Basketball fans in Ohio and the Bay Area will obviously think it's wonderful having the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers meet in the first three-match in NBA history. Basketball fans in general get to enjoy two of the most dominant teams ever assembled go at it in what's quickly become an annual series of haymakers. And yet it's also possible that you can love basketball but at the same time hate that the same two teams are facing each other for the third consecutive year in the NBA Finals. The most obvious argument against such an occurrence is that it has devalued what the other 28 organizations have accomplished in that time. The NBA has become predictable.
So, for the next few days, VICE Sports will take a look at every team that's conceivably in line to end the dynastic Warriors vs. Cavaliers stranglehold, possibly as early as next season.
The teams will be separated into three categories—"Growing long shots", "The fatalistic upper-middle class", and "(Maybe) one player away". First up, the long shots: two young teams that are on the right track, and could leapfrog teams in front of them as early as next season if they make a few creative moves this summer.
At first glance, this is ridiculous. The Timberwolves won 31 games as the NBA's youngest team last season. They finished 26th in defense (dead last in back-to-backs), and, perhaps even more disturbing, 30th in three-point rate. The athletic Zach LaVine, their third (maybe fourth) best player, tore his ACL midway through the year. Kris Dunn, Tom Thibodeau's first draft pick as Minnesota's president of basketball operations, averaged 3.8 points per game and shot 37.7 percent from the floor. All that's very bad. But the first year of Thibodeau's reign was more of a necessary culture shock than an alarming disappointment. The Timberwolves have their framework set: a brilliant head coach, a franchise center, and a physically-gifted wing. Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins could both make the All-NBA team next year (Wiggins as a guard), while Ricky Rubio's post-All-Star break shooting splits showed he may have shored up his biggest weakness. Thibodeau enjoys the idea of what his 23-year-old rookie can become, even if his offensive woes were a concern last season. "I like Kris a lot," Thibodeau told me last season. "I think he brings toughness to a team, it's something that we desperately needed. He plays defense not like a rookie. He plays like he's a seasoned vet. He's got great feet. He's tough. He anticipates well. He can guard multiple positions. So defensively right now he's way ahead. Offensively he's learning the NBA game, which takes time." Dunn's type of versatile defense is valuable against any team, but especially so against the Warriors—a group that pressures defenses to switch on split cuts and ball screens multiple times over the course of any single possession. Beyond growth from Towns, Wiggins, and Rubio, a recuperating LaVine and a maturing Dunn, Minnesota also has the No. 7 pick in this year's draft and an opportunity to spend max cap space if granted a medical retirement for Nikola Pekovic. If not, they already have enough money to sign someone like J.J. Redick, Andre Iguodala, P.J. Tucker, or C.J. Miles. All can help, but aren't suitable long-term within Minnesota's timeline; none are talented enough to do much beyond lift them from the lottery to the postseason. But if accelerating said timeline and competing with Golden State next season is the goal, Minnesota can throw itself into the Jimmy Butler sweepstakes by offering the Bulls whoever's selected with the seventh pick (Jonathan Isaac, Malik Monk, Dennis Smith Jr., etc.), LaVine, Gorgui Dieng, and their first available unprotected first-round pick two years after the previous one is conveyed (the Timberwolves currently owe a lottery protected first-round pick to the Atlanta Hawks that can be submitted as early as 2018 and as late as 2020).
If real-life factors such as the luxury tax (which Minnesota would shoot into by 2019) or a desire to patiently cultivate their preternaturally gifted youth are eliminated from the equation, it's technically possible for Minnesota to offer someone like Paul Millsap a four-year max contract. Rubio, Wiggins, Butler, Millsap, and Towns is a hellacious starting five. All this seems fantastical because it probably is, but the Timberwolves will still need to take a swing in free agency this summer before their cap space gets tied up in extensions for Wiggins and LaVine, then Towns the following summer. It's doubtful Thibodeau wants to get any younger, so it's reasonable to wager that this year's draft pick may be on the block. This new version of the Timberwolves would be a championship favorite heading into most seasons, but are they good enough to compete with the Warriors? It's possible, if Towns makes a gargantuan Year 3 leap (particularly defensively) and Wiggins continues to excel as a cutter within an offense that no longer needs him to post-up three times every game. These Timberwolves would provide match-up questions on both ends that Golden State has never seen before. Minnesota's improved three-point shooting would remain a concern, but it's possible that wouldn't even matter if Golden State couldn't stop Towns. Unleashing Godzilla in the post, forcing defenders to double off Wiggins, Rubio, Butler, and Millsap could play into Minnesota's hands. If Towns can control tempo with his back to the basket and force the Warriors to mud wrestle in the half-court, it'd be fun to see how they respond. Size is their only weakness, and Towns could be the answer to exploit it. Elsewhere Rubio, Millsap and Butler are three of the best defenders at their position, with the latter two already proving their worth as All-Star-level contributors.
Each can score on his own, run a pick-and-roll, rebound, and—maybe—make enough threes to give Towns the space he needs down low. Minnesota's bench would be thin, but Thibodeau could easily stagger lineups that ensure at least one (possibly two) top-30 players is always on the court.
The big difference between Milwaukee and Minnesota—besides one's attempt to topple the Warriors and the other trying to stifle LeBron James—is flexibility. The Timberwolves can open up max cap space while the Bucks may not have any to spend at all.
It starts with Greg Monroe's $17.8 million player option. Even if he and Spencer Hawes (owner of a $6 million player option) both opt out, Milwaukee renounces all its cap holds, and then trades the 17th overall pick, the most cap space they can clear is about $15 million. With that they can afford about half of a max-caliber player, which, you know, isn't great.
Re-signing Tony Snell to a long-term, team-friendly deal (Tony Snell is not bad!), hoping Thon Maker can make a seismic leap alongside Malcolm Brogdon's puddle jump in their respective sophomore seasons, making a sound choice with the 17th pick, and acquiring a stable rotation player with the mid-level exception, isn't a bad offseason.
If they can add someone like P.J. Tucker, Justin Holiday, Luc Mbah a Moute, C.J. Miles, Thabo Sefolosha, or even Nick Young to what they already have, Milwaukee can enter a series against the Cavs with even more options on the wing to match up against those LeBron-led small units that pulverize everything in their path. They can fight fire with fire and go wild with Giannis Antetokounmpo at the five.
If Milwaukee desires cap space, it can probably dump John Henson's contract by attaching it to their first-round pick, but if Monroe opts out they'll actually need Henson to play some backup five. Add all this together and it means the Bucks have to bank on improvement from what they already have. The good news: They own a house made of gold.
It's hard to fathom how good the Bucks can/will be once their three best players are all healthy and near their prime at the same time. Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker, and Khris Middleton shared the floor exactly zero minutes last season. The year before, those three played 1475 minutes together, with a +0.3 net rating.
But none were as good as they'll be in 2017-18, especially Antetokounmpo. There's a decent chance sometime next year "move like Giannis" will permanently replace "move like a gazelle" as the go-to simile that describes graceful gallivanting. A quick glance at his body reveals that it was built for two possible occupations: 1) gliding by NBA defenders in the open floor, 2) supplanting the United States Postal Service as a new way to deliver cross-country mail. Already a second-team All-NBA tornado, elite shot-blocker, pseudo-MVP candidate, and consistently improving phenomenon who's accomplished all he has without a respectable outside shot, Antetokounmpo will be only 23 years old next season. When you combine his age, True Shooting percentage (.599), and per-game splits (22 points, eight rebounds, five assists), Antetokounmpo's breakout season was unprecedented for every 22, 23, and 24-year-old in NBA history. Michael Jordan's 25-year-old season is the only comparison. A top-10 player who can elevate into the top five is the most critical ingredient required by any Eastern Conference team that wants to sack the Cavs. But it's not enough. The Bucks need Parker to be 100 percent healthy (he's not expected to return until next year's All-Star break), competent on defense, and to perform with the experience and maturity of a 28-year-old. (He'll be 22 next year.) Had Parker not torn his ACL, there's a decent chance (a likely one for the purpose of this exercise) that Milwaukee would shop him this summer for someone like Paul George, Butler, or any other established help that better complements Antetokounmpo. Middleton's game fits well as an ideal sidekick, but for Milwaukee to scramble past Cleveland next year, he needs to consistently play like the top-shelf two-way contributor he's shown he can be.
Even still, assuming everyone on last year's team is better next season, the Bucks still have a schematic issue to solve against the Cavaliers. Even when executed with consistency, Milwaukee's trap-and-recover defense is illogical against Cleveland's three-point shooting. Instead, given the length and quickness up and down their roster, they should switch every screen without skipping a beat. That's the best way to limit open three-point opportunities and force the Cavaliers to attack in less dangerous ways. Antetokounmpo and Maker provide unprecedented physical gifts as a rim-protecting duo that can also contain ball-handlers in space. And their evolution could very well be what ends LeBron's run. If their collective progress transpires at a faster rate than most expect, we could see a new team in the Eastern Conference Finals as early as next season.