The champagne corks are still being popped following the Golden State Warriors second NBA title following their 4-1 Finals victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers.
After a stunning collapse from 3-1 in front against the Cavs 12 months ago, the Dubs added Kevin Durant to their star-studded roster and the former Oklahoma City Thunder forward provided the star power en route to winning the Finals MVP award.
Most observers would suggest that the Cavs are the team best positioned to challenge the dominant Warriors again next season, but we have taken a look at five other contenders.
The obvious choice in the Eastern Conference is the Boston Celtics. Led by point guard Isaiah Thomas, the Celtics took advantage of a Cavaliers collapse at the end of the regular season to steal the number one seed and it looked as if there might be a changing of the guard.
Boston squeaked past the Chicago Bulls – who held a 2-0 lead and probably would have won the series if former Boston favourite Rajon Rondo had not broken his thumb in game two – before edging the Washington Wizards 4-3 and losing the Eastern Conference Finals 4-1 against Cleveland.
That being said, the Celtics clearly have a good thing going under coach Brad Stevens. A number one pick in the draft this year plus rumours that Gordon Hayward or Blake Griffin, who could help cure their rebounding woes – they averaged the fourth-fewest boards per game last season – lend further credence to the argument that they are in position to contend for titles.
San Antonio Spurs
The clear candidate to dethrone the Warriors in the West has to be the San Antonio Spurs. It's 20 years and counting since they last missed the playoffs, with the Spurs always a threat in the postseason under the guidance of probably the best coach in the game in Gregg Popovich.
This year saw them take down the Memphis Grizzlies 4-2, but they were struck a huge blow in the semi-finals against the Houston Rockets when veteran point guard Tony Parker ruptured a tendon in his left leg that forced him to miss the remainder of the playoffs and probably the start of next season.
Even without Parker, the Spurs won the series thanks to Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge leading the way, but it was not to be in the next round as Leonard injured his ankle in game oen and they were swept by the Warriors.
A healthy Spurs side can definitely challenge the Dubs even without any significant additions to their roster, given Pop's unmatched ability to seemingly get the best out of every single player he works with, and a Finals trip next year is certainly not beyond this talented team.
Not since the days of Hakeem Olajuwon in 1995 have the Rockets won an NBA title or a Conference title. MVP candidate James Harden averaged a league-high 11.2 assists this season, along with 36.4 points, but without any notable help, he was unable to lead them to glory despite recording 22 regular season triple-doubles.
In a much-anticipated first-round clash against the Thunder, Harden's former employers, Houston brushed Oklahoma City and Russell Westbrook - the first player in over 50 years to average a triple-double - aside 4-1, but they disappointing slumped to a 4-2 defeat to the Spurs.
The acquisition of Lou Williams in February will give them confidence going into his first full season as a Rocket, and if Harden enjoys a similarly dominant campaign, then the addition of another scorer will boost their prospects of stunning the Warriors.
If we face facts, it's obvious that Canada's only team are not going to go to the Finals while the Warriors and the Cavs exist in their current form. But let's dream a little bit. DeMar DeRozan poured in over 27 points per game last season and Kyle Lowry added 22 points and seven assists per game as the Raptors soared to a 51-31 record and third in the East.
The playoffs saw them survive a scare against the Giannis Antetokounmpo-led Milwaukee Bucks, winning three in a row to come back from 2-1 down, but they were no match for LeBron James and the Cavs, who swept them comfortably in the next round.
As for next season, Toronto absolutely have to fix their all-round game. They put up the least assists per game last campaign with just 18.5, and no-one except for Lowry averaged over four.
The Raptors were mediocre in both rebounding and blocking and need to make significant strides to reach the standard of Golden State and Cleveland, but Dwane Casey's men can afford to be optimistic if they make the required improvements.
The Jazz really are not that far away but must keep hold of Hayward, who put up 21.9 points a game in 2016-17. Star center Rudy Gobert averaged a double-double with 14 points and 12.8 rebounds per game, while George Hill, Rodney Hood and Derrick Favors all chipped in to give Utah a 51-31 season. The pieces are there.
A topsy-turvy series saw them beat the Los Angeles Clippers 4-3 in the first round of the 2017 playoffs, but the dream ended there as they were swept by the Warriors in the next round.
Improving their distribution is a must for the Jazz next season; an average of 20 assists per game is simply not good enough if they want to challenge. However, their young core of players should continue to blossom and a Conference Finals trip next season is certainly not out of the question.
23 de octubre 2017
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