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Five teams that can knock off Golden State Warriors

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There’s going to be a parade this June in Oakland. It’s all but set, city officials quietly have started the planning already. The Golden State Warriors are going to win the NBA title and there is nothing anyone can do about it…

Or can they?

The Warriors are the favorites to with the NBA title. Again. As they should be. However, there are teams that can challenge the Warriors, this is not going to be a cake walk. And unlike the past couple of years, the Warriors biggest challenge will be in the Finals.

Here are the five teams that have a shot at beating the Warriors this season.

Raptors small icon1) The Toronto Raptors.

Don’t get stuck in the “the Raptors are not a playoff team” past, this is by design a very different Toronto roster heading into the playoffs. And it’s a team that matches up well with what Golden State — they are long and switchable on defense, they know how to get buckets, and they now have a clear closer.

Nobody is going to stop Kevin Durant, but Kawhi Leonard can slow him, make KD work, and be left on an island against him (relatively) allowing other defenders to stay home with their guys. While I don’t put much stock in regular season games as postseason predictors, way back in November Leonard and Durant had a back-and-forth showdown that was one of the more entertaining games of the year.

Danny Green is a strong defender who can be put on the hotter of Klay Thompson or Stephen Curry, then Kyle Lowry can do a solid job on the other. Pascal Siakam can get Draymond Green and help off him while daring Green to shoot jumpers, and Siakam can be the five when the Warriors go small with Green at center. Marc Gasol will likely start on DeMarcus Cousins, but Serge Ibaka can get time, too. Then the Rockets bring Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka, and Fred VanVleet as needed.

Toronto’s fifth-ranked offense this season is still going to score points against the Warriors. They can score inside and out. And when the game is on the line Leonard will get the chance to show why he was once Finals MVP.

The Warriors would and should still be favorites in this potential Finals matchup, but the Raptors are poised to make it work.

Bucks small icon2) The Milwaukee Bucks.

A team needs long, switchable defenders and an elite offense to beat the Warriors. The Bucks had the fourth best offense in the NBA this past season, led by MVP frontrunner Giannis Antetokounmpo. So check that box. As for long, switchable defenders, the Bucks are built around the Greek Freak, Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, and the physical at the point Eric Bledsoe. Check.

The Bucks are one of the few teams that can take and make threes at the pace of the Warriors and they may be willing to play that way. If Warriors defenders have to slide out to arc to stop shooters — especially Cousins chasing Brook Lopez out of the paint — it opens up the lane for Antetokounmpo’s drives, and nobody is stopping those.

What the Bucks need is Brogdon back and healthy to put on Klay Thompson. Also, Milwaukee would need to find a way to keep playing their base defense, which has Lopez dropping off picks to clog the paint, without giving up too many threes to the Warriors. Finally, when the Warriors go small the Bucks can go with Antetokounmpo at center lineups.

It would be a big step for the Bucks to challenge the Warriors, but on paper they have the tools.

Rockets small icon3) The Houston Rockets.

This is the same team that was ahead at halftime of Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals on their home court less than a year ago….

Well, they’re not the same team exactly. But they are playing closer to that level than they have all season — Chris Paul looks more like his old self, Clint Capela looks in shape, Danuel House Jr. and PJ Tucker have found a groove as role players, and since the All-Star break the Rockets have the second-best defense in the land and the best net rating (+10.7).

The Rockets still have James Harden and nobody — on the Warriors or on the planet — can stop him. If he has other guys knocking down some shots around him and the Rockets keep defending, they are the only team in the West with a chance. The Rockets do not have Trevor Ariza or the same depth that made them a genuine threat to the Warriors, a Rockets team that might have a ring if CP3 had stayed healthy. But the Rockets are still the second best team in the West and the only team with a shot at the Warriors.

If the Rockets and Warriors meet it will be in the second round — and that could be good for Houston. What has slowed the Rockets in recent seasons was Harden just running out of gas from the load he has to carry, or Paul getting injured. Does meeting in the second round make it less likely either of those things happen, meaning the Rockets have a better chance? Maybe. The Rockets will have to fight their way past a very good Jazz team to find out.

Celtics small icon 4) The Boston Celtics.

The preseason favorites in the East have shown flashes this year where you can’t help but think “that’s a contender, they can push the Warriors.” Boston just hasn’t been able to sustain it.

The matchup on paper is interesting. Kyrie Irving has battled Stephen Curry to a standstill in the Finals before. Al Horford can be effective against Golden State whether Cousins is in the paint (Horford is a better post defender than people think, and on offense he could pull Cousins out to the three-point line to defend his shot) or if the Warriors go small and Green is at the five. Horford blows up the mismatches Golden State banks on.

The Celtics would need Marcus Smart back and healthy. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Terry Rozier all need to play as well as they did last playoffs. A lot of things need to go right and the Celtics have not been able to sustain that this year.

But Boston has the pieces to be a potential threat to Golden State.

Sixers small icon 5) The Philadelphia 76ers.

Philly being on this list comes down to one thing: They have the second best starting five in the league. The one starting five that can challenge the Warriors best lineups.

Joel Embiid (who can outplay Cousins, but didn’t play well against the Warriors this season), Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, and sharpshooting J.J. Redick have a ton of potential. When on the court together, the unit has been dominant on both ends.

The problem is they haven’t been on the court together that much and there are chemistry questions. Plus, behind this five there is little depth.

Philadelphia has a long way to go to really be a threat to the Warriors, but if they make it out of the East they may be that team by June.

Report: Celtics “most likely” offer Jayson Tatum a max contract after season

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This should not be a surprise.

Jayson Tatum is a cornerstone of the Celtics now and going forward: 23.6 points and 7.1 rebounds a game, an efficient 56.2 true shooting percentage, a shot creator, an athletic finisher at the rim, and a guy who shot 39.8 percent from three. Tatum was an All-Star in his third season and will draw third-team All-NBA votes (whenever those votes happen).

Tatum is eligible for an extension to his rookie contract after this season. Is he worth a full max contract? Yes, especially considering he is 22 and still improving by leaps each season.

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst said on SportsCenter the Celtics are expected to offer Tatum the max (hat tip Bleacher Report).

“If Jayson Tatum is the superstar that they envisioned when they began this whole rebuilding process when they traded Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce for all of those draft picks hoping to land a player like this, we could see ‘Glory Days’ for the Celtics again. But it’s very much up in the air, and I’m gonna tell ya, they’re gonna have to pay him like it because after this season ends, he is going to get most likely a max contract. They’re going to bet that he becomes that player.”

It’s fair to argue that max contracts should be reserved for true alphas, true No. 1s and maybe a few No. 2 players on a team, and that Tatum has yet to prove he is one of those. Boston would be betting he becomes that player — but right now that looks like a good bet. More importantly, last summer the Celtics locked up Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown on four-year contracts, sign Tatum and the Celtics have a core that will have them at or near the top of the East for years.

Exactly what a max contract will look like this coming off-season after the coronavirus hit to the league’s finances is another question, one nobody has an answer to right now. Under the old cap, it would have been $181 million over five years (and if he made All-NBA teams it could jump to $218 million), but those numbers don’t apply to the new reality. Even if Tatum signs the max offer this summer, he will make his $9.9 million next season then be paid whatever the max is for him starting in the 2021-22 season (and again, it’s impossible to say what the league’s finances will be at that point).

Pay the man his money.  Expect Boston to make the offer whenever the offseason arrives.

Zion Williamson’s attorneys work to avoid him answering questions about improper benefits at Duke

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MIAMI (AP) — Attorneys for NBA rookie Zion Williamson seek to block his former marketing agent’s effort to have the ex-Duke star answer questions about whether he received improper benefits before playing for the Blue Devils.

In a Florida court filing last week, Williamson’s attorneys say those questions are “nothing more than a fishing expedition aimed at tarnishing Williamson’s reputation” and designed to “maximize potential embarrassment and media coverage in an attempt to improperly gain settlement leverage.”

“Plaintiffs’ irrelevant and invasive requests are designed to harass and not calculated to lead to discovery of relevant evidence,” Friday’s filing states.

It is the latest exchange in the fight over the No. 1 overall NBA draft pick’s endorsement potential.

Prime Sports Marketing and company president Gina Ford filed her lawsuit last summer in Florida, accusing Williamson and the agency now representing him of breach of contract. Williamson filed his own lawsuit a week earlier in North Carolina to terminate a five-year contract with Prime Sports after moving to Creative Artists Agency LLC.

Ford’s attorneys had submitted questions this month asking whether the New Orleans Pelicans rookie or anyone on his behalf sought or accepted “money, benefits, favors or things of value” to sign with Duke. Those filings – offering no evidence of wrongdoing by Williamson or his family – sought answers within 30 days to establish facts under oath in the pretrial discovery process.

Williamson’s attorneys seek a stay while appealing the December denial of their motion to dismiss the Florida case based on lack of jurisdiction, or a protective order as an alternative.

At the heart of the dueling lawsuits over Williamson’s marketing rights is this: Williamson says the contract he signed with Prime Sports is illegal under North Carolina’s Uniform Athlete Agent Act (UAAA) because Ford was not registered with North Carolina to negotiate with amateur athletes (which Zion was at the time, having just played for Duke). Ford and Prime dispute that, saying this was a legal and binding negotiation.

One key reason NBA may return with 22 teams: Players want regular-season games

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Nothing is set in stone about an NBA return — at least not until next Thursday — but momentum seems to be building behind a plan that would bring 22 teams to the Orlando bubble.

That plan brings every team within six games of the playoffs when the season was halted into the competition, a total of 22 teams (13 from the West and nine from the East, the playoff teams plus Portland, New Orleans, Sacramento, San Antonio, Phoenix, and Washington). There would be some regular-season games played, likely five to eight, followed by a play-in tournament for the final playoff seeds, then the playoffs with full seven-game series each round. Exactly what that play-in tournament would look and if the NBA would stick with the conference playoff alignment or seed 1-16 is up in the air (although the conference alignment seems to have more backing).

Why that plan? For one, it gets more cities and more fan bases involved — and it happens to bring Zion Williamson and the Pelicans into the mix, a big television draw. It also could help a few teams reach a 70-game broadcast threshold with local broadcasters.

Mostly, however, the players want it because they get some games under them before the playoffs start, something Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne reported on at ESPN.

Regardless of how many teams are ultimately included in the playoffs, the National Basketball Players Association has consistently stressed that it wants several regular-season games to be played prior to the start of the playoffs, sources said. That has been a prevailing sentiment among several contending teams that prefer a tuneup before beginning the postseason, sources said.

A lot of players — influential players — have pushed for some regular season or meaningful games before the playoffs start. It’s about health, as trainers told us at NBC Sports, go from zero to 100 jumping straight into the playoffs and teams are asking for injuries. Players understand that.

Maybe only 20 teams end up in Orlando, that plan is on the table as well, but either way expect some regular-season games before the playoffs start. If the powerful players want it to happen, it will.

PBT Podcast: 2020 NBA Mock Draft crossover podcast, Part Deux

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We’re back at it… and not just drinking beer during a podcast. Although we do that, too.

For the third consecutive season, Rob Dauster of College Basketball Talk and I collaborated for a first-round mock draft. Rob knows the prospects better than anyone; I provide some knowledge about what the teams might be looking for. The result is a unique listening experience breaking down who will be picked where based on fit.

The first ten picks can be found over on the College Basketball Talk feed.

Here we finish off the lottery and run through the entire rest of the first round.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.