Editor's note: Grant Liffmann is the co-host of Warriors Outsiders, which airs on NBC Sports Bay Area 90 minutes before each home game and 60 minutes after every game. Each week, Grant will drop his Outsider Observation on the state of the Dubs.
The Warriors have finally completed the "first half" of the season, and now head into the All-Star break with a two-game lead for first place in the Western Conference.
With injuries during the beginning of the season, some public locker room drama and the reintegration of DeMarcus Cousins, the Warriors have faced their fair share of challenges along the way. But they have won 16 of 18 heading into the break, and players such as Steph Curry have really emphasized how well the team is jelling and how their chemistry is high.
So with 25 games remaining, it is time to start looking ahead to the rest of the season. We are only about six weeks away from the playoffs, so there are some necessary questions to dive into:
1) Which team will emerge as the biggest threat to the Warriors from the Western Conference?
If I had told you before the season that at the All-Star break, the Nuggets would have the second best record in the West, LeBron's Lakers would be 10th and that the Sacramento Kings were knocking on the door of the 8th seed, you'd probably ask what I've been smoking. And yet, here we are.
Before the season, and even now, many assumed that the Lakers were going to end up being the stiffest competition for the Warriors in the West, or perhaps the Rockets would regain their form the 2017-18 season to threaten the Warriors. But if I had to pick which team I think will end up in the Western Conference Finals (and therefore be the biggest threat to the Dubs), I'd say it is the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Entering the break, the Thunder have been red hot, flying up the standings to third in the West, trailing the Warriors by 3.5 games. Paul George is playing like an MVP, former MVP Russell Westbrook is yet again averaging a triple-double, Steven Adams has improved every single season, and the depth of the team is better than years prior. Their length and athleticism can be smothering on defense and the best chance of a remedy for the Warriors high-octane offense.
If they can hit their shots from deep, they can be an elite team. Before the season I picked the Thunder to be there, and I'm sticking with that pick.
I'd love to see these two teams play in a seven-game series for the chance to go to the NBA Finals.
2) Which team will emerge as the biggest threat to the Warriors from the Eastern Conference?
If the Warriors were to reach the NBA Finals, there are four teams in the East that could easily represent their conference as the opponent. Entering the season, I chose the Boston Celtics as the greatest threat to the Warriors and the most likely final matchup. But with the unrest and disappointing play from the Celtics, coupled with the power of the other three Eastern contenders, I'm changing my mind.
The Sixers have an elite starting five, the Bucks are a top-5 team on offense and defense, but I'm going with the Toronto Raptors. Kawhi Leonard is playing like a superstar again, Pascal Siakam is an easy-candidate for most-improved player, Kyle Lowry has turned into a pass-first point guard, Serge Ibaka has been reborn, their role players like Danny Green and OG Anunoby have improved their depth, and their additions of Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin are perfect compliments to the team in my opinion.
I see similarities between them and the Thunder, in terms of their length and athleticism on defense. Like the Thunder, they are in need of consistent outside shooting to be an imposing threat.
Having said all that, the Bucks are pretty darn good too ;)
3) What will be the biggest storyline for the Warriors post-All-Star Break?
The obvious one is staying healthy and getting the appropriate amount of rest for the stars and aging vets. But I think developing chemistry between DeMarcus Cousins and the other All-Stars is very important. Offensively they have already hit a nice rhythm together, though a little more seasoning could never hurt.
However, it is on defense where they could use more time on the court, partly simply because Boogie needs more conditioning and more experience switching out onto smaller guards.
Draymond Green has returned to his impressive Defensive Player of the Year type defensive prowess with Boogie's return, as he as gone back to a "free safety" type role, leading the defense and getting involved in every play. Cousins and Durant still have some chemistry to build in terms of switching and jumping out to defend the three-point line. The team will have 25 games to get their defense in order.
Oh and one more thing, the greatest storyline of all should be the Warriors pursuit of a third straight NBA title. A lot of the focus will be on free agent speculation, but if everyone were to instead try to focus on the present and in the moment, this could end up being one of the most memorable next four to five months in Warriors history.
So enjoy it.