The NBA playoffs are here once again, which means it is time to consider whether any team can challenge the Golden State Warriors. This year feels a little different without the threat of LeBron James, who missed the postseason in his first season with the Lakers.
In LeBron's place is a rare conversation about the best teams in the East, as the Bucks, Sixers and Raptors have all put together groups that could theoretically challenge the Warriors. But what do our writers thing? Will the Warriors win once again? The SI NBA staff makes its predictions.
Chris Ballard: Warriors over Raptors in six games
It’s tempting to pick against the Warriors. The dysfunction. The looming drama. The sight of a famously joyful team operating without joy. Plenty of contenders could knock them off: Houston, Toronto, Milwaukee, maybe even Boston or Philly in a best-best-case scenario. But Golden State will hold them all off for one more run. The core is too talented, and driven, and smart. There will be no illusions about why they’re doing it, no Strength in Numbers. This is a case of mutually aligned goals. This one is all business.
Rohan Nadkarni: Warriors Over Raptors in six games
The Warriors are going to mainly cruise to another title. Their talent is overwhelming as always. And anyone secretly hoping Boogie Cousins somehow affects the chemistry is overlooking the fact that Steve Kerr will happily plant Cousins on the bench and employ the Death Lineup if he needs to.
The only intrigue here is who comes out of the East. I don’t have faith in Milwaukee. The Bucks are largely untested, and the dropoff between Giannis and Khris Middleton is still a little concerning to me. Boston and Philly’s injury issues are becoming a concern. Marcus Smart is a significant loss for the Celtics, and he’ll likely be missing during the conference semis, which could dash any Finals hopes. Meanwhile, the lingering concerns around Joel Embiid’s knee are casting a pall on Philly’s chances. Even if he can go, what will his conditioning be like? Toronto has experienced plenty of playoff heartbreak, but the Raptors have experience, and adding vets like Danny Green and Marc Gasol will help a lot on the margins. If Kawhi Leonard takes his game to the next level—like he did when he went supernova in the 2017 playoffs—then the Raptors may be able to make Golden State sweat a little bit in the championship round.
Chris Mannix: Warriors over Raptors in six games
Here we are again, wondering if a minor flaw in Golden State’s armor is enough to derail them. Last year it was Stephen Curry’s injury and regular season apathy. This year it’s Kevin Durant’s free agency and how DeMarcus Cousins fits. None of it matters, as beating Golden State in four out of seven still feels impossible. The real intrigue is in the East, where the Raptors, free from the hex LeBron James had on them, will bust out behind a stingy perimeter defense—the Kawhi Leonard/Pascal Siakam combo is so good—and emerge from what could be one of the most entertaining conference final fours in years. Then they will play the Warriors and lose, like everyone else.
Rob Mahoney: Warriors over Bucks in five games
Stephen Curry’s non-contact scare this week was a reminder of just how quickly a playoff run—or a Finals prediction—can fall apart. Yet without that kind of intervention, it’s hard to imagine any team in the field catching the Warriors this year. For all the quirks of Golden State’s season, this is still the best team in the league whenever they care to be, and sometimes even when they don’t. Milwaukee is one of the few teams that can really make them earn it. The only proven way to beat the Warriors in the playoffs is with a physically unstoppable superstar forward, a competitive defense, and a team full of shooters. Check, check, and check? It’s a long shot, but Giannis Antetokounmpo is the kind of player that makes a team dream big. The Warriors, unfortunately, are the kind of team that stomps out dreams altogether. Such is life.
Andrew Sharp: Warriors over Bucks in seven games
I’ve struggled with this one. If we’re talking about the East side of the bracket, I think Boston and Toronto should be co-favorites along with Milwaukee. It’s really close between those three. I’m going with the Bucks because Giannis is the best player in the NBA right now.
As for the West... The gap between Golden State and the rest of the conference has never been wider. The Warriors are more likely to go 12-0 to the Finals than be upset in the West. And as for the Finals? I’ve wondered whether we’re headed for another underwhelming Finals that will punctuate a Hamptons Five era that has always been more frustrating than fulfilling for basketball fans. Ultimately, I think it goes the opposite direction: all three favorites in the East are credible Warriors challengers, and whoever emerges is going to push Golden State harder than anyone expects. The Warriors will win—and probably go down in history as one of the greatest teams we’ve ever seen—but they will have to earn it.
Jeremy Woo: Warriors over Raptors in six games
I like the Raptors to get over the hump and come out of the East, as the Bucks are dealing with injuries and ultimately relying on Giannis, who is only 24, to do all their heavy lifting. Joel Embiid’s health makes it hard to bet on the Sixers, and the Celtics have been a tad too unreliable for my taste. With Kawhi Leonard, Toronto can boast the best closer in the East, and they have enough lineup combinations and depth of talent around him to get it done. It may not be enough to handle the full-strength Warriors, but winning the conference and making the Finals for the first time would be a worthy accomplishment.
It’s just hard to pick against Golden State, tumult and all. The Warriors know the stakes, have buckled down before, and are still close to unbeatable when they’re playing connected basketball. It’s tempting to dip a toe in the water and say that this is the year it all falls apart, but more likely than not, Golden State’s group will get to go out on its own terms, with another ring in hand before any forthcoming changes to the roster.