The Warriors have good reason to believe that if their core stays healthy, they will finish next season bound for the playoffs. They should hope a rival awaits, because a little hate in their hearts tends to bring out their best.
Well, the remade and revivified Clippers might be the best bet -- and not merely because Stephen Curry’s favorite opponent, Patrick Beverley, is sure to do his part.
As much as the Bay Area craves a legitimate Warriors-Lakers feud, something we’ve never had despite the teams sharing California for nearly 60 years, there is but a tiny chance of getting it and roughly zero change of growing it.
LeBron James, already with more mileage than anyone in the NBA, will be 36 next spring. He’s still amazing, a physical miracle. He cannot, however, dodge Papa Time forever. Only two players, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone, ranking 1-2 in career minutes, have higher mileage. Though each played past his 40th birthday, each also was a part-timer by then.
It’s unrealistic to expect three more seasons as a full-time high-impact player. Without LeBron, there is no rivalry. Sorry.
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Which brings us back to the Clippers. When they bruised and bloodied the Warriors in taking them to six games in the first round of the 2019 playoffs, they did so behind the likes of Lou Williams, Danilo Gallinari, Montrezl Harrell and 20-year-old Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
Now they have Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in their primes; PG is 30, Kawhi turned 29 last month. And they still have Williams and Harrell. Harrell will be a free agent and could be lured away by a fat contract. Team chairman Steve Ballmer might have to choose between Harrell and Marcus Morris Sr.
Or ... Ballmer could shrug off the financials and keep both, particularly if they win the 2020 championship. This is conceivable because 1) he is the wealthiest owner in the league and 2) that fortune has, during the coronavirus pandemic, bounced him from being America’s 15th richest person into the top six. Worth an estimated $52 billion nine months ago, the former Microsoft exec now is estimated to be worth well north of $70 bil.
Ballmer also has on his team the legend Jerry West, who helped assemble the Warriors into the league’s best squad. Don’t think West’s competitive streak won’t sizzle at the sight of the Warriors in the postseason.
And don’t think Warriors CEO Joe Lacob won’t be out for a few pints of logo blood.
Remember the mutual loathing between the Warriors and the Clippers? Well, after losing 11 of 12 games, the last 10 in a row, the Clips in 2017 realized it was time to disengage. Chris Paul was done. Who could blame him? The league’s spiciest intraconference rivalry had deteriorated into slapstick.
So, Paul signs with Houston. Now it’s on. Even while losing 18 of 21 (including postseason) to the Warriors over a three-year span, the Rockets had emerged as the closest thing to a foil in the Western Conference. With CP3 joining James Harden, Houston spanked the Warriors in the regular season, winning five of seven. Fool’s gold. The Warriors, hate in their hearts, ousted the Rockets in back-to-back postseasons. A failed experiment, to the disgust of general manager Daryl Morey. Paul was sent to Oklahoma City.
The Rockets inserted Russell Westbrook -- among the most hated of Warriors opponents -- to ride shotgun with Harden. How juicy would it be to see Morey and his team rolling into Chase Center next April or May?
Uh, if only.
Houston likely is making its last stand. The smart money says the only way there is even a remote chance of staying with this core, and coach Mike D’Antoni, is if next season opens with a ring presentation.
That might not be enough. We saw team chairman Tilman Fertitta spitting flames after losing to the Warriors in May 2019, but we also know he holds a microscope over the payroll. He didn’t become “the world’s richest restaurateur,” according to Forbes, by slipping nickels to the help.
The “restaurateur” part has him in trouble. The pandemic is ravaging those in the business of restaurants. Fertitta told CNBC in March that he was losing about $1 million a day -- and that was two months before he acknowledged having to borrow $300 million at 12 percent.
As a Warriors rival, the Rockets are as done as the CP3 Clippers.
The Warriors are built for two or three more contending seasons. The Clippers are built for at least that many. May the next regular season provide a glimpse of what’s to follow.