Warriors among just a trio of legit contenders

After the first week of the 2016-17 NBA season, there have been some surprises, but nearly every team in the league still has a sense of optimism about them.

And while almost all spew the party line that they are here to win a championship, there are only a few actual contenders.

For every Brock Lesnar, there’s a handful of nameless jobbers.

So with the ribbon freshly cut on the NBA season, let’s take a look at the true contenders for an NBA title.

Cleveland Cavaliers

We might as well start with the defending champs here.

The Cavs return almost everyone to a team that humbled the Warriors last year. Not only that but they had a full offseason to implement Tyronn Lue’s schemes and another year of figuring out how to fully involve Kevin Love in the offense.

Plus, they still have LeBron James who proved he can still dominate the playoffs when he needs to.

So far, Kyrie Irving looks to have rebounded from his down year last season — when he shot the lowest 3-point percentage of his career — to borderline MVP candidate.

Either Irving or James could be the best player in any given series, and you always have a very good chance at winning when that’s the case.

But there are two main problems for the Cavs: The Warriors didn’t just get better by adding Kevin Durant, they got better specifically against the way Cleveland plays against the Dubs.

The Cavs can no longer use their strategy of putting James on Draymond Green to gum up the Stephen Curry-Green pick and roll.

Now, James will either be on Durant, or the Warriors can just run a Curry-Durant pick and roll. The Cavs are going to have to come up with a whole new strategy to stop the Warriors offense.

And second, because of the cap situation for the Cavs, they had to sacrifice some of their depth. Matthew Dellavedova is now on the Bucks, and Timofey Mozgov got the deal of a lifetime with the Lakers.

Yes, these are not exactly impact players, but the backup point guard is now second-round pick Kay Felder, and their backup power forward is Channing Frye — better suited as a stretch 5.

That’s almost no quality depth behind Irving and Love, who happen to be two of the most injury-prone stars in the league.

And the two players who have played the most minutes off the bench so far? Richard Jefferson and Mike Dunleavy — both of whom happen to be 36.

That’s a lot of pressure and weight on two sets of old shoulders.

But the competition level in the East figures to be, in a word, meh, so the path to an NBA title still runs through Cleveland.

Golden State Warriors

Pretty sure everything has been said about the new-look Warriors.

On paper they look unstoppable, and during stretches of the preseason, have looked the same.

The weakness of this team, however, will be what was the strength was for the 73-win team — familiarity. Last season’s record-breaking team returned 13 of the 15 players from the 2014-15 championship team.

With that type of consistency from year to year, playing on the court with one another is second nature.

This year is a different story, with the roster dotted with six new players, including four of the Warriors’ top nine.

It’s been evident early this season, as rotations are still in flux and players are still figuring out how to play with each other.

Everyone knew this was going to take a little while to jell, but what has people a little concerned is that there haven’t been many glimmers of the dominant team they saw in the preseason.

Each game early this season has been a slog for the Dubs: two close wins against non-playoff contenders and one blowout loss.

Steve Kerr has targeted rebounding, turnovers and the free throw line as areas in which the Warriors have to improve. They don’t have to win those categories, but they need to stay relatively close to their opponents if they want to dominate like many have picked them to do.

But what’s most concerning has been the defense. It’s something the team prides itself on, but this season has been reminiscent of those Don Nelson teams.

The team has ranked in the top 10 the last three years, according to teamrankings.com, but so far in this early season they’re ranked in the bottom five.

They did add a top five player to their team, but need to continue tweaking the little things if they want to avenge last season’s Finals loss.

And in the playoffs, when rotations shrink and teams are more reliant on their best players, it’s hard to compete against a team with four legitimate superstars, and that’s exactly what the Warriors have.

San Antonio Spurs

Serious question, when aren’t the Spurs considered a legitimate contender for the NBA title?

Tim Duncan could convince this entire roster to join him in retirement and general manager R.C. Buford would sign 15 no-name players from the D-League, and Gregg Popovich would turn them into the most dangerous No. 3 seed in the NBA playoffs.

They put the NBA — and more importantly the Warriors — on notice when they blew the doors off Golden State on opening night.

Kawhi Leonard has gone from a borderline MVP candidate into legitimate superstar. He’s emerged as an offensive force, averaging 28 points per game in his first four contests while continuing to play his usual Defensive Player of the Year defense.

Patty Mills looks ready to be the Spurs starting point guard and 27-year-old Jonathon Simmons — in just his second NBA season — has been a revelation.

But that’s not a shock when you consider what the Spurs have been able to do with their roster made up of names with which no one is familiar. They got Boban Marjanovic for $7 million a year after just one season playing less than 10 minutes a game.

They don’t just have a Midas touch, they have a platinum hammer. But their weakness is different than it has been in years past.

This team, with Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, is more reliant on isolation basketball than ever before.

That makes them a little easier to guard then when they relied on ball movement and their crazy motion offense. There is still a bit of that, but they are a little more predictable now.

Their other weakness is their marquee free agent signing, Pau Gasol.

Gasol himself is still a very good player and will help during the regular season and early playoff series, but he also matches up horribly with the two other teams on this list.

If you feel sorry for Kevin Love trying to guard pick-and-rolls, you must be having sympathy pains for Gasol having to switch onto Curry or Durant or Kyrie or LeBron.

The obvious play would be to use Aldridge at the 5 and Leonard slide over to the 4, but Leonard hasn’t really excelled there, at least not in the way Durant or LeBron does.

The Spurs may not seem to be on the same tier as the Warriors and Cavs, but don’t be shocked if they spoil what many expect to be a rubber match in the Finals.

And that’s the entire list. Apologies to the Clippers, Raptors and Celtics, but unless they make a major move and add a significant piece, they just aren’t on the same level as these three teams. Pending injuries, if any other team wins the title this year, it would have to be considered a major upset.


Curtis Uemura is SFBay’s Golden State Warriors beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @CUemura on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of Warriors basketball.