Golden State Warriors at Los Angeles Clippers, Game 3, Thursday, 10:30 PM ET, TNT
The Playoffs are upon us, and things are developing fast. Blink — or fall asleep, as the case may be for us East Coasters — and the reality on the ground could look very different by the next morning. To that end, your humble columnist will be activating Playoff Mode, at times eschewing some of the usual long-form deep dives in favor of quicker topical hits to keep things fresh.
The playoffs are designed to answer the questions we’ve been asking all season, but along the way, they tend to raise new ones we hadn’t even considered, or that run contrary to the conventional wisdom. And after what transpired Monday night at Oracle Arena, oh boy, do the two-time defending champs have some questions swirling around them. Look, the Warriors ultimately aren’t going to lose a first-round series to the 8th-seed Clippers, and we’ll get to some of the more focused questions about this team as we go. But after blowing a 31-point lead in lackadaisical fashion at home to a team with no superstars, the big picture question has to be asked: do the Warriors feel any urgency to keep this dynasty alive? Or deep down, in ways they would never in a million years admit to, do they just want it to be over?
This is a tricky topic to discuss without coming off as nothing more than a contrarian or a hot take artist, which is not my aim here. The conventional wisdom asserts a team with four superstars in their primes has a permanently propped open window of contention and can go on winning indefinitely. The thinking goes, when the chips are down, their talent and experience levels will inevitably carry them through the adversity and we’ll all feel foolish for doubting a team so great. After all, it’s just one first round game against an inferior opponent, and when the real teams come calling, Golden State will flip the switch and crank up the intensity, right? Right?
This line of thinking can be very tempting because there is no way to refute it in the moment, but it’s only true until it isn’t. Winning can be a very powerful cologne, masking a lot of stinky things happening beneath the surface. Even with another no. 1 seed under their belt and the no. 1 rated offense in the league, there are warning signs the Warriors’ ship is taking on water, and Golden State’s collapse in Game 2 is as good a catalyst as any to examine them a bit further and see if they portend anything for the rest of the playoffs and beyond.
Naturally, it all starts with Kevin Durant. Set to make his second league-altering free agency decision this summer (you may recall the first one was met with some, let’s say, consternation), the NBA has probably never had a more contradictory superstar. Prickly and inscrutable, KD seeks to cultivate an image of the basketball cyborg who only cares about improving his game and winning, yet he bristles at every minor slight he perceives from fans and media. His entire career has been an exercise in getting out from under the immense shadow of LeBron James, yet he has followed the King’s blueprint for success, both on-court and off, at nearly every turn. He understands all too well how little loyalty is worth in this business, then joins Steph Curry’s team and spends three years being disappointed no one is embracing him in the way they do Steph.
Durant is well within his rights to sign one-year deals and maintain maximum professional flexibility, but it should come as no surprise when the conscious decision to perpetually look out for Number One causes tension in a team setting. It’s been a running theme this season, from the shouting match with Draymond Green on the bench back in November, to his reading reporters the riot act in an attempt to throw them off the scent of his courtship of the Knicks, to the surreptitious “two max slots” conversation he had with Kyrie Irving at All-Star Weekend. The rumors he has one foot out the door persist because the evidence keeps pointing to it, and once the playoffs roll around, it becomes nigh impossible not to correlate any slippage in performance to the prevailing narrative. [Speaking of the inescapability of LeBron, should Golden State flame out in Round Two versus Houston, it will be a matter of nanoseconds before the comparisons to the 2010 Cavs begin.]
If KD does indeed have his sights set on taking his prodigious talents elsewhere this summer, he faces a conundrum over the next two months. No reigning Finals MVP has ever changed teams. It’s literally never happened. [Yes, I know Steph or Klay could conceivably end up the MVP if the Warriors win again, but the overall perception of the move would not demonstrably change.] How can a guy who is supposedly all about winning claim three straight titles, then immediately be like, “OK peace, I’m gonna go play for this organizational trash fire over here in New York”? It simply doesn’t compute. On the flip side, if Golden State falls short this year and he bolts, while he’ll still get dragged for the perception he runs from his failures — in the eyes of many, no matter what he does, he’ll never escape from the original sin of 2016 — in a weird way his image comes out cleaner on the other side. [It’s counterintuitive, but many people would be so happy for the toppling of the Warriors’ dynasty they’d give KD a pass — if not outright credit — for his role in it.] Would you count on a guy with these potentially competing motivations — even one as historically great and proven under pressure as Durant — to exhibit laser-like focus in the crucible of a key playoff moment?
Beyond Durant’s wandering eye, there are other signs Golden State’s edifice of invincibility is beginning to crack. The Warriors got a combined 29 additional games this season from the Big Four of Durant, Curry, Thompson, and Green relative to last season, yet their win total dropped from 58 to 57. [Not terribly surprising, but their win total has decreased each year since the all-time high water mark of 73 in 2015-16.] While their offense remains on another planet, the defense quietly dropped all the way to 13th this season, the lowest rating they’ve had during the dynastic run. Draymond remains an elite defender when properly engaged, even as his offensive impact and overall dynamism as a player have waned. Team defense is a function of talent and effort, of course, but also of connectedness, and this season is the first time we’ve seen the connective tissue of this group begin to weaken. Perhaps the embarrassing Game 2 collapse and the loss of Boogie Cousins will galvanize the team and put a chip on its collective shoulder, but having to spin these negatives into positives for a team with so much talent and pedigree isn’t exactly a great sign.
[Quick aside: there is an argument to be made losing Boogie amounts to addition by subtraction. I don’t entirely subscribe to it, but it has some merit. Golden State took a one-year flier on an All-Star recovering from a torn Achilles’, and realistically, anything they got out of him was going to be gravy. But even a fully healthy version of Boogie — which we never got to see this season and obviously never will now — was still going to have some diminishing returns in conjunction with the rest of this roster. The things he does well are mostly things they already have covered or simply don’t need, and the areas where he has historically struggled line up neatly with the areas where the Warriors needed bolstering. It was always going to be an odd fit. Why would Steve Kerr redirect any part of the their offensive game plan towards Boogie’s bully-ball post-ups and face-ups when the existing scheme works better anyway? A big who can create space by setting hard screens and diving to the rim has as much or more positive impact on the offensive ecosystem as the more “skilled” Boogie, and without giving as much back on defense. Nothing else matters if they don’t get past Houston, and that was never going to be the series for Cousins anyway. He would have gotten pick-and-rolled and iso’d right off the floor, so it may be a happy side effect for Kerr to shift those minutes to Kevon Looney and Andrew Bogut (or the Hamptons Five, ugh) right off the bat and skip all the sloppy foreplay. It’s strange to think “more Kevon Looney” could be the actual solution to any basketball-related problem, but here we are. The flip side is, while the cost may be low against Houston, depth is already an area where this year’s Warriors struggle. Despite how this dynasty has occasionally made it look, winning championships is hard, and most title teams end up needing all their weapons at some point along the way. We’d never be able to prove the negative, but should the Dubs fall short, the absence of Cousins could end up as a big “what if.” And look, none of this is meant as a slight to Boogie. All indications are, despite the reputation which precedes him, he has done a great job trying to fit in with this team, and everyone around the organization seems to like and support him. Everything that’s transpired over the last two seasons has been devastating for him, both competitively and financially. I feel for the guy. For Warriors’ fans, the hope would be his loss acts as both a rallying cry and a shortcut to unlocking the most potent lineup combinations in the later rounds. In any case, tough break, big fella.]
With or without Cousins, the road to the threepeat was never going to be easy. Even if they should emerge victorious in the war to come with Houston — sorry, Jazz fans, but it’s time to face facts — and dispatch whichever squad comes out of the JV side of the West bracket in the Conference Finals, there’s a good chance Golden State will end up staring down what is essentially a doppelganger of their 2014-15 championship team: the Milwaukee Bucks.
Stay with me. The 2013-14 Warriors were a slightly better version of the 2017-18 Bucks. They won seven more regular season games and advanced one round further in the playoffs, but overall, they were nobody’s idea of a serious contender. After the season, Golden State replaced their head coach, a former point guard, with a Gregg Popovich acolyte who installed a modernized scheme and optimized the rotation, while the front office made some shrewd personnel moves around the fringes of the roster to bolster the existing core. The results were stunning: sixteen additional regular season wins in ’14-’15, the no. 1 seed in the conference, top-five ratings on both sides of the ball, a barrage of three-pointers, a first-time MVP winner, and an NBA title almost no one saw coming until a few months before it happened.
Remind you of anyone?
It would be poetic for this Milwaukee team to be the one to dethrone the Warriors. While many people would perceive the “upset” as shocking in the moment, a few years down the road we would likely just see it as the natural progression of each team’s competitive cycle. Another Golden State victory parade may seem inevitable now, but I assure you it is not. As fans, we tend to assume windows of contention will remain open forever, even as virtually every piece of evidence from modern NBA history contradicts this view. Everything ends badly, otherwise it wouldn’t end. If things end badly for KD and the Warriors this spring, don’t say nobody could have seen it coming.
Top Photo Credit: Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group