This ending was never supposed to happen. Now a week from the shocking conclusion to the Golden State Warriors, I'm left to pick up the pieces from the most spectacular season I am ever seen, covered, and Warriors fans have experienced in their lifetime. Even throughout the ups and ups of the 2014-15 championship year, the story was never as full and climatic as the way 2015-16 went. Because of the championship, the excuses made by the rest of the league, and the team's willingness to buy into the trash-talking arrogance, there was a much more fun substance before this historic campaign even began.
It started with Klay Thompson chomping on sunflower seeds and belittling the Los Angeles Clippers. Then they backed it all up by charging out of the gates 24-0 without the head coach that had turned the entire franchise around. Throughout the season, they went into arenas and snatched souls, pummeling the Cleveland Cavaliers, San Antonio Spurs and ripping apart the Oklahoma City Thunder. Meanwhile, Stephen Curry set up one of the greatest seasons of all time not only during games but before them as well.
Steph's pregame routine would become legendary as fans filed in hours before games, often times before the doors even opened, just to catch a glimpse of his artistry. The Warriors were everyone's Cinderella once, then became the championship darlings of the world. But as the legendary season wore on, as Draymond Green's play and mouth ascended to stardom, and the Warriors broke the Michael Jordan Bulls record for regular season wins, their villainy became pronounced.
The San Antonio Spurs never fought back against criticism like this. The Kobe-Shaq Lakers certainly faced the same spotlight but without the same reckless comments from former players that seemed wary just for the sake of wariness. It all fueled the Warriors to spite the league in not winning their first championship but to defend it. It all was going the way of arrogance until Stephen Curry's fateful slip in Houston.
From then on, the dream season, tops for months on end, suddenly became turvy. Losses piled up (relative.y) against the Rockets, Blazers, and suddenly the switching defenses and size of the Thunder and Cavs started to wear down the Warriors. Repeatedly, they were crushed on the boards. Unseen before, the Death Lineup stumbled against LeBron James and Kevin Durant-led small lineups. And still, the Warriors persevered in 7 games against the Thunder, piecing together a legendary comeback with Klay Thompson leading the way in a breakout postseason performance. Though they won a title the season before, this one felt more productive and generated much more credibility in its struggle.
The NBA Finals all but felt like a parade and coronation when it started out 2-0 and eventually hit 3-1. Then the collapse began, and the unraveling around Curry's knee, the bench's inconsistencies and finally, its consistent putridness, and LeBron James' ultimate greatness, ending what always felt like its happiest finish.
So now what?
In a 7-game series against LeBron, four meager points separated the Warriors and the Cavs despite the repeated blowouts. The Thunder seem like the closest team in the Western Conference but they have flipped Serge Ibaka for Victor Oladipo and some ancillary pieces — they don't seem any closer to a title given Durant's free agency, and to be honest, even further than before.
Behind the scenes, the Warriors were always going to change the bench and the complexion of the team. With so many free agents, Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli's struggles during their respective contract years, it might make it a less harder pill to swallow in losing them for more productive players. Even during the regular season, the rest of the NBA had caught up against the Warriors offense. By switching against the off-ball Warriors flow movement, teams were starting to muck up Curry and Klay's spacing. Compound that with nonexistent production from the center position and it led to ample moments in the Finals where the Warriors jacked up threes in prayers they'd simply go in.
That isn't to doom and gloom this team because at the end of the season, the Warriors were a few plays away from winning a back-to-back championship. Results over process be damned but the fact remained that significant changes were going to be made regardless of the conclusion; It just so happened that a colossal choke job led to what now appears a necessary move forward.
It now starts with management blatantly stating that they would aggressively pursue changes to improve a team that finished with the greatest regular season record of all time and came a minute — a Curry shimmy three away — from polishing off the single greatest season of all time. Now Joe Lacob, Bob Myers, and Steve Kerr piece together the mistakes, what could have been, what should have been, and what will become of this team now planning to make everything work with the core of Draymond Green, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston.
Ever since Steve Kerr took over the mantle of head coach, everything has come rather easily. Sure, he had to garner the respect and attention of every player that loved Mark Jackson and install an offensive system that put Jackson's to shame. But since, it's been smooth sailing. Now that the fairy tale is over, bringing two seasons of success to a crashing halt at the hands of LeBron James, it appears the next one will become a year in transition. Regardless of whether Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli return, the Warriors have drafted another Vanderbllt center (one that can catch a ball) and paid the maximum amount allowed to buy a second round draft pick and even signed him to a two-year deal.
Now Nicolas Batum, Al Horford, Dirk Nowitzki, and even the likes of Evan Turner are on the Warriors' free agent radar. But what is most telling about this offseason is how the Warriors' management has massaged their entire roster and cap structure for the moment of Kevin Durant. One title, two titles, and no matter the accolades, they were always ready to run full bore at their greatest nemesis in the Western Conference and what they still believe, in the entire NBA.
The bench collapsed, Curry's knee and/or mentality crumbled, and the coaching staff that was able to find a single adjustment last season, all came undone in a series that had the Warriors bearing little resemblance to the one in the regular season. Now they regroup more justified than ever before.
Despite the collapse, this chapter of the Warriors I spent covering has produced more thrills than any other season or team in my entire lifetime. The Golden State Warriors now look to push the past aside to find a future that resembles their light years mentality that had the rest of the NBA on their heels.
This isn't an ending so much as just the beginning of something truly special. Whether the kind of special resembles a fluky run or the sustained San Antonio Spurs depends on the moves made this offseason. And coming off an ending that nobody ever saw coming, the pressure is ratcheted up like never before. Ending? Beginning? These Golden State Warriors are ready to write it all out soon enough.