Entering this NBA season, the Golden State Warriors were a popular dark-horse candidate to win it all. Right before the season had begun, Zach Lowe of Grantland wrote that the Warriors "are the team outside the Spurs-Thunder-Clippers trinity with the best chance of developing the kind of two-way balance that is a prerequisite for title contention."
Obviously, the Thunder have fallen behind in this bloodbath of a conference. Without Kevin Durant to start the season, and with Russell Westbrook lost to a devastating injury, Oklahoma City currently has the worst record in the Western Conference. However, if they can tread water and go about .500 until Durant and Westbrook return around the middle of December, they could be in shape to make a run with their full compliment of players.
Take a closer look at their upcoming schedule and how OKC has played over the past few games, though, and that outcome seems a lot more bleak. This is a team that lost to the struggling Denver Nuggets and the Utah Jazz. A team that is last among clubs that are actively trying to make the playoffs (yes, I purposely omitted the 76ers) in offensive rating. The Thunder turn the ball over nearly 17% of the time per 100 possessions, per NBA.com/stats.
Until Durant and Westbrook are back, playing at full strength and dominating, I'm not confident in Oklahoma City's ability to make noise in the playoffs. They have to be in the picture first.
The Clippers and the Spurs are the cream of the crop in the Western Conference. With Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles is primed to make a serious run at the Western Conference Finals, if not the Finals this year. However, despite their excellent offense, one thing that could spell doom for the Clippers come May could be their defense, currently ranked in the bottom third in points allowed per 100 possessions. Also, outside of Griffin and Jordan they have relatively few rebounders, and currently rank 29th in rebounding percentage, per NBA.com. They got absolutely eviscerated by Golden State in their matchup earlier this month, with the Warriors exploding for 121 points. But a healthy Clippers team should always be in the title conversation.
The Spurs, on the other hand, are fantastic defensively, as good as they've ever been. Whether at home, on the road, against great teams or terrible teams, San Antonio is consistent on the defensive end of the floor. In their victory at Cleveland two nights ago, the Spurs limited the Cavaliers to just 90 points and forced LeBron James into five turnovers -- including the game-sealing turnover leading by two in the final seconds. While they've struggled a bit on offense this season, scoring only 99 points per 100 possessions, their recent track record -- finishing eighth or better in offensive efficiency over the past five seasons -- suggests this is a minor blip. Despite the age of stars Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili, the Spurs have a balanced roster with any player capable of starring on any given night. It's not just the Big 3 plus Kawhi Leonard; San Antonio is deep and arguably the favorite to conquer the West this year.
The Warriors are frenetic when they are at their best defensively, with length and savvy on the perimeter, and height and strength in the middle. To date, they've accumulated the second-best defense in the NBA, right behind the Rockets and just ahead of the Spurs. Last year, though many were dismissive of their defense, Golden State was the best defense in the Western Conference -- the only Western team to allow fewer than 100 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston are all long, athletic, and solid wing defenders, and the Warriors have one of the best rim protectors in the game in Andrew Bogut. The Warriors are no joke anymore on defense.
Where they have to improve, and where they have improved so far, is on the offensive end of the floor. With Steve Kerr at the helm, Golden State ranks sixth in offensive rating, scoring 107.1 points per 100 possessions, and behind Stephen Curry and the emergence of Klay Thompson it has emerged as a unit that hunts for great shots and shares the ball. Maybe a little too much sharing the ball, as it happens; the Warriors still have the highest turnover percentage, with 19.4% of their possessions resulting in a giveaway, per NBA.com. This could be because the Warriors are playing at the fastest pace in the NBA and are still learning Steve Kerr's offense. However, the early results -- blowouts against the Lakers (twice), Clippers and Hornets -- are excellent and forecast an offense that could easily be in the top five at the end of the season.
The Warriors have an excellent defense and an improving, ball-sharing offense in the fold under Steve Kerr, and stars on both sides of the ball in Curry, Thompson and Bogut. With continuity and camaraderie, the Warriors have definitely entrenched themselves as a squad firmly in the conversation of teams that can win a championship this season.