Last season, we witnessed how a proud dynasty called the Golden State Warriors was brought down. Not by a new elite team that would rule the cage kingdom for another era, but mainly by an unfortunate spate of injuries that would decimate their tried and tested superteam. Imagine the Warriors’ walking wounded on the final day of the season. With Kevin Durant out, and Boogie Cousins and Andre Igoudala still recovering and not 100% fit to play, Klay Thompson crashes with a knee injury. Four out of their top 7 players are down, and they are playing for all the marbles in the NBA Championship. How jinxed could the Warriors get at that time?
This offseason, there’s been a huge change in the NBA landscape with marquee players moving anywhere and everywhere, and contending teams being torn apart. The Warriors will still contend, but the dominance and confidence they exuded – and the swagger – will no longer be there. Three other teams teams will be gutting it out with the Warriors for the Western crown, with three more not far behind. The new-look Lakers, the upscaled Clippers, and the Russell-reinforced Rockets will be in the thick of the fight for the wild west conference flag. And then there’s the Nuggets’ youth squad, the retooled Jazz and the steady Blazers just waiting in the fringes for a chance to insert themselves in the title discussions. Indeed, today’s NBA western conference will be so exciting, the season opener should be just like the kids’ first day of school.
Consider the LA Lakers. With Lebron James and Anthony Davis, we have a duo combination that can top any other duo in Player Efficiency Rating (PER) for last season. Back that up with a supporting cast consisting of Kyle Kuzma, Danny Green, Javale McGee, Rajon Rondo, Avery Johnson. This team will take it easy in the regular season, mix and match the possible combinations, get Lebron to try the point guard position. But come the playoffs, this team will be revving it up with whatever was their best combination in the regular season. Expect them to be fighting it out deep in the playoffs.
With the LA Clippers, you have a team that made the playoffs and actually gave the Warriors a run for their money. But more than that, they upscaled audaciously during the off-season, with the addition of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George! With 3 and D specialist Patrick Beverley, sixth man of the year Lou Williams, solid bigs Montrezl Harrel and Ivica Zubac, this team is a cinch to make the top four. And with that, a chance to finally erase the stigma as El-Ay’s second team.
Over in Texas, the Houston Rockets were already a big threat last year without former regular season MVP Russell Westbrook. With Russell providing the badass attitude and more swagger, there is nowhere else to go for this team but up. With fellow MVP awardee James Harden, you have a 1-2 punch that can rival the Warriors’ Bruise Brothers. Add to that the talented Eric Gordon, Clint Capela and PJ Tucker, and you have a solid first team. Unless, of course, good friends Russell and Harden suddenly don’t see eye-to-eye on ball touches.
And finally, the Warriors. The Warriors remain a threat with the veteran triumvirate of Steph Curry, Draymond Green and the injured Klay Thompson (who’s due to report back to duty during the second half of the season). They added an elite guard in D’Angelo Russell. But their weakness really lies in the middle, not with the backcourt. With the arrival of tall hybrid players who can play small, the Warriors’ small-ball approach suddenly looks antiquated. Height has once again regained its place in basketball.
How do these four western frontrunners match-up against each other? Player match-ups will be significant as these teams go head-to-head. I see the Clippers beating the Lakers, the Rockets handling the Clippers, the Warriors besting the Rockets, and the Lakers topping the Warriors. In short, the teams are so competitive, and the playoff match-ups will be crucial. Each team must have a ready foil for the type of weaponry employed by their adversaries – individually or as a team. Be it a long-range missile, a fast-firing machine gun, a big battering ram or a small silent bladed weapon up close, the defense must be prepared with an answer. And each must have a diverse offensive arsenal as well in order to address the smallest, most minutest of weakness displayed by their enemies. No team has a distinct advantage over the other. This time, match-ups – and coaches – will matter much.
And the team that has the deeper, more versatile bench will have a better chance. The team that is able to adjust fast enough will come out on top. At this point in time, my gut feel says the Clippers are it.
For a closer look, just click on the pics. Featured Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated. Other photos courtesy of: National Post, The Ringer, ESPN.com, NBA.com, San Francisco Chronicle, Houston Chronicle, Stadium Astro, YouTube, Heavy.com, Fox Sports, Arizona Republic, Laker Outsiders, Clips Nation, Big Easy Believer, Sporting News, NBC Sports, Pounding the Rock, Twitter and Clutch Points.