Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

They may be the frontrunners to win the ‘ship this year, but the Golden State Warriors aren’t going to sweep their way to the NBA Finals like they did last season.

Yes, the 44-14 Golden State Warriors are the team to beat in the Western Conference and the obvious frontrunner to win the NBA Finals, but unlike last season, they’re not going to walk their way to the Finals.

Last season, the Warriors went into the playoffs with the best record in the NBA. With home-court advantage and the best record in the association (67-15) on their side, they cruised their way through the Western Conference. Sweeping the Portland Trail Blazers, Utah Jazz and San Antonio Spurs (even though the series drastically changed when Zaza Pachulia took out Kawhi Leonard in Game 1), the Warriors reiterated their dominance out West.

While they may be the early favorites to make it back to the Finals to defend their crown, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and friends will first have to overcome the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder.

With the All-Star break now in the rearview mirror, the Rockets will be heading into the final 25 games of the regular season looking to hold onto the number one seed in the Western Conference. Currently 44-13, they own the best record in the NBA and their roster shows for it.

James Harden, Chris Paul, Houston Rockets
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

With shooting guard James Harden playing at an MVP level, yet again, averaging a career-high 31.3 points and nine assists per game, head coach Mike D’Antoni has heavily leaned on Harden to carry the scoring load. Alongside Harden is veteran point guard Chris Paul who is also putting together a great season.

Averaging 19.2 points, 8.3 assists, 5.7 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game, Paul has been another primary scoring option for Houston, while also finding the open man and playing tight on-ball defense in the process. The duo of Harden and Paul has established itself as the best backcourt pairing in the NBA.

With two-way wings such as Eric Gordon and Trevor Ariza, as well as defensive savvy forwards P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute, the Rockets have a potent defensive attack out on the perimeter. And with Ryan Anderson’s sharpshooting presence beyond the arc and the spark plug that Gerald Green is off the bench, the Rockets’ offensive attack is lethal. Plus, they own one of the more unstoppable pick-and-roll duos in the NBA in Harden and center Clint Capela — who also hits the boards and defends the paint with dominance.

So far this season, the Rockets have defeated the Warriors twice (once in Golden State, once in Houston). They have the offensive firepower and defensive tenacity to keep up with the Warriors and clearly aren’t afraid to take the battle to them. The same goes for the Thunder, who are just as big of a threat to Golden State as Houston in blocking their fourth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals.

While they started off in mediocrity, head coach Billy Donovan and the Thunder have figured things out. With Russell Westbrook averaging a near triple-double, Paul George playing arguably the best basketball of his career and Carmelo Anthony beginning to gel as the third scoring option, the Thunder possess one of the league’s most dangerous big three’s.

George and Anthony each provide Oklahoma City with legitimate go-to scoring options while center Steven Adams does all the dirty work in the paint whether it be locking down the paint or hitting the boards with ease (Adams is averaging 9.1 rebounds per game this season).

While their 33-26 record doesn’t wow anybody, the Thunder have defeated the Warriors twice but in more convincing fashion than the Rockets (once by 17 in Oklahoma City, the other by 20 in Golden State). The Warriors, like the rest of the league, have no answer for Westbrook and the duo of George and Anthony is a handful for Durant and Green to contain.

The Rockets and Thunder each have the offensive talent to give Golden State trouble defensively. The same goes for the Minnesota Timberwolves. While maybe not as big of a threat as Houston or Oklahoma City, the Timberwolves have players capable of putting up 30 points on any given night such as Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns and Jeff Teague. And Towns can exploit the Warriors interior defense or lack thereof.

Paul George, Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
(Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

The Warriors are the frontrunners to make it make to the Finals, as they should be. The quartet of Curry-Durant-Thompson-Green is one of, if not the most lethal groupings of this century. And their play stretches to both ends of the floor.

While Thompson and Durant are better-known for their scoring prowess, they each play elite on-ball defense and never give up on plays. Durant, for one, is averaging a career-high 1.9 blocks per game. And while he’s categorized primarily as a scorer, Curry also plays competitive defense, averaging 1.6 steals per game. Green is the most potent defender of the four as he shuts down opposing wings and backs down to nobody.

In reality, it’s very likely that if and when Golden State makes it to the Conference Finals, it’ll essentially be the NBA Finals. While the Cleveland Cavaliers always have a fighting chance with LeBron James on their side, they don’t have the offensive weapons to keep up with the Warriors, although they may be able to escape the Boston Celtics and the Eastern Conference.

Houston and Golden State are the two best teams in the NBA and the Thunder aren’t far behind. They may not beat them in a seven-game series, but the Rockets and Thunder are going to give the Warriors a run for their money which is something the Bay Area hasn’t been faced with in two years.

Robbie Stratakos is a New York Knicks/Giants Beat Writer for Elite Sports NY (ESNY); he also covers the NBA nationally. He previously wrote at Last Word On Pro Basketball and Empire Writes Back. In addition to writing for ESNY, Robbie is an MLB columnist at Baseball Essential. He previously wrote at HardBallScoop - part of Scout/CBS Interactive/247Sports, Last Word On Baseball and District On Deck. He is attending Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, New York. Follow him on twitter @RPStratakos