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A comprehensive rundown of the teams that could challenge the Warriors’ supremacy — but won’t

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The Rockets, led by James Harden, are undefeated against the Warrriors this season — but there still isn’t any reason for concern for the odds-on favorites. (Stan Olszewski/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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The Golden State Warriors are 0-1. Putting that relatively meaningless binary distinction aside, the W’s are likely to win another NBA Championship.

As far as the loss goes, let’s start with the fact that it was one-tenth of a second from being a win.

As Steve Kerr said after Wednesday’s practice, “We were not ready, mentally, to play that game … It may not seem like it’s a difficult thing to do, but there’s a different mentality from summer to training camp to regular season to playoffs; you’ve got to keep getting sharper and sharper. That’s where we can make the most improvement right now.”

More specifically, it didn’t help that the Dubs were without Andre Iguodala from the jump, and Draymond Green down the stretch. Their prodigious offensive talent kept them ahead for most of the night, but mistakes and poor late-game execution doomed the effort. It happens.

The broader picture is still one where the Warriors are -150 favorites to win the NBA Championship this year, with the Cavs second at a relatively distant +400. Barring major injury — a phrase that does seem to carry a bit more weight after Gordon Hayward’s in Cleveland — it’s hard to imagine the Warriors ending up anywhere but a stage on the shores of Lake Merritt come June.

Yes, the NBA offseason was a wild and exciting ride. Yes, several of the Warriors’ chief Western Conference competitors made significant moves in an arms race aimed at Oracle Arena. Unfortunately for them, the gap remains significant.

I asked Green at media day how much attention he was paying to the rest of the West, and he didn’t mince words: “I try not to focus on what other teams are doing. … If we take care of what we need to take care of, it really don’t matter how much better someone else gels.”

As usual, Draymond is right.

Here’s a rundown of who could challenge Golden State but ultimately won’t:

Houston Rockets

A natural place to start, given that they are a common choice for second best in the league and ended Day 1 of the season in sole possession of first place in the Western Conference. Naturally this is utterly meaningless, though the jubilant on-court hugs between Rockets players and new owner Tilman Fertita would suggest otherwise.

If you want to manufacture concern … you could point to Houston’s relatively thin second unit and the fact that they worked the Warriors last night. Plus, the combination of Chris Paul and James Harden makes two hall of fame players in one backcourt, which is certainly noteworthy.

But there’s really no need to worry, because … the Rockets’ wild excitement over their win belies the real issues that showed up for them in Game 1. There is clearly going to be a massive adjustment period for CP and the Beard, and it showed up last night as Houston played significantly better with Paul on the bench. Eric Gordon and PJ Tucker won’t shoot a combined 15-for-25 on a regular basis and there’s not much else to fear in the second unit.

Ultimately … this team does suggest a myriad of interesting storylines — from the potentially combustible Paul/Harden relationship to the always-tantalizing possibility of them attempting 60 three-pointers in a game. On the other hand, their two bell-cows are the authors of notorious playoff chokes and have always had trouble with the W’s when it counts.

Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder were the other Western Conference challenger to make massive additions in this offseason, as they added perennial all-stars Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to help MVP Russell Westbrook. Between Russ’s constant fury and an organization filled with bitterness over the Kevin Durant signing, Oklahoma City probably stands as Golden State’s angriest opposition.

If you want to manufacture concern … it’s gonna have to do with defending this power trio. The much-maligned Melo is still just 33 years old and scores 20 in his sleep, George has reclaimed his spot as one of the top two-way players in the game and Russ is … well, Russ. If they play nice with each other, they will be a load to defend. Steven Adams should thrive with some reduced offensive responsibility, too.

But there’s really no need to worry, because … this team is remarkably thin as you move down the depth chart. Patrick Patterson can be a really nice reserve power forward — I’m not sure any of the rest of the bench players would make the Warriors. Also, for what it’s worth, I heard from a pretty reputable source that the coaching leaves something to be desired.

Ultimately … George is a guy who should fit in somewhat seamlessly, but the Westbrook-Anthony combo is likely to have an adjustment period akin to what Houston will go through. The top-heavy roster depends desperately on those three stars not only meshing but playing at an extremely high level and scoring an awful lot. Somehow, the Thunder are once again left depending on Westbrook to be superhuman for them to have any chance of winning big.

San Antonio Spurs

Here is a team that did virtually nothing to improve in the offseason, signed an unpopular quasi-star to an extension that even they are reportedly not huge fans of and are paying a total of $61.3 million this season to four players with an average age of 34. Then again, they also have Kawhi Leonard and Gregg Popovich.

If you want to manufacture concern … it actually shouldn’t be too tough — the Spurs are concerning simply by being the Spurs. Moreover, they performed awfully well against the Warriors last year when they were at full strength. I’m not into revisionist history, but the “what if” surrounding Kawhi’s injury in last year’s playoffs is a fascinating one.

But there’s really no need to worry, because … the talent gap is pretty big. Kawhi, if healthy (which he is not at the moment), is certainly one of the best — but LaMarcus Aldridge is an awkward fit, and the Spurs are depending a lot on very old men in Parker, Gasol and Ginobili. Rudy Gay is an interesting Comeback Player of the Year candidate, but he is coming off of an Achilles tear and will have to adjust considerably to play for Pop.

Ultimately … you can never sleep on the Spurs, but this is the least-concerning version we’ve seen in a few years. They’ll be a tough out at some point in the postseason, but it’s hard to mention them not being out before the Finals.

Minnesota Timberwolves

They haven’t made the playoffs since Kevin Garnett left, and they nearly drove Tom Thibodeau to an early grave with their porous defense last season, but the acquisition of Jimmy Butler changes everything. Last year was by far the worst in Thibodeau’s coaching career, and the first time one of his teams failed to make the playoffs. Expect it to stay that way.

If you want to manufacture concern … it would be smart. The W’s have, by their standards, struggled with this team in the past — the Wolves have a win over Golden State in each of the last two seasons, which is a noteworthy accomplishment. Butler’s Bulls had surprising success, too. As a comparison point, Butler’s Bulls and Karl Anthony-Towns’ T-Wolves each have more wins over the Warriors in the last three years than James Harden’s Rockets and Chris Paul’s Clippers combined. Matchup-wise, Minnesota may strain the W’s defense more than any other opponent between their Big 3 and PG Jeff Teague. They’re a big, physical team, and the addition of Butler and Taj Gibson should make for a major defensive improvement. Simply put, if Andrew Wiggins and KAT don’t crank up their effort on D with Jimmy and Thibs in town, they never will.

But there’s really no need to worry, because … they very well may never defend. Thibodeau is a notorious nut about defensive effort, and he still couldn’t get much of it from Wiggins last year. This team also has some obvious floor-spacing issues. Towns is probably the best three-point shooter in the starting lineup, which is not great in 2017.

Ultimately … this team has a ton of talent and a really good coach. Their struggles last year should temper enthusiasm a bit, but it’s hard to overrate the addition of Jimmy Butler right in his prime. There’s no reason to think the Wolves would beat the Warriors in a playoff series, but it could be a 6-game slugfest that slows them down. This Minnesota team is a sneaky dangerous matchup difficulty.

Rest of the West

There are, by my count, eight Western Conference teams remaining who have at least some chance of fighting their way into the last three playoff spots: the LA Clippers, the Dallas Mavericks, the Denver Nuggets, the Utah Jazz, the Memphis Grizzlies, the Portland Trail Blazers, the New Orleans Pelicans and the Sacramento Kings.

If you want to manufacture concern … good luck.

But there’s really no need to worry, because … none of these teams are nearly good enough to challenge a healthy Golden State squad.

Ultimately … the morass of surprisingly decent teams at the bottom of the Western Conference playoff picture should be fun to watch all season long. The Blake Griffin-led Clippers and the Jusuf Nurkic-equipped Blazers could be particularly interesting to watch and likely have the highest ceilings of the bunch. Don’t sleep on the Nuggets, though, who added the underrated Paul Millsap to an impressive front court and are well-coached by Mike Malone. Those are the three I’d put in the playoffs if you made me choose before watching any of them play.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Currently sitting atop the East at an unblemished 1-0, the Cavs went from mild favorite to near-certainty about six minutes into the season thanks to a gruesome injury to new Celtic Gordon Hayward. Their newly cleared path to the NBA Finals will be a big help as they could struggle to incorporate new additions and will likely want to manage minutes for their aging stars.

If you want to manufacture concern … LeBron makes it pretty easy. It’s not an accident that he’s been in the NBA Finals for seven straight seasons. Isaiah Thomas, if healthy, can do a lot of the near-magical postseason bucket-getting that Kyrie Irving used to be responsible for, and guys like Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade can help if they can stay healthy. Plus, with the Celtics down Hayward, Cleveland should arrive at Oracle well-rested for the championship series.

But there’s really no need to worry, because … we’ve seen this movie before, and the Cavaliers are probably not better than they were last year. If not for Draymond Green’s 2016 suspension, we might have seen this movie three times. Moreover, Isaiah Thomas may never really be fully healthy again and asking Rose, Wade and Kyle Korver to be available for major minutes all year is tough.

Ultimately … LeBron’s team will always be a concern — he remains the best active basketball player on the planet and is making a stronger and stronger argument for best of all time. As an NBA fan, it would be great to see IT make a full recovery and get a game challenge from Cleveland in the Finals, but it’s tough to imagine that this bizarre offseason did anything to close the gap between the Cavs and Warriors.

Cavs’ “Competition”

First, a moment of silence for Gordon Hayward’s Boston Celtics, please…

Even if I hadn’t almost vomited after my split-second sighting of Hayward’s foot dangling at the end of his mangled leg, his injury would have been an upsetting moment. Boston had a legitimate chance to challenge the Cavaliers — and even if they couldn’t have won, the matchup between Kyrie’s Celtics and LeBron’s Cavs would have been spectacular theater. Less so now. The Wizards, Raptors and Bucks probably belong in this group as well.

If you want to manufacture concern … it’s tricky, even if you’re trying to do it for Cleveland. Without Hayward, the Celtics look one star short of crafting realistic opposition. Washington and Toronto are both good teams with solid stars in their backcourts, but neither made major improvements. The most interesting team in this category may be Milwaukee, but if they want to mount a serious challenge they’ll need an MVP season from Giannis Antetokounmpo and full health from guys like Khris Middleton and Jabari Parker.

But there’s really no need to worry, because … see above.

Ultimately … the Hayward injury was a crushing blow to a competitive East. That said, the young Bucks should be a fascinating watch and it will be interesting to see if the young core in Washington can all improve enough to give Cleveland something of a run.

Everyone Else

Nobody is buying any nonsense about any other team being relevant to Championship considerations, but there are plenty of reasons to buy NBA League Pass. An exciting collection of young players across the league means that only one or two teams in the entire Association look to be unwatchable.

If you want to manufacture concern … lol.

But there’s really no need to worry, because … unless Bobby Portis starts knocking out guys on OTHER teams, none of the remaining squads will impact the playoff picture

Ultimately … there’s just a lot to like here as a basketball fan — the 76ers have one of the most talented collections of young players we’ve ever seen; the Nets and Knicks are going full reset around interesting young talents in D’Angelo Russell and Kristaps Porzingis, respectively; the Lakers have a remarkably young roster with the No. 2 picks from the last two seasons on it; the Bulls are literally breaking each others faces; even the moribund Suns have Devin Booker, capable of dropping a quick 50 on any given night.

In the final analysis …

The NBA is as good as it has ever been. Save the nonsense about super teams and player-constructed rosters hurting the league — I can’t remember a year where every night projects to have as much intrigue on the schedule as this season does. There are heated playoff competitions, exciting rookies and a handful of new-look rosters that will be fascinating studies in team-building if nothing else.

For Warriors fans, it will be especially sweet when it ends with a parade through Oakland. Just don’t forget to enjoy the journey.

Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional (or something like that) and lives with an aging Shih Tzu/Schnauser mix in Berkeley. You can hear his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else fine podcasts are free. Find him on Twitter @thekolsky to share your personal feelings about this article or any other topic, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.

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