The Golden State Warriors have already achieved a historic run, and yet their ambitions and potential extend to so much more.
Two titles in three years, while impressive in its own right, seems like just scratching the surface in the context of what these Warriors can accomplish.
This is a team that enters the new season already pencilled in as champions by many – an expectation hardly unfounded after what they’ve done the past three seasons.
No team in league history has had a better regular season record over a three-year span, with the Warriors’ 207 wins edging the 203 by Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls from 1996-98. The lone campaign over that timeframe that didn’t yield a banner saw Golden State break the 1995-96 Bulls’ record for most victories in a single season with 73 in 2016.
Since that season in which they experienced the highest of highs and lowest of lows – blowing a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers – the Warriors have only gotten better.
Kevin Durant’s seismic decision to join the ride ahead of last season turned Golden State into the NBA’s version of Voltron – a superteam that has inspired the formation of other superteams.
But while their talent and three-year run already puts them in the conversation for greatest team ever, their body of work still leaves enough to be desired before the talk shifts to greatest dynasty ever.
The Warriors know this and they very much yearn to take their place alongside those Jordan teams that captured six titles in an eight-year window during the 90s.
“I still think we’re not on their level yet, but that’s what we aspire to be of the 2000s,” Golden State’s Klay Thompson said. “We aspire to be that dynasty that will be in the minds of NBA fans forever.”
At the very least, the Warriors are already seared into the minds of their rivals as the league has frantically made moves in an attempt to close the gap at the top.
Astonishingly, seven players who were All-Stars last season switched teams in the summer, with four of those now in the West – Jimmy Butler, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George and Paul Millsap.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have undergone the most drastic makeover in the conference, trading for George and Anthony to provide reigning MVP and one-man army Russell Westbrook the support to compete with the four All-Star in the Bay Area.
It’s a calculated risk by general manager Sam Presti, who traded bit pieces for the opportunity to raise the Thunder’s variance. But it could also mean losing assets for a single season of George before he flees in free agency – the LA Lakers connection looms – and creating chemistry issues between two volume scorers who need the ball in their hands in Westbrook and Anthony.
The same questions over fit are also facing the new backcourt in Houston, where James Harden will have to cede some of the playmaking to veteran Chris Paul.
Like Westbrook with Oklahoma City last season, Harden was the engine that made everything go for the Rockets, who employ a fast-paced, up-and-down style that is predicated on hoisting up as many 3-pointers as possible. Paul, meanwhile, is more a slow-it-down, probing point guard who has earned a reputation as a stubborn, in-your-face team-mate – a contrast to Harden’s non-confrontational personality.
The marriage between Harden and Paul pits two players who alone have failed to topple the Warriors, but together hope for a sterner test.
While nearly all of Golden State’s main competitors have evolved, the one team that has remained mostly status quo are San Antonio – and it may not be a bad thing.
For what felt like the umpteenth straight year, the Spurs overachieved last season with a 61-21 record, which included an opening-night beatdown of the Warriors.
When the sides met again in the Western Conference Finals, San Antonio jumped to a 25-point lead in Game 1 before Kawhi Leonard suffered an ankle injury that ended his playoffs.
The addition of Rudy Gay on the wing will help, but the Spurs are hoping what’s needed to overcome Golden State was already there.
After the projected top four squads in the West, the race for the final four postseason spots will be as tight as any, with the Los Angeles Clippers, Utah, Minnesota, Denver, Memphis, Portland and New Orleans all realistically in the mix.
The Clippers are putting the keys in the hands of Blake Griffin, while Utah are facing a post-Gordon Hayward world built on their stingy defence, Minnesota and Denver are relying on their young core to come of age and New Orleans attempt to make their Anthony Davis-DeMarcus Cousins tandem work.
It’s only fitting that the bloodbath in the West mirrors what it will take to take down its rulers.
Star player: Nikola Jokic
Coach: Michael Malone
Last season: 40-42
Key ins: Paul Millsap (ATL), Trey Lyles (UTA), Josh Childress (JPN), Tyler Lydon (R)
Key outs: Danilo Gallinari (LAC)
Strengths: Averaged the second-most assists last year (25.3) and points will again be in abundance.
Weaknesses: Only the Lakers had a worse defensive rating than Denver (110.5) as the Nuggets give up nearly as many as they score.
Verdict: Exciting and should continue to get better, but defence will keep them from contending.
Star player: Karl-Anthony Towns
Coach: Tom Thibodeau
Last season: 31-51
Key ins: Jimmy Butler (CHI), Taj Gibson (OKC), Jamal Crawford (LAC), Jeff Teague (IND), Justin Patton (R)
Key outs: Ricky Rubio (UTA), Zach LaVine (CHI), Kris Dunn (CHI), Brandon Rush (MIL)
Strengths: Should be even better than their third-ranked offensive rebounding rate of last year.
Weaknesses: Underachieved defensively in first year with Thibodeau.
Verdict: Should finally take the jump and get back to playoffs.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Star player: Russell Westbrook
Coach: Billy Donovan
Last season: 47-35, lost in first round
Key ins: Paul George (IND), Carmelo Anthony (NYK), Patrick Patterson (TOR), Raymond Felton (LAC), Terrance Ferguson (R)
Key outs: Victor Oladipo (IND), Enes Kanter (NYK), Domantas Sabonis (IND)
Strengths: Have three go-to scorers after having only one last season.
Weaknesses: The jury is still out on the core’s chemistry and fit.
Verdict: Have the firepower to at least push Golden State.
Portland Trail Blazers
Star player: Damian Lillard
Coach: Terry Stotts
Last season: 41-41, lost in first round
Key ins: Zach Collins (R), Caleb Swanigan (R)
Key outs: Allen Crabbe (BKN), Festus Ezeli (FA)
Strengths: Backcourt of Lillard and McCollum is one of the best around and can rain fire on the opposition.
Weaknesses: Defence reamins leaky, even with Jusuf Nurkic manning the basket.
Verdict: They’re somewhat capped by their ceiling, but landing a bottom-half playoff spot in the West is nothing to take for granted.
Star player: Rudy Gobert
Coach: Quin Snyder
Last season: 51-31, lost in second round
Key ins: Ricky Rubio (MIN), Thabo Sefolosha (ATL), Donovan Mitchell (R)
Key outs: Gordon Hayward (BOS), George Hill (SAC), Boris Diaw (FA), Trey Lyles (DEN)
Strengths: They make you grind out possessions and work for every point you score, especially near the rim where Gobert roams.
Weaknesses: Will have a harder time getting buckets after Hayward’s depature.
Verdict: Still a playoff-level team.
Golden State Warriors
Star player: Kevin Durant
Coach: Steve Kerr
Last season: 67-15, won NBA Finals
Key ins: Nick Young (LAL), Omri Casspi (MIN), Jordan Bell (R)
Key outs: Ian Clark (NOP)
Strengths: Scoring, shooting, passing, defending…pretty much everything.
Weaknesses: Thin in the frontcourt.
Verdict: Another title beckons and 70 regular season wins are very much in play…again.
Star player: Eric Bledsoe
Coach: Earl Watson
Last season: 23-59
Key ins: Troy Daniels (MEM), Josh Jackson (R)
Key outs: Leandro Barbosa (FA)
Strengths: Play at a frantic pace (102.8 possessions).
Weaknesses: Youth shows on defence where they had the third-worst defensive rating and hacked the most.
Verdict: Once again will be in the hunt for one of the top draft picks.
Star player: Zach Randolph
Coach: Dave Joerger
Last season: 32-50
Key ins: George Hill (UTA), Zach Randolph (MEM), Bogdan Bogdanovic (EUR), Vince Carter (MEM), De’Aaron Fox (R), Justin Jackson (R), Harry Giles (R)
Key outs: Rudy Gay (SAS), Darren Collison (IND), Arron Afflalo (ORL), Ben McLemore (MEM)
Strengths: Youthful core.
Weaknesses: Will have to deal with massive roster turnovers.
Verdict: Built for the future.
Los Angeles Clippers
Star player: Blake Griffin
Coach: Doc Rivers
Last season: 51-31, lost in first round
Key ins: Patrick Beverly (HOU), Danilo Gallinari (DEN), Lou Williams (HOU), Milos Teodosic (EUR), Sam Dekker (HOU), Montrezl Harrell (HOU)
Key outs: Chris Paul (HOU), J.J. Redick (PHI), Jamal Crawford (MIN), Luc Mbah a Moute (HOU)
Strengths: Spacing, playmaking and offensive balance.
Verdict: In a fight for playoffs.
Los Angeles Lakers
Star player: Lonzo Ball
Coach: Luke Walton
Last season: 26-56
Key ins: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (DET), Brook Lopez (BKN), Lonzo Ball (R), Kyle Kuzma (R), Andrew Bogut (CLE)
Key outs: D’Angelo Russell (BKN), Nick Young (GSW), Timofey Mozgov (BKN)
Strengths: Ball movement should immediately improve.
Verdict: Fun to watch but not a competitive team quite yet.
Star player: Dirk Nowitzki
Coach: Rick Carlisle
Last season: 33-49
Key ins: Josh McRoberts (MIA), Dennis Smith Jr (R)
Key outs: None
Strengths: Don’t turn the ball over much thanks to their slow-it-down, grind-it-out style and pace.
Weaknesses: Depth is a real concern and key reserve Seth Curry is already dealing with a leg injury with no timetable for a return.
Verdict: Hard to see them being much better than last season, even if Smith turns out to be the real deal, meaning another lottery finish.
Star player: James Harden
Coach: Mike D’Antoni
Last season: 55-27, lost in second round
Key ins: Chris Paul (LAC), P.J. Tucker (TOR), Luc Mbah a Moute (LAC), Zhou Qi (R)
Key outs: Patrick Beverley (LAC), Lou Williams (LAC), Montrezl Harrell (LAC), Sam Dekker (LAC)
Strengths: Go bombs away from long range, making the most 3-pointers in the league.
Weaknesses: Susceptible to giving up as many points as they score.
Verdict: Addition of Paul means they’re a tougher out for Warriors.
Star player: Marc Gasol
Coach: David Fizdale
Last season: 43-39, lost in first round
Key ins: Ben McLemore (SAC), Tyreke Evans (NOP), Wayne Selden (NOP), Ivan Rabb (R)
Key outs: Tony Allen (NOP), Vince Carter (SAC), Zach Randolph (SAC)
Strengths: Defence should remain their calling card, even after losing some of their identity.
Weaknesses: Shot the worst field goal percentage last year (43.5).
Verdict: Could trade Gasol and/or Mike Conley if writing is on the wall.
New Orleans Pelicans
Star player: Anthony Davis
Coach: Alvin Gentry
Last season: 34-48
Key ins: Rajon Rondo (CHI), Tony Allen (MEM), Ian Clark (GSW), Frank Jackson (R)
Key outs: Donatas Motiejunas (CHN), Tim Frazier (WAS), Tyreke Evans (MEM)
Strengths: Twin towers of Davis and DeMarcus Cousins form one of the top duos in the game.
Weaknesses: Still have to solve their fit issues as offence should be much better considering talent.
Verdict: If things don’t get better, Cousins could be on the move.
San Antonio Spurs
Star player: Kawhi Leonard
Coach: Gregg Popovich
Last season: 61-21, lost in Western Conference Finals
Key ins: Rudy Gay (SAC), Derrick White (R)
Key outs: Dewayne Dedmon (ATL), David Lee (FA), Jonathon Simmons (ORL)
Strengths: Always fundamentally sound and airtight defensively.
Weaknesses: Relying on aging veterans to flank Leonard.
Verdict: May be the best hope of taking down Golden State before the Finals.
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