OAKLAND – Sixteen days shy of three years ago, the Warriors were charged with ruining the NBA. Upon adding Kevin Durant, you’d swear they committed a felony. They were littered with scorn.
The Warriors didn’t care. They’d lost the 2016 NBA Finals in most ignominious way, but they were holding the biggest NBA lottery jackpot since Miami won LeBron James in 2010.
In luring KD out of Oklahoma City and becoming prohibitive favorites for 2017 -- even posing with silver balloons spelling out “Super Villains” -- the Warriors had a message for the rest of the league: Try your slingshots against our heavy artillery.
"Just to be absolutely clear, I do not think that's ideal from the league standpoint," NBA commissioner Adam Silver said a few days after Durant signed with the Warriors.
Those were the days, eh? They are as gone as Anderson Varejao.
The rest of the NBA has been gaining a little bit at a time, eventually eliminating the awe factor that once allowed the Warriors to win merely by stepping onto the floor with Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Durant and the minimum-salary center du jour.
Asked the other day if he thinks the rest of the NBA has gotten better over the past few seasons, Warriors CEO Joe Lacob didn’t hesitate.
“It did. I do believe that,” he said. “There are 29 other ownership groups and management teams and players that are all working to make themselves better. It gets harder every year.
“But that’s fun. That’s what the fun of it all is. It’s not meant to be. I don’t think we’re going to go out and win every year, although I’d like to and we will try to. But there are a lot of good teams, good players, good organizations and the chess pieces get moved around a little bit when you have the draft and free agency. And that’s all the exciting next few weeks.”
Lacob, who says he doesn’t do retrospection, knows what’s coming not only in 2019-20 -- when injured current Warriors Durant and Thompson will play little, if at all -- but beyond.
The Raptors, having dethroned the Warriors last week, will enter next season as favorite -- if they re-sign Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. If they lose Leonard, the Western Conference team that signs him -- Toronto is the only Eastern Conference team believed to have a chance -- will be, at worst, a title contender.
The Bucks are legitimate and will be better after dipping their toes into deep postseason waters. The 76ers are serious, as are the Celtics. Assuming none of the top four teams in the East undergoes dramatic retooling, they’ll all be threats.
And then there is the West, which is not as top-heavy as the East but surely is deeper. The young Nuggets will be better next April. The Trail Blazers are a quality forward away from being imposing. The Rockets will be back, even after the presumed remodel.
Care to imagine Kawhi and another star joining the Clippers, who went nose-to-nose with the Warriors in the playoffs?
The Lakers are committed to giving themselves more of a chance next season. After spending last summer renting veteran rejects and role players, surrounding LeBron James with young talent and cardboard cutouts, LA will add Anthony Davis. That’s threatening.
Most of the aforementioned opponents have experienced the joy of walloping the Warriors by 20 or more points over the past two seasons. They believed and they succeeded.
The past five years have taken a toll on the Warriors, particularly the 105 postseason games. They’ve averaged 103 games per season. That, combined with serious injuries to Durant and Thompson, is enough to embolden teams that once figured they had no reasonable chance.
When the Warriors take the court next season, they’ll do so with the wind in their faces instead of at their backs. The psychological edge is completely gone. They’re weakened, and everybody will believe they can get a piece.
When the Warriors last season often claimed to get “everybody’s best shot,” there was some truth to that. Not nearly as much as there will be next season.