OAKLAND – They all want to “stay in the moment” and take it “game by game.” Such phrases are typical of any NBA player fortunate enough to reach the playoffs, but they are particularly true and poignant for the Warriors in 2019.
And not only because everyone in the building is bracing for the exit of Kevin Durant.
Or because Klay Thompson is weeks away from free agency.
Or because Draymond Green, with one year remaining on his contract, would like an extension.
It’s bigger than one person, or even three people. As the Warriors approach the NBA Finals for the fifth consecutive year – a feat not achieved since the 1960s Celtics – they seem acutely aware that this cannot last forever. They may contend for years to come, but no franchise dominates indefinitely.
No matter how clever the plan or how wise the leaders or how great the talent, the law of averages always comes knocking.
“We’ve set the bar incredibly high,” Warriors veteran guard Shaun Livingston tells NBC Sports Bay Area. “I believe what happens here over the next five years is going to be very interesting.”
Winning it all is hard. Winning it all repeatedly is unrealistic. Ask the Lakers, once the NBA’s gold standard. Ask the Bulls, who once ruled. Ask the folks in Detroit or Miami or, well, you get the picture. Even the Spurs, always successful but never a dynasty, are showing signs of slippage.
The posse is coming for the Warriors.
“The posse has been there for three years,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said to NBC Sports Bay Area. “That’s been happening. It’s part of what makes it so difficult. The climb is the most fun part of it. And then staying on top of the mountain is the most difficult. We’ve been fighting off challengers now for the last three or four years. It feels to me that so many teams are planning for us or changing their styles.
“We’ve had games the past year or two that would have resulted in 30-point blowouts for us four years ago. But because people have adapted to what we do . . . that same game isn’t a blowout any more. It’s a close game, because the other team is not turning it over and they’ve made 16 or 18 3s.”
The regular-season win totals have declined in each of the last four seasons, from 73 to 67 to 58 and 57. When the Warriors take the floor for Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday, it will be their 99th game of the season. They are assured of playing at least 102 games, bringing their five-year total to 513.
The Lakers, to cite one example, have played 410 games during that span.
Steph Curry was 26 when this run began. Green and Thompson were 24. Five years later, they are six years older. We watched them grow from the frisky pups of 2015, riding talent and hubris to a championship, to seasoned veterans more familiar than any other team with the treachery of an extended postseason. Experience is the edge they bring into The Finals, and it is their shield against any and everything the Raptors will try.
“I like this situation a lot better, for sure,” Curry says. “There’s just a confidence that you’ve done it before. You know what it feels like, you know the adrenaline rush, the nervousness, the sense of urgency in the moment. That accounts for something.”
At some point, if the Warriors are unlucky or not careful, that experience crutch will be in danger of snapping. Thin is the line between an experienced team and one that is too old.
“That’s the tradeoff,” Kerr says of the team’s evolution. “It’s not new anymore. But it’s habitual, in a good way. It may not be as exciting, but we have far greater confidence in what we’re doing. Even though we got blown out a few times at home, that’s just because guys are tired from the journey and you can’t expect them to play at that level through five long years.
“But when you get to the playoffs, and you’ve been there and you’ve won championships, there’s a deep level of confidence and know-how that was missing the first couple years.”
The Warriors opened this season as the seventh-oldest team in the league. The Denver Nuggets were the youngest, with the Portland Trail Blazers second youngest. Both teams are members of the posse stalking the Warriors.
There is no knowing what the Warriors will look like when Chase Center opens later this year, much less who will be on the roster in 2021-22, when Curry is 34 and again becomes an unrestricted free agent,
“Each year has been a little different, with tweaks here and there,” Livingston says. “But next year, it may look a lot different.”
Durant may leave. DeMarcus Cousins is expected to leave. Thompson is expected to re-sign, but the possibility of leaving has been floated. Green will be under contract, but would like some clarity regarding his future. Though Andre Iguodala has one more year on his deal and will return, Livingston is pondering retirement.
Kevon Looney and Jonas Jerebko will be unrestricted free agents, Quinn Cook and Jordan Bell restricted free agents.
“We understand it could be a possibility – a major possibility,” Livingston says of the roster shakeup sure to follow if Durant leaves. “So, let’s focus and lock in and enjoy this moment.”
The Warriors, even as they pursue a third consecutive championship, can’t fully ignore their uncertain future. The reminders keep bobbing to the surface. They know enough, however, to realize it’s going to be different than the present.
“After five years, there’s no getting around the fact that the haul is a long one,” Kerr says. “Guys get older. Guys get more expensive. So, there’s a sense that we should make the most of this because who the hell knows what’s coming next.”