How Warriors schedule against Eastern Conference's best could favor them

How Warriors schedule against Eastern Conference's best could favor them

Editor's note: Grant Liffmann (@grantliffmann) is the co-host of Warriors Outsiders, which airs on NBC Sports Bay Area 90 minutes before each home game and 60 minutes after every game. Each week, Grant will drop his Outsider Observation on the state of the Dubs.

The Western Conference is stacked. A reasonable argument can be made that 12 of the 15 teams in the conference can compete for a playoff spot. Perhaps six or more different teams have a realistic shot at securing the No. 1seed.

After five straight years of dominance, the Warriors now find themselves in the middle of a crowded pool of West contenders. So for the first time in a while, each regular-season game will be significant. It will be up to the Warriors to take advantage of the lesser teams on their schedule, especially from the Eastern Conference where the overall competition will not be as stiff.

That does not mean the entire Eastern Conference is a walk in the park, however, as some of the very best teams in the NBA reside in the East.

Let's take a look at when the Warriors are slated to face the East's best.

Top Tier

Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers

With Kawhi Leonard leaving the Toronto Raptors for Los Angeles, and Kyrie Irving leaving Boston for Brooklyn, the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers are the East's top remaining title contenders.

After blitzing the NBA with a highly efficient offense and a smothering defense last season, the Bucks return most of their core players, including the league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. Meanwhile, the Sixers reloaded and now have potentially the best starting five in the NBA, with Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Al Horford, Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson.

The Warriors will face the Bucks and 76ers once at home and once on the road, but the Dubs will not see either of them until 39 games into the regular season when they face the Bucks on Jan. 8. Nine games later, the Warriors travel to Philadelphia on Jan. 28. Fortunately for the Warriors, they will have nearly half the regular season to find their groove and develop chemistry with a new roster before facing the East's best. More importantly, they do not play the Bucks or Sixers again until early March, which means that, barring any setbacks, Klay Thompson should have returned from his torn ACL and given the Dubs a much-needed scoring boost. 

Next tier

Boston Celtics, Indiana Pacers

The loss of Irving might sting for the Celtics, but losing Horford to Philadelphia might ultimately impact Boston more. The Celtics added Kemba Walker and still return a solid core of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and Marcus Smart, so there is good reason to believe they can jump back into the contender conversation.

The Warriors will play the Celtics at home just 13 games into the season after returning from a tough matchup on the road against the Lakers. Golden State heads to Boston on Jan. 30 after playing the Sixers in Philly among a very tough stretch of games that includes facing the Pacers at home.

Indiana surprised many with how well it played despite losing star Victor Oladipo to injury halfway through the season. It is not yet known when Oladipo will return, but the Pacers made some good offseason moves to make up for his absence, including signing young guard Malcolm Brogdon away from the Bucks.

After playing at Chase Center, the Warriors will not face the Pacers again until they travel to Indiana in mid-March, well into the timeline when Thompson should return.

On the cusp

Brooklyn Nets, Toronto Raptors

The Nets made headlines this offseason by adding Irving and Kevin Durant, but with Durant most likely out for the season, the young team will have to make some big strides to compete with the top contenders in the East.

Brooklyn still will be dangerous, however, so fortunately for the Warriors they do not play the Nets until early February and then again in mid-March when Golden State should be improved and closer to full health.

[RELATED: Kerr thinks Klay, not KD, is toughest loss to overcome]

As for the Raptors, despite losing Leonard, they still bring back a strong core of Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet. In an odd scheduling quirk, there is not an NBA Finals rematch until early March, which again should benefit the Warriors.

Why Warriors stars Steph Curry, Klay Thompson should return if healthy

Why Warriors stars Steph Curry, Klay Thompson should return if healthy

SAN FRANCISCO -- It has been established by now that, for the Warriors, the primary purpose of this season is to create a launching pad for next season, about resetting the foundation from which something special can be built.

What better way to get a head start on 2020-21 than to have Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson on the court for the final weeks of this season?

Curry is all for it, and you can bet Thompson is too.

“We’re like some caged animals right now, ready to get unleashed and back to what we do,” Curry said 45 minutes before tipoff of the Warriors’ 122-108 loss to the Utah Jazz on Monday night. “Selfishly speaking, it should be fun for both of us just to play basketball.”

With Curry fewer than two weeks removed from surgery on his left hand that is expected to keep him out until at least February and Thompson rehabbing his surgically repaired left ACL for at least another four months, there is considerable sentiment among some that neither should see the court this season.

Put them on ice, even if cleared. Even if they’re lobbying. Even if they crawl into coach Steve Kerr’s office and beg to play.

Such is the talk of lottery dreams. Put another way, tanking. The more games a team loses, the better its chances of moving up on draft night. James Wiseman is going to land somewhere, and if the Warriors are profoundly abysmal, they could get lucky.

They could get lucky anyway. There isn’t much difference between 30-52 and 23-59. Barring the utterly bizarre, they will have seat on the stage when lottery unfolds next May 19 in Chicago. And, moreover, it’s not what Curry, the man who matters most in this entire equation, wants.

He sees the wisdom in playing, particularly if Thompson is ready to go.

“Mostly just to understand the chemistry with the young guys, who will have gone through a lot of games and really understand what this league is about and what it’s going to take to play at a high level,” he said, a bulky protective sleeve running from his left hand to a few inches short of his elbow. “You could even play around with the rotations and get a vibe of what the following season, when we’re all healthy, looks like.”

I had asked Stephen if he saw the pros and cons of returning, with Klay, for the final weeks of the season. It was, well, all pros.

They’d have to be cleared to return to the court, of course. Should both be cleared, say, sometime in March, there is no question they’ll want to play. There should be no hesitation about putting them on the court.

Asked the same question, Kerr also was on board.

“It would be great,” he said after the game. “What we’re trying to do this year is build for the future, and Steph and Klay are part of the core group, along with Draymond in terms of what we want to accomplish long term.

“The idea of bringing some of these young guys along and helping them to be able to be a part of the core going forward, it means they need to play together. All those guys need to play together. It would be great to get some time with Steph and Klay later on in the year.”

Yes, that’s the politically correct answer. One any coach, who theoretically wants his strongest possible roster, is supposed to give.

But it’s also the strategically appropriate response. Better to have some experience with Warriors of the future than none at all entering training camp next September.

If the Warriors are 21-51 and Curry and Thompson are cleared in late March, for the final 10 games, they could reintroduce themselves to each other and, more significantly, to rookies Eric Paschall and Jordan Poole and, maybe, Alen Smailagic.

And, also, D’Angelo Russell. The Warriors acquired Russell believing he could play with Curry and Thompson, who would move to small forward, and the trio would pose serious challenges to any defense. No matter what the Warriors ultimately decide to do with D-Lo, they’d like to evaluate him with their best roster.

Curry conceded that the idea of returning to a team going nowhere is a tough acknowledgment. The Warriors, he said, “might surprise us and go on a crazy run” that could put them in the playoff picture.

Um, that would be beyond crazy.

“But when we get there ... just playing basketball,” Curry said. “I love to play basketball. I love having fun. I know Klay does too.”

[RELATED: Watch Draymond get ejected in first game back from injury]

If they are cleared, let them run. The risk of re-injury is going to be there in April, as it would be when the season opens in October.

The difference is, instead of putting an immediate cloud over next season, they’d have about five months to recover before it begins.

Steph Curry injury latest reminder of Warriors' unfamiliar position

Steph Curry injury latest reminder of Warriors' unfamiliar position

SAN FRANCISCO -- Steph Curry, the Warriors' crown jewel, walked onto a makeshift podium in the bowels of Chase Center under unusual circumstances Monday night. 

Sporting a metal cast, the guard -- who broke his left-hand two weeks ago -- assured that he'd be back in Golden State's lineup by "early spring." 

What wasn't said was easily understood. Curry and fellow Splash Brother Klay Thompson (left ACL rehabilitation) are both out until at least February, and the two-time MVP's presence at the podium was the latest reminder that these Warriors -- clad with youth and inexperience -- are playing in a time of transition rather than one defined by championship aspirations.

The revelation initially came four months ago when Kevin Durant tore his Achilles tendon in Game 5 of the NBA Finals before signing with the Brooklyn Nets in free agency. It was confirmed when Thompson tore his ACL a game later. The Warriors' truth was put off temporarily when they acquired D'Angelo Russell, Willie Cauley Stein and Alec Burks this offseason to build around a roster of unproven talent. 

In the last 10 days, five players have missed games due to injury, including Thompson and Curry. Additionally, Draymond Green didn't travel with the team on the current road trip to treat a torn ligament in his left index finger. Of the nine active players in Wednesday night's loss to the Houston Rockets, just seven were on guaranteed contracts.

Entering Monday, the Warriors -- four months removed from winning the Western Conference title -- were tied for the NBA's worst record. 

"It's tough to see guys go down," Curry admitted Monday. "I don't know if its any more than years past or the types of injuries and all that type of stuff. It's tough but it is a part of the game and I think at some point everybody goes through a little something, whether its short-term or long-term injury, but for the most part you just try to keep your head up and be as positive as you can." 

Fortunately for the Warriors, there have been some positive signs this season.

On Nov. 2, Golden State held the Charlotte Hornets -- the league's best 3-point shooting team -- to just 17.2 percent from beyond the arc and took a brief lead with just over a minute left in regulation. A week ago, the Warriors beat the Portland Trail Blazers, limiting guard CJ McCollum to just 37 percent from the field. Over a three-game stretch, rookie Eric Paschall is averaging 26.0 points and 7.7 rebounds per game while shooting 51 percent from the field.

"I love the fight,"  Curry said. "You're not going to just sit and be okay with losing and whatever the narrative is, they're out there fighting every single night and if you keep the right mentality and perspective, it's the best thing in the world for a rookie to come in and for a young player to come in and have this opportunity to just play every night and get thrown into the fire." 

This season is new territory for Curry and the Warriors. Over his first five seasons in Golden State, coach Steve Kerr won 78 percent of his games, overseeing one of the best runs in NBA history and winning three titles. During that time, Curry played in 87 percent of the Warriors' regular-season games. 

Even when Curry and Thompson return, the team will be prioritizing development over championship aspirations. With the team currently pressed against the hard cap, there are little answers to improve the roster until next summer. 

"I can't stand losing," Warriors coach Steve Kerr admitted last week. "I'm also a realist and I understand the job at hand. Organizationally, we're trying to bring this young group ahead, forward, so that we can really build the depth of our roster and we know eventually Steph and Klay and Draymond are gonna be back."

[RELATED: Steph takes jab at MJ for 'not a Hall of Famer yet' comment]

As he closed his presser, Curry was reminded of a tweet he sent 10 years ago, promising he'd "figure things out" with the then-cellar-dwelling Warriors. Now, after an expected transition year, he'll be expected to deliver once more. 

"It's been a great journey," Curry said. "It's not over yet."