The NBA playoffs are less than four weeks away. At the start of the season, most people assumed it would be Cavs/Warriors IV in the Finals. The Warriors were well on their way to a third NBA title. But these days what seemed like the obvious ending of a Golden State Warriors repeat might be in real question. A handful of contenders have separated themselves from the pack and need to be taken seriously. But there are also a few pretenders for the throne that can be largely dismissed.
The Warriors were without three of their All-Stars on Monday versus the San Antonio Spurs. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant all sat out due to injury. And their fourth All-Star? Draymond Green played only 12 minutes before exiting with an injury. The Spurs defeated Golden State 89-75. It’s the team’s recent injury troubles, coupled with improved competition in the West, that makes the reality of a fourth straight Finals appearance more of an iffy proposition.
Sure the Warriors are still the odds-on favorites to win not only the Western Conference but also the NBA championship. But the talk of defeating the dynasty has never been louder.
Here’s a look at the Contenders and Pretenders for Golden State’s NBA Throne.
Houston Rockets: NBA Title Contender
This is the most obvious choice of all the assembled teams. The Rockets feature a bonafide MVP-candidate in James Harden, an All-league guard in Chris Paul, and an athletic young big in Clint Capela. They also have a bevy of versatile wing defenders that can switch across multiple positions. The Rockets eschew the midrange for either open threes or layups.
Houston ranks 2nd in the league in Offensive Rating (113.5), and surprisingly, they rank 9th in Defensive Rating (104.4). At 56-14, they have a 3.5 game cushion on the Warriors for the 1-seed. They’ve won 22 of their last 23 games, many in dominant fashion. Houston’s ability to shoot the three-ball and defend the perimeter will keep any series against the Warriors interesting. And the star power of Harden and Paul affords head coach Mike D’Antoni the flexibility to remain creative in late-game situations.
Houston is 2-1 vs Golden State this season, including a 122-121 win over the Warriors in Oakland. While the teams split in Houston this season, a Game 7 matchup at home for the Rockets could be the decider in this budding rivalry.
Cleveland Cavaliers: NBA Title Pretender
Despite having the greatest player in the game today in LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers are merely pretenders for Golden State’s throne. The Cavs have struggled since the All-Star break and are 5-5 in their last 10 games. Cleveland holds just a 3.5-game lead over the 7-seed Miami Heat, and might be facing a reality where they don’t hold home court in any round of the playoffs.
The seismic shakeup of the Cavaliers’ roster at the trade deadline has had ripple affects in recent weeks. J.R. Smith is not playing well off the bench, and while the Cavs have been bitten by the injury bug, the trades left their depth thin along the front court. Cleveland has one of the league’s top offenses, No. 5 in Offensive Rating (110.0), but their defense is abysmal. The Cavs are 28th in Defensive Rating (109.5).
With the recent announcement that head coach Ty Lue will take a leave of absence, Cleveland is running out of time to sort things out. As currently constructed, there’s little-to-no chance they could beat the Warriors in a seven-game series. They might not even make it to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Toronto Raptors: NBA Title Contender
If the Cleveland Cavaliers won’t make it out of the East for the fourth straight season, who will? Well, the answer might be found in Canada. The long overlooked Toronto Raptors have (not-so) quietly taken control of the Eastern Conference after the All-Star break. The Raptors have a 5-game cushion on the Boston Celtics for the 1-seed and have won 9 of their last 10. They feature a legitimate star and closer in DeMar DeRozan, and their 29-6 home mark is the best in the NBA.
The Raptors have suffered through playoff collapses in the past, but something seems different about this group. No longer is Toronto relying solely on the playmaking of Kyle Lowry, and with a young, athletic corps of bench players, the starters are fresher heading into the stretch run. The Raptors boast the league’s 3rd-best Offensive Rating (111.5) and 4th-best Defensive Rating (103.1). They have length and quickness along the perimeter, and can swing along multiple positions.
Toronto lost both matchups with the Warriors this season, but both were close games. If the Raptors can finally win their first Eastern Conference title, they may face a weakened Golden State squad coming out of the West.
Boston Celtics: NBA Title Pretender
The Boston Celtics were the trendy pick to upset the Cleveland Cavaliers this season and represent the Eastern Conference in the Finals. Yes, the Cavs have fallen apart this season, but the Celtics couldn’t maintain their early momentum. The Celtics have lost three of their last four games and seem entrenched in the 2-seed.
Boston features the league’s top defense in terms of Rating (101.3), but their Offensive Rating is middle-of-the-pack at 17th (105.3). Kyrie Irving’s recent knee injury has derailed any semblance of a workable offense. The losses of Gordon Hayward to start the season, and, more recently, Marcus Smart for perhaps the majority of the playoffs, have hurt Boston.
Despite the ability to switch along multiple positions, the Celtics rely too heavily on rookies and second-year players, and youth is notoriously unreliable in playoff situations. These factors keep Boston squarely a pretender for the NBA Title.
Oklahoma City Thunder: NBA Title Contender
It’s taken them awhile to sort things out, but the Oklahoma City Thunder seem to have found their stride in recent weeks. The Thunder have risen to the 4-seed in the West, and are within two games of the 3-seed. Russell Westbrook has regained his MVP form from a year ago, and if he grabs 121 rebounds over his last 10 games (not an unreasonable proposition), he will average a triple-double for a second-straight season.
The Thunder are top-10 in both Offensive (107.6 – 8th) and Defensive Rating (104.5 – 10th). And they’ve won six-straight since adding Corey Brewer to the starting lineup, including an impressive win in Toronto. The improved offense features a number of shooters for Westbrook to find on drives, as well as an excellent roll-man in Steven Adams. George and Adams anchor a decent defense that will control the boards against the Warriors.
Oklahoma City has the length and lateral quickness to switch across multiple positions defensively. And with Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, they have a trio of offensive weapons who can produce in the clutch.
Portland Trailblazers: NBA Title (Darkhorse) Contender
Most people dismissed the Portland Trailblazers heading into the 2017-18 season as possibly lottery-bound. Their offseason moves have been largely panned the last few years and many ticketed Damien Lillard for midseason trade. But none of that has been the case this season. Thanks to MVP-level play from Lillard, as well as significance contributions from C.J. McCollum and the rest of the roster, the Blazers are poised to be legitimate contenders to knock off Golden State.
Portland features one of the best backcourts in the league, and Lillard is a bonafide closer in clutch situations. The Blazers are 7th in Defensive Rating (104.0) and 14th in Offensive Rating (106.2). They’ve won 13 games in a row and have a solid grip on the 3-seed out West. They’re 2-1 versus Golden State this season, including a 17-point victory last week.
Lillard and McCollum can go head-to-head with Curry and Thompson, especially if both Warriors are slowed by injury. Beyond those two, the Blazers boast a number of athletic, long defenders to bother Durant and Green. They certainly have the personnel and coaching smarts to make a seven-game series with Golden State interesting.