Challengers take aim at champion Warriors

Then NBA season officially starts on Tuesday, though it feels like there wasn’t much of an offseason.

A vast number of significant moves were made to specifically combat the NBA champion Warriors. And with those moves, comes a new wave of challengers trying to topple Golden State off their throne.

Here’s a look at who could be the biggest road blocks in the way of the Warriors winning back-to-back titles.

Houston Rockets

Why they’re a threat. If anyone has the firepower to keep up with the Warriors offensively, it’s Mike D’Antoni’s 3-point heavy team. Last season the Rockets actually made 199 more shots from beyond the arc than the Warriors, and attempted nearly 800 more.

James Harden, Trevor Ariza, Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson; any of those four is more than capable of going off for six or more 3-pointers in a single game. Each finished with at least 191 threes last season. In a seven-game series, if any two are able to get Splash Brothers-level hot in a single game, they have the ability to steal one.

All-Star Chris Paul has the potential to take this run-and-gun offense to new heights. Their defense will most likely be improved too, with new wings PJ Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute, all anchored by the athletic Clint Capela, who has shown the ability to effectively switch onto the Warriors perimeter players.

Why they’ll get swept. The backcourt pairing of Harden and Paul looks great on paper, though there’s no telling how they’ll mesh, especially when the games get important. It’s easy to play nice when you’re in game 65 of the regular season, but it’s a whole different story when it’s an elimination game in the playoffs.

Will Harden be fine with Paul isoing in the middle of the court? Or vice versa?

Plus, for a team and coach who don’t prioritize defense, trading away their best and most annoying perimeter defender Patrick Beverley is going to hurt them, especially against the Warriors.

Paul was the best defensive point guard in the league just a few years ago, and his skills in that area have slipped with age. He can no longer lock down Stephen Curry, and may even be a liability against him. Which is enough to put them behind the eight ball against Golden State.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Why they’re a threat. From a personnel perspective, the Thunder might match up the best against the Warriors. They have two long, lock-down perimeter defenders in Paul George and Andre Roberson, a big, athletic point guard in Russell Westbrook, and a bruising center who can beat up the Warriors when they go small, with the ability to also switch on defense in Steven Adams.

The addition of George helps the most, as he’s the prototypical defender you would want matching up with Kevin Durant. Someone who can match his length, while also using their bulk to knock Durant off balance.

Adding Patrick Patterson was a steal and he aides their versatility being able to step in as a small ball center, who can spot up from deep.

Why they’ll get swept. The Warriors were anonymously quoted recently saying that they don’t fear Russell Westbrook because his style of play is so easy to guard. And honestly, you could squint all day at that quote and still not find the lies.

Adding George and Carmelo Anthony helps in theory, but if Westbrook plays even remotely close to last season, it doesn’t matter who the Thunder add, because everyone plays the same standing at the 3-point line with their hands in their pockets.

That, and the Thunder have some big decisions to make when it comes to who is going to close games for them.

Is it going to be Anthony, who can get buckets but doesn’t have the footspeed or effort to even pretend like he can play defense?

Or is it going to be Roberson, who’s infinitely better defensively but makes the Warriors visibly giddy when he takes an open three? Or will it be someone from their very shallow bench like Alex Abrines?

Any of those solution looks like it leads to a Warriors win.

Cleveland Cavaliers/Boston Celtics

Why they’re a threat. It’s appropriate that the two East teams are lumped together because they essentially just shifted pieces around.

Cleveland improved their wing depth, which murdered them during the Finals, but they also lost their most dynamic creator in Kyrie Irving.

The Celtics added Irving to their motion based offense, which unlocked Isaiah Thomas last season, and should turn Irving into a monster offensively. But they also lost their wing depth, which was one of the biggest reasons they gave the Warriors fits in the regular season.

But they are still the two best teams in the East. When you have LeBron James you are always a threat. During the offseason they finally committed to using Kevin Love at center — their best lineup — and added Jae Crowder and Dwyane Wade, which will let Iman Shumpert play his natural position of DNP-CD.

The Celtics not only added Irving but paired him with all-star Gordon Hayward. And with the trade for Marcus Morris they may have the best starting lineup in the East.

Why they’ll get swept. Both teams have improved, but they actually weakened their chances against the Warriors.

If the Cavs think that the Warriors picked on Irving defensively, they may run an anti-bullying campaign after they see what they do to Thomas. Be prepared to see the 5-foot-9 point guard get run through roughly a million pick-and-rolls a game and, for someone coming off a bad hip injury and another year older, it probably won’t be a pretty sight.

Their shift to full-time small ball is the correct call on a night-to-night basis, but against the Warriors, that means Love guarding Draymond Green, which is not ideal for them. And going small against the best small ball lineup the league has to offer is not a recipe for success.

The Celtics meanwhile added two very good perimeter creators, but in doing so they dealt away what was the strength of their team — wing defense. They lost Avery Bradley, who was the best at guarding Curry in the league. And they lost Crowder who wasn’t an elite defender, but gave the Warriors shooters fits when he was healthy.

Now they have to rely on relatively untested Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum or the undersized Marcus Smart to log heavy minutes. And if Morris or Al Horford misses any time at all, they are putting a lot of pressure on Aron Baynes and Guerschon Yabusele.

Those names don’t really strike fear in the hearts of Green or Durant.


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.