably means Chris Paul or DeMarcus Cousins is coming instead.
The writing's on the wall. All you have to do is read it.
Whatever happens, please don't worry about the salary cap. True royalty means that ordinary constraints do not apply, and it doesn't get more royal than Magic Johnson, LeBron James, and the Los Angeles Lakers.
I'm not kidding. There will be people who tell you that the Lakers mystique means nothing, but that's wrong for a few reasons. First, have you ever been to a Lakers game? The introductions alone—dimmed lights, curtains dropping, and a montage with 60 years of chill-inducing highlights—dispel any notion that the Lakers are just another team.
Likewise, this franchise is as big as the Cowboys, the Yankees, and Manchester United. Starring for the Lakers puts players on a platform that makes them twice as famous as they would be anywhere else. And finally, there's Los Angeles itself. It's a decent city for normal people, but between the quality of life and the business opportunities it presents on a daily basis, it is an amazing city for rich people.
People wonder: Why would LeBron ever move to the Western Conference? Why would George spend two years maneuvering his way to a lottery team? Would someone like DeMarcus Cousins seriously consider Hollywood? Re-read the paragraph above. Going to L.A. means becoming one of the biggest stars in the world, surrounded by opportunities to double your wealth, bathing in luxury and excellent weather as you go.
No Lakers rumor is ever far-fetched. Especially not now. Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram are ascendant stars who fit perfectly with where the NBA is headed, and beginning next summer, they will have a lot of help. This is how the Lakers beat the Warriors in 2019.
[removes Kobe jersey]
[watches another 25-win season]
So. Should we believe all of this year's Lakers rumors? It's hard to say. Probably not. But wherever there is Magic involved, all bets are off. — Andrew Sharp