The Golden State Warriors once again are the team to beat in the NBA.
The two-time defending champions made another strong acquisition this offseason by adding All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins. Cousins is coming off a major Achilles injury that could keep him out of the lineup to begin the 2018-19 season. But when he returns, the Warriors will have the ability to a lineup fully comprised of All-Stars. That said, there are some teams that could present the champions with some challenges, so let’s go over five of them from the Western Conference.
No. 5: Los Angeles Lakers
The Warriors should always worry about one name: LeBron James. The four-time league MVP single handily carried his then-Cleveland Cavaliers teammates to the 2018 NBA Finals, has made eight consecutive Finals appearances and famously crushed Golden State’s dreams by coming back from a 3-1 series deficit to win the 2016 NBA Finals.
James now is on a team that can play defense — last season the Los Angeles Lakers ranked 13th in defensive rating compared to the Cleveland Cavaliers who ranked 29th. The Lakers have surrounded James with a unique, but talented group of teammates, headlined by offseason additions that include Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley.
The King’s presence automatically elevates others around him, and the Lakers are hoping he makes their promising young players, notably Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Lonzo Ball, more efficient at both ends of the floor.
The Lakers don’t have the most talented roster in the West, but a good mix of veterans, youth, length and guys who enjoy playing at a fast pace could give the Warriors some concern.
No. 4: New Orleans Pelicans
The frontcourt battle between the New Orleans Pelicans and Golden State Warriors will be something to behold once Cousins is fully healthy.
The Pelicans offense is propelled by the combination of Anthony Davis and Nikola Mirotic. Towards the end of last season, Davis and Mirotic produced a net rating of plus-10.3 points per 100 possessions when on the floor together, per Fivethirtyeight.com. During New Orleans’ first-round sweep of the Portland Trailblazers, Davis averaged an absurd 33 points, 11.8 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game, while Mirotic added 18.3 points per game while shooting 46 percent from the 3-point range. Although they did lose to the Warriors in the second round, this year’s edition of the Pelicans roster should be able to score with Golden State, especially if offseason acquisition Julius Randle plays at a high level and star point guard Jrue Holliday stays healthy.
No. 3: Utah Jazz
The Jazz weren’t supposed to be on this list, but Donovan Mitchell’s emergence as a legitimate star during his rookie season is a major reason why Utah has become a force to be reckoned with. Combine that with one of the best coaches in league in Quin Synder and it’s easy to see why Utah has something special brewing. This young team thrives on being the underdog. The Jazz upset the Oklahoma City Thunder in a six-game first-round series, during which Mitchell dominated by scoring 28.5 points per game.
Utah’s offense was ranked 19th in points per game last season, and it added Duke’s Grayson Allen in the 2018 NBA Draft to help Mitchell carry the offensive load.
The Jazz took three of their four regular-season matchups with the Warriors, and during those wins, they held Golden State to 91, 99 and 79 points. Utah also was the second-best defensive team in the league. The Jazz’s well-balanced roster might not be enough to take down the Warriors in a playoff series, but they certainly wouldn’t make it easy for the champs because of their fantastic defense and hustle.
No. 2: Houston Rockets
The Rockets have taken a step back in their quest to dethrone the Warriors.
Losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute in free agency were tough blows to the Rockets title aspirations. Ariza, who made 170 3-pointers during last season, trailed only James Harden and Eric Gordon in three-point shots made on the team. Ariza now is a member of the Phoenix Suns, while Mbah a Moute went back to the Los Angeles Clippers. Ariza’s and Mbah a Moute’s defensive abilities also are a major hole that needs filling, especially considering Ariza received a lot of minutes defending Kevin Durant in the Western Conference finals.
However, head coach Mike D’Antoni and his team still have the reigning MVP, James Harden. The Beard is the only player to have 60 points in a triple-double performance in NBA history. Combine that with the fact that the Rockets led the league with an 8.5 points per game differential in three-pointers attempted and made. Harden and his squad are the only team to take the Steve Kerr and Co. to a Game 7 since Durant joined Golden State.
It’ll be interesting to see how Houston will recover defensively after some tough free-agent departures, but one thing is for sure, adding Carmelo Anthony to an already historically good offense again will make the Rockets one of the toughest teams to defend.
No. 1: Oklahoma City Thunder
Surprised to see them at the top of the list, huh? Here’s why:
The Oklahoma City Thunder already are championship contenders after re-signing star forward Paul George. The dynamic duo of Russell Westbrook and George exploded for 54 points per game in the playoffs. Both already have presented challenges defensively to Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant after holding them to 38 percent from three-point range during their regular-season matchups. Curry and Durant normally combine to average 42 percent on triples during the regular season.
OKC getting its best defender, Andre Roberson, back healthy for next season can only improve their chances of beating Golden State. Offseason pickups Nerlens Noel and Dennis Schröder also provide a massive upgrade to a bench unit that struggled during the 2018-19 campaign, evidenced by its 30th-ranked scoring average at 25.9 points per game. In fact, Schröder posted a career-high 19.4 points per contest last season.
And did we forget to mention Anthony left? That likely will prove to be addition by subtraction.
The Thunder have a tremendous starting five, an improved bench and a good head coach in Billy Donovan. If they meet the Warriors in the playoffs, we could be in store for a long, thrilling series.
Thumbnail photo via Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY Sports Images
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