It’s already starting. The Warriors are going to miss the playoffs. Bobby Marks said it on ESPN and he’s not alone in his Golden State skepticism. “They’ll be in the conversation, but they’re definitely not a lock,” a Western Conference executive told CBS Sports.
A Western Conference scout concurred. “I think it’ll be a transition year for them,” the scout told CBS Sports. “Obviously they’re still dangerous, but look at the West. Somebody has to go.”
It’s true. At the very least, one Western playoff team from last year will end up in the lottery to make room for the Lakers, who barring injury will surely make the postseason regardless of Kawhi Leonard’s decision. The Kings, Pelicans and Mavericks, all three non-playoff teams from a year ago, figure to compete for a spot as well. It’ll be tight, no doubt, and the Warriors are compromised on various levels.
Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala are gone. Klay Thompson is probably out until after the All-Star break, at least, and there’s no guarantee he’ll be the same player upon his immediate return. The bench is thin. D’Angelo Russell could be a strange fit next to Stephen Curry. Burnout might be the biggest obstacle of all.
“To me it’s a matter of motivation,” another league scout told CBS Sports. “If they were to push Curry and Draymond to the limit, those guys are competitive enough to get them through. But after the five-year run they’ve been on, playing, what, 100 games or more every year? That’s tough to keep bringing it every single night. And there’s no breathing room in the West. You can’t take a week or two off.”
Most people feel there are five Western teams you can pretty much lock into the playoffs: Denver, Houston, Portland, Utah and the Lakers. The Blazers, to me, are the best comp. Like the Warriors, they’re not terribly deep, and they’ll have to play a good chunk of the season without a key player in Jusuf Nurkic.
Why do we consider the Blazers a lock for the playoffs?
Because they have Damian Lillard.
People will talk about continuity, and gained experience from last year’s conference finals run, but the Blazers, despite consistently garnering national skepticism, make the playoffs EVERY SINGLE YEAR because, first and foremost, they have Lillard. So let’s not mask this: To underestimate the Warriors is to underestimate Curry, who along with Draymond just had the Warriors one shot from Game 7 of the Finals despite playing with one of the more compromised rosters in recent championship history.
When Durant went out against the Rockets, plenty of people said the Warriors were done. Then Curry took over. Then he did it again in a sweep of the Blazers, who are somehow locked into most people’s playoff projections. Let’s face it: The idea that Curry isn’t a true franchise carrier, on his own, is still a relatively prevailing sentiment, even if people won’t say it explicitly.
Think about it: Any team that LeBron or Kawhi or a healthy Durant is on is considered a playoff lock, and probably a title contender on their presence alone. People just will not put Curry in that class, despite a landslide of evidence that he belongs.
If Curry was on the Hornets, then fine, perhaps questioning his ability to lead a team to the playoffs would be understandable. But this is the Warriors we’re talking about, and their collective demise has been wildly exaggerated. When they open the Chase Center next season, they’ll have three All-Stars in their starting lineup, including a two-time MVP and arguably the best defensive player of a generation.
They got Kevon Looney back. People act like Willie Cauley-Stein’s athleticism and size and rebounding just aren’t things and that he’s somehow just this empty-stat in a uniform. There was a time when JaVale McGee was talked about the same way, and he wound up legitimately helping Golden State. Cauley-Stein is McGee on his worst day, and even that is a disservice to what he can do with a license to turn his strengths loose on a team that has a history of bringing out the best version of its players.
The Warriors feel like the new Spurs in that way. They had their run of dominance on the strength of three or four Hall of Famers in their primes, but their lasting legacy is the fact that even as their star has dimmed, they’ve still never burned out. Steph Curry is the new Tim Duncan. Parts can change around him, but as long as he’s in uniform, the Warriors are going to be in the playoffs. More than that, they’ll probably be a championship factor once they get there.
The blueprint is pretty easy to see, really. D’Angelo Russell, while an imperfect fit and probably not worth a max contract, is a good player who can at least come close to replacing the 21.5 points Klay Thompson averaged last year. More than the production, he is the key to not having to completely tax Curry. Russell can run pick-and-roll and play off the ball, and Curry can continue to spread his wealth without having to play 37 minutes a night.
That said, Curry is one of the great competitors the NBA has, as is Draymond. Those two guys love to be doubted. Green is playing for a max contract next season, and a Defensive Player of the Year award would significantly increase his earning potential. Curry is forever playing for respect, and perhaps a third MVP. Yes, Steve Kerr will be careful not to overly push Green or Curry, but he’s not going to keep them in the barn, either.
The Warriors are going to run. They’re not just going to chalk up a lost year as Curry’s prime dwindles in front of them. They’re going to show up every night and play hard on the strength of what will likely be a top-five offense, even without Thompson. The defense is a problem, for sure. Without Durant, Thompson and Iguodala, Golden State will begin next season down its three best defenders over the last three years. Green’s presence, along with securing Looney, keeps them afloat, but the Curry-Russell backcourt is a real problem without Klay to cover.
Still, don’t confuse an imperfect team with an irrelevant one. Again, we’re talking about a team with, arguably, the most impactful offensive player AND defensive player in the league. Thompson will likely be back, and there’s a chance Russell is traded by the time that happens for a more defensive-minded fit — perhaps a deal with Minnesota with Robert Covington as a centerpiece. That said, Russell could take another step in all that Curry space and give the Warriors a new, but equally dangerous look.
However it works out, some perspective feels necessary. The Warriors aren’t going to be the team they’ve been, but they’re not going to be the team skeptics say they’ve become, either. The truth, as usual, is probably somewhere in the middle: The Warriors have become part of the great league-wide parity that suddenly exists — one of a bunch of teams that have every right to believe they’re a factor, even if on the fringe. Perhaps they’re not anything more than that. But be careful before you decide that they’re anything less.