Is This the Warriors' Last Stand? Inside a Golden Basketball Sunset

This story appears in the May 6, 2019, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.

Stephen Curry knows he is living basketball history, though he prefers not to dwell on it. For now, there are actual playoff games to consider. “When you’re in that battle,” the Warriors’ point guard says, “it’s hard to remove yourself from it.” The battle at hand is a fifth straight trip to the Western Conference finals, this one against the Trail Blazers, bold and resourceful. No good comes from taking Damian Lillard lightly. Unfortunately for Portland, no good comes from playing the Warriors at all.

As long as forward Kevin Durant is sidelined by a calf strain, expect Golden State to play with the edge of the challengers they used to be. Curry even extended the notion to his choice in footwear, sporting the 2015 vintage of his signature shoe as he dispatched the Rockets in Game 6 of the West semifinals. Clearly, they still fit. Whenever Durant returns, he will shift the Warriors’ style and reestablish the NBA’s most unsolvable offense. It might be enough, against many opponents, to run two stars of that caliber through even basic actions. Golden State has always endeavored for more—not simply making the most of Durant or Curry, but leveraging the space between them. The most powerful expression of their partnership is how easily offense can come to teammates like Klay Thompson or Draymond Green.

No team has yet cracked the code. Perhaps none will. Most everything the Warriors can win, they already have. Two titles and counting. Wins in 75% of their games since KD joined. Come July 1, Durant will be the NBA’s most coveted free agent. The Warriors as we know them could soon come to an end, their dynasty still undefeated.

- John W. McDonough/Sports Illustrated
John W. McDonough/Sports Illustrated

The stakes of the season are inescapable. Threepeats never come quietly; there is no element of surprise for the winners of back-to-back titles, only the creeping hype of a front-runner. And the last team to win four titles in five years was the 1969 Celtics in a youthful NBA.

Should the Warriors succeed, a team that already has a claim as the greatest of all time would become the stuff of basketball legend. “I know for a fact that we’ll all get our jerseys retired,” Durant told Chris Haynes of Yahoo! Sports, when asked what a third straight title would bring. “We’ll probably all get statues here in front of the Chase Center. We’ll be Bay Area legends forever.” Durant shared a vision of these Warriors, 50 years from now, gathering again in celebration before a roaring crowd.

“It all sounds amazing, but I can’t put myself in that mind-set,” Curry says. “It’s just weird to think about.”

For now, history is just continuing on. 

- Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images

After Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals, Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni was open to suggestions. Houston may be better equipped to slow Golden State than any team in the league, what with their strong, switchable guards and a living, breathing boulder in forward PJ Tucker. The Rockets came into the series with a smart game plan that made the Warriors work for every look, and still they couldn’t do a thing to prevent Durant from scoring 35 points on 25 shots. The question was posed to D’Antoni: What could the Rockets really do differently against a scorer like that?

“You need to email me and tell me, because I don’t think anybody ever knows that,” D’Antoni said. “He’s one of the greatest players ever.” It’s a conundrum that has vexed coaches and players for more than a decade. Tucker, however, may have been the league’s best bet to stifle the current KD: big enough (6'6", 245 pounds) not to be budged, with the timing and dexterity to actually get a hand on the ball now and again. Still he went into every game assuming he would fail.

“As a team, you have to look at it as limiting everything else,” Tucker says of trying to stop Durant. Accepting that Durant is going to score no matter what is the only way for a defense to keep its collective sanity. He has become such an immutable scorer that planning around him may be an opponent’s best chance of keeping some sense of order. “Even though it’s really hard, I try not to focus on just guarding him,” Tucker says. “It’s about our team defense. Guarding him is just a small piece to a big puzzle.”

Curry gives that puzzle its shape. Where he goes, the defense buckles. No player can sooner make an opponent blank on the coverage at hand, dropping carefully crafted schemes in a moment of panic. The idea that Curry might suddenly spring open for a three is so powerful as to incite slapstick-level overreaction. By simply setting a screen he can bring every defender involved with him, like a herd of cats to a laser pointer. He leads the NBA in turning heads, as evidenced by the fact that 35-year-old teammate Andre Iguodala has more dunks than any player left in the postseason.

This is the kind of assignment that demands a defense’s full, undivided attention. If only they could give it. The challenge of team defense is deciding which risks are acceptable for the sake of stopping others. Picking between stars comes with the territory, but Curry and Durant force their opponents to constantly reconsider.

Loading up on Curry is an attempt to resolve that tension. “It’s kind of extreme,” he says of the coverage he’s seen. In the first round, the Clippers played a form of prevent D that gave up the ground between Curry and the rim, all so a defender could stop him from moving toward the top of the floor to receive the ball. The Rockets didn’t just switch against Curry, but also sprung intermittent traps. The reasoning is self-evident to those who have ever stood next to Durant: A perfectly executed double team might not even impede KD’s line of sight.

The effect has been pronounced. Curry is attempting fewer shots per game in these playoffs than in any of the past five. If it seemed like deference, it was. In part that’s because he’s deferring to Durant. “A good amount of it, obviously, is down the stretch of games,” Curry says. There is a great calm in knowing that the worst outcome of any late-game possession is a turnaround jumper from a towering master of the art. Yet when an injury eliminated that security against the Rockets, it was Curry who closed out the last two wins. First came a gutsy, improvised finish after Durant exited the series with a calf strain; then came a full-on revival, as Curry went scoreless in the first half of Game 6 before gutting Houston with 33 points in the second.

Down the stretch, Curry worked the side screen-and-roll with Green—a hallmark of the pre-Durant Warriors—to repeated perfection. The offense may change, but players as savvy as Curry can always go home again. “I think everybody in the world trusts him with the ball in his hands,” Thompson says of Curry, knowing full well that the circumstances don’t always allow for it.

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Christmas day 2016 may be the closest the Durant-era Warriors have ever come to real basketball friction. KD had been with Golden State for all of two months—enough time to learn the offense, but not to fully digest it. In moments of disconnect, the Dubs tilted to accommodate him, as if to validate his decision to sign. Attempts to return the favor felt too deliberate. It all came to a head in a one-point loss to the Cavs, with enough crunch-time consternation to prompt a deep look within.

“I definitely want to be in more pick-and-roll situations,” Curry said later. “Whether I’m getting shots or whether we’re manufacturing ball movement, that’s a strength of ours, regardless of how teams play us.” Seemingly overnight, the pick-and-roll—the easiest way to incorporate both Durant and Curry—became a talking point. Curry’s quote fed the media cycle and through it, the public interest in superteam melodrama. Some measures were made to get Curry back in high gear, though the more radical move was to stay the course. The Warriors had finished every season under Steve Kerr near the bottom of the league in pick-and-roll frequency, and he wasn’t about to make that component the centerpiece of the offense. Kerr wisely bet that Golden State’s issues were problems of calibration rather than approach.

“When you add a guy like K, there are so many things you can do, and you’ve gotta start to master the small stuff first before you start to expand,” Curry says. “That first year was just a natural evolution of what that team was meant to be.” The pick-and-roll could wait. Teammates remember Durant hanging in the corners at times, deferring. “There would be so much movement going around that he would be expected to fill in, but that instinct wasn’t there,” Curry recalls. 

There is a rhythm to the way the Warriors play that is not immediately intuitive. When the ball came to Durant in an early game against the Raptors, he saw an opportunity to attack Pascal Siakam—then a rookie—from the top of the key. Durant hit a 19-footer, but what he didn’t see was Curry darting around staggered screens, freeing himself for what could have been a wide-open three. This wasn’t a selfish play between stars jockeying for control. “The flow of the offense was a lot of reads,” Curry says. “Trying to pick that up on the fly was tough for everybody.”

At the heart of it all was a math problem. Three years later, Curry pauses for a moment to run the numbers in his head, then pulls from memory the shots per game that he, Durant and Thompson had attempted in the year before they were teammates. “I think it was—if my math is right—maybe 57 shots between the three of us,” Curry says. (It was 56.7.) “And you wonder how that’s gonna take shape. The first few months of year one was kind of a feeling-out process. I took the short end of the stick when it came to the adjustment just because that’s how it shook out.”

Taking the ball out of Curry’s hands has long been the means to unlock the offense. Giving him room to create off high screen after high screen would make for a dazzling show, but that’s contrary to the way Golden State operates. First, Kerr prefers a balanced offense. Beyond that, the more a team relies on any one mechanism, the more vulnerable it is to diminishing returns. “When you’re trying to have sustained success, you can’t show a team the same thing over and over again.” Curry says. “For us, that involves literally everybody that steps on the floor.” The Warriors are famously withholding. They’ll weave Curry, Durant and Green into a seemingly unstoppable action only to shelve it for games on end. Rather than simply dump the ball down to Durant in the post, Golden State will run an entire preamble offense to get the exact mismatch it wants and set the stage just so. 

And then, when the defense is shell-shocked from back screens and nicked by cuts, the Warriors might finally uncork the Curry-Durant pick-and-roll. Those two give defenders so much to think about that even keeping the coverages straight becomes overwhelming. In Game 2 against the Rockets, Golden State used off-the-ball screens to trigger back-to-back switches, jumbling half the matchups on the court and forcing the 6'10" Clint Capela to keep track of Curry. When Curry then came to the ball for a handoff, Capela was stuck: Should he chase him over the top to contest a quick three? Or switch to pick up Iguodala, who is already slipping toward the rim? And when Durant cleared out from the block to the three-point line, was his defender supposed to follow suit or rotate over to protect the basket? Before Houston could find its answers, Iguodala had dunked and Capela had fouled him.

This is what the Warriors have been building since those early months: an empire of interference that only they can navigate. There is no prescription for how often Durant or Curry might see the ball. “I never know until the game starts,” Durant says. “It’s just a flow.”

- Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

There is something amazingly ordinary about a superteam up close—until the moment they start playing and push the sport to its limits. From within one, even the pursuit of three consecutive titles falls into a familiar routine of travel, practice and performance. Everything feels like a continuation of what came before. “The teams that you’re compared to and the accomplishments, how few NBA players have experienced something like this—those are the moments that’s like, this is crazy,” Curry says. “But in terms of our progression to get to this point, it feels very natural.” It’s enough to make one reconsider the basketball canon. Did it all feel this normal to Michael? To Magic? Did they know, on a random Wednesday night in Milwaukee, that they had transcended their craft? That they would be on a first-name basis with generations of players and fans who had yet to be born? And perhaps most important: When the championships had run their course and the day finally came, did they ever sense that the end was coming?

It’s easy to understand why Curry, by his own admission, can’t quite grapple with the significance of what his team has done. If you allow a moment like this to be as big as it is, it might swallow you whole. Instead, he shows up for work as he always has, practicing the same shots and hammering the same moves. The only time his legacy really lands is when he catches himself looking up to the rafters at Oracle Arena, to the names and numbers of the Warriors immortalized there. Rick Barry. Alvin Attles. Tom Meschery. Chris Mullin. Wilt Chamberlain. Nate Thurmond. “You think about how revered those guys are, and to be honest, they didn’t experience any of the success that we have, in terms of championships,” Curry notes. “It’s strange to think about.”

But it was Curry and the Warriors who brought one of those legends back to basketball again. As Jack McCallum documented for Sports Illustrated, Meschery—a son of San Francisco and a running mate of Barry and Chamberlain—had drifted from the Warriors in the Chris Cohan era and grown distasteful of an NBA he found “joyless.” It wasn’t until a cancer diagnosis (and a stem-cell transplant) secluded him in his home that he fell for what the Warriors had become. Since then he has ridden in three championship parades. After Golden State swept Cleveland in 2018, Meschery, the preeminent Warrior-poet, penned an ode to Durant’s grace:

It is unusually fluid almost like liquid
as if he were proving the truth
of the words Keats had inscribed
on his tombstone: Here lies one
whose name was writ in water.
If I watch KD with my eyes closed,
will I see waves?

In retrospect, it’s fitting that Meschery invoked John Keats’s epitaph to the fleeting nature of all things. Nothing truly lasts—least of all a team like this, with its rising costs and subtle tensions, the aging of its roster and the craving for new challenges. A day will come for the Warriors to make something new from what remains of their machinery, and another to reckon with their legacy.

In the meantime, there’s work to be done.

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