Adaptable to change: can anyone stop the Golden State Warriors?

Durant wins MVP - Getty

All of a sudden the NBA seems like a one team show. But someone’s going to stop the Golden State Warriors from dominating at some point, right? If so, evolution is the key.

On a recent episode of the Full 48 podcast, Howard Beck asked Mike D’Antoni “In seven seconds or less, how do you beat the Warriors?”. D’Antoni chuckled and responded: “You don’t right now.”

There have been some major moves in the NBA this offseason, as teams attempt to upgrade their rosters to take a shot at the 2018 title. The likes of Gordon Hayward, Paul George, Jimmy Butler and Chris Paul have all found themselves on new teams, but in the grand scheme of things, do any of these changes really shift the landscape?

Well, let’s remember that in 2016 the Golden State Warriors won 73 regular season games before adding Kevin Durant the following summer, and on their journey to the 2017 Championship were only one loss shy of being the first team to ever go unbeaten in the Playoffs. Like it or not, but the current Warriors might just be the best team to ever set foot on an NBA floor together.

On top of this, the team now features Nick Young and Omri Casspi, while the front office also managed to retain key role players like David West on the veterans’ minimum and Andre Iguodala on a 3-year, $48 million deal despite some firm competition:

The biggest move of the Warriors offseason was re-signing Kevin Durant at a discounted rate though. His two-year $53 million contract was vital in allowing the Warriors to resign Iguodala, as well as giving them the $8 million per year that they needed to sign Shaun Livingston for another three years.

Durant has a player option in 2018 which he will most likely opt out of again in order to keep the Warriors core together. Players taking less money is obviously nothing new as it has been less than a decade since LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh teamed up on the Heat and each took a cut of $15 million over the life of their contracts. Durant’s scenario sets a new precedent however, as he is sacrificing almost double what any of Miami’s “Big Three” ever gave up. Probably because he knows that no one can beat his team in a playoff series and therefore as long as the Warriors keep on winning, he is going to keep signing short-term deals and opting out of his contract to keep the core intact. And as long as the Warriors retain Durant, Curry, Thompson and Green, it is not inconceivable to expect them to keep collecting rings.

And this ultimately makes any attempt by other teams to try to “contend now” almost pointless. Short of Durant or James going down with an injury, chances are that we don’t see any team other than the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2018 Finals. With the moves this offseason, NBA teams have set themselves up to better contend and maybe even stretch more playoff series to 7 games, but ultimately no team is getting past the Warriors in 2018.

But someone will stop them, one day. So let’s take a look at the contenders.

The Cleveland Cavaliers

First of all, the way the power shifts in the NBA will come down to what we’re going to call “The Decision #3”- when LeBron decides whether or not to leave Cleveland to go join another team in 2018.

Now LeBron may well stay for another season in Cleveland before he officially becomes a free agent in 2019, but Cavs new GM, Koby Altman has the tough job of finding a roster to build around James to persuade him to stay. And let’s face it, it hasn’t been a great offseason so far.

Plus, Kyrie Irving has just requested a trade out of Cleveland naming New York, Miami, San Antonio and Minnesota as possible suitors per ESPN’s Chris Haynes, meaning Lebron might not be the only one who is dissatisfied with the current state of the Cavs front office. Unfortunately for them, of the teams Irving has named, none would be able to put a package together without parting ways with one of their key pieces.

Had Kyrie announced his desire to be traded earlier the Cavs may have been able to move him, but we’re now at a point in the offseason where this becomes increasingly difficult. As a result, it’s possible that Kyrie doesn’t get traded until after next season as it’s hard to see the Cavs doing so if they’re set on a return to the Finals in 2018.

Even assuming that the Cavs will likely blitz their way through the Eastern Conference, they have done very little to prevent the same outcome in next year’s Finals. This year the Cavs were completely destroyed on defense by Golden State’s fast-paced, switchy offense. And how did the Cavs reacts? They re-signed Kyle Korver, they didn’t trade Kevin Love (yet) and they signed a 35-year-old Jose Calderon.

Although no word of intent has been made from the man himself, most people now seem set on the notion that LeBron is on his way out of Cleveland in 2018. And surely he would have made it clear by now if he was staying with the Cavs. Therefore, on the belief that he will opt out at the end of next season, many have already come up with numerous hypothetical “superteams” that LeBron could potentially form come next offseason.

There have been quite a few good ones. And I’m sure there will be plenty more as next season progresses.

Bill Simmons seems to have given some ground to the “LeBron to the Lakers” rumors, citing the fact that the Lakers have a ton of cap room to create a superteam and that James has a house in L.A.. In this hypothetical, LeBron teams up with Paul George, John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Lonzo Ball, with the stars all taking $25 million a year while LeBron takes $20 million. Seems pretty far fetched doesn’t it? Yet it wouldn’t be all that surprising if at least George and James find their way to L.A. in 2018, with the final piece of the puzzle perhaps joining the following season.

Zach Lowe, and many others, have spoken about San Antonio as a potential landing spot. In this scenario, the Spurs would sign LeBron along with Chris Paul to pair with Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge. This team looks pretty deadly and in terms of fit it seems like the best match for both LeBron and Chris Paul. But then again, the feasibility of LeBron wanting to move to San Antonio to play under Gregg Popovich seems doubtful.

However, having a bunch of stars on your roster doesn’t always constitute a winning team.

The history of LeBron superteams has shown that they need at least one season together before they really start to figure it out. Another question then arises as to whether LeBron will still be playing at the same level in 2020, at nearly 35. Even though he’s just had one of his best seasons to date, he has to start slowing up at some point. In that regard, it may be that James becomes the second string to another player, because, despite his age, he’s still going to be one of the best in the league.

The Houston Rockets

If we start to look at the other teams in contention, the decision to go out and get Chris Paul made sense for the Rockets considering their window to challenge for the title is now.

Taking advantage of owning a perennial All-Star in James Harden who is currently in his prime, means it makes little sense than to do anything other than give him the tools to attempt to contend. An offense led by the two-guard tandem of Paul and Harden will be a force to be reckoned with next season and it will be very intriguing to discover how D’Antoni plays the two together. However, the Rockets are still pretty terrible defensively, and as much as Chris Paul is still a stellar defender, is he really that much of an upgrade on Patrick Beverley as a stopper? Unless they find a way to trade Ryan Anderson – who was atrocious on both sides of the floor in the 2017 Playoffs and is currently being vastly overpaid – this team stays firmly in the second spot in the West.

Of course, they have been linked to Carmelo Anthony of late.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski recently reported that Anthony has made it clear that he does not want to return to the Knicks next season and expects them to resume trade talks with Houston. As a result, it is becoming more and more probable that we don’t see Melo on the Knicks at the start of next season. So what if the Rockets and the Knicks do find a way to exchange Ryan Anderson for Carmelo Anthony, does this put them over the Warriors? As much as they would likely possess the second best offense in the league with Melo as a stretch-4, defense would be a huge concern.

So essentially the Rockets have one season to make enough of a push at the title to convince Chris Paul to stay in Houston when he becomes a free agent in 2018. Trevor Ariza – who will earn $7.4 million in 2017/18 – is also a free agent next offseason and the market for “3-and-D” guys like him will be rife, meaning they may need to let him walk. If both guys leave, the Rockets front office has to find a new group to surround Harden with, and with the host of teams who will be going after the available free agents, that’s not going to be an easy task.

The Oklahoma City Thunder

If we’re talking about teams with narrow windows, the Oklahoma City Thunder are another prime example. Acquiring Paul George makes them considerably better going into the 2017/18 season, but as his sights seem to be fixed on L.A., we may just get a year of he and Westbrook playing together.

A subject that has not been talked about extensively this offseason is that Westbrook is yet to sign an extension with the Thunder. With Harden snatching a max deal just a few days into free agency, and more recently John Wall also resigning with the Wizards, many believed that Westbrook would be quick to follow suit. It is surprising that he’s yet to extend  considering it would most likely be the richest contract in NBA history. Although the Thunder reportedly remain optimistic they can re-sign Russ, it may be that he declines his player option in 2018 and tests the waters of free agency – a move that could be disastrous for the Thunder for years to come.

The San Antonio Spurs

The San Antonio Spurs are coming to the end of an era as Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili edge slowly towards retirement. As well as this, the Spurs might be able to relieve themselves of LaMarcus Aldridge who may decline his player option in 2018.

They will need to have a long hard look at where they see themselves in the next few years, as in a similar realm to Harden in Houston, Kawhi Leonard’s prime is now. On the bright side, Dejonte Murray is only 20 years old and has shown signs of promise on both sides of the floor. Ultimately, the Spurs may be just one or two pieces away from finding their core for the next few seasons.

Even if the Spurs don’t sign any premier free agents in 2018, we’ve all followed the NBA long enough to know that they should never be discounted. Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals was the story that never was; as Kawhi Leonard went down after the Spurs had built a 78-55 lead over the Warriors, and as a result the Warriors subsequently came back and continued their sweep of the Western Conference.

Now I’m not saying that if Kawhi Leonard hadn’t got injured that we would have seen the Spurs in the 2017 Finals, but I honestly don’t think we’ve seen the best of Kawhi Leonard just yet.

The Boston Celtics

The Boston Celtics got their guy in Gordon Hayward this offseason and have set themselves up to both contend now in the East as well as contend for the foreseeable future.

In Hayward, Boston now has its second complementary scorer to pair with Isaiah Thomas and one who fits snugly into Brad Stevens’s offense. However, their current core of Thomas, Hayward and Horford is good, but not great. It is still questionable as to whether this team in its current state has the tools to produce a different outcome in a repeat of the 2017 Eastern Conference Finals.

That said, if LeBron does go West in 2018, it leaves the Celtics as firm favorites to be the alpha dogs in the Eastern Conference for years to come. The hope seems to be that Isaiah Thomas will be happy to take less than a max deal in order to allow the Celtics to have flexibility down the line. But they still have a litany of assets, which they’ll need to cash in on at some point. And that could be sooner than we think:

While it seems as if the next few years will most likely serve as a period of transition for a number of NBA teams, it’s clear that most  are a few seasons away from competing with the Warriors.

In the meantime, it wouldn’t be surprising if we saw Steph, KD and co. win three or four consecutive championships while teams piece together rosters that will have the tools to knock them off the top spot.

Essentially we might be looking even further into the future to find the team that ultimately beats the Warriors. It might be that we have to wait until one of the Warriors core starts to wear down or leaves for a new team until the team is finally dethroned. So when the time comes for the Warriors to finally get knocked from their pedestal, which teams are the best candidates to clinch the top spot?

A number of teams have already succumbed to the powers that be and are looking towards the future. The Pacers and the Bulls gave up their respective stars in trades realizing the futility of purely playing for the “No Man’s Land” that is the 8th seed in the Playoffs. On a similar note, after Millsap left Atlanta for Denver, the Hawks now seem content with rebuilding for the foreseeable future.

Unfortunately for these teams, they are multiple years away from even making the playoffs. Instead, we should be looking at teams that already have an established young core as the next team to succeed the Warriors once they eventually begin to wane. The Timberwolves, 76ers (assuming they stay healthy), Bucks and even the Suns will all have young guys reaching their prime years in 4 years’ time. Although, it may be that the team that is ready to take the place of the Warriors as the champions will be one that has had more playoff experience, as well as a young and promising supporting cast.

There are two teams that come to mind who might be in the right position at the right time.

A return to the NBA’s greatest rivalry

I don’t about know you, but I thought it might have been a little bit suspicious when the Celtics and the Lakers ended up with the top two picks in this year’s draft. The league has historically seen some of its highest ratings during the times when it has two rivals battling it out for the title every year and there is no doubt that the NBA would love a return to the Celtics-Lakers rivalry of yesteryear.

Both teams have been on a similar trajectory in terms of gaining assets over the last few years.

As Kobe Bryant plodded towards the end of his career, the Lakers won just 91 out of 328 regular season games from 2013 onwards. Doing so has consequently landed them a number of high lottery picks in recent drafts in the form of Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell (since traded to the Brooklyn Nets), Brandon Ingram and their most recent addition, Lonzo Ball.

The Celtics have also picked up a decent amount of draft assets themselves; mainly cashing in on the 2013 trade with the Nets, which enabled them to obtain Marcus Smart in 2014, Jaylen Brown in 2016 and Jayson Tatum in the 2017 draft. In addition to this, they also have Brooklyn’s first round draft pick in 2018, the Lakers 2018 pick if it falls between the 2 and 5 spots, as well the possibility to have three first round selections in 2019.

However, although both the Celtics and the Lakers are teeming with young talent, their catalysts for the future come in two different forms.

By unloading Mozgov’s contract the Lakers have made further steps to clear space for 2018 Free Agency. Even if they do lose out on landing LeBron James, it’s unlikely they miss out on at least one of the impending free agents who’ll be obtainable next offseason. If the Lakers can land LeBron James in 2018 it more than certainly gets the team over the hump. The jury is still out on Randle, Ingram and Lonzo, but with the right mentoring I feel these guys all have the potential to be great down the line

On the other hand, unless the Celtics plan on stockpiling assets forever, they’re going to have to move the needle at some point and trade for a franchise altering star when one becomes available. Who that is is still up for discussion, but it does appear that Anthony Davis is the ideal signing for the Celtics, assuming they are able to get him.

If the Lakers do eventually take the place of the Warriors in the Finals, it is likely they face the Celtics as LeBron would no longer be a factor in the East. Multiple postseason outings will give the young role players on both rosters’ plenty of playoff reps, to the point where they are ready mount a title run on their own – with the players who are stars now sliding into supplementary roles.

The Golden State Warriors seem to be a lock to win the 2018 Championship and as long as their core stays intact it’s hard to see any other team beating them as long as they’re together. However, stranger things have happened in the NBA before. As much as the Warriors have set themselves up to keep their key four players for the foreseeable future, Kevin Durant has shown the he isn’t all that loyal and that there is no guarantee that he stays with the Warriors.

Ultimately the next few seasons should be very interesting to watch.

The Warriors unique style of play has essentially forced opposing teams to try and to evolve to match up with their small-ball lineups or risk being left behind. Most teams have a way to go before they are on the Warriors level, but in the transition period that the next few years will likely be, teams have time to evolve towards smaller lineups where players at all positions are able to be a threat from 3 and can defend multiple positions.

In the words of Charles Darwin; “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, it is the one that is most adaptable to change.”