Author: Ronan Gaine
After the start of the 2017/18 NBA season last night, I look ahead to the new season and look at the teams most likely to challenge current champions the Golden State Warriors for the Championship in 2018.
It’s been a busy off-season in the NBA with a number of teams shaking up their rosters, while teams have also changed around the backroom staff in the hope of gaining success in 2017/18.
The NBA season is starting a bit earlier than usual, this will allow for more rest days and a much more forgiving schedule. The schedule is clearly aimed towards health and longevity of players. As well as starting earlier, for the first time in the 72 years of the NBA, there will be no four-in-five games (stretches where four games are played in five days). There will also be fewer back to back games for the third season running.
Other things to look forward to this season are which teams will be the top challengers to the Warriors crown in 2018.
The Champions-Golden State Warriors:
Champions in 2015 & 2017 the Warriors will once again be the team to beat in the coming season. They easily swept aside 2016 champions Cleveland in last years finals, thanks in no small part to the dominant performances of Kevin Durant, without a doubt the key factor in Golden State’s return to the top in 2017. With a postseason record of 16-1 (an NBA record) in 2016/17, few would say they weren’t deserving champions, a great rise since beginning their rebuilding in the 2011/12 season. A season which saw the rise of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and later Draymond Green, a trio that would form the core of both title-winning seasons, as well as being coached by five-time NBA champion Steve Kerr. You know you’ve arrived as a top sporting franchise when the NY Yankees GM refers to the Boston Red Sox as “the warriors of baseball”.
Having kept their team together over the off-season Golden State are likely to dominate once again but other teams have made big changes in order to challenge for the 2018 championship, here I take a look at who the five most likely challengers are.
Despite being easily beaten in 2017 by Golden State, the Cavaliers are still likely to be the biggest challengers to the Warriors crown in 2018. They have had a difficult off-season with changes at the top level and the loss of Kyrie Irving. However, the Cavs have traded well and brought in Isiah Thomas, Dewayne Wade and Derrick Rose, one can argue that the Cavaliers are stronger heading into this season despite losing Irving. The Cavs will definitely be hoping that Wade and star man LeBron James can drum up the same partnership that delivered back to back NBA championships to the Miami Heat in 2012 & 2013.
Many will be hoping for a change this season after watching Golden State and Cleveland competing in the last three NBA finals. Sadly that may be wishful thinking because with the best player leading the line for Cleveland in LeBron James they will always challenge.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder
OKC has not reached the NBA finals since 2011 and since then they have lost two of the league’s best players in James Harden(2012) and Kevin Durant(2016), however, they managed to keep hold of point guard Russell Westbrook. Westbrook finished the 2016/17 season with a triple-double average and was named the league MVP. The Thunder were a one-man team last season and went down 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs to the Rockets. This season, however, they have done some impressive business to bring Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to Oklahoma. These two acquisitions add serious firepower to the Thunder and take the scoring pressure off Russell Westbrook, if this trio can learn to work in tandem OKC could be in for a very exciting season.
With the addition of two NBA All-Stars Oklahoma will certainly be a team to keep a close eye on throughout the season. Fans can at very least be expecting a big challenge for the Western Conference title in 2017/18.
3. Boston Celtics
The Celtics are 17 time NBA champions but haven’t won since 2008, but after their exploits in the off-season, 2018 could yet prove to be their year. The Celtics went down in five games to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals last season after injury to star man Isiah Thomas, they will be looking to improve on that this season and will be hoping Kyrie Irving and third overall draft pick Jayson Tatum will be the key to pushing them on to the league finals. Gordon Hayward was another big acquisition in the off-season but he suffered a possible season-ending ankle fracture in the opening night defeat to Cleveland. All-Star Irving has proven himself in the league already, a champion with the Cavaliers in 2016, but will be eager to impress as huge pressure is being placed on his shoulders to bring the glory days back to Boston, especially now that Hayward is likely to miss the season. Tatum has already displayed his impressive talents in the 2017 summer league and fans will now be expecting an immediate impact from the rookie. He was top of his 2016 class and despite only being 19, he seems to have the ability and the confidence to make a huge mark in his first season in the NBA.
The Celtics added nine players to their roster but also lost their best player from last season in Isiah Thomas, however, Boston fans will argue that Kyrie Irving is a more than adequate replacement. It promises to be a great season for Boston and they’ll be hoping for some silverware come the end.
4. San Antonio Spurs
2014 champions San Antonio didn’t make a particularly big splash in the off-season but still have the quality to challenge with players like LaMarcus Aldridge, Manu Ginobili, Paul Parker and Pau Gasol, and of course their lead man Kawhi Leonard. Still just 26 years old, Leonard is arguably the best all-round player in the league after LeBron James, Kawhi is a two-time All-Star, NBA Defensive Player of the Year, All-NBA First Team member and was also named finals MVP in 2014. So with a talent like that leading your side why bother making trades. The Spurs were only beaten in the conference finals last year by eventual champions the Golden State Warriors and they will have every confidence in themselves to push on in 2017/18.
Gregg Popovich is entering his 21st season as Spurs head coach, a tenure that has brought with it five NBA championships, six Conference titles and 13 Division titles. So teams and fans alike would be foolish to think the Spurs won’t be challenging in the coming season despite few changes to the roster in the off-season.
5. Houston Rockets
The Rockets haven’t had a finals appearance since winning the championship in 1995 but since the signing of James Harden in 2012 there has been a resurgence in Houston and this could be the year that the Rockets return to the finals after a 22-year hiatus. Chris Paul was announced in June and NBA fans and pundits alike can’t wait to see how he links up with Rockets ‘big dog’ Harden. A nine-time NBA All-Star the former Clippers man will be determined to help his new team to an NBA championship and new owner Tilman Fertitta will be expecting the same from such a big name. The Rockets were beaten in Conference semi’s by the Spurs in 16/17, they will be expecting to at least make the Conference finals in 2018.
Definitely an outside shout to take the Warriors crown but who doesn’t love an upset in sport. It’s this kind of excitement that makes sport so great and the Houston Rockets will be looking to make a big splash in the coming season, and if both Harden and Paul are on top form, who would argue that they can’t go all the way.
The season kicked off last night with the Cleveland Cavaliers defeating the Boston Celtics by three points and the Golden State Warriors suffering a shock defeat to the Houston Rockets at Oracle Arena. It is sure to be another thrilling NBA season with exciting new rookies and new starts for some of the league’s established stars. So will it be the Warriors again in 2018 or will one of the challengers make the leap to NBA champions, the next seven months will reveal it all.