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Six Teams With the Best Shot at Dethroning the Warriors

Plus, four other teams to watch in the title chase next season.

As we tie up the 2021–22 NBA season with a nice, neat bow—and prepare to basically kick off the next one with the NBA draft in the next couple of days—let’s spend a few minutes talking about the Warriors.

It feels more than a little strange to call this season a masterpiece, given how it unfolded at times. It started out beautifully, with Golden State jockeying for the best mark in the entire league, even without a rehabbing Klay Thompson back in the mix yet alongside historic running mates Stephen Curry and Draymond Green. Then, just as it looked like they’d finally have a healthy Klay in the rotation, Green was forced to leave the lineup with a lower-back injury that would keep him out for 32 contests. And in what almost seemed like cruel fashion, just a game and a half into the group finally being whole, Curry got his foot rolled up on by Marcus Smart going for a loose ball in mid-March, prematurely ending Curry’s regular season.

Stephen Curry

Yet the way things came together—and ultimately the way they ended, given the lack of continuity throughout the regular season itself—is really all that matters now. And heading into next season, the Warriors figure to have a healthy Steph, Klay, Draymond, Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins, along with youngsters Jonathan Kuminga, Moses Moody and perhaps a fully rehabbed James Wiseman.

It obviously remains to be seen what will happen with key free agents like Kevon Looney, Gary Payton II and Otto Porter Jr. (The Warrior Wallet, already the most stretched in the NBA, would have to expand quite a bit more to hold this roster together.) But with most of the rotation intact, and Curry looking like he has plenty left in the tank at 34, no one would be dumb enough to think Golden State can’t make it five titles in nine seasons.

If it ends up not being the Warriors next year, though, who will finish in the winner’s circle?

Here, in no particular order, are the six teams I believe have the best shot, with four additional honorable mentions.

NUGGETS: On the surface, the first-round series wasn’t much of a fight back in April. But things were competitive after Game 2, once Denver had a couple of games at home, and Nikola Jokić’s supporting cast stepped up far better than in the first two showings.

It’s obviously not a given that the road back for someone like Jamal Murray or even Michael Porter Jr. will be paved and even with the snap of a finger. As we saw with Thompson’s process, sometimes there are setbacks, and even when there aren’t, sometimes it’s difficult to find a rhythm. Yet even if those two were to regain only 85% of what they could do before, it’d be such a stark upgrade for a team that relied much too heavily on the two-time defending MVP. And it’d at least give the Nuggets a fighting chance in a series against a talented, experienced club like Golden State.

CLIPPERS: If we accept the notion that Denver is far more formidable at full strength, Los Angeles deserves that same billing, given that it is coming off a full season—and a pretty spirited push for the playoffs—without Kawhi Leonard.

Yes, the Clippers missed the playoffs after falling short in a pair of play-in games, the last of which Paul George had to sit out after testing positive for COVID-19 the morning of the do-or-die contest with New Orleans. But the Clips almost certainly would have avoided that play-in stage altogether had George not been sidelined for more than half the campaign with an elbow injury in his shooting arm.

Los Angeles is well coached, plays well on both ends, has a pair of stars and has held its own in the conference finals semi-recently, even when playing without a superstar. They even have a couple of newer role players, in Norm Powell and Robert Covington, who figure to provide big lifts on either side of the ball to Leonard and George. So again, there’s ample reason to think the Clippers are a contender if they can simply get healthy simultaneously.

Ja Morant

GRIZZLIES: Memphis, arguably the league’s biggest surprise last season, won’t sneak up on anyone in the next campaign. But there’s enough talent and skill to where the Grizzlies won’t need to.

The Grizz, of course, took two postseason games off the Warriors, before falling 4–2 in the West semifinals—a series in which Ja Morant missed the last three contests after suffering a bone bruise in his knee toward the latter part of Game 3.

Still, during the series, a couple of things became abundantly clear. First, Golden State wasn’t even remotely effective at stopping Morant, who averaged a whopping 38.3 points to go with a silly 50.6/43.3/85.7 split line. (He did the vast majority of this as the Warriors opted to single cover him and dared him to try his hand at open triples.) And even when Morant was ruled out for the series, Memphis held its own—including a breezy 134–95 victory—in part because of how good its impressive defense is without the somewhat defense-deficient guard.

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Simply put, the Grizzlies are faster and more athletic than the Warriors. The speed aspect was nipped with Morant’s injury. But if and when Morant improves on D, and if Memphis can develop some of the smarts Golden State has thrived with for the better part of the past decade—Jaren Jackson Jr. avoiding foul trouble and Dillon Brooks learning to play with an occasional even keel—it could be a fun, unpredictable back-and-forth between the clubs.

MAVERICKS: Perhaps the most tentative team on this list, from my vantage point, is Dallas.

I say that because the Mavs clearly need either a leap from Luka Dončić—fully possible, although they already ask and expect so much (too much?) from him at age 23—or an infusion of talent in other places to challenge the Warriors.

That was obviously the case in the conference finals, when Dallas blew wide-open look after wide-open look from outside and got little to nothing out of starting center Dwight Powell. There were entire stretches, like the fourth quarter of Game 3, where the Mavericks simply couldn’t get stops or grab defensive rebounds to end Golden State’s possessions. And you simply can’t beat the Warriors that way.

Tim Hardaway Jr. will be a welcome returnee, following his season-ending injury. That is, unless he and his deal are moved elsewhere for something greater, perhaps more of a two-way talent. We know second scorer Jalen Brunson is the top internal priority to figure out. Dallas swapped for Christian Wood this past week, someone who gives them more scoring punch from multiple levels but doesn’t help the defense at all.

The Mavs’ situation feels a bit like Jenga: You want to add talented pieces around Dončić, but it goes without saying that he and Brunson (and Spencer Dinwiddie, if he’s kept) are going to have the ball plenty. So you don’t want someone too ball dominant. You want players who can score to relieve that pressure. But they can’t be such zeroes on defense to where you backslide after a surprisingly good year on that end, either.

Still, if there’s one guy in the West who you’d think can muster a run to the Finals off largely his otherworldly talent alone, Dončić is likely that player. You can’t count him and Dallas out, particularly if the team can consistently field a top-10 defense.

BUCKS: On some level, this feels like a no-brainer. Milwaukee won it all in 2021 and gave itself—or, perhaps more accurately, Giannis gave the team—a great chance to reach the conference finals this season. Even without second scorer Khris Middleton available, the Bucks had a 3–2 lead before eventually losing in seven to Boston in Round 2.

Antetokounmpo is fantastic, perhaps the best player in the world. He couldn’t quite do it on his own, and Jrue Holiday looked completely out of his element in taking on so much of Middleton’s scoring responsibility in the series. Yet at full strength, the Bucks seem like a solid bet, if not the best one, to come out of the East. They’d also be a fascinating matchup for a team like Golden State.

Jayson Tatum

CELTICS: Yes, the Bucks had a golden opportunity to take out Boston, even without Middleton. But would anyone really be all that surprised if the Celtics reached this stage again a year from now?

Al Horford is the only member of the rotation who is old by NBA standards. Unlike a club like the 2020–21 conference finalist Hawks, who also dominated after the All-Star break en route to a surprising postseason run, Boston roots just about everything it does in defense. And Robert Williams III, one of the most important pieces of that attack, figures to be fully healthy by the time next season rolls around, as opposed to needing fluid drained multiple times throughout a series.

The Celtics have to take care of the ball better, and perhaps they will if they get another chance in the Finals. Even if it isn’t this coming year, it seems more likely than not that a player of Jayson Tatum’s caliber will get back there some time in the seasons to come. His being alongside someone like Jaylen Brown, with a defense this stout, suggests the Celtics will get back there together before it’s all said and done. And by then, you’d assume they’ll be more prepared for Golden State.

As for the honorable mentions …

SUNS: As tempting as it is to rule Phoenix out, given how everything ended, the Suns were dominant during the regular season and have the ability to bring back just about every meaningful player on the roster. Of course it’s unclear whether they will bring back everyone. Deandre Ayton, the most talented big man on the free-agent market, has felt he’s deserving of a max deal for quite some time, and the ugly nature of their Game 7 loss certainly didn’t seem to help things on the negotiation front. But even if he isn’t kept, the club could sign and trade him, and who is to say whatever they get back isn’t helpful in a way that puts Phoenix over the top? It’s hard to know, though, until we see who those players would be, and what exactly they help with.

HEAT: When you think of the big men who can step out to the perimeter and, at the least, not make fools of themselves when guarding Steph Curry, Boston’s Robert Williams will come to mind now after a solid showing in the Finals. (I know this probably sounds a bit weird, given Curry’s dominance. But Williams was quite good, as his ridiculous blocks and plus-minus indicated throughout the series.)

I can’t help but think Miami’s Bam Adebayo, the NBA’s switchiest big man, most versatile big man, would do the same. Because of him, the Heat would have the defenders at full strength to match up with Golden State. But while I have a tremendous amount of faith in Jimmy Butler—and a tremendous amount of faith in Erik Spoelstra’s coaching—I don’t have quite as much faith in Miami’s half-court offense at times. Tyler Herro keeps things humming, but Golden State would hunt and switch him into the action on defense, forcing him to play both ends. So he’d need to show improvement there to knock off the Warriors in a series.

Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant (7)

NETS: I feel silly for mentioning Brooklyn here. But we never came close to seeing the idealized version of the Nets this past year, making it next to impossible to know whether we’ll see it this coming season, either.

The question of whether Kyrie is back—and if he is, is he playing consistently, without distraction—looms large, obviously. So does Ben Simmons. Will he be able to play and contribute in a meaningful way after missing last season? If he can, will Brooklyn be good on defense? Can Joe Harris get healthy, and again be one of the league’s best sharpshooters? And will Kevin Durant play most of the year without a serious injury?

If the answer to all of these somehow turns out to be yes, you have to consider the Nets a contender. Then again, that’s a lot of things that need to go right, after having gone wrong last season. And one or two of them going wrong feels like it’d be enough to derail things. Which is why we’ll hold that thought for now.

PELICANS: In thinking about the Grizzlies, I’m including the Pels more as a wild card here.

No, I don’t realistically think they’d beat the Warriors in a series in the next year or two, as the Pels have a major question or two to work through. When will Zion be ready, and how do we incorporate him into what we’ve built over the past year?

And while Williamson would be a weapon for any offense, much like Morant, there’s the question of how well he’ll defend while he’s out there. The Pels were a top-10 unit on D after the All-Star break, and their defensive intensity shined at times during their six-game series with the Suns. If New Orleans can show it’s capable of pushing a club like Golden State, Williamson will almost certainly need to be a part of that. And that might be expecting too much too soon.

Still, the athleticism and talent is there. And at some point, even if not right now or next year, those things could become too much for the Warriors to overcome as Golden State begins to age a bit more.

Meat and potatoes: Good reads from SI and elsewhere this past week

Jabari Smith

SI’s NBA draft analyst Jeremy Woo put out a final version of his top-100 prospects last week. On Monday, he released a mock draft, laying out which prospects he believes will go where in Thursday night’s selection process.

Howard Beck’s Daily Cover story dived deeply into the Warriors’ long road back over the past three years, and how it all turned out to be worth it in the end. I wrote a column on Stephen Curry, arguing this latest run should comfortably cement his status as one of the 10 best players to ever lace them up. (For anyone interested, you can order SI’s commemorative issue chronicling the Warriors’ 2022 crown here.)

Michael Pina had a piece judging the likelihood of the Dubs repeating next season. (Earlier last week, he published a great cover story on the development of Celtics star Jaylen Brown.)

Chris Mannix looked at what comes next for the relatively young Celtics and what it would take for them to be hoisting the coveted Larry O’Brien Trophy this time next year.

With the WNBA in full swing now, 41-year-old star Sue Bird announced this past week that she plans to retire at year’s end, plans that our Jelani Scott chimed in on.

Val Ackerman, the current commissioner of the Big East and the former WNBA president, wrote a first-person piece on the ways Title IX influenced her journey within the sports world.

Lastly, it’s now been four months and four days—or 124 days total—since seven-time WNBA All-Star Brittney Griner was detained in Russia. As of last week, Russian-state-owned news agencies reported that her pretrial detention was being extended yet again, this time by 18 more days. ESPN investigative reporter T.J. Quinn has been following the developments and had a piece outlining what it all means for now. Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, says her client hasn’t had as much as a phone call in the four-plus months she’s been detained.

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