Roughly one-third of the NBA’s 2016-17 season is in the books. Some people will say that’s too early to start taking stock of the championship picture. But those people are wrong.
Truth is, the NBA already has the favorite to end all favorites in place. The Golden State Warriors, according to TopBet’s futures, are a -160 to win it all this year, and it’s not hard to see why. They have the best record in the league to go along with one of the best offenses in the Association’s history.
Many around the NBA think resistance is futile and are ready to crown the Warriors—who deploy four All-NBA players in Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson—league champions. But there’s a reason the NBA plays the games: There’s always a team or two capable surprising us.
Here are the squads with the best chance of turning Golden State’s championship candidacy upside down.
Cleveland Cavaliers (+220)
The Cleveland Cavaliers took down the Warriors last year to earn their first-ever NBA title, and it’s only fitting they be taken seriously again.
For starters, the Eastern Conference is still whack. Though the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors pose solid peripheral threats, neither of them has the star power and/or depth to take down the Cavaliers in a best-of-seven series. At most, either of them will be able to pull out two victories over the course of a postseason set.
Equally important, though, the Cavaliers still have LeBron James. And for the past six years, the Eastern Conference champion has been determined by one question: Is LeBron James on your team?
That’s not on course to change now. LeBron is still great, and the Cavaliers, relative to the rest of the East, look unbeatable when he’s in the game. He also comes in handy against the Warriors, who, even though they have Durant and Green, don’t really have an answer for the best player in NBA—yeah, we went there.
San Antonio Spurs (+800)
While the San Antonio Spurs’ pick-and-roll defense has faltered a bit, they remain demonstratively dominant. They have the fifth-best net rating in the NBA and once again rank in the top six of both points scored and points allowed per 100 possessions. This is a pretty big deal.
Granted, the Spurs don’t match up particularly well with faster athletic teams like the Warriors. But they have an uncanny knack for forcing opponents to play their game. They slow things down to a gradual halt, turning every possession into a half-court affair.
The Warriors are built to work in the half court, but they’re not especially used to it. If the Spurs are able to slow things down, as they prefer to do, any matchup between these two sides will be much closer than people think.
Utah Jazz (+10,000)
Sportsbooks aren’t giving the Utah Jazz the respect they deserve, most likely because they don’t grab national headlines the way many of their counterparts do. Make no mistake, though, they are the real deal.
Despite battling through a ton of injuries this year, they own the NBA’s second-best defense and seventh-best offense. That’s no small feat. And with the way they emphasize snail-paced half-court sets, they are basically a souped-up version of the Spurs whenever they’re at full strength.
The key for the Jazz is getting and staying healthy. George Hill and Derrick Favors in particular need to remain on the floor. Utah can play a special brand of physical basketball when it runs out those two alongside Rudy Gobert, Gordon Hayward and Rodney Hood—a style that has the chops to catch the Warriors off-guard during a playoff series.
Houston Rockets (+3,500)
You bet we are.
A lot of this has to do with the Rockets’ offense. They play fast and free, much like the Warriors, only they attempt far more three-pointers than any other team in NBA history ever has.
This is important. You typically don’t want to beat the Warriors by trying to play their game, but the Rockets are the exception. They can have James Harden attacking the paint while flinging kick-outs to orbiting three-point snipers all night. And with all the threes they jack, they are bound to average more points per possession than most of the Warriors’ other opponents.
By default, that renders them a threat the Warriors must take seriously should these two meet at some point inside the Western Conference playoff bracket.
That aspects of their defense are starting to come together following the return of Patrick Beverley only makes them that much more appealing.