Do Golden State Warriors Still Have NBA Finals Shot?

When the Golden State Warriors open the 2018-19 campaign in their new digs at the Chase Center, they’ll do so with a new-look roster as well. Thanks to injuries, free agency departures and trades, Steve Kerr will have a much different rotation to work with, even if the core seems familiar.

Several familiar faces won’t be around when the season tips off.  Klay Thompson is recovering from his ACL injury, Kevin Durant bolted in free agency, and Andre Iguodala was traded. Some key rotational pieces are gone as well, including DeMarcus Cousins, Shaun Livingston, Jordan Bell and Quinn Cook.

The much-publicized roster turnover prompted many to declare that the Dubs’ dynastic control over the Western Conference is over.

And they’re probably right. Golden State will no longer be the frontrunner, especially this upcoming season. But exactly how far will this group slip, and do they still have a puncher’s chance to win the west again in 2019-20? Let’s break down how Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and the slew of newcomers will fare this season.

We must establish one premise before going any further, however: The Warriors can’t maximize their new roster by operating with the same approach.

They brought in some highly talented players to support Steph and Dray, such as Brooklyn Nets star D’Angelo Russell, Sacramento Kings starting center Willie Cauley-Stein and journeyman Alec Burks. Good players, yes, but not a one (or collectively) can instantly replicate the unique impact of Durant’s firepower, Thompson’s off-ball wizardry and the glue-guy versatility of Iggy and Livingston.

Kerr told Joe Vardon of The Athletic that Klay’s absence, in particular, changes the club’s schematic outlook:

Klay was always an integral part of everything. Movement on offense, but also the guarding of the ballhandler on defense, switching onto bigs. So until he gets back, we’ve got to re-imagine everything and adapt accordingly.

With those basic limitations in mind, the good news is that Golden State still has two of its foundational pieces in their prime. Curry is the electric catalyst of Kerr’s offense, and Green is the straw that stirs the defensive cocktail.

They will empower the supporting cast if the said cast embraces their roles.

Oct 28, 2018; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Brooklyn Nets guard D’Angelo Russell (1) drives past Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) in the fourth quarter at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Russell is the most valuable addition on the offensive end. He propelled Brooklyn to the playoffs last season, and his talent could help the Warriors torture opposing defenses.

Steph and D-Lo will be a dangerous pair on offense because they’re both effective on or off the ball. We know Curry is unselfish enough to play away from the dribble, but Kerr will still want a steady diet of Curry’s creativity. That means Russell will spend less time handling the rock than he’s accustomed to.

There is enough evidence to have confidence in Russell expanding his wingman duties and doing less initiating. He’s a smart player when he’s been given a chance to showcase that side of his game, knowing when and where to cut with terrific instincts and footwork to find open spots. Plus, his catch-and-shoot skills are well above average. Over 17 percent of his field-goal attempts were catch-and-fire triples last season, and he converted 39.4 percent of them, per NBA.com.

Here are a few clips of Russell working craftily off the ball via set plays, freelancing and sideline out-of-bounds looks:

Sure, he’s nowhere close to Thompson in terms of energy, quick release and chemistry with Curry. But Kerr will do some fun things with Russell as a receiver.

And when opponents overplay D-Lo’s treys, he knows to cut backdoor to make them regret it:

Golden State will run some dynamic motion with Russell as a key component, and they’ll also run plenty of pick-and-roll variations. The Steph-Dray P-N-R will remain a lethal staple, but they will also mix Kevon Looney and Willie Cauley-Stein as rollers who can get up at the rim. Russell will take turns as the weak-side floor spacer and the handler.

One X-factor who could determine Golden State’s ceiling? Alec Burks.

Injuries and inconsistent opportunities have kept him in the shadows for the last few years. At his peak, he’s a shifty dual-threat asset who can attack the cup or set up teammates with change-of-pace movement. Burks could mesh well alongside Curry or Russell, sharing the playmaking load when one or both of them sit. If he clicks, Kerr’s offense can be dangerous for all 48 minutes.

As long as Curry and Green are orchestrating things, the Warriors could still have a top-5 attack. They’ll have a thin margin for error, but the Dubs could still put up north of 112 or 113 points per 100 possessions. They’d need to stay pretty darn healthy for most of the season, and it would be ideal if Curry had another supernova MVP year. Kerr would also need steady contributions from less-heralded contributors like Alfonzo McKinnie and Eric Paschall.

The tricky thing is, offense is only half the battle. On defense, the loss of Durant, Thompson, Iguodala and Livingston might sting even more. Golden State coasted defensively for much of the 2018-19 regular season, but it had the talent to turn it on during most of their playoff run.

This new iteration of the Warriors won’t have that luxury.

It will be a challenge for Draymond to coordinate this new group on defense and consistently get stops. He likely will have to be the best he’s ever been, but that seems like the kind of challenge which may rejuvenate him further.

May 18, 2019; Portland, OR, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (23) gives high-fives to teammates center Kevon Looney (5) and forward Alfonzo McKinnie (28) during the second half in game three of the Western conference finals of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Moda Center. The Golden State Warriors beat the Portland Trail Blazers 110-99. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The Curry-Russell combination in the backcourt could be rather sieve-like, despite their best efforts. Both have below-average defensive foot speed, and while Russell is big enough to guard multiple spots, neither player is versatile on that end. Playoff foes will target them off the bounce.

Kerr’s best hope for survival in the playoffs is an early Thompson return. If Klay can get back into the mix by April, the Warriors have a shot to slow down the likes of James Harden, Donovan Mitchell and Damian Lillard. And if they play the Clippers, they’ll need both Klay and Dray to check Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

The frontcourt defense isn’t as unnerving. In addition to Green, the Dubs have Looney and Cauley-Stein. If they have two of those three on the floor at the same time, the paint will be decently fortified with length, quick hands and shot-blocking.

Both Looney and Cauley-Stein are quite mobile for their size and have shown encouraging progress in recent years. In 2028-19, Looney had the highest defensive box plus/minus (1.8) of any returnee other than Green, and Cauley-Stein had the highest mark (2.2) in the Kings’ rotation (per Basketball-Reference.com).

Mar 16, 2018; Oakland, CA, USA; Sacramento Kings center Willie Cauley-Stein (00) drives in against Golden State Warriors forward Kevon Looney (5) during the second quarter at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

A regular season without Thompson will likely yield a defensive rating that’s mediocre or below the league average. If he returns in the spring, though, Golden State might have just enough juice to make a deep run even as he finds his sea legs on offense.

Several other factors must click for them to get their best-case scenario and return to the NBA Finals, but it’s possible.

A couple of clubs are a notch ahead of Golden State in the Western Conference on-paper pecking order, namely the Los Angeles Clippers and Houston Rockets. You could also argue that the Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets and L.A. Lakers are equal or greater than the Warriors in the race for the West based on both their top-level talent and overall depth. Golden State’s pedigree won’t win games on its own, and the fear factor of their shock-and-awe half decade is gone until proven otherwise.

But in a wide-open campaign, all six of those franchises have a puncher’s chance to represent the conference. The five-time defending Western Conference champs should not be counted out, especially with Curry and Green still at the peak of their powers.

As long as they’re healthy and still in the hunt by the end of the regular season, that’s all that matters.

Because that’s all it takes.

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