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The Warriors are just fine, the Thunder should be respected, and Ben Simmons is the best rookie

As we look forward to two months of NBA playoffs, the Warriors - in spite of their recent results - remain the favorite to win their third championship in four years.

The defending champs are a mess. The Warriors finished the regular season with a 40-point loss Tuesday at Utah. They lost 10 of their final 17 games, and coach Steve Kerr was publicly wondering if they cared. He was asking the right question (even if he apologized for it later). The truth is, his players didn’t care.

But now they are going to care. A lot.

Usually a long-running contender like Golden State begins to wear down because of age. But the Warriors don’t have that problem yet: Steph Curry is 30, Kevin Durant is 29, and Draymond Green and Klay Thompson are 28. Those four stars are at their peak, and that’s why you shouldn’t worry too much about their lousy play at the end of the season.

Inspiration has been at the heart of Golden State’s problems. Yes, they’ve had to deal with injuries, but that hasn’t been the real issue. The trouble with asking them to commit to the final weeks of the regular season is that they know better. Based on who they are and what they’ve accomplished, these recent games have meant very little to them. They believe they’re better than everyone and now, with the playoffs about to start, they have the chance to prove it.

The Warriors may be most vulnerable in the first round. They’re going to have to play without Curry for a few playoff games at least, as he recovers from his recent knee injury, and they’re going to need some time to become sharp again and work their way up to the highest gear.

Entering the final night of the regular season, their first-round matchup was still to be decided. The Warriors would prefer to meet New Orleans or Denver, obviously. The other possible opponents were more dangerous: the Spurs, who would force Golden State to raise its intensity quickly (especially if Kawhi Leonard were to come back, as unlikely as that seems), and the Timberwolves, who could be scary if Jimmy Butler returns at a high level alongside Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.

In the end, however, the real factor here is going to be the intensity of the playoffs and the fact that the Warriors finally have a reason to focus. Because the games matter again, you’ll see them returning to their usual elite form on defense. So long as Curry is back in uniform by the second round and everyone else is healthy, the Warriors are still the team to beat because of their talent and unselfish style of play:

Five teams can win the championship this year. In order, they are:

1. The Warriors.

2. The Rockets. Will Chris Paul be healthy throughout the postseason? This is a crucial question for a star who has had all kinds of injuries in recent years. James Harden and their deep roster of role players are going to need Paul to be at his best.

3. The Cavaliers. I know this seems crazy, based on the fact that LeBron James is surrounded by Kevin Love and a bunch of role players. But LeBron has to be favored to win the East, and what if he gets there to find the Warriors or Rockets dealing with injuries? The Cavaliers must be respected as a potential champion - simply because of LeBron.

4. The Thunder. Another crazy nominee from me? Oklahoma City believes it can win the championship. Never mind their underachieving regular season or the fact that they’ve barely sneaked into the playoffs - the Thunder have All-Stars in Russell Westbrook (last year’s MVP) and Paul George (a rare two-way star) to go with Steven Adams (one of the league’s top centers) and their fourth-best player Carmelo Anthony. They can be strong defensively and they have a variety of shotmakers to steal the close games - so long as they’re not playing isolation basketball. If you see the Thunder sharing the ball from side to side, then they’ll be dangerous.

5. The Raptors. They have only two stars in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, but they move the ball, they defend, and they have a deep young second unit. Whichever team emerges from the East - a list that includes the Wizards and 76ers - is going to need injury help in the NBA Finals. If the Warriors or Rockets are at full strength in June, then the championship series is going to be lopsided.

The neglected story. By winning five of seven games, the Brooklyn Nets improved to 28 wins entering their season finale Wednesday at Boston.

Why does this matter? Because the Cavaliers own the rights to Brooklyn’s number 1 draft pick. That pick will be their most valuable piece in trying to convince LeBron to re-sign as a free agent this summer.

Based on their recent hot play, the Nets have dropped back to number 8 in the lottery. We will be talking about this a lot more in June and July, as the focus turns to LeBron’s next decision.

Charlotte hires Mitch Kupchak as president and GM. Kupchak was a college basketball star from the Hornets’ home state of North Carolina, and he has a relationship with team owner Michael Jordan. But the big hope for Charlotte is that Kupchak will bring the formula that helped him win four championships in 17 years as GM of the Lakers.

Another team recently tried to cash in on the Lakers’ success when the Knicks hired Phil Jackson to run their basketball operation. Jackson was unsuccessful in New York because he was a coach who had never worked in an NBA front office. Instead of providing his Knicks coaches with the kind of freedom that he demanded when he was winning championships with the Bulls and Lakers, Jackson insisted that they run a version of the triangle offense. It was a rookie mistake from someone who should have known better.

Kupchak will not be so domineering. But he will have to make a big adjustment too, because he is no longer with the most powerful and attractive franchise in the league. Kupchak will have to manage the small-market Hornets differently than he ran the Lakers.

Ben Simmons insists he should be Rookie of the Year. And he’s right.

While Donovan Mitchell has emerged as the surprise number 13 pick of the most recent draft - helping Utah to recover instantly from the free-agent departure of All-Star Gordon Hayward - the rookie revelation has been Simmons.

It doesn’t matter that Simmons was drafted in 2016 (as the number 1 pick overall) and was sidelined last season by injury. At 21 he is two years younger than Mitchell. More relevant is that Simmons has shown already that he can become one of the NBA’s greatest stars. Simmons at 6 feet 10 inches (2.08 meters) was able to transition instantly to point guard while leading the 76ers to more than 50 wins - after they had lost 253 over the preceding four seasons.

I doubt whether the Sixers can win tight playoff games down the stretch against the more experienced opponents. But they’ll definitely become one of the most intriguing teams of the postseason if center Joel Embiid is able to recover from injury and rejoin Simmons.