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Pacific Division Preview: Have the Golden State Warriors tightened their grip on the rest of the NBA?

In what feels impossible, the Golden State Warriors may have somehow gotten even better in the offseason. As daunting as this may be for the rest of the NBA, the team’s future could face potential danger.

NBA: Golden State Warriors-Championship Parade Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Authors note: Through the generous contributions of fellow SB Nation writers, I am embarking on a Pacific Division preview series in which I get expert opinions on each of the non-Lakers teams by people who cover them on a daily basis. The final entry in the series previews the reigning NBA Champions — the Golden State Warriors.

Whether you love them or hate them, there is no denying the Golden State Warriors are in firm control of the NBA. Franchises, schemes, and even video games, have failed to sniff duplicating or beating the mesmerizing dominance that is Warriors’ basketball.

Winners of consecutive NBA championships — although it feels like much more — the team is made up a true murderer’s row of All-Star caliber talent, wily role players, and a head coach who seemingly knows every correct button to push.

Although the league around them has changed, the team (minus one giant 6’11” addition) remains relatively the same. Which begs the question, is this season ultimately the Warriors’ to lose once again? Or will someone finally be able to topple this generation’s Goliath?

To help dive deeper into the 2018-19 Warriors, their future, and what the Lakers’ chances are of overthrowing them, Brady Klopfer of The Athletic and SB Nation’s Golden State of Mind joined us for the final Q and A of our series:

2018 NBA Finals - Game Four Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

SS&R: With the Warriors coming off their second straight NBA championship, and their fourth NBA Finals appearance in as many years, is there any fear of fatigue or a championship hangover this season?

Klopfer: Yes and no. Will there be fatigue and a hangover? Without question; there was last year! The players, as well as Steve Kerr (who has experienced this as a player) are open about the presence of each. For all their talent a season ago, the Warriors were a remarkably mundane team, failing to elevate themselves for almost all of their regular season games. That will surely repeat itself for the bulk of the upcoming season.

That said, I don’t think a letdown is a fear, for the team or for its fans. Golden State is talented enough to sleepwalk their way to the top seed (or at least a top-two seed, as they did last year). And when April rolls around, postseason basketball is the Pedialyte that a hungover team needs.

It’s hard to imagine this team — full of intense competitors playing for a slice of history — not brushing off the hangover when the games really matter, and their core is young enough that I don’t envision fatigue playing a large role in the playoffs.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

SS&R: The Warriors shocked the NBA world this summer by adding All-Star big man DeMarcus Cousins to an inexpensive one-year deal. What is the potential upside of the signing, and are their possible negative ramifications for this move?

Klopfer: With a few weeks remaining in the 2017-18 regular season, Stephen Curry suffered a knee injury that kept him out until the playoffs were well underway. Despite losing a top-three player and one of the greatest offensive forces ever, the Warriors didn’t panic. That’s what they got Kevin Durant for, to give the team an elite safety net should something go wrong.

DeMarcus Cousins represents the same luxury. The upside is less about raising the team’s ceiling, and more about raising their floor. If Curry or Durant suffers an injury, Golden State still has two All-Star starters who averaged more than 25.0 points per game a year ago. If Curry has a poor shooting night, they now have two options for elite isolation offense. If Durant is double-teamed, he not only has his perimeter release valves in Curry and Klay Thompson, but an interior one in Cousins. If someone gets in foul trouble, it’s not a big deal.

I don’t expect Cousins to elevate the Warriors play by much, with the exception of the bench unit. But he gives a historically great team an even larger margin for error, which is really the best possible situation for Golden State - and a deadly blow to any contending team whose strategy is “hope something happens to the Warriors.”

As far as ramifications, most would point to potential chemistry issues, though I don’t foresee any issues there. Cousins laughed at his introductory presser about how he and Draymond Green should get their fight over with immediately instead of waiting for it to happen organically. That, to me, was a reminder that Cousins’ negative reputation stems from his competitiveness and his passion, something the Warriors have in droves, and know how to deal with.

Green has butted heads — and screamed at — all of his teammates and coaches, and it’s never been a problem. So that isn’t an issue, to me. What is a potential problem is the fact that Cousins — even before his Achilles injury — struggled to defend in space. As the 2018 playoffs showed us, an ability for bigs to guard on the perimeter is paramount in modern basketball.

Simply put, Green, Kevon Looney, or Jordan Bell are better defensive options at center in the waning moments of most games. Will Kerr be willing to repeatedly bench an All-Star in the fourth quarter? Will Cousins give full effort if he’s on the bench for the games critical moments? These are the biggest issues I foresee, because, for all of Boogie’s talent, no one wants to see him defending James Harden when the game is on the line.

Golden State Warriors v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

SS&R: What if any, are the notable weaknesses the Warriors need to address/improve in for the upcoming season?

Klopfer: I see two specific areas that need to be addressed. The first is rebounding, where the team finished a modest 11th in the league in percentage of available rebounds grabbed. But that doesn’t tell the full story. Golden State achieved that decent number because their offense and defense were good enough that they had a higher percentage of defensive rebounding opportunities than most teams.

Despite being 11th in rebound percentage, the team was 23rd in offensive rebound rate, and 25th in defensive rebounding rate. They at times allowed teams to hang around simply because of the rebounding disparity. Replacing Zaza Pachulia with, well, anyone figures to help, but there is team-wide work to be done there.

The second issue is bench scoring, and shooting in particular. Despite adding Nick Young (Editor’s Note: That’s Lakers Legend Nick Young to you) and Omri Casspi a year ago, the Warriors got just 235 three-pointers — fewer than three a game — from players not named Curry, Thompson, Durant, or Green. That’s a serious issue, and with both Casspi and Young gone this year, one that won’t be easy to fix.

SS&R: This summer saw multiple Western Conference teams improve, among them the Los Angeles Lakers with their signing of LeBron James. How serious of a threat do you and the Warriors view the Lakers as? If not the Lakers, which team in the West poses the biggest obstacle in getting back to the finals?

Klopfer: For the immediate future, the Lakers can’t really be seen as a threat for the Western Conference crown. As exciting as LA’s young core is, there’s simply not enough value to make any real noise. While far more fun to watch than James’ prior squad, I have a hard time seeing this team being much better than last year’s Cavs team that the Warriors dispatched with relative ease.

The Warriors know better than anyone to never discount LeBron, but they’ve also gone 8-1 against him in the last two playoffs, with Kevin Love playing in all nine of those games, and Kyrie Irving in five of them; Golden State isn’t losing sleep over the Lakers as currently constructed.

That said, the organization is always looking forward, and Los Angeles is clearly a threat down the road. It’s hard to imagine them not getting another big star next offseason, and who knows? Maybe they acquire Jimmy Butler or Kawhi Leonard before then. It seems likely that at some point during LeBron’s stay, the West will be in play for the Lakers.

Until then, the biggest threat to the Warriors is still the Rockets. While I think Houston went backwards this offseason, they’re still immensely talented, and play a style of basketball that can win any game, at any time. As they proved in the spring, for better and for worse, the variance of the three-ball can make anything possible in a seven-game series, and a pair of top-ten talents takes you a long way.

SS&R: Last season the Rockets made no secret that they constructed their roster in order to become defensively interchangeable and switch-heavy to go along with their lethal 3-point shooting. The Lakers decided to take a different approach this summer, by instead opting to fill out their roster with playmakers and ball-handlers, believing toughness and versatility is the way to topple the Warriors.

Among these, or of your own conceiving, what is the best method in trying to beat the Warriors?

Klopfer: I think the Rockets are on the right path — or at least they were last year. What they lacked was the willingness and ability to play a team offense when it mattered most; as elite as their isolation scorers were, a dependence on such offense doomed them in the Conference Finals, where their offensive rating was pretty mediocre.

But it’s the right idea — spacing, threes, and defensive versatility are the way to beat the Warriors. Well, that and a whole lot of talent. The team that I see with the best approach is actually the Boston Celtics, as they blend the Rockets’ style with a holistic philosophy wherein all five players can attack you both on and off ball.

One of the keys to beating Golden State is forcing them to play straight up; if the Warriors identify a weak player that they can leave unguarded, or funnel to a specific part of the floor, they will do so, and the clamps will come down.

I’m not a fan of the Lakers’ offseason, with the obvious and enormous exception of LeBron. But ultimately, I find their shortcomings to be more related to a lack of talent than a poor philosophy.

I don’t think the approach of filling out a roster with playmakers is the best way to do it, but in the end, their downfall won’t be that they had too many playmakers — it will be that those playmakers simply weren’t good enough.

2018 NBA Finals - Game Two Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

SS&R: How likely is it that Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant both are Warriors next season? What chances do you give the Lakers in snagging either one?

Klopfer: Let’s take this one at a time. First up is Thompson, and I’m struggling to identify any scenario wherein he doesn’t re-sign. Klay has made it abundantly clear that he wants to stay in Golden State, and talks have been going on for a while. He’s overtly open to a discount, and the Warriors owners are willing to pay big with the luxury tax. After all, they’ve got a new stadium opening in 2019 that will be generating a lot of income; they can afford it.

Plus, with Durant’s future in question (more on that in a second), the team won’t be willing to bet on potentially losing 50% of their core. Unless things go dramatically wrong this year, or the Warriors end up moving Thompson in a crazy, highly unlikely trade for a younger superstar, I’d put his chances of playing elsewhere next year at essentially zero.

Now, the fun one: Durant. Warriors fans are fond of saying that Durant won’t leave, but the reality is this: It is absolutely impossible to know what Durant will or will not do. Anything could happen, and even the media members most connected with the organization will tell you they have no idea what Durant’s future will be. Would I be surprised if Durant signs the supermax with the Warriors? Absolutely not. Would I be surprised if he opts out and joins the Lakers (or Knicks, or a handful of other teams)? Absolutely not. Anything could happen.

With that said, predictions are always fun, even if they come with the caveat that we have no way of knowing. So here’s my prediction. Durant opts out after this year to give the team financial flexibility, and signs another one plus one. He has been the Warrior most involved in the creation of the Chase Center, which will open for the 2019-20 season, so I’d guess that he wants to play one year there.

Four years is a lot better than three, in terms of legacy — it’s how long LeBron stayed in Miami, and in Cleveland the second time around. Four years takes you to the point where your jersey will be retired, you’ll be cheered regardless of your next decision, and you can return later as a hero. Plus, if Golden State wins a title this year, Durant will have the opportunity for the vaunted four-peat — something neither Kobe Bryant nor Michael Jordan achieved.

And after that? My guess is he leaves. As LeBron showed us, when a player leaves during their prime, it usually means they want to start lining up goals, ideas, and experiences, and knocking them down. LeBron went to Miami to win, play with friends, and build a legacy; when he accomplished that, he moved on.

He returned to Cleveland to bring a title home, tutor Kyrie Irving, and return to the good graces of Ohio; when he accomplished that, he moved on. Durant came to the Bay Area to play for an organization that would help him evolve on both ends of the court, and to win titles. He’s done that. Which makes me think that, sooner rather than later, he’ll be ready for the next chapter in his book.

Might that next chapter be playing for the most storied franchise in NBA history, alongside the greatest player ever, and one of his close friends? Yeah, I think it’s safe to say that’s a distinct possibility.

A special thanks again to Brady for helping preview the team. You can follow both his Warriors, and Los Angeles Sparks, coverage through his Twitter at @BradyKlopferNBA.

This was a fun endeavor in previewing the Pacific Division with the help of some fantastic writers, and I hope the SS&R community enjoyed it as well. For more of my work, you can follow me on Twitter at @AlexmRegla.

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