5x5: 5 Biggest Threats to the Warriors Over the Next 5 Years
The Golden State Warriors are dominant. It appeared as if the Warriors waltzed through the playoffs en route to a 16–1 playoff record. Their three-year run of regular season record-breaking win totals and two championships firmly plants the Warriors in the best team ever conversation. However, what could happen over the next five plus seasons may make NBA history buffs go bonkers. The Warriors’ core four are early in their primes: Stephen Curry (age 29), Kevin Durant (28), Draymond Green (27) and Klay Thompson (27). The only age issue is the Death Lineup’s fifth teammate Andre Iguodala at 33 years old. General manager Bob Myers is a pro at rounding out the roster with guys that complete the team (Shaun Livingston, David West, Javale McGee) but it is those aforementioned five main guys that mold the team into an all-time elite.
So if the Warriors are this good, stay this good and possibly get better, who can knock the Dubs of their supremacy? Money is on the Warriors evidenced by the 5–11 current odds for next year’s championship. But what if we project over several years?
Here are the five biggest threats to dethrone the Warriors over the next five seasons:
5. San Antonio Spurs
Two reasons make the San Antonio Spurs top five on this list and only number five on this list: Gregg Popovich and Kawhi Leonard.
Coaching is huge in the NBA. The Warriors ascended from a first/second round playoff team to a championship with largely the same roster that added Steve Kerr as head coach. Kerr has worked magic thus far, but Popovich has been doing it for two decades. With Pop at the helm, the Spurs finished top three in the Western Conference 16 out of 20 years, made the Conference Finals or further ten times and won five championships. That equates to making the Conference Finals 50 percent of the time and winning 25 percent of the championships. Pop is one of the best coaches ever and the Spurs are championship caliber every year. Pop is the most dangerous matchup for anyone facing the Spurs. If any coach is going to find the secret sauce to frying the Warriors Pop is the iron chef candidate.
However, Pop is 68 years old and NBA coaching takes a toll. Does he have five years left in him to be coaching into his 70s? Only Hubie Brown, Don Nelson and Larry Brown make the short list for septuagenarian NBA head coaches. If Pop retires in the near future the Spurs immediately teeter off championship contention. It does not matter how good of an organization the Spurs are. Pop is a generational talent and the Spurs will not replace him without a drop off.
Kawhi Leonard and who else?
Kawhi is a top-five NBA player that should be fixed in the MVP debate every year. He has evolved from a lockdown defender to adding bona fide bucket getter to his arsenal. Many respect Kawhi as the best two-way player in the game. Any player that good is a threat to beat any team. On the other hand, Kawhi is just one man.
Kawhi certainly can be the best player on a championship winning team, but can the Spurs realistically beat the Dubs in a seven game series when Kawhi is the only elite player? The answer is no, especially given the fact that Kawhi has not yet evolved into a superstar playmaker in the same vein as Lebron James creating easy looks for his teammates. And even peak Lebron needed superstar sidekicks in Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami and Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in Cleveland.
Defensively, it was a delicious matchup a couple years ago when the idea was that Pop could employ Kawhi on Steph. Put the KLaw, the best perimeter defender in the league, on Steph in the fourth quarter and possibly shut Steph down. That was the option. But currently Kawhi must be on KD duty. With KD’s versatile skillset and length, the Spurs have to put the dynamic Kawhi on KD or else the Spurs get torched. Then San Antonio must bank on their defensive scheme execution in chasing around Steph and Klay all day. The Spurs are capable of doing this. But defensive competence is not the sole problem especially when looking at the backcourt.
The backcourt matchup will not be decided on how well the Spurs quell Curry and Klay. The bigger issue is if the Spurs’ guards can match offensive firepower with the Splash Brothers. This is not happening with the current Spurs roster. No combination of Patty Mills, Danny Green, Dejounte Murray or aging stars Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker is staying afloat with the Splash Brothers and Co.
An interesting development would if the Spurs could land an elite point guard. A superstar guard, particularly a point guard is essential for championship contention in the NBA. There are potential future options in Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Isaiah Thomas, Kemba Walker and maybe even Mike Conley. (Kyrie would have been ideal but now he is in Boston for the next two years and possibly beyond.)
Theoretically, it could be Kawhi and an elite point guard as cornerstones with LaMarcus Aldridge as the third option. (A free agency addition, a you-never-know discount, losing Green/Ginobili/Parker and/or Pau Gasol and keeping Aldridge is feasible with the Spurs’ salary cap outlook.) Despite Aldridge’s regression since coming to the Spurs he becomes an excellent number three. But that is a big what-if considering the rumored grumblings that Aldridge is not happy being second fiddle to Kawhi. And then the Draymond kryptonite factor has the potential to reduce Aldridge’s offensive production to almost nil while making Aldridge a defensive liability.
The Spurs would need to find enough versatile wings and fleet-footed big men to keep up with the Warriors’ Death Lineup. They once had the cheap tools to do so in Dewayne Dedmon and Jonathon Simmons but unfortunately both are now gone to more lucrative contracts. The Spurs need to find more “Spurs’ system guys” like they always seem to do in the Popovich era.
Their first swing is adding a post-Achilles injury Rudy Gay. Whether the Spurs whiff or connect with Gay is difficult to determine. Many opinions want to veer away from an athletic explosive player recovering from a catastrophic injury. But then again some viewpoints turn back because it is in fact the Spurs and they get the benefit of the doubt.
The Spurs’ current construction is probably not enough to take down the Warriors but there are hopeful puzzle pieces out there and Popovich is a master builder.
4. Houston Rockets
The Houston Rockets are fourth on this list because they have the highest upside coupled with biggest uncertainty.
The Rockets’ upside stems from general manager Daryl Morey and the organization embracing analytics. Morey, the co-founder of MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, and the Rockets are the first NBA team to go full Billy Beane. The “Moreyball” approach constructed their roster and directed their gameplay according to analytics.
Last season, the Rockets were under doctor’s orders to take basically two doses: layups/dunks at the rim and a barrage of threes. They put up historic numbers in offensive production and the tantalizing question is if this is the formula for the future.
Morey make moves as if he is immune to fear from failure. He has no qualms stating that tanking is smart and may be quickest and reliable way to rebuild and ascend to the top citing the Houston Astros as an example. Morey’s focus is to make the best team regardless of how people criticize and squirm when one deviates from the status quo. In the past few years, Morey brought in Dwight Howard (reaching a two-seed and conference finals) and jettisoned Dwight a year later when the Harden-Dwight chemistry went sour.
The offseason Chris Paul move was to add to the superstars’ arms race. The idea is to stack up Team USA players. Get another elite playmaker that can also shore up their mid-range weakness. A CP3-Harden combo reinvigorates the best backcourt in the NBA debate versus the Splash Brothers.
The next target is Carmelo Anthony. Many want to question the merits of Melo as a championship contender, but the consensus is that Team USA Melo, where he rains open corner and wing threes, is the best version. Melo as a Moreyball third option seems like a good fit. The hump for Morey is extracting Melo from the New York Knicks.
What if Morey can snag an impactful big man in the coming years? Clint Capela looks good with Harden and is still developing but he is not exactly a big problem for Draymond and KD. How about a DeAndre Jordan or Andre Drummond? Nothing is outside the realm of possibility in this new era where stars congregate and winning priorities can trump money.
The CP3-Harden saga could be a really good Zoolander or an atrocious Zoolander 2. The backcourt pairing is an attempt to hit a bomb like Aaron Judge with a higher strikeout potential. Both players are so ball dominant that maybe they cannot exist together. Will Paul’s fiery and critical demeanor clash with Harden or other teammates? Add isolation king Melo and will that mix blend smoothly or bubble out like baking soda and vinegar?
What about the balance between offense and defense? Coach Mike D’Antoni is offensively outstanding, but defensively deficient. Can defensive assistant coach, Jeff Bzdelik, mold the Rockets into an elite defensive team the way guru Ron Adams has for the Warriors? The Rockets will not beat the Warriors in a playoff series if Houston’s defense is lacking. The Rockets’ defense needs to improve, especially Harden. Harden must give maximum effort chasing Klay around the court or be able to hold his own on a mismatch switch.
On paper, the other personnel moves actually look pretty good for a defensive mindset. CP3 is a top defender at the point. P.J. Tucker, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, and Trevor Ariza seem to be the type of versatile wing players to afford a lot of switching. The Warriors thrive on ball movement and player movement and the opposition has to be schematically defensively sound more so than just pure one-on-one defending. That means good coaching leading to defensive communication, continuity, and commitment.
The Rockets defense can get better, but will it ever be good enough? Houston now has good defensive players, not necessarily defensive studs. Their defense projects as less stalwart than the Warriors’ defense, who have all-defensive team talents in Klay, Iguodala, Durant and Draymond. The Dubs have proven they can turn off the faucet while the Rockets may only be able to slow the flow.
The Rockets are assembling their army but they may need Morey to snag more Olympians to take down the champs.
3. Milwaukee Bucks
The Milwaukee Bucks’ outlook depends not on where they are now, but where they can be over the next five seasons. They have a budding roster with oozing potential the way Golden State’s roster looked pre-Kerr.
Why it is possible: The Giannis Effect, Length, and Thon Maker.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, aka the Greek Freak, aka the Alphabet, is a beast. He became the first player in NBA history to finish top 20 in the league in all five major statistical categories: total points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. He also became the fourth in history to lead his respective team in all five categories. Versatility is the most sought after trait to thwarting the Warriors and Giannis has got it all.
Giannis is scarily only 22 years old. In his first four seasons in the league, every year he has increased all five of those aforementioned stats, plus field goal percentage. Last season’s strides were the greatest as Giannis took home the Most Improved Player award. The hottest Giannis topic is discussing not if but when he will win MVP. NBA championships are predicated on superstar players and Giannis has the most out of this world potential in the entire league. What can he become and when he becomes it who will be able to stop him?
Equally important in assessing the Bucks potential in this ranking is the rest of the Bucks complimentary roster. Milwaukee has length and athletes. The wingspans according to DraftExpress for the Bucks’ key players include: Giannis (7’3”), Thon Maker (7’3”), Greg Monroe (7’2”), Tony Snell (6'11"), Jabari Parker (6’11”) Khris Middleton (6’10”) and Malcolm Brogdon (6’10”). That bests the Warriors who are considered around the league to have long and athletic strengths: Durant (7’4”), Draymond (7’1”), Iguodala (6’11”), Klay (6’9”), Shaun Livingston (6’11”) and Steph Curry (6’3”).
The Bucks’ length has caused the Warriors fits the past two seasons. The Dubs’ offense feels more stagnant against Milwaukee than against most teams. Deflections seem more prevalent against the defensive versatility and length. Passing windows look smaller and shots are more contested.
The key to Milwaukee’s potential defensive dominance is Maker. Their roster has guys that that can be quite good and solid defensively but Maker could be stellar. When you watch the Bucks play, you can observe how Maker hunts on the defensive end. He helps quickly and swats furiously. With Maker there are the Kevin Garnett comparisons and even KG himself had high praise for the young player in his rookie season. Maker played sparingly in the beginning of his rookie campaign then earned good time with an entrenched starter’s role. His deep shot is already decent, putting him in the potential to have a Draymond-type impact defensively and offensively.
What needs to happen?
The biggest need is having a point guard worthy of a championship team. Brogdon was solid in his first year and won Rookie of the Year, but he is far from Steph stratosphere. The Bucks need an aggressive Brogdon development or plug in a microwave-ready point guard off the market. The good thing about their point guard future is that the Bucks have Jason Kidd as their head coach. Kidd, an all-time great, would seem to be the perfect basketball mind to develop a point or else convince an elite one to join.
A healthy Jabari is always an X-factor to add to the offensive efficiency. Monroe is also a solid role player option that scores with his back to the basket. These type of players are valuable against the Warriors a kin to how the Memphis Grizzlies have presented problems for the Dubs over the past few years. The Bucks have the core roster. They just need to reach their sky-high potential.
2. Boston Celtics
The Boston Celtics are the number two threat to the Warriors because the Celtics present the strongest amalgam of coach, general manager, and roster.
Outside of Pop, Brad Stevens is the best coach on this list and has room to grow. In Stevens’ first four years as coach he has lead Boston to a seventh seed in year two, a fifth seed in year three and one seed and Eastern Conference Finals berth in year four. Stevens’ coaching has gotten better every year and shines the brightest in the playoffs. So far he simply outcoaches others in the Eastern Conference.
Stevens has imposed a mix of high quality offensive execution and discipline with an equally impressive defense. The Celtics have been the best defense on the Warriors the past few seasons. Their perimeter play has kept up with the fast-paced Warriors better than anyone else. The Celtics match up well. There is a chance that former Celtic Avery Bradley was the cog that kept the Dubs at bay and losing Bradley may hurt greatly. But a lot of the Celtics’ success has to do with Stevens’ defensive schemes.
Stevens has the insight to think progressively when it comes to basketball. He recently claimed that he does not categorize players in terms of the traditional positions (point guard, small forward, center, etc.). He sees three types of players: ball handlers, wings and big men. It is this type of simplistic yet flexible perspective that a coach needs to beat the Warriors. To extinguish the Warriors you need a coach that mixes and matches and a team that has the players to meet such demands.
Danny Ainge, the general manager of the Celtics, is the brain trust behind developing a roster to compete with Cleveland in the East and eventually topple the Warriors. Ainge makes savvy moves and Ainge makes ruthless moves. The guy pulled the trigger trading Celtics legend Paul Pierce for assets and most recently getting rid of fan favorite Thomas for what hopes to be an upgrade. He has the green light to make any move and is not afraid to take off. His infamous will-trade-his-own-mother approach is exactly the competitive advantage the Celtics need in order to compile a championship contender. Much like Morey is an asset in Houston, Ainge makes a huge impact for Boston.
In order to compete with the Warriors a team must have a complete roster laden with star power. Stevens landed the most prized free agent of the 2017 summer, reuniting with his college superstar Gordon Hayward. Hayward has developed into an all-star, capable of carrying his Utah Jazz team’s offensive load into the second round of the Western Conference. He has flashed playmaking in his repertoire and now it is time to take the next step on a more complete Boston team.
If the Kyrie Irving trade goes through, the Celtics have two top offensive threats. Kyrie has proven he can go toe-to-toe with Steph on the biggest stage. It is conceivable that Kyrie, at 25, could eventually surpass Steph. Kyrie was unstoppable at times against the Warriors. His unbelievable finishes and ball handling strikes fear in Warriors’ faithful, even with the prospect of Klay shadowing Kyrie. A Hayward and Kyrie pairing places the Celtics as one of the most formidable point guard/small forward matchups that can hang with the Dubs.
With an established top two, it comes down to the rest of the Celtics to tip the scales against the Warriors. Al Horford is an excellent big man. He does not get enough credit anchoring teams. He is decently mobile for a big man making him perimeter capable, a necessary feature to take on the Warriors. Horford exhibits all the championship level intangibles and does all the little things. Since Lebron has returned to Cleveland only two teams finished higher than the Cavs in the regular season standings. The 2015–16 Atlanta Hawks with Horford and the 2016–17 Boston Celtics with a newly acquired Horford. He is a good big man on good teams and a Horford-Zaza Pachulia matchup favors the Celtics.
The what-ifs are rookie Jayson Tatum and second-year Jaylen Brown. Tatum has enough hype for Bostonians to wish for a second coming of Paul Pierce. Brown was one of the most serviceable rookies last year and he could develop into a solid NBA player both defensively and offensively. Add in Marcus Morris and rookie Semi Ojeleye and the Celtics are executing the anti-Warrior blueprint by collecting versatile wing players.
Ainge and assets, Stevens as the puppet master and a talented roster make the Celtics capable of taking down the Warriors over the next five seasons. A Beantown game changer would be if Ainge and Stevens find a way to corral Anthony Davis or Demarcus Cousins to the Celtics.
1. Lebron James
Lebron James and the retooled Cleveland Cavaliers.
Or Lebron and a new cast of Los Angeles Lakers.
Or how about Lebron and the dysfunctional New York Knicks?
Or possibly Lebron back in Miami sunshine.
Or even Lebron and an expansion team.
Lebron is the greatest threat to the Warriors. The only team Lebron is not public enemy number one to the Warriors is if Lebron is on the Golden State Warriors.
It is not necessary to deeply analyze the merits of a Lebron threat that is well documented. He is one of the greatest players ever and always elevates his teammates to championship level heights. Lebron can only be slowed by time, age and eventual retirement. With Lebron spending $1.5 million per year on his body, his commitment to rest and peaking during the playoffs, he may play at late age championship levels à la Tom Brady.
Lebron is a Warriors’ problem and Lebron hopes to be the ultimate solution to cracking Golden State once again.