The Warriors Look Mortal, But What Does That Mean?
Thursday in Oakland was about as good as the NBA gets. Behind James Harden (44 points, 15 assists, 10 assists) and Clint Capela (29 points, 21 rebounds) and well-timed cameos from Danuel House (17 points), Austin Rivers (18 points), and Gerald Green (16 points), the Rockets came back from a 17-point halftime deficit to push the Warriors to overtime on the road. Then, possession after possession, Houston answered every single Golden State bucket in overtime. Along the way there were apparent Steph daggers, egregious missed calls, and Bird Box tweets. It all ended when Harden hit a step-back three over the outstretched arms of Draymond Green and Klay Thompson to give Houston the lead with one second left.
The whole game had turned into its own little 1 a.m. fever dream by the final minutes, but that Harden shot was particularly mind-blowing. The Rockets have now won of 11 of their past 12 games and Harden is averaging 40.1 PPG over that stretch; he's on another planet right now. "Let’s make it clear," SI's Rob Mahoney wrote earlier this week. "Harden is one of the greatest offensive players to ever play the sport." The past month in Houston has left almost no room for debate.
As for the Warriors, though ... There's plenty of room to wonder. Golden State was on its heels for much of the second half Thursday, and as the game got close, the offense reverted to the same iso-heavy muck that we watched during last year's Western Conference finals. After a first half that seemed to make a mockery of anyone who thought Golden State had real problems, the rest of game was the kind of disjointed loss that's become common over the past few months.
Curry, Durant, and Klay Thompson combined for 87 points Thursday, but Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston were largely ineffective on offense. Golden State got almost nothing from the rest of the bench. Curry (35 points) got only one shot over the final 3:48 of the fourth quarter, while Durant went 2 of 7. Golden State fans on Twitter were once again aghast at Steve Kerr's rotations and his continued refusal to put KD and Steph in the pick-and-roll. In general, it was all weirdly familiar. This season's Warriors seem to have more problems than years past and fewer easy answers. Maybe this is just how the regular season works for them now.
"We're maybe the most scrutinized team in the history of the league," Steve Kerr said last week. Leaving aside the inevitable fact-checking that claim invites, it's fair to concede that Kerr is making a valid point. Year after year, the current version of the Warriors have inspired concern trolling from fans and media all over the world. I'm sure some of that gets old, and there are dozens of "What's wrong with the Warriors?" discussions that have come to look ridiculous by the end of the past few seasons. So let's not do that.
If the question is what these Warriors struggles mean for this season, the answer is probably nothing. Klay Thompson has been struggling, but he should be fine. His defense remains outstanding, and he's shooting 51% from the field and 58% from three over the past three games. That's a small sample size, but it's also a reminder that betting against Thompson's jumpshot is a horrible idea.
Draymond, meanwhile, is now a shooter that the whole league is betting against on a regular basis. He's been left wide open all year, and he can't knock down shots. That one is a real issue. But the caveat with Draymond is that he's still an all-world defender and a flat-out maniac who should deliver in the playoffs. Last season Green was on cruise control for six months during the regular season, and then he spent May and June leading the Warriors in minutes, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals. Next to a healthy Durant and Curry, Draymond's shooting isn't fatal; he'll help set the tone when it matters.
And speaking of Durant and Curry, their partnership has always been a little bit more awkward than it should be, but it's always been close to unstoppable when titles are on the line. These two are the new-age Kobe and Shaq, but with two additional stars running beside them. If KD and Curry are healthy, Golden State probably isn't losing. (Also: DeMarcus Cousins is coming back soon. Nobody knows what he'll look like on the court, but if he's anywhere close to what he was, this could get unfair quickly. Don't be one of those "Will DeMarcus Cousins make the Warriors worse?" people.)
The much better Warriors discussion is what happens next season. There is league-wide speculation that Durant will leave after this year in Golden State. Two months ago, many around the league would have answered those rumors by wondering whether the Warriors would still be title contenders even without KD. But if there's anything that's changed this season, or if there's anything we've really learned, it's that the post-KD future in Golden State isn't nearly as secure as many assumed. Remove Durant next year, and this is a team whose best role players (Iguodala, Livingston) are getting old and less effective.
The bench has become a little thinner every year. Boogie is likely gone after this season, and there won't be very much room to make meaningful improvements around Klay, Curry, and Draymond. And then, yes, Draymond: it's one thing to downplay his struggles when he's the fourth star on a team that has three of the best shooters of all time. If he becomes the third superstar on a team that has limited room to add firepower anywhere else, the equation becomes more complicated. The entire team would be relying on Curry to do more than he ever has, with less help than Golden State has given him since 2013.
All of this would open the door for a slew of imperfect challengers that have been easy to dismiss over the past few years. I'm thinking of teams like the Thunder, Bucks, Nuggets, Raptors, Celtics, Lakers, or Rockets; depending on where Anthony Davis ends up, the league's almost-superteams may actually have a chance next season. We'd all have to recalibrate how we grade contenders, because the impossible Golden State curve won't exist anymore.
Until then, of course, Cousins returns soon, Klay is already rediscovering his jumper, Durant and Curry are two of the four best players in basketball, and Draymond is still one of the best defenders in the world. This spring the Warriors will likely run through the playoffs and once again make the whole league look helpless.
Mortality may be looming, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.