OAKLAND, Calif. — The Golden State Warriors have thrived as the NBA’s central force, shifting seamlessly from favored sons to supervillains, because they have refused to settle, compromise or quit. For five years, they lorded over the NBA as the biggest show, brashest organization and best collection of talent.
Nothing about the Warriors has been subtle or understated. Not the “Light Years” mantra, Stephen Curry’s league-altering breakthrough or the successful pursuit of Kevin Durant. Not the record-setting 73 wins in 2016 or the 16-1 postseason in 2017. Not the memorable comebacks or the unprecedented collapse after holding a 3-1 series lead against Cleveland in 2016. Certainly not the palatial, billion-dollar arena they will call home next year.
Considering that history, there was only one way for this era to conclude: with a cosmic bang piercing through an inferno. With better health, the ending wouldn’t have come this year. But this dynasty included too many combustible elements to go quietly or to disintegrate slowly.
The boom arrived during Thursday’s Game 6, when the Toronto Raptors survived raucous Oracle Arena to defeat the Warriors, 114-110, and claim their first title. Golden State was left beaten and broken, and all-star guard Klay Thompson tore the ACL in his left knee.
Thompson’s injury marked the second franchise-altering setback in two games, joining Durant’s ruptured Achilles’ tendon in Game 5. Warriors Coach Steve Kerr said Thursday that Durant “is going to miss next season;” Thompson’s timetable isn’t known, but a return probably won’t happen until after the all-star break at the earliest.
“It’s just brutal,” Kerr said of the twin blows. “You’ve got to be kidding me. This has to stop.”
Further complicating matters: Durant and Thompson are set to become free agents. Center DeMarcus Cousins — who in the past six months has returned from an Achilles’ rupture and a quadriceps tear — is, too. So is center Kevon Looney — a “foundational piece,” Kerr called him — who played through a chest injury during the Finals.
In other words, if Warriors ownership still believes in this group, it would need to pay up to retain key players who are dealing with serious health concerns that could spill over into next season. Keeping the full band together, of course, would run up a steep luxury-tax bill and limit Golden State’s ability to add meaningful outside talent.
In that scenario, Curry, Draymond Green and Cousins would try to hold down the fort with a bunch of minimum-salary filler around them. Such an approach might lead Curry back into the 2020 MVP conversation, but it wouldn’t guarantee a deep playoff run unless Durant and/or Thompson managed a miraculous return. That begs a common question for decaying dynasties: Why pay superteam prices for far less than superteam results?
More likely, the Warriors will need to make some hard choices. Perhaps some of those choices, namely Durant’s, will be made for them.
If Durant agrees to re-sign, paying him will require some serious trimming around the edges. Cousins would be a likely casualty, among others.
If Durant leaves for the New York Knicks or elsewhere, though, the Warriors would be left with a gigantic hole on the wing and precious few trade assets and limited salary cap flexibility to replace his consistent scoring and multi-positional defense.
Thompson has been central to Golden State’s ability to cope without Durant, and his absence will leave Curry stuck dealing with traps and overloaded coverages throughout next season. Considering their lack of available secondary scorers and their shallow pool of young talent, the Warriors almost certainly will take a major step back on offense if Durant departs.
With or without Durant, the Warriors probably will do whatever it takes to keep Thompson, whom Green said Thursday “has the most heart on this team.” An ACL tear is not as debilitating as an Achilles’ injury, and the 29-year-old Thompson has enjoyed excellent health throughout his career.
From there, Looney should be prioritized over Cousins. The 23-year-old center is younger, a better defender and a superior fit alongside Curry and Green. Golden State has invested significant sweat equity in his development over the past four years, and it will want to see that pay dividends down the road. Unfortunately for the Warriors, Looney’s strong postseason almost certainly drove up his market value.
As Golden State waits on Durant and sorts through these core decisions, it also must brace for the possible retirement of Shaun Livingston and a large-scale overhaul of its bench. Many of the reserves whom Kerr tapped during the Finals, including Jordan Bell, Andrew Bogut, Quinn Cook and Jonas Jerebko, are about to be free agents. A key question to track over the next few weeks: Will the injuries to Durant and Thompson negatively affect Golden State’s ability to lure ring-hunting veterans on low-cost deals?
While the Warriors’ roster is clearly in flux, they are correct to view the 2019 postseason as validation of their core principles and key figures. Curry played spectacularly despite a rotating cast around him. Green was a consistent force and clearly has multiple years of elite play left in the tank. Thompson, before the injury, was electric and a gamer. Kerr’s “Strength In Numbers” boast repeatedly paid dividends in big moments against the Houston Rockets, the Portland Trail Blazers and the Raptors.
Golden State’s collective will was astonishing, leaving Kerr to publicly express his “gratitude” to his players for their “incredible combination of talent, character and commitment to each other.” Unsurprisingly, the Warriors had no interest in obituaries.
“I wouldn’t bet against us being back on this stage next year and going forward,” Curry said after Game 6. “This five-year run has been awesome, but I definitely don’t think it’s over.”
Golden State will remain a factor as long as it has a healthy Curry and Green to build around. But this week’s loud and messy losses made it clear: The Warriors who the NBA has come to know and fear won’t ever be the same.