1. The Warriors aren’t invincible?
Heading into the 2017-18 NBA season, the Golden State Warriors were commanding favorites to win their third Larry O’Brien Trophy in four years. After opening with 5-8 odds — the Cleveland Cavaliers were the next-closest at 5-2 — Golden State had moved to 5-12 by Oct. 11, according to Ben Fawkes of ESPN.com.
Fast-forward nearly six months, and the Houston Rockets have drawn even with the Warriors as 6-5 favorites to win the title, according to Colin Ward-Henninger of CBS Sports. Per sports publicist Jimmy Shapiro (via Ward-Henninger), the oddsmaker Bovada previously hadn’t listed a team as even with or ahead of the Warriors since Dec. 1, 2015.
What happened? Well, a boatload of injuries, for one.
While Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson have each returned from the respective ailments that sidelined them after the All-Star break, Stephen Curry’s availability remains far more of a question mark. He suffered a Grade 2 MCL sprain in his left knee on March 23, putting his availability for the start of the playoffs in doubt. (Warriors head coach Steve Kerr has already told reporters “there’s no way he’s playing in the first round.”)
While on-off splits aren’t the be-all and end-all, they’re perhaps instructive in the Warriors’ case. With Curry on the floor, Golden State outscores opponents by 14.7 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would lead the league by far. Without Curry, however, the Warriors only outscore opponents by 3.8 points per 100 possessions, which would be tied with the Boston Celtics for the NBA’s sixth-best mark.
That isn’t to say the Warriors should be on upset alert in the first round, but whoever they draw in the 2-7 matchup will be battle-tested in playoff-esque environments for the better part of the month. A Kawhi Leonard-less San Antonio Spurs squad or a fatigued Minnesota Timberwolves team may go down quickly, but the Utah Jazz — who have gone 2-1 against Golden State this season — might pose a legitimate problem.
Meanwhile, the Rockets have cruised their way to a franchise-high 60-plus wins, as concerns about the fit between James Harden and Chris Paul proved wildly overblown. If Houston and Golden State meet in the Western Conference Finals, the former will have home-court advantage and a 2-1 edge in the season series, giving Harden, Paul and Co. all the confidence they need against the defending champions.
Despite all of that, the Warriors may well still end up winning the NBA Finals this year. But heading into the playoffs, they appear far more vulnerable than anyone could have expected at the start of the 2017-18 season.