By Norm Elrod
Can the Golden State Warriors win their third NBA Championship in a row? Yes, absolutely. Will they? Well, that remains to be seen. There are 82 games to be played, and the Western Conference now includes LeBron James in Los Angeles.
The Warriors are coming off their second consecutive NBA Championship and their third in four years. They coasted to a 58-24 regular-season record, despite injuries across their starting lineup, and swept the LeBron-led Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. Their only serious opposition came from the Houston Rockets, which had the Warriors down three games to two in the Western Conference Finals. But Chris Paul’s untimely hamstring injury in the waning moments of Game 5 proved to be the turning point in that series.
Last season’s starting lineup remains largely intact going into the 2018-19 campaign. The Warriors return All-Stars Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green, with key reserves Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston. While JaVale McGee, Zaza Pachulia and David West are all gone, DeMarcus Cousins has arrived… sort of.
Cousins, coming off a torn Achilles, possibly the worst injury an NBA big man can suffer, isn’t ready for primetime. He isn’t even ready for practice. Boogie thinks he’ll return by the holidays, the Warriors see a longer timeline. While rumors of Golden State keeping him on the shelf until April seem a little farfetched, a mid-winter debut seems reasonable.
It’s unclear just how good Cousins will be once he does return. An Achilles injury can cost a player his quickness, something centers already lack. So while he will likely swallow up rebounds, score around the rim and dish to the perimeter, he could end up a liability on defense. We’ll have to wait and see what Boogie emerges. The potential upside (though likely diminished from his pre-injury heyday) still seems to outweigh whatever downside could emerge.
The Warriors won’t miss Cousins in the meantime — it’s hard to miss what you’ve never had — and won’t suffer much if the experiment fails. This is a team that, when healthy, already starts four all-stars. However, when they’re banged up, like much of last season, they can and will lose some games.
Curry, Durant and Thompson all missed time late in the season, and not just to rest for the playoffs. Curry had ankle issues, Durant broke a rib and Thompson hurt the thumb on his shooting hand. Curry, in particular, was dogged by ankle injuries for much of the season. While 58-24 is a stellar showing for the regular season, it was also nine wins short of their record the previous season and only good enough for the NBA’s third-best mark and a two-seed in the playoffs.
The top seed, of course, was the Houston Rockets, who won 65 games in the regular season and coasted to the Western Conference Finals. Once there, they showed that the Warriors are not invincible. Can Houston challenge Golden State again, though? James Harden, last season’s MVP, returns, along with Clint Capela and a healthy Chris Paul. Supporting players Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute left via free agency, replaced by Carmelo Anthony, Michael Carter-Williams and James Ennis. The Rockets may no longer have the firepower to take down the Warriors.
The Portland Trail Blazers are basically the same team that surged to the third seed in the West, and then disappeared come playoff time. The Oklahoma City Thunder, who kept Paul George, dumped Carmelo, and added some other pieces, may actually be a little better.
And then we have the Lakers.
The Lakers went from also-ran to potential contender with the acquisition of one free agent: LeBron James. And then they also revamped their entire roster. It’s hard to predict what the Lakers will look like beyond the fact that any team with LeBron James has to be considered a threat. That said, the Warriors did sweep the LeBron-led Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals last season. So unless LeBron gets some serious help from Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and/or Lonzo Ball, the Lakers’ ceiling probably doesn’t touch the Warriors’ floor.
Barring injuries, the Warriors have a solid shot of returning to the NBA Finals. Once there, they’ll likely outclass the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers or whatever other team emerges from the East. But there’s a lot of basketball to be played between now and June 2019.