The general belief, as well as that of the oddsmakers, is the Los Angeles Lakers, after a one-year blip, will run through the Western Conference and return to the NBA Finals. That LeBron James, with an influx of grizzled stars, will make one more trip to the top.
“You’ve got a lot of names that have been around,” Stephen Curry says of the Lakers, who reshaped their roster in the offseason. “A lot of guys that have won, some haven’t won and some are hungry to win. They have a lot of experience and talent and upside, just like everybody else in the league.”
There should be at least a sip of skepticism. The NBA has a history of being unkind to teams built on elderly legs, and it’s conceivable that a team with a more desirable blend of age and youth will provide a reminder.
The Warriors should be at the top of that list.
After two seasons outside the playoffs, the Warriors feel some urgency and are better than the team that came within a win of the postseason. They’re built to contend.
Golden State’s core – Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Curry – knows the playoffs better than any other group in the league. Barring catastrophic misfortune, the 2022 NBA playoffs will be their eighth postseason in 10 years as teammates. While they are profoundly experienced, their collective mileage is relatively low, particularly compared to the Lakers.
LeBron has logged more minutes than any active player, and is one of only three players to accumulate more than 60,000 career minutes, including the postseason. Then there are his new teammates in LA: Carmelo Anthony is second in career minutes, Dwight Howard fourth, Russell Westbrook sixth and Trevor Ariza eighth.
Andre Iguodala (third) is the only Warrior in the top 20.
The last “old” team to win a championship is the 2011 Dallas Mavericks, who had three vets with at least 12 years of experience. The 2008 Boston Celtics were considered old, but only one rotation player, Kevin Garnett, had been in the league for 12 years. The 2003 San Antonio Spurs had four players with at least 12 years of experience, but three of them, including a reserve guard named Steve Kerr, were on the margins of the rotation.
The Lakers have eight players with at least 12 seasons behind them – and five with at least 15 years in the league. They are, in many ways, a one-shot experiment to determine if an ancient squad can thrive in the “load management” era.
The Warriors have their questions, too, but age is not one of them. Aside from the three-man core, only Avery Bradley (if he makes the team) and Iguodala have been in the league for more than eight seasons. Four of their rotation players – Kevon Looney, Jordan Poole, Andrew Wiggins and James Wiseman – haven’t reached their 27th birthday.
In a league where 3-point shooting is at a premium, with Curry the king, the Warriors have as much as any of their best teams since Kerr took over as coach in 2014.
With the spacing provided by this roster, as many as eight players have a chance to shoot better than 35 percent from deep. Some of it will come from two new additions, Otto Porter and Nemanja Bjelica. Some of it will come from projected starters Andrew Wiggins and Thompson, who hopes to return before the calendar flips to 2022. Further down the bench is Damion Lee, and maybe even rookie Moses Moody.
There’s Green, who should be closer to his career-best (38.8 percent) in 2015-16 than his career-worst (27.0 percent) last season. He looks more determined during the preseason.
“I told him in Portland, our first (preseason) game, I want you shooting two or three 3s every game,” Kerr says. “If you’re open, let it fly.”
Then there is Poole, the ever-improving third-year guard whose offense might be productive enough to offset his unexceptional defense. He’s expected to open the season as the starting shooting guard but will continue to get significant minutes after Thompson returns.
Kerr already envisions the effect improved spacing will have on shot selection.
“When Steph and Klay are both on the floor with Jordan, we’re going to have a chance to go from good (shots) to great all the time,” he says, “because defenses are going to have to be responding in every direction.”
The pertinent question, then, is about the defense. Can Draymond maintain his All-Defensive team level? Will Wiggins continue to make an impact on that end? Will Poole be able to hold his own?
The Warriors have recalibrated well enough for the oddsmakers to install them at No. 4 in the chase for the championship and No. 2 in the West, ahead of both the Utah Jazz and the Phoenix Suns, who finished first and second in the conference last season.
Only the Brooklyn Nets, the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks and the West favorite Lakers have better odds to win it all.
“They did what they thought was right to help win,” Curry says of the Lakers. “We’ll see how it goes once the season starts.”