After a frenetic summer filled with stunning free agent defections, big trades and exciting rookies, our heads are still spinning as we enter the 2017-18 NBA campaign. With so many new faces in new places, it leaves fans to wonder how things will shake out this year.
- Can anyone actually beat the Warriors?
Golden State is the NBA’s best team. In some years, a declarative statement like that is the precursor to a neverending barstool debate. For this upcoming season, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who even remotely follows the NBA that disagrees.
Aside from their defensive rebounding, there isn’t even an easily identifiable flaw with the Warriors. Their offense is unstoppable. Their defense elite. Golden State can withstand injuries to stars and even has some exciting young prospects on the roster worth keeping an eye on.
With that said, the rest of the teams in the NBA aren’t simply going to roll over and hand the Warriors the trophy. Though every team has a shot at sneaking out a win during the regular season, there are only three teams -- Houston, San Antonio and Cleveland -- that could perhaps author a massive upset in the playoffs or Finals. Each of these teams won’t just need to be fortunate in a playoff series, they’ll also need a few lucky developments during the regular season.
We’ll take a look at the breaks these teams need -- aside from the obvious health of major stars -- during the regular season and how those will set them up to perhaps topple Golden State when it really counts.
The most intriguing thing about the Rockets is that, of all teams in the league, they have perhaps the best five-man combination to matchup with the Warriors -- on both ends of the floor. To close out games, Houston could roll out a quintet of superstars Chris Paul and James Harden flanked by Trevor Ariza, PJ Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute. Both offensively and defensively, that lineup provides a bevy of possibilities.
In order to play it deep in the postseason, however, Ariza, Tucker and Mbah a Moute need to be rested and healthy. Ariza and Tucker are 32. Mbah a Moute is 31 with a spate of knee issues that dogged him throughout the middle of his career. Needless to say, none of these three players should be logging 40 minute nights on a regular basis because in a weird way, as a collective group, they might be just as valuable to Rockets chance at championship as Paul or Harden.
The other development to keep an eye on is the use of Ryan Anderson. At this point, Anderson is pretty much a one-trick pony. He can light up teams from deep during the regular season where bad defenses/defenders and travel weary minds/legs create opportunities for shots that just don’t come in the playoffs.
If Anderson doesn’t showcase some playoff-capable counters to his long-range bombing at some point this year, it’ll be decision time for the Rockets. Perhaps Anderson will slowly get pushed toward the back of rotation. Or maybe the team will look to move him before the deadline. Either scenario that plays out in the regular season will have some impact on Houston’s chances of getting past Golden State in the playoffs.
And speaking of possible transactions, the Rockets are sure to be lurking for veterans placed on the trade block or bought out at some point near the end of the season. The team would need to be careful financially given their proximity to the hard cap, but their front office has been shown to aggressively go after players they covet as long as the numbers work. Even with their improved depth and versatility, there still might be a use for another reliable wing/backcourt defender in the rotation. So even if Anderson isn’t shopped, keep an eye on how Houston looks to tweak their roster as the season goes forward.
As mentioned above, the Rockets actually possess a lineup that can legitimately match Golden State’s closing quintet. Unlike every other team on this list, Houston can roll with that lineup and legitimately hope their star-powered backcourt can score enough to keep them in games. In general, the Rockets' run-and-gun approach should be potent enough that getting into a track meet with the Warriors -- something a lot of teams should hope to avoid -- is probably their best avenue of winning.
That said, Golden State does have real issues when it comes to tracking down opponent’s misses. Since neither team can play their best lineup all 48 minutes in a playoff game, Houston will need to make sure Clint Capela remains a productive part of their rotation. When Capela was on the floor last season, the Rockets' offensive rebound percentage jump nearly three points from 23.6 percent to 26.2. Developing potent lineup combinations around Capela will be helpful when the Rockets are looking to exploit the Warriors lone weakness when it matters most.
As the Cavs looked to retool this offseason, the team took an odd route. Instead of bringing in some dynamic young athletes to flank LeBron James, the team went from old to, well, older. It was certainly interesting to find out that Cleveland’s solution to their championship problem was to add Jose Calderon (36), Jeff Green (31) and Dwyane Wade (35) to a roster already containing Channing Frye (34), JR Smith (32) and Kyle Korver (36).
With the iffy health status of another newcomer, Isaiah Thomas, there’s going to be a lot of minutes for these players to soak up during the regular season. It’ll be interesting to see just how much some of these sage vets have left in the tank, particularly on the defensive end of the floor. James has already helped conserve energy for his postseason journeys by spending more and more of his regular season defensive possessions in a relaxed state. Wade is, well, Wade, while Calderon and Frye were never exactly lockdown defenders in their primes.
So as this year shakes out, I’m not sure we’ll know just how competitive this Cleveland team will be defensively. Now that’s an acceptable thing for us as fans not to know. The problem for the Cavs is they too may not be able to develop a good feel for what lineups can hang against elite offensive units. If the team can’t get a proper bearing on that during the regular season, it could be a real issue heading into the postseason.
The other problem is that the decision to roll with Wade and fellow veteran guard Derrick Rose in the backcourt (at least until Thomas is healthy) brings with it questions about perimeter shooting. Three of Cleveland’s best five shooters (Korver, Frye and Smith) are now resigned to bench roles. Moving Kevin Love to the five will mitigate this concern somewhat, but it will be interesting to see how the Cavs start finding spacing solutions throughout the regular season.
Love shifting to center is going to be another worthwhile development to keep an eye on. If Love at the 5 lineups crush teams throughout the regular season, it will create an interesting predicament as the Cavs move into the postseason, particularly if the team meets the Warriors again the Finals. When the two teams to decide the championship last summer, Golden State was 11 points better per 48 minutes when Love played versus when he sat (+10.4 compared to -0.6).
It’ll be tough to move away from an entire regular season filled with huge scoring nights just due to five games’ worth of data from this past June. But there are real, subjective reasons as to why Love may struggle no matter what position he plays against Golden State in the Finals. And the ironic thing is that the more this move helps the team in the regular season, it may hurt Cleveland when a championship is at stake.
For the Spurs, this regular season will be all about managing injuries. Aside from team’s obvious need for Kawhi Leonard to be healthy, San Antonio will have to make sure that free agent addition Rudy Gay and Tony Parker find their way back from serious injuries. As I’ve written about earlier in this series, the Spurs need a healthy and effective Gay in order to seriously push a team as talented as Golden State. Parker’s path, however, is a little more complicated.
At 35, Parker is clearly nearing the end of an outstanding career. While his place in the starting lineup remains open for now, head coach Gregg Popovich has shown that no player -- even Tim Duncan -- is untouchable if their effectiveness wanes. With Patty Mills and a bevy of unheralded young players behind him, it’s not inconceivable that a shoddy regular season (along with some developments will talk about in a second), sees Parker’s role drastically reduced.
One of those players nipping at his heels is DeJounte Murray, a second-year guard who will be a direct beneficiary of Parker’s absence in the early part of the season. Behind Murray are players like Brandon Paul, Bryn Forbes and this summer’s first round pick, Derrick White. With team’s past stalwarts like Parker and Manu Ginobili winding down, one of these young guards may be called upon to be a key rotation cog.
In general, San Antonio’s approach to the regular season is probably more beneficial this year than any other they’ve had in recent memory. Because instead of bench roles being filled with reliable veterans like Marco Belinelli, Boris Diaw, Matt Bonner, Tiago Splitter and others that have worn silver and black, this year’s team has quite a few youthful faces. Matt Costello, Darrun Hilliard, Davis Bertans and Kyle Anderson are all 24 with (mostly) limited NBA experience. Even veteran big man Joffrey Lauvergne -- who has seemingly been around forever -- is only 26! If the regular season helps the Spurs do that Spurs thing where they polish up a diamond in the rough, it’ll be a huge boost to their title chances.
Besides the specifics of their rotation, it will also be interesting to see how Popovich uses the regular season to hone an approach. Do the Spurs do what they’ve always done, create a buzzing offense with ball and man movement that carves opponents apart? Or do we see more of an emphasis on things -- like post ups with Leonard, Gay and Aldridge -- that will come in handy particularly against a switch-happy team like Golden State? How the Spurs shape their offense in the regular season will likely dictate whether Popovich feels he can beat the Warriors by playing to his team’s strengths or his toughest opponent’s weaknesses.