Golden State Warriors Went from Light Years Ahead to Dangerously Behind

Tom Petty’s 1989 angst-filled anthem Free Fallin’ perfectly represents a Golden State Warriors that team governor Joe Lacob once told the 2016 New York Times was light years ahead but who now looks to be in plummet a mere three years later. 

The 2018-19 NBA season should’ve been a fait accompli coronation for the Warriors, who torched the league NBAJam-style during a star-studded five-year blitzkerg. The back-to-back champions won three of the last four, played to five straight NBA Finals, was the first basketball team to be 2018 Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year and even secured a rare sports segment on 60 Minutes exploring their dynamic teamwork and industry disruption

All went to plan before Father Time, the basketball gods and the NBA’s salary cap system (finally) caught up thumb-pressed the scales back to the field’s favor. 

First, supremely talented and misunderstood center DeMarcus Cousins hurt his quad during the first round against the Los Angeles Clippers and missed the subsequent three matchups. Then, transcendent small forward Kevin Durant infamously kicked his right leg following a cold jumper against the Houston Rockets. 

Other injuries to Andre Iguodala, Kevon Looney, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson made the playoffs a slog, but the multiple-time champions soldiered through Los Angeles, Houston and the Portland Trailblazers to the Finals. 

Golden State stole Game 2 of that round from the Toronto Raptors to flip homecourt advantage. Things looked solid for Golden State to cement itself as one of the best teams ever by earning the Holy Grail of a threepeat and 4 titles in 5 years. 

Then, the wheels fully came off.

Klay Thompson suffered a hamstring injury from a questionable Danny Green closeout. Curry and the Warriors lacked the necessary firepower and lost Game 3 handily even though everyone’s favorite cheat code went Super Saiyan with 47 points. 

Game 4 saw Thompson’s return, though the Raptors defense smothered the home team to a measly 92 points during another loss. In Game 5, KD dramatically inserted himself back into the narrative after a nine-game absence by shredding Toronto’s top defense with 11 points in under 12 minutes of action to spark an eventual Dubs victory. However, he collapsed under the return of his Achilles injury to Toronto’s thunderous, classless applause. 

Jun 10, 2019; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant (35) is helped up by guard Quinn Cook (4) and guard Klay Thompson (11) after an apparent injury during the second quarter in game five of the 2019 NBA Finals against the Toronto Raptors at Scotiabank Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The last insult was Thompson being pushed off-balance on a breakaway dunk the following game by Danny Green again. Curry and Draymond Green did everything they could to keep the game close, but the Raptors triumphantly celebrated a 110-106 win to ignominiously close the creaky Oracle Arena by celebrating a championship for “the other guys”. 

The greatest team in decades not only had run out of gas but was suddenly on the brink of its very existence. 

It’s no lie that injuries play a role every year. Golden State mostly stayed healthy through playoff runs until the end of the 2016 Finals. When they got Durant, it further insulated them from the rare times when one of Curry, Thompson or Green got hurt. 2019 cosmically balanced the scales.

One could argue the Warriors had three pyrrhic wins during both of KD’s injuries and Thompson’s first. They were a clanked Curry 3 from even forcing a Game 7. 

These injuries not only cost a title but further threw a wrench in future campaigns. KD left in free agency, partly due to team discord, his not trusting the trainers and wanting to build his brand elsewhere. Thompson re-signed but will miss all of 2019-20. 

The Warriors then hard-capped themselves with a sign-and-trade for up-and-coming All-Star combo guard D’Angelo Russell (necessitated to get something back from KD being traded to the Nets), thereby making them: shed Shaun Livingston’s contract (who retired anyway); trade Andre Iguodala to the Memphis Grizzlies for cap relief; and let free agents Jordan Bell, Quinn Cook, Jonas Jerebko, Alfonzo McKinnie and Cousins jump ship to greener pastures. 

The gods continue tormenting the Dub Nation faithful with even more rotten luck: Curry broke his hand a few games into this season; Kevon Looney has missed every game so far; Even Green and Russell have missed some time as the Warriors stumble to an atrocious 2-12 start.

That right number will probably continue plummeting. 

November 15, 2019; San Francisco, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) reacts on the bench during the second quarter against the Boston Celtics at Chase Center. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Look no further than Thursday night’s 108-100 loss against a badly undermanned New Orleans Pelicans. The Bayou Boys were without Zion Williamson, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, yet won the 3-point (18-of-46 to 7-of-25) and rebounding (48-43) battles and every quarter, comfortably keeping the Green-led Warriors at arm’s length the whole game.

These injuries, coupled with a vampiric talent suck not seen since the 1999 Chicago Bulls’ dismantling, is eons apart from the then juggernaut Warriors ripping the hearts out of fans and teams alike these past five years. 

Now, it’s true Curry and Thompson will presumably be back full-strength in 2020, Russell will either stay or be flipped for a stronger bench, the roster has some young talent to be developed (we see you, Eric Paschall), and Golden State could fumble its way to a high draft pick… But that’s just to get them back to being a playoff competitor.

Things still look bleak if you’re thinking this franchise can back to anywhere near the top. 

The league has finally caught up to Steve Kerr’s system. Now everyone (despite some holdouts such as the San Antonio Spurs) employ the pace and space, motion offense the Warriors used to great effect around its three, then four, Hall of Famers. Teams know 3s are better than long 2s, and zipping the ball across the floor ups the tempo and creates more open looks on the perimeter or inside. 

Teams all seem to use their best five players more liberally now, especially in deploying three and even four perimeter players at a time to maintain that frenetic pace. The Warriors used to gas opponents to a win, but the field started gassing them last year when the Warriors managed 10th in pace.

They are 14th so far in 2019-20. 

Curry, Thompson, Durant and Co. draining 3s extended leads and made deficits vanish by always having at least a top-4 made 3-point percentage during the run, according to NBA Stats. The Warriors now rank 25th, partly due to the Splash Bros being out, but also some blame goes to the non-shooting young talent acquired to futilely blunt the mass exodus. 

A top defense also propelled the Warriors to their championships, ranking in the upper 11 those years according to NBA Stats. Losing lengthy defenders like KD, Iguodala, Livingston, Cousins and Thompson provides teams an open lane and the tune of a league-worst 115.6 per 100 possessions. The current roster won’t be able to improve much via chemistry/experience due to a simple lack of athleticism, length and rebounding. 

The West remains a meat grinder with the L.A. Lakers, L.A. Clippers, Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz making a Warriors comeback run in 2020-21 seem that much harder to come by. And don’t forget up-and-coming teams like the Pelicans, Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns with their coalescing cores.

One can’t take a night off in the superior conference.

Nov 17, 2019; New Orleans, LA, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (23) talks to referee Leon Wood (40) in the second half of their game against the New Orleans Pelicans at Smoothie King Center. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Free agency won’t be a solution, either, as Lacob’s team is well over the cap and can’t add max slots without trading one of the Big 3. Getting KD was the coup of the century and simply isn’t replicable due to the cap exploding and having all-time greats on affordable contracts all at that time.

Don’t expect stars Giannis Antetokoumpo, Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard or Paul George aligning to San Francisco to save the day at a discount. GSW does hold a significant trade exemption from the Iguodola transaction that will help it not take back a bad contract, but that’s a BandAid on a bullet wound.

Think the 2020 Draft will save the Warriors? There is no Tim Duncan in the talent pool. Golden State hopes to win the crapshoot Lottery by landing infamous LeMelo Ball or embattled James Wiseman. Both are talented and intriguing but ultimately raw to the point that they will take time to develop, possibly even long enough that it won’t even coincide with the Curry-Thompon-Green career timeline. 

The Warriors will soon enough be faced with the tough decision of letting their Big 3 ride out careers well-earned in The Bay as legacy-contenders-but-not-really or blowing it up and starting all over again while letting those luminary talents chase a ring elsewhere in a (presently) inconceivable different jersey.

The Dubs will recover a bit in 2020-21, sure, and maybe make a playoff run against a deep field of younger and better competition. But Lacob’s pronouncement of winning more titles and running the league looks more laughable by the day.

Fate can turn that quickly in the NBA.

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