The 2021-22 NBA season is almost upon us, but Hot Take SZN is here, and at the end of another eventful offseason we will see how close to the sun we can fly and still stand the swelter of these viewpoints.
The Golden State Warriors have not made the playoffs since 2019, and yet they are tied with the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks for the third-best title odds behind the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers.
We know the extenuating circumstances surrounding why a dynastic team that reached five straight NBA Finals and won three of them fell into the lottery. Kevin Durant left in free agency. Klay Thompson tore his left ACL, and then his right Achilles’ tendon, respectively costing him the entirety of the 2019-20 and 2020-21 campaigns. Draymond Green aged north of 30 years old. Their depth either retired or was extricated.
Most of those diminishing returns are still reality, and the Warriors are not serious contenders as a result.
When healthy, Stephen Curry remains a paradigm-shifting superstar. He led the league in scoring last season on absurd efficiency, carrying an inexperienced roster to the play-in tournament, where even his 76 points over two games were not enough to secure a Western Conference playoff seed. The onus on Curry is astronomical, and he is capable of keeping Golden State competitive in any game by himself. For him to carry the Warriors through four playoff rounds is an expectation he alone cannot meet — and has never met.
Curry, Thompson and Green formed the core of a team that rolled to the 2015 title and won a record 73 regular-season games before blowing a 3-1 lead to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016 Finals. That loss precipitated Durant’s arrival and a talent pool that was too big to fail for two straight years. To believe the Warriors are still contenders is to ignore that the legs they stood on six years ago are weaker.
Thompson has not played since Game 6 of the 2019 Finals. He suffered two of the most serious injuries an athlete can face, including one that has prevented most everyone not named Durant from fully recovering. At the same time, he has eclipsed his 30th birthday. Nobody believes those injuries will keep Thompson from restoring his status as one of the greatest shooters ever to live, but there should be serious skepticism about his ability to explode on both ends and regain his stature as the team’s best perimeter defender.
Even if we believe Thompson will one day be an All-NBA-caliber player again, what are the chances he reaches that level this season, when he may not step on the court in earnest until January or even later?
Two transcendent shooters can lay the foundation of a serious contender, especially when they are joined by an All-Defensive triple-double threat whose versatility unlocks the Death Lineup du jour. Except, Green is no longer that guy. Last season marked his slowest average speed since the league started tracking that data in 2013. Only five players were slower, and four of them were incredibly high-usage offensive players.
None of this is to say Green is not a useful player. His understanding of the game alone makes him a plus contributor, and defensively his regression has merely dropped him from the best in the game to one of the best. He finished third in Defensive Player of the Year voting for the league’s third-ranked unit last season.
Green also remains one of the NBA’s best passers, regardless of position, and he helped facilitate an 11th-ranked offense without Thompson. Granted, Curry makes everyone’s job easier on that front, but there is a limit to his gravitational pull. Green is a non-scoring threat. He averaged seven points on six shots a game, converting fewer than 30% of his 3-pointers for a third straight season. When Golden State was at its best, opponents at least had to respect Green’s range, and the absence of a shot limits its lineup capabilities.
Which brings us to the fourth and final leg of the 2015 and 2016 Warriors — strength in numbers. Harrison Barnes was a top-10 pick three years into what is now a 10-year career as a productive starter. Former All-Stars Andre Iguodala, Andrew Bogut and David Lee played big minutes in their early 30s. Shaun Livingston, Leandro Barbosa and Marreese Speights were established veterans who rounded out a loaded rotation.
The Warriors learned how difficult it is to incorporate young players into a motion offense that requires a keen understanding of timing and know-how, so they sought veteran help. They re-signed Iguodala, now 38 years old and well past his prime. They brought in Otto Porter, Nemanja Bjelica and Avery Bradley, none of whom has contributed to a playoff win since 2018. All of them fell out of rotations at their last NBA stops.
Andrew Wiggins is the new Barnes, which is fine. The good news is Wiggins was engaged on defense during his first full year in Golden State, and he converted a career-high 38% of his 3s after shooting 33.2% through his first six seasons. The bad news is he has played five career playoff games, three years ago.
The rest is relying on potential. The Warriors have a wealth of young talent for a team not far removed from ruling the NBA. James Wiseman, their No. 2 overall pick in 2020, was in and out of the lineup last season for injury and productivity reasons. Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody are incoming 19-year-old lottery picks. Jordan Poole and Juan Toscano-Anderson have both shown promise in two years in their system.
The lot of them have zero playoff experience. Who among them can be counted on to reliably score and defend in high-pressure situations during their first go-round? The Warriors of old were relentless. They hit you in the mouth with Green and Bogut protecting the rim, Curry and Thompson barraging from deep. A bench full of starting-caliber players kept the party going, and the Death Lineup finished you off for good.
Do you trust Wiseman to spell Green as the anchor of a top-flight defense? Can Poole and Wiggins close big games? Will Iguodala give them anything? Can Porter, Bjelica or Bradley still be the best version of himself? Are Kuminga and Moody ready? How much do Green’s offensive limitations, Thompson’s rehabilitation and the unreliability of everyone else hinder Curry’s ability to be the electrifying scorer they will need him to be?
Those are questions the contending Warriors never had to answer, and that is before we consider whether or not Curry, Green and Thompson can still carry this team to a playoff berth and peak once they get there.
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