That is no longer the case this year. But it doesn’t mean the Warriors won’t thrive as underdogs, and represent the West in June. They’re far from favorites, but it’s still a plausible outcome.
As is the team not coming even remotely close.
Unforeseen disastrous injuries notwithstanding, no team has a range of potential outcomes that matches the Warriors. No team is particularly close, either.
Ask some smart basketball people - you can choose who fits that criteria - about the impending season for the Warriors, and many will tell you that they’re a fringe playoff team. That their spot among the top eight teams out West is hanging in the balance.
Yet many will tell you that this is a surefire playoff squad, albeit one that won’t be at the very top of the standings.
And some more still will tell you that this is still an elite team, right in the thick of the title race. Smarter people than I have predicted the Warriors to return to glory and hoist another trophy this year.
None of those takes are asinine. But when was the last time a team represented such a broad spectrum of potential outcomes? When could you ask two reputable basketball analysts about a team, and have one say they’ll be in the Conference Finals, and the other say they’re not even playing an 83rd game?
You can see where those opinions are coming from. All of those varying opinions. On the one hand . . .
Things working against the Warriors
No starting small forward
The Warriors have had two Finals MVPs in the last five years. And they both play small forward. And they both were lost in the offseason.
Now they’re left with a wholly uninspiring cast to try and fill the void. There’s Alfonzo McKinnie, who can rebound exceptionally, and . . . yeah, that’s kind of it. There’s Glenn Robinson III, whose performance has yet to live up to his name or his athleticism. And there’s Alec Burks, who’s a steady player, but who has started just 67 games in his eight-year career. For a reason, one might add.
And that’s kind of it. The lack of a small forward goes beyond just losing the production of Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala. It’s not just the absence of something great, but the presence of something dangerous.
Who guards opposing wings? None of the three players listed are good defensively, and Robinson and Burks are a bit undersized.
The Warriors only have one Draymond Green. Who guards LeBron James when the Los Angeles Lakers go big? Who guards Kawhi Leonard and/or Paul George against the Los Angeles Clippers? Hell, who guards James Harden?
Golden State probably has the grimmest small forward situation of the league’s 30 teams . . . and you rarely see championship teams have such glaring holes.
Limited center depth
Gone are the steady bigs who the Warriors can rely on for 15 minutes a night. There’s no Zaza Pachulia or David West on this squad.
There’s really just Willie Cauley-Stein and Kevon Looney. And the former is going to miss a chunk of time to start the season, due to a mid-foot strain, while the other is also hampered by injuries.
The Warriors center position is bleak enough that the team is openly pining for Marquese Chriss, a player that both the Phoenix Suns and Cleveland Cavaliers decided wasn’t good enough to be on their lottery teams.
In a fully healthy world, 24 minutes for each of Cauley-Stein and Looney is a fine enough center rotation. But that’s not the reality the Warriors will have.
Lack of depth
Close your eyes, Dubs fans. The Warriors will still have some playmakers in the second unit, as Steph Curry and D’Angelo Russell will likely stagger point guard minutes, ensuring that one of them is on the court at all times.
But as for the players actually coming off the bench? Whoever doesn’t start at center is the best bench player, and then you have . . . oh dear. Whichever small forwards don’t win the starting job, plus Jordan Poole, Eric Paschall, Jacob Evans III, and Omari Spellman.
Does anyone feel good about any of that?
Zero margin for error
The Warriors will not be a good defensive team. We know that.
Yet they still have Draymond Green, arguably the league’s top defensive force. But what happens if Green misses 16 games, as he did a gear ago? Or even 12 games, as he did the season prior?
The Warriors will instantly have a bottom five defense in the league.
Even worse, what if Curry has to sit for a minor injury or a tweak? Suddenly the Warriors are running out a team with . . . what . . . one good scorer, in Russell? And one other quality offensive player in Green?
The Warriors simply don’t have the margin for error that other top teams do. If either of Curry or Green misses a game, the Warriors will be underdogs against most teams in the league.
We don’t know what Klay Thompson will be like when he returns. If he’s far from 100%? Yikes. This team is in trouble.
So that’s all pretty grim, yeah?
On the other hand . . .
Things working in the Warriors favor
Steph and Dray are still Steph and Dray
The Warriors have arguably the best player in the world still, in Steph Curry. I would make that argument. And plenty of people smarter than I am have made it.
Having the best player in the league - or, at the very least, a top three player - is a pretty good starting point. Putting a player of Green’s caliber next to him, and then accounting for the chemistry they built? Yeah. That’s a very good starting point.
On paper, James and Anthony Davis are a more talented duo. So are Leonard and George, and perhaps a few other pairings.
But when you account for fit - Green’s playmaking ability being able to turn Curry traps into 4-on-3 advantages; an amount of chemistry that cannot be quantified; and Green always being able to find Curry off a screen - you could still make the case that the Warriors have the league’s best duo.
The Warriors won’t be the West’s top seed. We can all agree on that.
But perhaps Thompson is nearly 100% when he returns after the All-Star break, and the Warriors, seeding be damned, can enter the playoffs with their original Big Three, plus Russell. Add in Looney and Cauley-Stein, and the Warriors need only two of the McKinnie/Robinson/Burks/Poole/Evans/Paschall group to produce at a quality level to enter the postseason with an eight-man rotation that can rival any team.
We haven’t seen Steve Kerr have to do too much coaching in quite a while. At least in the traditional sense of the word. He’s certainly done plenty of managing, but hasn’t had to develop players or alter a system to fit personnel.
That’s going to change last year. It could be disappointing. Or it could be revelatory.
Can Kerr turn Russell from an exciting young prospect who probably shouldn’t have been named an All-Star into something much more than that? Can he help Paschall become the next Draymond? Can he tap into that untapped Robinson potential, or turn Evans into a quality NBA player? Can he implement a more pick and roll heavy offense to combat their talent limitations?
Those players will get chances, and with them, Kerr will get a serious chance. If you believe the Warriors have built a Spursian system that can thrive year in and year out, as players come and go, then you have to feel good about the Warriors chances.
Unless, of course, you don’t.