For five years, the Warriors ruled over the NBA with an iron fist, wiping away opponents without breaking a sweat. And then, almost as quickly as they ascended to the top of the league, they were gone, with injuries and exhaustion costing them a chance at a fourth title in five years and sending them to hurtling out of the NBA title picture.
Eighteen months will have passed by the time Steph Curry and the Warriors take the floor on Dec. 22 to open their season against Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets. They've been out of sight but not out of mind. The NBA has patiently awaited the return of its former goliath, thirsting at the thought of adding a healthy Warriors team to what is a loaded pack of championship contenders.
Klay Thompson's devastating Achilles injury took some air out of the Warriors' balloon. They went from expected title contender to underdog threat just like that. But Thompson's absence didn't stunt the NBA's excitement to have the Warriors back.
In fact, just the opposite. The NBA sent a clear message to Curry and the Warriors when it released the first half of the 72-game schedule Friday: "So, you think you're title contenders? Prove it."
The Warriors open against Durant and the Nets, who are expected to be among the best in the Eastern Conference. After that, they head straight to Milwaukee for a bout with Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks, who have been the top seed in the East in each of the last two years.
Thompson's injury didn't adjust the Warriors' expectations. Owner Joe Lacob made it clear he had no plans to tank, and the team immediately traded for 24-year-old wing Kelly Oubre Jr. to help fill the void left by Thompson.
Make no mistake about it, the Warriors plan to contend for a title. But there will be no easing in for a core group (Curry, Oubre, Draymond Green and Andrew Wiggins) who will have spent two weeks together before the season tips off.
Yes, the NBA followed the Bucks matchup with visits to Detroit and Chicago, which should allow the Warriors to steady the ship if needed.
But, all in all, the opening flurry is filled with marquee game after marquee game pitting the Warriors against the best in the NBA. In the first 37 games, the Warriors will face the Nets (twice), the Los Angeles Lakers (twice), the Los Angeles Clippers (twice), the Dallas Mavericks (twice), the Portland Trail Blazers (three times), the Phoenix Suns (twice), and the Bucks, Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz, Miami Heat and Boston Celtics each once.
Nineteen of their opening 37 games are against teams who expect to be in the title conversation.
For the Warriors, that's both a blessing and a curse.
Curry said he was "excited" to open the season against the Nets and Bucks, knowing it would give the Warriors an immediate gauge of where they stand against two teams with legitimate championship aspirations.
That's true and will be a valid litmus test right out the chute. But the Warriors will undoubtedly need more time to gel as a group. Curry has played just one game with Wiggins, and Oubre was just acquired three weeks ago. Rookie center James Wiseman is talented, but it'll take time for him to acclimate to the pro game and be a factor.
They'll get no such time. Of their first 14 games, 10 are against teams expected to be vying for the Larry O'Brien Trophy in some capacity.
It's a nice "welcome back" gift to a dynastic power attempting to remake itself and extend greatness long past the normal expiration date.
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The Warriors' grand re-entrance to the NBA was supposed to be about Curry and Thompson and Green, side by side, ready to prove they still had that 2015 magic in them. That the 2016 gear that took them to 73-9 still coursed through their veins. The Warriors planned to re-ignite their dynasty after a year in NBA purgatory.
There was no reason to believe they couldn't. The dynasty that revolutionized basketball, at the very least, deserved the opportunity to put their dynasty on the line at full strength. To have it survive and thrive or end on the court. Not with Thompson's injury.
With a healthy Curry, though, the Warriors have a chance. They have a chance to re-enter a landscape they once ruled over as the hunter. A chance to give their dynasty a different final chapter than the one authored by the 90s Bulls or 2000s Lakers, dynasties that were stamped out off the court.
A chance to keep hope alive and determine whether or not glory's flame has actually been extinguished.
With a loaded early schedule, the Warriors' return no longer is hypothetical. It either is or it isn't, and we should find out the answer soon.