With spring finally here, we are only a couple of weeks away from the NBA playoffs. Entering this season, the Golden State Warriors were widely assumed to be shoe-ins for the championship once again. After all, they went 16-1 in the playoffs last year, then retained Kevin Durant and even added productive role players in Nick Young, Omri Casspi and Jordan Bell. Yet, not everything has gone smoothly for the Warriors over the past few months. The team is plagued by injuries, and key back-ups have declined. Beware: Golden State may not have the same easy and comfortable walk to the championship this season.
Stephen Curry’s ankle has returned as an issue. The guard struggled at times to stay on the court during the early part of his career thanks to consistent ankle sprains. He played in only 26 games for the 2011-12 season. After a well-publicized sneaker change, Curry appeared to have put his ankle problems behind him. But now, they have come back. The 30-year-old has missed a substantial amount of time with multiple ankle sprains, participating in only 50 contests thus far. We learned in 2016 that a banged-up Curry is not the same force of nature that NBA fans have grown accustomed to watching after the Cleveland Cavaliers were able to grind out Golden State for a seven-game series win. Golden State does not have the same offensive dominance and flair without a healthy star point guard.
And Curry is far from the only member of the Warriors with injury concerns. Klay Thompson is out with a fractured right thumb. Kevin Durant will miss two weeks with a rib fracture. Draymond Green went down this past week with a midsection contusion. After years of good injury luck, the pendulum has swung the other way for the Warriors. While everyone is expected to be back for the playoffs, the team will enter its first-round series out of rhythm. Curry’s ankle is far from secure, too — it could turn or roll again quite easily.
Golden State’s bench, meanwhile, has been less productive than in past years. Andre Iguodala is a shell of his former self on offense. He is averaging just 6.0 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game on 46.7 percent shooting (26.7 percent on threes). This season is the worst of his career by a good margin. Patrick McCaw has completely lost his shooting touch and spent time in the G-League to try to correct his stroke, also missing time recently with a wrist injury. The guard is shooting just 24.2 percent from three-point range. That’s two important role players who are largely missing.
But who could possibly beat the Warriors in the postseason? The Houston Rockets are an easy first answer. Guards James Harden and Chris Paul make all the headlines, but the Rockets have a lot of depth that could be the difference in a series with Golden State. Clint Capela is one of the most underrated players in the game, able to dominate the glass. Eric Gordon, Gerald Green, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson and P. J. Tucker can all let it fly from the perimeter. Tucker brings an element of toughness that Houston has lacked in recent seasons, a counter to Green’s intensity. While the Warriors are clearly the more talented team still, the Rockets can play them close. Houston has won two out of three regular season games between the teams.
I consider Oklahoma City to be another potential threat. Russell Westbrook and Paul George are the obvious names, but Steven Adams could be the key to beating Golden State. Adams is one of the strongest big men in the game and can torch the Warriors on the boards and in the paint if they ever try to go small. Between those three guys and new addition Corey Brewer, Oklahoma City has defensive strength all over the court. It is simply hard to score on the Thunder. Carmelo Anthony will have to regain some of his old form for the upset to happen, however. Instead of channeling “Olympic Melo,” Anthony has been off with his shot all year and has been a ball-stopper at times. He is shooting 36.3 percent from three-point range on the season, and OKC needs him to catch fire for a round with the Warriors — if Anthony hits around 40 percent of his long-range shots, the Thunder can hang with Golden State.
The Eastern Conference contenders pose less of a threat. The Cavaliers are worse than last year by a good amount, without a star secondary shot-creator. The Celtics have been ruined by injuries — Kyrie’s knee has to be a major worry for any Boston fan at this point. The Raptors have enjoyed a terrific regular season, but DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry have yet to prove that they can maintain a consistent high level in the playoffs.
The Golden State Warriors are still, by far, the likeliest team to win the Finals. But the journey to the championship poses more of a challenge this season. Don’t be surprised to see Golden State battling to escape the Western Conference.
George Klein ’20 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.