NBA title talk doesn’t mean much in October, but the distinct lack of chatter about the Golden State Warriors being the obvious, practically prohibitive favorite to take home more hardware is weird.
Like, really weird.
The Dubs won 67 games last year behind the top defense and second-ranked (by a fraction of a point) offense in the league. They posted an average margin of victory that was flat-out elite — historically high, in fact. They never faced an elimination game in their playoff run, and though they ran into trouble in a couple of series, they quickly solved their problems with talent and unparalleled versatility.
Statistically, they were a cut above every other NBA team last year. They occupied a tier of one.
And do you know what’s changed for Golden State since then? Nothing.
So why are the San Antonio Spurs, Cleveland Cavaliers and Oklahoma City Thunder getting as much or more buzz than the fully intact defending champs? Is this sort of like the voter fatigue that afflicts MVP ballots, preventing past winners from collecting more awards because of boredom?
Let’s hope so, because the alternative is a strange brand of ignorance.
Think of it this way: Those other three teams — we’ll limit the discussion to the Spurs, Cavs and Thunder because they’re the most commonly cited “watch out for these guys this year” squads — all have flaws or concerns that are demonstrably more significant than the Warriors’.
Tony Parker looked finished in last year’s playoffs and just as bad in FIBA EuroBasket just a month ago. If he’s not healthy enough to play like he has in the past, the Spurs don’t have a single reliable distributor on the roster. Who’s breaking down the defense if it’s not Parker? Who’s making opposing point guards work?
Maybe LaMarcus Aldridge helps as a safety valve on stagnant offensive possessions. Maybe Patty Mills is ready to do more than catch and shoot. But the Parker issue is real. He’s a foundational part of what San Antonio does. And while we can’t make a big stink about Duncan and Manu Ginobili being a year older because we’re always wrong when we predict they’re going to fall off, it’s bound to happen eventually.
The Spurs are awesome, but you don’t exactly have to squint to see the things that could prevent them from winning a ring.
Same goes for the Cavaliers, who currently have 60 percent of their starting lineup recovering from significant offseason operations. Kyrie Irving could be out until Christmas, Kevin Love might or might not make the opener and Iman Shumpert is on the shelf for at least three months. And when those players return, who’s to say they’ll be at top speed?
We haven’t even mentioned Timofey Mozgov’s knee scope over the summer, or Tristan Thompson’s holdout.
And though saying so is akin to blasphemy, LeBron James took a step back last year statistically. He’s sporting unprecedented mileage for a player his age, and let’s face it: He’s more likely to decline this season than he is to improve. Aging curves apply to everyone…even the best players the game has ever seen.
Soldiering on, the Thunder have a brand new coach, two superstars in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook who combined to miss 70 games last year, and a rotation that could feature ample use of Enes Kanter and Dion Waiters. When they’re healthy, Russ and KD give Oklahoma City a potent 1-2 punch. But are we sure they’ll be healthy?
And can we say that Billy Donovan is up to managing those two transcendent talents in his first year?
What about the specter of Durant’s free agency next summer? That’s going to be a distraction all season long.
Understand this: San Antonio, Cleveland or Oklahoma City could win the 2016 title without surprising anyone. They’re great. They absolutely have the potential to run over the rest of the league. But the key point here is that they all have highly foreseeable problems that should give prognosticators pause.
The Warriors are different; you have to stretch beyond the realms of the rational to come up with trouble spots. And even then, every hypothetical problem (short of injury, which afflicts every team in this scenario) has a legitimate solution.
Stephen Curry, the MVP, is healthy and in his prime. Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes are all 25 or younger and on the upswing of their careers. If anything, we should expect them to get better.
If you’re looking for regression, maybe Andrew Bogut or Iguodala are good targets. Both are on the wrong side of 30, but both also have backups whose prospective growth should offset any possible decline. Festus Ezeli backs up Bogut, and he quietly made leaps on both ends last year. Iguodala, the Finals MVP, clearly has plenty left. But if he needs to rest more often, Barnes is sitting right there.
Toss in the fact that the Warriors will only be more comfortable in their second year running head coach Steve Kerr’s offensive sets, and there’s a real chance this team completes the double dip of leading the league in offensive and defensive efficiency it came so close to achieving last year.
There are no guarantees in any of this, but it’s just bizarre that the Warriors aren’t viewed as the obvious, standalone favorite.
By any logic you want to employ, they deserve that status.