NBA outlook: Four challengers will make Warriors work

(Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)

(TSX / STATS) -- Ghidorah took down Godzilla, the Great Depression crumpled Wall Street, and Buster Douglas put Mike Tyson on his tush, so there must be a team that can challenge the Golden State Warriors for the NBA championship this season, right?

There are four legitimate contenders, in fact, to the throne on which the Warriors perched last June after beating the Cleveland Cavaliers in five games in the NBA Finals.

The most important thing, perhaps, is that the Cavaliers, the Houston Rockets, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs all believe they can beat the Warriors and, inevitably, win the 2017-18 title.

"There's an aura of respect for how good they are, but not necessarily a feeling of their invincibility," says Terry Stotts, whose Portland Trail Blazers have been ousted from the playoffs by Golden State in each of the past two seasons. "They're a great team. they've won two of the last three NBA championships, and it easily could have been three out of three. Everybody in the league has a healthy respect for what they've done, and they have everybody back.

"But invincibility? I don't think players or coaches in the NBA would ever view an opponent like that. You've lost before you played the game."

Cleveland has the best chance for one main reason -- LeBron James -- and a lot of secondary ones.

The Cavaliers went to the NBA Finals each of the past three years, too, winning the 2016 crown and losing to the Warriors in '15 and '17. Kyrie Irving was dealt to the Boston Celtics, but most of the roster from last season returns, including power forward Kevin Love, center Tristan Thompson and shooting guards J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver.

And the Cavs have added four key pieces -- point guard Isaiah Thomas, who will miss the early portions of the season while rehabbing a hip injury; shooting guard Dwyane Wade, point guard Derrick Rose and small forward Jae Crowder. Coach Tyron Lue has a lineup every bit as deep -- and perhaps as talented -- as Golden State's.

The biggest issues will be health and age. Thomas' hip is a question mark, and Rose has not had an injury-free season since 2011. James (32), Korver (36), Smith (32), Wade (35), Channing Frye (34) and Jeff Green (31) are all on the wrong side of 30.

Houston might be the biggest threat to Golden State in the Western Conference. The Rockets, who won 55 games and made it to the West semifinals a year ago, added master maestro Chris Paul to team with James Harden for perhaps the most potent backcourt in the league.

"That's going to be interesting," Stotts says. "Paul is really good at making other players better. He'll make it a little easier on Harden to have a great season, but his impact will be when James is out of the game.

"I have so much respect for what Chris is able to do. He makes his team better. That will be their biggest advantage."

History says good-offense/bad-defense teams rarely win a title, but Houston coach Mike D'Antoni added defensive specialist Luc Mbah a Moute along with Paul, a seven-time NBA All-Defensive first-team selection.

Oklahoma City made the biggest splash in the offseason, adding perennial All-Star forwards Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to reigning NBA Most Valuable Player Russell Westbrook. The question: Will there be enough shots for all three?

"They're all great players," Stotts says. "They can play the right way. They want to win. When it comes to winning, they'll figure out a way to make it work."

San Antonio is the NBA's version of the NFL's New England Patriots -- Old Man River as a perennial championship contender.

"(The Spurs) just keep rolling along," Stotts says. "They won a quiet 61 games last year, and they still get overlooked. They're in the position they love. Everybody is talking about Golden State and Oklahoma City. They'll just roll along and do what they do."

Small forward Kawhi Leonard is the straw that stirs the drink for the Spurs, but there is plenty of returning talent around him, including power forwards LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol, point guards Tony Parker and Patty Mills and shooting guards Danny Green and Manu Ginobili. The Spurs added another seasoned veteran -- small forward Rudy Gay -- who will provide pop at the offensive end.

The Warriors are everybody's favorite to repeat, and they should be. But don't make arrangements for that championship parade in the Bay Area just yet.

Updated October 16, 2017