After enjoying another championship summer, their third in four seasons, the Warriors two years ago embraced the prospect of a dynasty. They’d reduced all challengers to damp piles of ashes, and their core members had prime years remaining.
Why not grab two or three or four more Larry O’Brien trophies? Match or eclipse the Showtime Los Angeles Lakers, the Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls and the Gregg Popovich San Antonio Spurs to become the most accomplished NBA franchise in the modern era. Sounded sweet.
But two years after sweeping the Cavaliers in the 2018 Finals, the Warriors have experienced consecutive seasons without the prize. Examining the current roster and studying the rest of the NBA, talk of a dynasty is delusional.
Recapturing the vibe that made them so fearsome can’t happen without Kevin Durant. The earliest they can return to the playoffs is April 2021, when Stephen Curry will be 33, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson each at least 31. Young enough to be prime, but too aged to anticipate two or three or four more Larry O’s.
That much is apparent in observing Western Conference teams in the NBA restart in Florida.
Any realistic path to another Warriors title requires a top-four seed in the West; only one of 72 NBA champs entered the playoffs outside the top four. The 1994-95 Houston Rockets fell to No. 6 when a March injury cost Hakeem Olajuwon 10 games, seven of which they lost. He returned for the postseason and punctuated it by abusing young Shaquille O’Neal in The Finals.
It’s not that the Warriors can’t win the 52 or so games required to reach the top four in 2021. It’s that as they’ve been hurting and healing, the bubble revealed that the competition was loading up.
In the 26 months since the Warriors last won it all, a lot has transpired to generate a shift in the balance of power in the West. Here is an alphabetical look:
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Los Angeles Clippers
Added Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to a team governed by Steve “I’m not afraid to pay the luxury tax for us to win” Ballmer. Their future draft outlook is dim, but free agents have a tendency to consider LA. Then, too, Ballmer likes to exploit the unique asset that is Jerry West.
Added impressive rookies Ja Morant (turned 21 on Monday) and Brandon Clarke (23) to sophomore Jaren Jackson Jr. (20) and had the hubris to invade the playoff race. This team’s zealous youngsters are not firing blanks. Those are warning shots. They’re coming.
Added 21-year-old Luka Doncic, who is paired with 25-year-old Kristaps Porzingis. They snapped a three-year streak of missing the playoffs. And we all know Mark Cuban, whose ownership sparked a 12-year postseason streak, is salty about being a spectator when the lights are brightest.
Added 22-year-old Michael Porter Jr. to a nucleus – Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris etc. – that makes the strongest argument as the best young bunch in the NBA. They’re deep, have a higher ceiling than the Grizzlies and, thanks to the 2019 Trail Blazers, have developed the emotional scar tissue caused by postseason heartbreak.
Added a solid coach in Monty Williams and a load of young talent to catalyst Devin Booker, who was in his second season as a full-time starter when the Warriors last won it all. He’s not yet 24, but next season will be his sixth. Phoenix went 8-0 in the bubble with only three rotation players over 24. Team governor Robert Sarver might be the likeliest bet to spoil this.
Portland Trail Blazers
Added Gary Trent Jr., who is 21 and already an upgrade over recent young forwards, and Rodney Hood, though his effectiveness is in doubt coming off a torn Achilles tendon. But if Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic stay healthy – and they can squeeze another year out of Carmelo Anthony, they’ll be dangerous.
That’s six teams, with no mention of five more: Utah Jazz, Lakers, Rockets, Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder. It’s not that those five won’t be factors, because they will be. At least for another year or two, but for most, there is legitimate concern about their futures being better than their presents.
There is no knowing if the Jazz can fix their internal issues; no knowing how the post-LeBron Lakers, assuming Anthony Davis stays, will look; no knowing how long the Rockets can contend with Harden-Westbrook leading a mini-ball outfit and a governor bleeding money; no knowing how the Spurs, with some young talent but missing the playoffs for the first time since the Ice Age, will respond if Gregg Popovich, 71, steps away.
The Thunder are thriving with Chris Paul now, but they can’t be a serious top-four threat until some of their 400 future first-round picks over the next six years enter the league and flourish.
For five consecutive seasons, the Warriors were perfect in postseason series within the conference. Crazy, eh?
Reality indicates those days are over. If the Curry-Green-Thompson trio is able to anchor another team that wins the West, much less The Finals, it will be their most remarkable feat of all.