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The target on the Warriors’ back is the biggest it’s ever been

The Warriors have ruled the NBA for nearly five years, but teams are raring at the chance to catch them off guard through a variety of strategic and tactical adjustments, as well as off-court machinations and free agency coups.

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NBA: Golden State Warriors at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

“To be the man, you gotta beat the man!”

Those were the famous words uttered by 16-time world champion Ric Flair, the legend who captivated the hearts of many wrestling fans with his braggadocio and unshakeable swagger. It was uttered many years ago, but the quote still rings true up to this day, across many forms of competition.

The Golden State Warriors have been the “man” for five years, having won three of the last four championships, and are favored to win their third straight title, unless a collapse of epic proportions manages to puncture their bubble of invincibility.

Which, by the way, already happened once before, when their historic regular season, led by the greatest individual offensive performance in the history of the league, was rendered moot by stumbling at the finish line when they were a mere inch away from running away with everything.

The fates intervened, and what seemed like eternal punishment meted down by the basketball gods instead turned into a blessing dressed up in the most unexpected of disguises. That epic collapse turned into the biggest free agency acquisition in the history of the organization.

Kevin Durant’s arrival effectively marked the unquestioned dominance of the Warriors for years to come. His partnership with Stephen Curry — a fellow member of the NBA elite — became the envy of the league. Just when the rest of the league managed to muster up some audacity of hope that they, too, could catch up to the Warriors, Durant effectively snatched that hope and threw it to the garbage heap.

The Warriors and their fanbase have paid their dues — they have endured years of organizational failures and have had their hopes in prospects and veterans dashed by a multitude of shortcomings. It is no question that Dub Nation deserves to have their loyalty rewarded by this sustained run of success that was once nothing more than a pipe dream.

But nothing good lasts forever. If history has taught us one thing, it is the fact that empires are built on foundations that eventually crumble. The subjugators eventually become the subjugated. After the zenith has been reached, there is often nowhere to go but down.

Make no mistake, the Warriors are still the top dogs of The Association. Until other teams have proven — without a shadow of a doubt — that they have truly solved the Golden State conundrum, the defending champions will continue to be unimpeded in their quest to “ruin the league.”

With that said, the moment the Warriors finally ended their forty years of mediocrity by winning the 2014-15 NBA championship was also the moment where an enormous target was placed on their backs. As they became more dominant and more untouchable, that target grew bigger and bigger.

The Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016 managed to hit that target, but it merely served as a temporary obstacle to the Warriors, who shook off that hit and continued to dominate. They were able to withstand that crushing defeat — but they may not be so lucky the next time around.

The league has taken up the philosophy of three-point shooting and fast-paced play — one that was established by the Warriors themselves — and has taken it to the extreme. Teams such as the Houston Rockets have surpassed the Warriors in the volume of three-point shots launched — their league-leading 44.5 three-point attempts per game blows away the Warriors’ league-leading 31.6 attempts per game during the 2015-16 season.

In terms of pace, the Warriors once also reigned supreme. But their league-leading 99.29 possessions per game in 2014-15 would merely place them 21st in today’s environment, where pace has reached and shattered the 100 mark.

In terms of personnel, the Warriors’ plethora of perimeter wings have allowed them to become the figurative Swiss Army knife of the NBA — a do-it-all team who can score, shoot, and defend multiple positions through seamless switching.

Even that blueprint has been imitated by other teams, who have now spent years developing or acquiring similarly versatile wings. Ironically, opponents possessing defensive versatility have been revealed to be prominent Achilles heels for the Warriors. A few surefire ways to muck up their motion offense would be to throw lengthy defenders at them, be physical with them, and to switch — the 2016 Oklahoma City Thunder, the 2018 Rockets, and other teams like the Milwaukee Bucks, the Toronto Raptors, and most recently the Philadelphia 76ers can attest to that strategy.

Innovation and trend-setting have always had the consequence of the competition trying to imitate and even surpass the instigating party. The Warriors’ blueprint for success — both on and off the court — have been copied, refined, and are now being used to overthrow them from their lofty perch.

The off-court blueprint of creating a superteam through drafting and cultivating homegrown talent and supplementing it with big name free agency acquisitions has also been imitated by other teams. The recent push of the Los Angeles Lakers to acquire Anthony Davis is an obvious pushback at the Western Conference dominance of the Warriors, orchestrated by LeBron James and his agent, Rich Paul. The recent trade of Kristaps Porzingis from the New York Knicks to the Dallas Mavericks is, on its own, seemingly detached and unrelated to the Warriors.

Upon closer inspection, the Knicks have willingly revealed their cards by trading their franchise player — that is, the possibility of signing two superstars to maximum contracts. One of those superstars the Knicks have placed their crosshairs on is Durant, whose upcoming free agency is wrought with uncertainty and mystery.

The threat of Durant leaving the Warriors for New York City has never been more pronounced. Whispers of mutual interest have almost increased in decibel. A fire is always preceded by hints of smoke, and there is plenty of smoke to go around. For one, Durant and Kyrie Irving — the other superstar targeted by the Knicks — have always placed each other on very high pedestals, and the prospect of teaming up together to salvage a franchise stuck in basketball purgatory is a very attractive one.

Furthermore, Durant’s longtime agent, Rich Kleiman, is a diehard Knicks fan, and is rumored to have been promised a spot in the organization should Durant choose to ply his trade in the Big Apple, according to this piece from The Athletic’s Sam Amick.

While the possibility that Durant could just re-sign with the Warriors by agreeing to another 1+1 deal or signing a max contract is still very much in play, the constant uncertainty surrounding his intentions, as well as the absence of a commitment to be with the Warriors beyond this season, has magnified the possibility that his time in the Bay Area is soon coming to an end.

Another Warrior is also facing free agency at the end of the season. Klay Thompson is set to become a free agent, unless he signs a mid-season contract extension — but that is looking less and less likely since he would stand to gain more money from signing a brand-new contract during the offseason.

As outlined by The Athletic’s Danny Leroux, Thompson can be signed through three means: through the aforementioned extension; through being a designated veteran (by making an All-NBA team); or through being a non-designated veteran.

There is no reason to believe that Thompson will choose to leave the winning culture of the Warriors, nor will he ever find another fanbase that has endearingly embraced him and has had his back the moment he was drafted 11th in the 2011 NBA Draft. But that won’t stop other teams from trying to pluck him away from the Warriors.

Most notably, the Lakers have shown interest in trying to recruit the Splash Brother to augment their potential superteam. If there was any strong indication of Lakers fans’ thirst for a supplementary star to surround James, it was during the Warriors’ recent victory over the Lakers, where chants of “We want Thompson” inside Oracle Arena were heard loud and clear from the vocal Lakers diaspora (and local bandwagon community).

Even the prospect of playing for his hometown may not be enough to convince Thompson to leave — unless the Warriors commit a screw-up of epic proportions by offering him a contract way below his market value.

On the other hand, the NBA is a league where the almost-daily occurrence of drama and sudden turn of events have made it into a real-life soap opera, one that has given The Young and the Restless a run for its money. What players say or do can quickly change and perform a complete 180-degree turn — the Boston Celtics’ current predicament with Irving is a testament to that.

In other words, the NBA should really be called the DTA — “Don’t Trust Anybody,” as Stone Cold Steve Austin would say.

The attempts of other teams to steal Durant and Thompson away from the Warriors marks another approach to tearing down the Warrior dynasty. Simply put, if you can’t beat them on the court, beat them in free agency by poaching their assets.

After all, according to Sun Tzu in The Art of War, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

When all is said and done, the Warriors may have the basketball gods still favoring them by influencing both Durant and Thompson to sign brand-new contracts, allowing them to help the Warriors continue their dynasty. Come June, all of the adjustments, gameplans, and tactics specifically tailored to defeat the Warriors may ultimately mean nothing.

But one thing is for sure: teams are more determined than ever at trying to topple the Warriors from their throne atop the NBA’s Mount Olympus. They are clawing and jumping at every opportunity to catch the Warriors at their rare moments of weakness.

The target on their backs has never been this big. The championship that they hold and dangle for everyone else to see has never looked this attractive to those that thirst for a taste of it.

The Warriors are still unquestionably the “man,” and may still be so for a few more years. But being the man attracts a lot of reticles and laser sights that are pointed at your head. For years, teams have missed the target.

They won’t miss for long.

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