Sports

Surprise! Golden State is the team to beat out West, again

FILE - In this June 12, 2017, file photo, Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green, left, and guard Stephen Curry (30) celebrate during the second half of Game 5 of basketball's NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Oakland, Calif. Winners of the NBA title in two of the last three seasons, Golden State made it look easy at times a year ago and prevailed in 31 of their final 33 games. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

FILE - In this June 12, 2017, file photo, Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green, left, and guard Stephen Curry (30) celebrate during the second half of Game 5 of basketball's NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Oakland, Calif. Winners of the NBA title in two of the last three seasons, Golden State made it look easy at times a year ago and prevailed in 31 of their final 33 games. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

And now we know: It worked.

The big question at this time last season was about Golden State and how it would work when taking a high-octane team and adding a dynamic scorer like Kevin Durant to the mix. Pundits wondered how the shots would be distributed, who would take the big shots in crunch time, how would Durant fare alongside another MVP in Stephen Curry.

The answer came in June, when the Warriors hoisted their second championship trophy in three years.

Another season has arrived, the Western Conference looks loaded yet again, and Golden State is going to be practically everyone's pick to finish atop the heap yet again.

"We don't have guys that are selfish at all, that are jealous of anybody else's success or going to create drama if they get five shots one game and 15 shots the next game," Curry said. "As long as we win."

It may not be as easy this season, and the Warriors are welcoming that challenge.

Houston has gone all-in on a title chase, giving up seven players, a future first-round pick and cash to bring Chris Paul over from the Los Angeles Clippers to join James Harden in a backcourt that can match up with any other — the Warriors' duo of Curry and Klay Thompson included. And Oklahoma City has the reigning MVP in Russell Westbrook, plus two new perennial All-Stars in Paul George and Carmelo Anthony who have relocated to resume their ring-chasing.

So there are new looks out West.

The Warriors are largely the same, with good reason. They've been almost unbeatable for three years, and have no plans to change that now.

"It's crazy," Thompson said. "The West just got stronger. But it will be fun."

A look at the West, in predicted order of finish:

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PLAYOFF BOUND

1. Golden State — The Warriors need to avoid injuries and boredom over the next six months. They know winning in June is the only thing that matters.

2. Houston — Chris Paul and James Harden in the same backcourt is only going to make Mike D'Antoni more creative. Legit concern: Will they overpass?

3. San Antonio — Kawhi Leonard dealing with a leg problem in the preseason isn't optimal. But the off-season addition of Rudy Gay may prove significant.

4. Oklahoma City — MVP Russell Westbrook now has Paul George and Carmelo Anthony with him. How will they mesh? They have 82 games to figure it out.

5. Minnesota — This has to be the year where the Timberwolves break through. Jimmy Butler with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins will be superb.

6. Denver — The Nuggets kept the core of their roster intact, added Paul Millsap in a brilliant move, and Nikola Jokic is a budding star. Watch this team.

7. Utah — Don't count the Jazz out. Gordon Hayward is gone and Dante Exum is hurt, but coach Quin Snyder has shown he knows how to adjust on the fly.

8. L.A. Clippers — Losing Chris Paul will hurt in many ways on and off the floor, but the Clippers still have enough to be in the playoff chase even out West.

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IN THE MIX

9. Portland — It's absurd to think that a backcourt of CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard might not lead to a top-eight finish in the West. But over whom?

10. Memphis — David Fizdale has completely endeared himself to players, and that's a big reason why the Grizzlies should hang around the race all season.

11. Dallas — Dirk Nowitzki isn't playing a 20th season because of money. He's thinking the Mavs will be better, and if they stay healthy he may be right.

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FACING LONG ODDS

12. New Orleans — Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and (when he returns) Rajon Rondo on one team. Great for Kentucky. Unsure for New Orleans.

13. L.A. Lakers — Lonzo Ball will be exciting and it's a new era for the Lakers. But the rebuild will take time, unless L.A. hits a free-agent jackpot in 2018.

14. Phoenix — Devin Booker had great numbers last season and the Suns have a strong young core. The development will have to continue this season.

15. Sacramento — It's easy to see the plan. Kings have tons of youth, had a great draft in June and will let the kids learn from the likes of Vince Carter.

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WHAT TO KNOW

WARRIORS GOLDEN: Let's not forget that on the way to winning their second title in three seasons, the Warriors went 31-2 in their final 33 games. A 16-1 record in the post-season is ridiculous to think about, and so is this — counting the regular season and the playoffs, Golden State went 82-8 when scoring at least 103 points. (When the Warriors scored 102 or less, they went 1-9.)

WESTBROOK WATCH: To put MVP Russell Westbrook's averaging of a triple-double last season into perspective, note that 11 other players averaged double-doubles in points and rebounds, and only two others did in points and assists. Having more help on the floor now with Paul George and Carmelo Anthony should allow Westbrook to have even more energy at winning time. Scary.

PLAYOFF HISTORY: If San Antonio makes the playoffs this season, which would seem like a bit of a safe bet, it would be the 21st consecutive post-season trip for the Spurs. That would tie Portland (1983-2003) for the second-longest streak in NBA history, and put San Antonio one shy of matching Philadelphia's run of 22 straight appearances from 1950 through 1971.

DIRK'S MILESTONES: Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki will join the Lakers' Kobe Bryant as the only player to play 20 NBA seasons all with the same club. He's also on target to become the sixth player in league history to log 50,000 minutes, and is within 1,160 points of passing Wilt Chamberlain for No. 5 on the league's all-time scoring list.

SO MUCH TALENT: There were 16 instances of a player scoring 50 or more points last season, including playoffs, and 12 of those games were posted by someone in the Western Conference (Russell Westbrook 5, James Harden 2, Klay Thompson 1, Devin Booker 1, Damian Lillard 1, DeMarcus Cousins 1, Anthony Davis 1). And one of the Eastern 50-point nights came from Jimmy Butler, who now plays in the West.

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Follow AP Basketball Writer Tim Reynolds on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ByTimReynolds

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