The Warriors on Friday night will get their first look at the NBA Western Conference mountains they have to climb to get close enough to see the pinnacle. Few expect them to make it. The skepticism is valid.
No longer are the Warriors a mountain others have to navigate. Gone are the days when they were the subjects of the Houston Rockets’ obsession and the Portland Trail Blazers’ despair.
Stephen Curry acknowledges this downgraded status. Which is different from accepting it.
“Obviously, you want to win,” he said Friday after shootaround. “But in years past, when you know you're at the top of the Western Conference, and you have these ‘mini-goals’ to keep your focus and have like a relative attainable goal in the short term, that definitely helps.
“With this team, it’s totally different.”
The last time Curry, 32, felt better about the Warriors’ status in this ominous conference, they were atop it and among his running mates were Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston.
Only Green among that group remains, and his season debut Friday night against the Blazers -- the Warriors’ first Western Conference opponent -- provides a measure of comfort to Curry while also nudging the team closer to achieving clarity on its identity.
Yet there is so much mystery about these Warriors. There is rookie center James Wiseman, whose massive potential is undeniable. There is Andrew Wiggins, hoping to evolve from enigma to reliable producer. There is Kelly Oubre Jr., who is determined to pursue individual and team honors. There is a bench that is in the early stages of formation, fluid enough to change from one half to the next.
So many new faces. So much to develop.
“We've played only East Coast teams so far, so it's kind of hard for us to even gauge where we're at up and down the Western Conference,” Curry said. “But we have a lot of confidence in where we're trying to go, and what team we can be week from now, a month from now.”
The Warriors play Portland twice this weekend, a series followed by a visit from the Kings on Monday night, with the Los Angeles Clippers coming into Chase Center for games on Wednesday and Friday nights. The Toronto Raptors and Indiana Pacers close out the homestand. Of the seven games, six come against teams expected to be bound for the postseason.
The seventh, Sacramento, is playing well -- well enough that the Warriors, who during their championship years presumed victory over the Kings, are in no position to take them for granted.
A 4-3 homestand would be outstanding, and 3-4 would not be disastrous. Five wins in seven would be overachieving, five losses would be cause for concern. This is the blade-thin trail these Warriors are walking.
It’s new and it’s old, a considerable departure from two years ago but familiar to where the Warriors were eight years ago, when Curry was 24 and yet to make an All-Star roster.
“If you’re in this league long enough, you'll have every experience and challenge in front of you, hopefully,” Curry said. “Being young on the chase to win the championship. Trying to maintain that level. Keep it consistently, year after year, with your roster and, if things change over, trying to get back to that level.
“So, I'm appreciative of being around long enough to understand all those different circumstances and challenges and narratives for a season and just embrace what's happening right now. That's something that has been a huge part of my success, just being ready for whatever. And in this year is definitely one of those challenges that kind of gets you excited about what’s possible what we're capable of.”
Being ready “for whatever” is another way of saying there are no lofty expectations.
The perception of the Warriors as king of all NBA behemoths, fitting a few years ago, has given way to squad standing in a crowded Western Conference line behind the Lakers and Clippers. Hanging around others, such as Utah and Denver and Houston and Dallas and Phoenix and Portland.
Which is why this weekend matters, and why this homestand matters.
Even as Curry cautions that there will be uneven moments, having Green back at his side is enough to believe “whatever” is possible.