I promise I’m not trying to put the cart in front of the horse here. For the Golden State Warriors to return to the NBA Finals for the sixth time in eight years, they’ll have to get past two tough opponents in the first two rounds of the Western Conference playoffs, and then defeat the Phoenix Suns, who have been the best team in the league this year.
It’s doable, but difficult.
So I don’t say any of this to jinx them, to take a loaded West for granted, or to be dismissive of the Suns.
It’s just that, after Thursday’s blockbuster trade that allowed James Harden and Ben Simmons to swap homes, it’s time to take stock of the Eastern Conference.
Specifically, it’s time to take stock of the big three in the East: the Brooklyn Nets, the Philadelphia 76ers, and the Milwaukee Bucks.
Now before we dig in, I need a second disclaimer. These are not the only contenders in the East. Not even close. None of them are even currently in the top three of the standings. The Miami Heat lead the conference, and were my preseason prediction to win it all. The Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers are next in the standings, and even the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics sit ahead of Brooklyn.
The East is wide, wide open, and if forced to choose, I might still predict Miami to being playing in June.
But the attention grabbers are the Bucks, Sixers, and Nets. They’ve got the MVP candidates in Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Kevin Durant (if he were healthy). They’ve got the star sidekicks: Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday in Milwaukee, Simmons and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn, and Harden in Philly. They’ve got the preseason expectations, and the championship-or-bust mentalities from their players, front offices, and fanbases.
While the Heat, Bulls, and Cavs deserve strong consideration, most fans and pundits will point towards one of the big three when making Finals predictions. So I’m curious where you, faithful Warriors fan, stand.
We’ve got two categories to judge on: which team would you prefer the Warriors face, and which team would be the most fun to face?
Let’s start with the latter.
Which team would be the most fun for the Warriors to face?
Each team has a pretty strong case.
Let’s start with my pick, which is the Sixers.
Why? James Harden.
During the Warriors five-year run of making the Finals they went through Harden’s Rockets four times. Sometimes they were dominant and arrogant. Sometimes they were gut-wrenching and ruthless.
Along the way, a “rivalry” of sorts formed ... the kind of special rivalry that’s entirely one-sided, yet the winning side still enjoys beating up on the losing side more than they’d enjoy beating anyone else.
Warriors fans love beating James Harden. They absolutely love it. There’s no one they’d rather beat.
Doing it on the biggest stage? It would be a chef’s kiss of a moment.
The case for the Nets is a bit more controversial, but it centers around Durant. Now I’m of the belief that Warriors fans should loudly applaud KD every time they see him, but not everyone feels that way. Some are upset that he left the Warriors. Others are angry at the reports that Durant wished the fanbase adored him the way they adore Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. Still others blame KD for his role in the spat with Green.
And even among those who think fondly of Durant, many believe that Curry should have won one of the Finals MVP trophies that KD was awarded, and many hold Curry as the player who was the driver of the championships and begrudge conflicting narratives.
For those people, seeing Curry face Durant in the Finals and come home victorious would be quite a triumph.
And then there’s the Bucks. The fun case there? Curry beating a star on a big stage and then hugging them has yielded strong results in the past.
Who would be more fun for the Warriors to beat in the NBA Finals?
This poll is closed
Which team would you prefer the Warriors face?
Now let’s get rid of the entertainment value and just think logistically. With a fourth championship in mind, which team would you want the Warriors to face? Which team gives them the best chance of hoisting a trophy?
There are cases for and against all three.
Let’s start with the defending champion Bucks. The case against them is right there: they’re the defending champions. They have continuity on their side, as they’re rolling with basically their championship squad, while the other teams made monumental shifts.
But they’ve also been an underwhelming postseason team. Remember: last year the Bucks had their back against the ropes multiple times, with everyone and their mother acknowledging that coach Mike Budenholzer would be fired the moment they were eliminated.
It took them seven games to get past a Nets squad in which Irving and Harden combined for just eight games. It took them six games to get past fifth-seeded Hawks team that only had Trae Young for four games.
That doesn’t discredit the eventual championship, but the fact remains that this Milwaukee team has — despite the hardware — had more disappointments than triumphs in the postseason.
Brooklyn is an interesting one. Swapping Harden for Simmons should make them dramatically better on defense, but it’s still a roster that makes you scratch your head on that end of the floor. Their depth has been quite awful this year, and while Durant, Simmons, Irving, Patty Mills, and Seth Curry is one hell of a core, the rest of their roster does little to inspire confidence, unless we can go back in time about five to ten years. And Durant is currently hurt, with no clear timeline for his return, while betting on Irving doesn’t seem like a smart idea.
And that doesn’t even mention Simmons — we don’t know when he’ll be on the court, or what he’ll look like when he first dons a Brooklyn jersey.
But the flip side is crystal clear: my goodness look at that talent. And Warriors fans know better than anyone how dangerous Durant is in June.
And yet Philly might be the most interesting case. They’ve been one of the top teams in the league despite getting zero games from Simmons, and the fact that they were able to acquire Harden without giving up Tyrese Maxey or Matisse Thybulle is huge for them.
How good they will look if Harden and Embiid can mesh is mesmerizing. But watching to see if they’ll mesh will be even more mesmerizing.
Who do you want the Warriors to face in the NBA Finals?
This poll is closed
In conclusion: Don’t take Phoenix for granted, and congrats on winning the East, Miami.