Going into the current NBA season, the Golden State Warriors were still the clear favourites to win their third championship in the last four seasons. Although teams around them such as Houston and Oklahoma City grew stronger with the acquisitions of Paul George and Chris Paul, many felt that the combined powers of Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green would be too much to overcome. That was the case, until the injury bug hit. What helped this current Warriors team dominate last season was simply having all their stars healthy and playing at a high level, but that may not be the case this season. Stephen Curry is confirmed to miss the first round of the playoffs with an MCL sprain, Kevin Durant is returning from broken ribs and Klay Thompson has only just recovered from a broken thumb. The NBA playoffs just became more competitive than we first thought.
Houston, we have a problem
The addition of Chris Paul was initially met with a mixed reception. James Harden had just come off his best season ever, playing as a Point Guard as a part of Mike D’Antoni’s high-octane system. Adding Paul was considered a hinderence to Harden and the two would clash. However, combined with their great supporting cast and bench, Houston have blown the NBA away, and are looking at a 65+ win season, the best in Franchise history. What’s more shocking is that they have comfortably confirmed the 1st seed in the West away from Golden State, which no one had foreseen. Chris Paul and James Harden have developed beautiful chemistry together, and it’s looking like Houston have a legitimate chance to emerge as the Western Conference champions.
The curious case of Kawhi Leonard
Already a Finals MVP in 2014, Kawhi Leonard has been considered one of the top 3-5 players in the league for the last few seasons, and he had a career-year in 2016-2017, leading the Spurs to the 2nd seed, not too far off from Golden State. It all changed in game 1 of the Conference Finals against the Warriors, when Kawhi went down with an ankle injury, thanks to a dubious contest from Zaza Pachulia. Since that play, Kawhi hasn’t been the same, with his quad flaring up over the summer, and it hasn’t quite recovered. No one knows what is going on, as he hasn’t fully returned to play, only managing 9 games thus far, despite being cleared by the Spur’s medical staff in January. He’s been publicly called out by veteran teammates Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, but as it stands Kawhi isn’t coming back. Despite not having their superstar, the Spurs can easily push for a top 4 finish, a testament to how well-coached they are, and if they can miraculously get a healthy Leonard back for the playoffs, it would allow them to compete with Houston and Golden State, and turn the West on its head.
The Warriors’ bad luck
All it takes for a team’s season to be derailed is injury. People can talk about how sports are a team effort but make no mistake, if you are without your best players you will not succeed. Especially in basketball, where it’s 5v5 system allows individuals to stand out more and dominate. Stephen Curry is by far the brightest star of the Warriors and their most important player. While Kevin Durant is the best player and the Finals MVP, their success is predicated around Draymond Green anchoring the defence, and Curry and Thompson running defences wild with their three-point shooting. Kevin Durant is just the icing on the cake. But Steph Curry is out for the first round with an MCL sprain, acquired in his first game back from another ankle sprain. If he’s not 100% the Warriors are not the same team, which we saw in 2016, where there were numerous reports indicating he played the finals on a bad knee and was only at around 70% of his full potential. Coupled with Klay Thompson returning from a broken thumb, Durant recovering from broken ribs, and the fatigue and exhaustion we have seen throughout the season, and the Warriors aren’t the overwhelming favourites we thought they would be.
What about the Eastern Conference?
While we have focused on the Western Conference, the Eastern Conference does still make up the other half of the league, and even it can be open. While LeBron James and whatever team he’s on has dominated the East, this is the first time there has been genuine uncertainty surrounding his role as the King of the East. Cleveland are currently the 3rd seed, although they could easily drop to the 4th seed, should they not close out the season strongly. Their defence has been suspect all season, particularly by LeBron, whom has decided to ignore any major defensive responsibilities in order to shoulder the load on offence, where he has been as efficient as ever. They are still likely to make it through, simply by virtue of their lack of competition. While the Toronto Raptors look set to lock up the 1st seed in the East, their reputation as playoff chokers precedes them, and they simply haven’t proven that they are up to the task of defeating LeBron and crowing a new King in the East. The Cavaliers, despite being so shorthanded, have defeated the Raptors twice in the last two weeks, further adding to the notion that they cannot stop LeBron, and he will continue to dominate the East.
As for the Boston Celtics, for a while they were looking like legitimate contenders for the East, until they too were hit with injuries. Gordon Hayward sadly broke his leg in the first game of the year, leaving them an all-star short for the year, and leaving Kyrie Irving to carry the offence, until his knee problems caught up with him, forcing him to have surgery and miss the last month of the season, and potentially the early stages of the playoffs. Injuries to other key players such as Marcus Smart has set them back, making it a serious chance that they get bounced out in the first round, derailing what was once a promising season. While LeBron and his Cavaliers are still the favourite to win the East, should Raptors overcome their hoodoos over LeBron, and if the Celtics can get over their injury woes and get Kyrie Irving back, then LeBron will have his biggest challenge in the East since the Indiana Pacers during his Miami Heat days.
What this means for the Finals
The ultimate prize for the season is the Championship trophy, and for the first time in years it’s looking more open. When taking into consideration everything that was discussed, it’s easy to see why the favourite is up for debate. The Warriors finally have legitimate competition in the West, in that of Houston, and if Kawhi somehow comes back for the Spurs, then that throws them in the mix for the Western Conference. Add in Oklahoma City, who seems to be at their best when facing tougher opponents, and that is four teams that can win the West, provided the Warriors simply collapse from their injuries.
This makes things interesting for the East, as LeBron would be licking his lips at the prospect of the West’s uncertainty. Simply put the Cavaliers do not matchup well against the Warriors, and a healthy Golden State vs. a healthy Cleveland would end in a sweep. But if Houston or even San Antonio makes it through, then the Cavaliers would have a more even matchup, and thus a more interesting final. In saying that, if LeBron by some freak occurrence doesn’t win the East, then the Raptors or even the Celtics could also put up a decent matchup against the best the West has to offer. Both are well-coached defensive units, which are needed against teams like Golden State and Houston, and why they would do much better than the defensively non-existent Cleveland.
It’s all up for interpretation at this rate. Teams are changing seeds on the daily, and injuries are rearing their ugly head for the best players in the NBA. Time will tell what ends up happening, if history repeats itself and we get Golden State vs. Cleveland for the fourth time running, or if new teams and new players stake their claim as the best in the NBA.