Our experts answer the big questions looking ahead to June.
1. _____ would be the most competitive Finals opponent for Golden State.
Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN: Toronto -- as always, health being a decisive factor. The most competitive teams in the NBA are able to morph themselves into whatever a game or series demands. These teams can succeed playing big or small, fast or slow, inside or outside, with sets or improvisational. The Raptors feature not only a slew of versatile players, but a series of versatile styles. That will come in handy against the Warriors, the team that has perfected this style.
Kirk Goldsberry, ESPN: The Milwaukee Bucks or Boston Celtics. All season long, the Bucks' key statistical markers have suggested they are the best team in the East. They lead the NBA in net rating by pairing the league's second-best offense with its fourth-best defense. But Boston is coming on strong, leading the NBA in net rating over the past 15 games. To have any chance against Golden State you have to play great defense, and both of these squads play great defense.
Tim Bontemps, ESPN: Through the first third of the season, it would have to be Toronto. The Raptors have the NBA's best record, one supported by a deep, complete roster led by one of the game's best players in Kawhi Leonard. And, as we all saw in the first meeting between these two teams, there is enough shooting and athleticism on the Raptors for this to be a competitive affair -- or, at least, as competitive as one with a healthy Warriors team can be.
André Snellings, ESPN Fantasy: The Raptors (with a strong honorable mention to Milwaukee). The Warriors have thrived with an oppressive, quick-strike offense built on incredible spacing and mismatches. The Raptors, though, are deep, full of long/athletic defenders and have the personnel and scheme to make the Warriors have to win one-on-one matchups. In addition, the Raptors now have a versatile, strong offense of their own led by a championship-tested, MVP-caliber wing in Kawhi who can challenge Kevin Durant.
Kevin Pelton, ESPN: The Raptors. While the Bucks might have the better team, based on their superior point differential and 2-0 head-to-head record against Toronto thus far (one of those games played without stars on both sides), I think the Raptors would be the more interesting Finals matchup because of the number of quality defensive wings they could throw at the Warriors. Between OG Anunoby, Danny Green and former Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard, Toronto is ideally equipped to match up with Golden State's stars.
2. Fact or fiction: The Finals would be better without the Warriors.
Goldsberry: Fake news, man. Are you kidding me right now? I get Warriors fatigue and everything, but this is a generational group we're watching. Like it or not, they are the defining team of the decade. The best Finals this year would be a seven-game series between the Dubs and whoever comes out of the Eastern Conference.
Snellings: Fiction. The Warriors are Goliath, the team by which all others are measured. It would almost be disappointing to not have them in the Finals. They play an entertaining brand of ball and if a new champion is to be crowned, it seems as though it should be by defeating Golden State on the biggest stage. In addition, the East has several teams that are built to give the Warriors a legitimate challenge. While the Raptors might be the strongest, both the Bucks and Celtics also have the personnel to make a very interesting Finals challenge for the Dubs.
Arnovitz: Fiction. Watching a champion dethroned in the Finals by an upstart in any sport is among the more satisfying events as a spectator. "To be the best you have to beat the best" might be a tired aphorism, but there's some historical weight behind it. Beyond that, the Warriors still play an incredibly appealing brand of basketball. Disgruntled junkies suffering from Warrior fatigue can grouse, but the global audience and springtime NBA fans love it for good reason.
Bontemps: Fiction. The NBA is a league driven by star power, and there is no team with more star power than Golden State. Would it potentially be more competitive with another team in it? Sure. But more competitive doesn't mean better. And, in this case, it wouldn't be.
Pelton: Fiction. If we were looking at yet another Warriors-Cavaliers Finals, I might favor mixing things up. However, whoever comes out of the East this year will present a new and more interesting challenge for a Golden State team that remains the most fun to watch in the league when fully engaged.
3. Fact or fiction: An East contender should make a win-now move.
Bontemps: Fact. Flags fly forever. And with all four contenders atop the East having realistic arguments for making it out of the conference, it would make sense for each to try to make a move. Plus, two of them -- the Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers -- already have made moves in trading for Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler, respectively. There's also this to consider: Who is to say Golden State will even be healthy upon reaching the Finals? This is an aging team with a lot of miles on its tires. It was just this spring that an Andre Iguodala injury had the Warriors within a few missed 3s by the Houston Rockets of being bounced before even making the NBA Finals. So yes, it would be foolish to not attempt to get better because it is unlikely anyone will beat Golden State as things stand today.
Goldsberry: Fact. The George Hill acquisition is a great example of how a contender can add depth and versatility in season. He's a battle-tested vet who strengthens the Bucks' chances in the playoffs. Other teams should target similar moves. I still think Philly should add another shooter to help offset the losses of Dario Saric and Robert Covington.
Arnovitz: Fiction. The East contender for whom this question was most dire was the Sixers, and they executed such a deal when they traded for Jimmy Butler. Boston certainly has the assets to acquire another impact player, but they might be wise to keep their powder dry and wait out the Warrior Age. Toronto might have a trick up its sleeve, but the most desirable candidates (e.g. Pascal Siakam) are among their most important for the present. Milwaukee could theoretically aggregate the likes of Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton, but it's difficult to come up with a feasible deal that would make the Bucks better.
Pelton: Fact. The Bucks already have by adding Hill, even if that move was probably more about their 2019-20 payroll than this season. I'm not sure a Celtics trade would be so much "win-now" as redistributing the talent on the roster, and the Raptors don't have huge needs, but the 76ers in particular could stand to upgrade their depth ahead of the playoffs.
Snellings: Fact. The Celtics are dripping in talent, but in many ways they don't have a team hierarchy the way that most contenders do. GM Danny Ainge should consider using some of Boston's valuable young pieces and draft assets to gain an edge on the other East teams.
4. If the Warriors lose the Finals, how will it happen?
Pelton: A switching defense like the Rockets employed in last year's conference finals forced Golden State's offense to bog down into inefficient isolations. Meanwhile, the opponent either avoided the isolation trap Houston fell into at the other end of the court or is able to score just enough with a mismatch problem like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi, Jayson Tatum or Joel Embiid.
Snellings: These Warriors aren't unbeatable, and it will take a contender both believing that and playing up to their level to prove it. During this dynasty run, we've seen several teams go toe-to-toe with Golden State in the playoffs -- the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2016, the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016 and the Houston Rockets in 2018 all either put the Warriors on the ropes or defeated them. There are at least three teams in the East that have the ability to give them such a challenge this season, and there are a few teams in the West that might be able to make the same claim. It's still possible to outplay this team in a series.
Bontemps: A combination of poor shooting by the Warriors, great shooting by their opponent, general wear-and-tear and the weight of expectations proving to be too much. Does it seem likely to me that will happen here? No. But in my scenario, going up against a deep, athletic Raptors team in the Finals with the kind of defensive pressure to give Golden State fits could exacerbate some of those issues -- if they arise in the first place.
Goldsberry: Hubris. If everyone is healthy, the Warriors are the clear favorites. But as we've seen in 2004, when the Pistons beat the Lakers or in 2011, when the Mavs beat the Heat, talent doesn't guarantee anything. Title teams have to play hard and have to play for one another. If the Warriors lose, it will be because they failed to come together as a team or lacked the hunger of their opponents. It would be an inside job.
Arnovitz: An Eastern contender like Toronto or Milwaukee shoots better than 45 percent from beyond the arc for the duration of the Finals. The defense of Kawhi or Giannis renders Kevin Durant into a bunch of 9-for-26 games, and the general length of either team's defense -- playing at its most precise -- obstructs the half-court flow of Golden State's ballet The confluence of all these events is highly unlikely, but crazier things have happened.
5. Which player or team would you be most eager to see in the Finals?
Snellings: Giannis. I believe him to be the best current player in the NBA. Antetokounmpo is a monstrous amalgamation of LeBron James and Kevin Garnett, and the Bucks have built a team that accentuates his strengths with shooters and perimeter defenders all around him. While the Warriors and Raptors might make the best series, I'm always up for seeing the best actual player in the Finals.
Goldsberry: Giannis. I love watching Giannis right now, and if he's playing in the Finals that will mean he has had a great playoff run filled with incredible highlights. I'm here for more Giannis dunks.
Bontemps: How great would it be to see Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant square off in up to seven games, just as they did in the epic overtime contest two weeks ago in Toronto? The last time they did in the playoffs -- when Durant's Oklahoma City Thunder beat Leonard's San Antonio Spurs in the 2016 Western Conference semifinals -- it was a classic series. But my true pick here would have to be Joel Embiid. He's arguably the sport's biggest personality, and it would be awfully fun to see him get that kind of stage. Plus, him going up against DeMarcus Cousins in a series would be must-see TV, too.
Arnovitz: Giannis Antetokounmpo, as much for his imperfections as his strengths. Give him space to shoot and he'll use it to accelerate. Play him tight and he'll barrel past the perimeter defense with a single dribble. The Warriors' playoff defense is still the best the NBA has to offer and will come up with a tactic or two to make his life difficult. How would he respond in his first Finals?
Pelton: Toronto. While the other East contenders are relatively early in their development, it might be now or never for the Raptors, with Leonard headed toward free agency next summer. After so much playoff heartbreak, I'd love to see the Raptors' passionate fans rewarded by their team breaking through on the NBA's biggest stage.