Going into Christmas Day, the Warriors have astounded the league with one of the greatest starts to a regular season of all time. With only one loss, the Dubs have distanced themselves as the team to beat for the second consecutive season.
But without a championship, an outstanding regular season means little. Let's take a look at the possible opponents the Warriors could encounter in the playoffs, with the help of Jalen Rose and P.J. Carlesimo.
First, the cream of the crop: The Warriors, Spurs, and Thunder are above the rest of the pack, and will likely hold on to their spots in the first tier of Western Conference teams. Even within this first tier, the teams are distinctly ordered: the Warriors have a small cushion over the Spurs, who have their own small cushion over the Thunder. If these standings hold, they will only have to play one of the Spurs and Thunder, who would likely have to play each other to reach the Western Conference Finals. This would make their road to the Finals considerably easier.
I asked Rose and Carlesimo whether they thought a Spurs-Warriors Western Conference Finals was an inevitability. They both disagreed. Rose said the Thunder especially were contenders:
I think that OKC is going to have something to say about that...the Golden State Warriors again, as I mentioned, they didn't have to play against the San Antonio Spurs last year in the playoffs because they were obviously knocked out by the Clippers and didn't face the Oklahoma City Thunder who, I felt at the time that Kevin Durant got healthy, they had a legit chance to actually upend Golden State last year.So I agree with the premise of the Spurs and the Warriors being the two teams in pole position to be in the Western Conference Finals, but I'm not overlooking the Oklahoma City Thunder. The player I'm watching on their team that never gets the props I think he deserves is Enes Kanter. He's not a defender, but he has good hands. He has good feet. He can cut, he can finish. He keeps his hands up, he keeps his eyes up. He gets you ten rebounds. I always look to see how many minutes he's played and how many shots he's getting, because I think he can be a valuable piece if they're going to continue to advance and chase their goals.
Carlesimo echoed Rose, and also thought that across the conference, teams could make an competitive impact:
The Spurs, what they've done is incredible, and it's dwarfed by Golden State. But I think the West, there are still more candidates.
Jalen's dead on with OKC. That team has been there. They're very good. And obviously, with those two guys, forgetting the rest on the roster, those two guys alone, they're capable of winning a series even against the Spurs and Golden State.
The New Orleans San Antonio game, the last game of the regular season last year, we happened to do it for ESPN Radio, changed the playoffs. That one single game changed the playoffs. It changed the match ups. It changed so much. It put New Orleans in. It dropped the Spurs down. I thought it was an impactful game, and I think that can still happen this year. Even though at this point those two, Golden State's on another planet. Spurs are close, and Oklahoma City's going to get there. But these other guys are good, be it a Memphis or New Orleans.
There are other teams, the Clippers, these guys are capable of getting it together. I think the Western Conference is going to be a bloodbath. I think the playoffs are going to be unbelievable. As great as those two have been so far, I think there is still the potential for the Western Conference playoffs to be very, very competitive depending on the match ups, a lot of which we didn't see last year, unfortunately.
The second tier, composed of the next four teams, needs to become competitive for Carlesimo's wish of a playoff bloodbath to come true: the Mavericks, Clippers, Grizzlies, and Rockets all have the potential to pull off an upset. With the exception of the Mavs, who were considered by most unlikely to make the playoffs, these teams have actually disappointed in the early going. New additions such as Lance Stephenson, Matt Barnes, and Ty Lawson have failed to live up to expectations. The Warriors will likely play one of these teams in the first or second round. Probably the toughest for them would be the Clips, but I can't help but feel confident in a series with any of these four teams.
The eighth and last spot for the playoffs is entirely up for grabs. Currently, the Utah Jazz edge out the rest of the third tier of teams even though they are three games under .500! If the Jazz do make it as the last seed of the playoffs, with a healthy Rudy Gobert, the Jazz could give the Warriors some trouble. Personally, I'd love to see the Kings sneak into the playoffs. If the Warriors maintain the first seed, they'll get to play one of these teams.
On a side note, Rose had high praise for the Warriors' championship run last season, when asked about his favorite moments of the Finals by Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle:
My favorite moment was seeing a jumpshot shooting team actually win a championship. We've seen teams dating back to the early days of the NBA, whether it was Doug Mo, whether it was Donnie Nelson, whether it's Mike D'Antoni, there were so many teams that played what we now call small ball or (indiscernible).
The Houston Rockets were able to do it with Horry, but they had Akeem Olajuwon as their anchor. But to see it happen in reverse where a point guard, who is Steph Curry, who is the MVP also leading his team to a championship, he's only the third point guard to ever do that. The other two to win a regular season MVP and a championship at any point in their career is Magic Johnson and someone else. So that's truly remarkable what I saw from the Golden State Warriors.Also, a lot of people felt it was a fluke. I almost felt like a Golden State apologist. Yes, every team that they faced did have an injury in their back court. Yes, they did have to face the Spurs or the Clippers because those teams actually got beat. And yes, they did play against a shorthanded Cleveland Cavaliers team, but I still think they would have found a way to win the series had the Cavs been healthy last season.
To sum it up, in the most likely scenario, the Warriors will play one team from each tier on their way to the Finals. It remains to be seen whether, come playoff time, the Warriors and Spurs can maintain their dominance, and whether the rest of the Western Conference can overcome its collective disappointment.
This speculation also begs the pointless question: would you like to see the Warriors face a tough slate of playoff opponents to "silence the haters," or a fairly easy ("lucky") path to the Finals? Oh, the possibilities!