It’s supposed to be Cavaliers-Warriors round three. ; that is, at least, according the average soothsaying NBA fans.
They’re the two best teams, and by a wide margin, too. It almost makes too much sense that we’re heading down that anticipated road.
But it’s really not that simple. Kevin Durant is now out for at least a month and likely much more. Kevin Love won’t return to the Cavaliers line up for quite some time. The Raptors just lost Kyle Lowry recently until playoff time, or close to it.
Whatever path the 2016-17 NBA season seemed destined to follow can now be thrown out the window, in my opinion. And if you don’t accept that, you’re going be excluding some quality entertainment the rest of the year.
The NBA is incredibly talented this season, and there are real threats to the Cavaliers and Warriors in their respective conferences.
Out west, the Rockets are all in and their high scoring offense is firing on all cylinders. It’s a small sample size, but their offense has flowed even better with their acquisition of Lou Williams as he has gotten off to an impressive start. Their style of play allows them, mathematically speaking, to always be able to compete. If they are shooting well from three, opponents are in trouble.
The Spurs, as furtive as ever, still have one of the leagues’ best forwards in Kawhi Leonard and the best coach in Gregg Popovich, as well as a roster loaded with experience. It seems sometimes like they’re just plodding along and going through the motions, but everything they do has a purpose.
The Clippers, Jazz and even potentially the new New Orleans Pelicans all have different recipes of youth, experience and playing styles that will provide new challenges.
Meanwhile, the Warriors just lost one of the league’s best players in Durant. While they’ve been the clear-cut best team in the NBA this season, they’re a little vulnerable now. The Spurs could catch them for the No. 1 seed out West, currently only four games back. The Warriors will have to totally adjust the way they play due to Durant’s absence, and then do it all again in reverse, as well as regain their chemistry as a unit, when he returns.
In the East, the Cavaliers haven’t been quite the force the Warriors have been. They’ve lost games they shouldn’t. LeBron James is playing 37.5 minutes-per-game, the most he’s played since 2013-14, and with Love’s absence and their ineptitude to destroy inferior opponents, they’re strongly running the risk of wearing him out at age 32.
People are gushing about their recent signings of veterans Andrew Bogut and Deron Williams to help them in a stretch run at cheap contracts.
But those signings aren’t all that great.
Bogut, who was playing in a marginal role in Dallas, is putting up the worst numbers in his career. If you look at his per-36 minutes and per 100 possessions numbers this season, which compensates for his lack of playing time, he is still putting up far inferior numbers to his past self, with a 4.9 points-per-game per 36. His per-36 numbers, along with a .7 win share rating this season, put him in a class with Lavoy Allen, Thon Maker and Alexi Ajinca among other young players or benchwarmers. Hardly laudable comparisons.
Williams, who is posting career low scoring and shooting numbers in his own right, is still a solid signing.
But these moves aren’t enough in comparison to what’s happening for the Cavaliers main foes.
In Boston, the Celtics recently got defensive stalwart Avery Bradley, who was having a career year before injury, back into the lineup. As they work him back into their routine and Jaylen Brown continues to grow, they will become a threat.
The Washington Wizards, who have been plagued by a weak bench and the horrendous play of backup point guard Trey Burke, are adding Brandon Jennings, which will give them a spark. They just beat the Warriors and prior to the All Star break, they were rapidly ascending in the East’s hierarchy. With more depth, they’re a real contender.
In Toronto, despite losing Lowry for an extended period of time, they still are posing a great threat to Cleveland. Tucker and Ibaka were tremendous additions. They bring experience— Ibaka has played in the NBA finals—and skillsets that the Raptors clearly needed. Tucker’s wide range of defensive ability and his shooting makes him an invaluable player in today’s end game scenarios, where the ability to switch screens and hit shots is everything. Ibaka is the same way: his shooting stroke is good enough to stretch defenses, and his defense and athleticism make him an ideal small ball five. Should everything click in Canada, they can provide real matchup challenges to Cleveland.
The general fan base population seems stuck on this notion that the 2017 NBA season is signed, sealed and delivered. But people forget the Warriors were on the brink of elimination to the No. 3 seed last year in the Western Conference Finals. Things can happen; there are not just good, but very good teams ready to challenge Cleveland and Golden State the rest of this season.
Circle back to this piece when one of them loses an awaited clash with one of their contenders. Or when things get dicey in the playoffs. As far as I’m concerned, this season is shaping up to be more intriguing then we would’ve imagined; and if one is going to carry the “it’s going to be Cavs-Warriors” mindset, they’re going to miss out on some fun basketball.
Matt Barresi is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.