For most NBA teams, the goal of the offseason is to improve. For bad teams, that’s mean getting into a form that can challenge for the playoffs. For mediocre teams, that means getting more reliable, solidifying a playoff bid or getting into the mix. For good teams, that means hitting that next level of theoretical title contention. For title contenders, it means staying at that level and finding little advantages to boost your chances of coming out ahead.
This summer, plenty of bad teams have elevated themselves. A few mediocre teams have solidified themselves. A couple of good teams have gotten better. And even a couple of title contenders found ways to stay at their level with chances to climb higher.
But no one is really any closer to knocking off the Golden State Warriors.
The Warriors got better, of course, with the addition of DeMarcus Cousins and retention of Kevin Durant. There’s a brewing suspicion that this might be the last season in which Golden State is unstoppable, due to free agency for Durant, Cousins, and Klay Thompson. Cousins will almost certainly be gone, off to take a huge contract somewhere after rehabilitating his value. If the Warriors lose one of the other two, the race for the title opens up. Golden State would still likely be the favorites (depending on what else happens), but they wouldn’t be the overwhelming favorites they have been since July 2016, when Durant signed there.
That’s still a year away. For now, there’s no reasonable title pick other than Golden State.
With that said, here’s a brief but comprehensive ranking of nine teams chasing the Warriors at the end of the meaningful NBA offseason. Golden State is, obviously, No. 1 with a bullet.
This is telling with regard to the Houston Rockets, who still haven’t locked up Clint Capela, and replaced Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute with James Ennis, Michael Carter-Williams, and eventually, Carmelo Anthony. Houston took Golden State to seven games in May, but this summer fell behind. It’ll take something — a major ding on Golden State, or an unexpected uptick from Houston — to close the gap that’s opened back up.
Still, Houston at its best is still the second-best team in the NBA.
2a. Boston Celtics
2b. Toronto Raptors
The Celtics, as Paul Flannery wrote, had a good summer without doing much. With Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving coming back from injury, Boston didn’t need to do much with LeBron James moving west and other tumult happening in the East. But the Celtics aren’t exactly closer to beating Golden State. Not even supremely confidence Celtics fans (of which there are plenty) would reasonably expect Boston to challenge the Warriors in a potential Finals matchup.
The Raptors’ chances to challenge the Warriors if they get a shot at them in June took an uptick last week with the trade for Kawhi Leonard, but that trade also introduced a heavy dose of uncertainty and variability into Toronto’s season. No one will soon forget that Kawhi had led the Spurs to the massive first half lead over the Warriors in Game 1 of the 2017 West finals before Zaza Pachulia stepped under Leonard and put the end of San Antonio into motion. You can bet the Raptors will be thinking of that if Kawhi is healthy and carried Toronto to the NBA Finals. Will it matter? Probably not. The Warriors are better at every starting position than the Raptors (and most teams).
Who is better between these two teams? That will probably come down to health. Who stands a better chance at beating Golden State? Might as well ask whose god loves them more, but it’s a prayer either way.
The Sixers struck out this summer. It turns out having an actual general manager during a hugely important offseason is kinda important. Who knew? But Philadelphia is still really good, and should get better as Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, and perhaps Markelle Fultz improve and grow their impact.
5a. Utah Jazz
5b. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Jazz kept everyone important this summer (and even those not so important). While Utah finished No. 5 in the West last season and got smoked by the Rockets, there’s a non-zero chance they could end up as the conference’s second-best team. Utah was the equivalent of a 54-win team when Rudy Gobert was healthy, and the Jazz went 30-7 down the stretch. This isn’t a 60-win team, but the high 50s are attainable.
Utah, of course, destroyed the Thunder in the first round of the playoffs, but Oklahoma City remixed itself pretty well while keeping Paul George this summer. One could argue losing Carmelo Anthony actually improves OKC’s chances since that whole awkward fit is excised. Getting Andre Roberson makes a difference. Dennis Schroder as the new Reggie Jackson is actually pretty on the nose.
But zoom out a bit and ... there’s no reasonably way that, even if the Jazz or Thunder finish with 58 wins and the No. 2 seed, either team is beating the Warriors in the playoffs. No way.
7. San Antonio Spurs
Consider that the Spurs only got nine games out of Kawhi Leonard last season, and finished with 47 wins through the magic of veteran players, young contributors, and Gregg Popovich. Now replace that Kawhi’s cloud of mystery with DeMar DeRozan, who is quite reliable. That looks like a 50-win team! (That also looks like a team that might get swept by an average of 30 points by the Warriors or the Rockets.)
All things are possible through LeBron.
As Flanns wrote, Indiana had a strong little offseason. The Pacers won 48 games last season — as many as Utah and OKC, just one fewer than the ponderous Portland Trail Blazers, the best team not to make this list — and nearly ejected LeBron from the first round. In an East with question marks due to injury and fit at the top, being solid puts you in good position to be there at the end. Indiana did that.
Please, however, dearest Pacers, do not go on a run and make the Finals. No one needs a Pacers-Warriors NBA Finals right now. Please.
Others receiving consideration
Literally every single one of the other 20 NBA teams, except for the Sacramento Kings.