The Mighty Have Fallen: What’s next for the depleted Warriors?

It’s crazy how the trajectory of an entire sports league can change dramatically in a span of a few days. This time, last year, the Golden State Warriors were five days fresh from their third championship parade in four years. They had just finished the 2018 postseason with a net rating of 10.4, the third-highest figure behind only the devastating 2000 Shaq-Kobe Los Angeles Lakers and, well, the 2017 iteration of that same Warriors team. They didn’t pillage through that postseason (they were one healthy Chris Paul away from possibly a premature exit), but the Warriors still finished with a gaping point differential –– underscoring that even if they weren’t playing up to speed, were still a historically dominant team.

Coming into the 2018-2019 season, the Warriors’ case for another title centered, once again, around the once-in-a-lifetime make-up of the team. They had two of the top-three players in the entire NBA flanked by another pair of All-NBA-level talents, woven together by a culture and system that lifted the team to rarefied air. These Warriors were the basketball equivalent of the 2003-2004 Arsenal football squad aptly called The Invincibles. They were dominant, demoralizing, and most of all, consummate winners.

The way the rest of the league unfolded in the 2018 offseason turned their bid for a three-peat to a damn near certainty. LeBron James’ decision to bolt the Cavaliers in favor for the up-and-coming-but-not-quite-there-yet Lakers squad reduced the pool of true title contenders, while Chris Paul’s age and injury history combined with the sneaky huge departure of Trevor Ariza weakened their most capable rival. The cherry on top of it all was free agent signing of DeMarcus Cousins, which gave Golden State the ability to deploy five All-Stars in their prime by the time DeMarcus Cousins got healthy.

Barring any unforeseen circumstances, there was no stopping this Warriors team in their quest for the first three-peat in almost 20 years. But after a ruptured Achilles from Kevin Durant in Game 5, followed by a torn ACL from Klay Thompson in Game 6, calling what happened to the Warriors in the 2019 NBA Finals as an unforeseen circumstance is an understatement.

Playoff injuries happen all the time. This is an unquestionable fact. Case-in-point: the first chip in the dynastic run of these Warriors came against a hobbled Cavs squad that were missing a pair of All-Stars in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Given a clean slate of postseason health, the CP3-Blake Los Angeles Clippers and Durant-Westbrook Oklahoma City Thunder teams of the mid 2010s could have posed a real title challenge. Had Kendrick Perkins been healthy for Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals, we would be looking at Kobe Bryant’s legacy much differently.

In other words: there’s no denying that injuries in the playoffs, and even the Finals, are commonplace. But what happened to Durant and Thompson weren’t mere playoff injuries. They were brutal career turns for two surefire Hall-of-Famers, evoking a cloud of gloom hampered any chance of a three-peat. Not to discredit the Raptors, who played an incredible series and are fully deserving of the title, but there’s a high chance that the 2019 Finals will not be remembered for Toronto’s first title alone.

History will likely also remember it instead for devastating conclusion of the Golden State Warriors dynasty, and possibly, the peak of Kevin Durant’s career –– that the Warriors paid a steep price for a chance at history.

It’s hard to predict what’s next for the Warriors without sure answers on the injury and free agency status of Durant and Thompson. The ideal situation would be for both to re-sign with the Dubs, sit out the 2019-2020 NBA season to recover, and return fully healthy in time for a run for a 2021 title run. But realistically, we know that there are a multitude of factors that hinder this from coming true.

Kevin Durant’s likely departure is the main reason. Despite the real chance that KD will never be the same and that he’ll miss the entirety of next season, these factors will not dissuade the same group of suitors to offer the full four-year, $160 million max contract for a chance at one of the Top 15 players of all time. Kevin Pelton of ESPN predicted his drop-off in production to be around 8%, meaning that Durant will probably be a 24-5-5 player going forward –– still an extremely effective superstar.

The same reasons of his likely exit from the Bay –– a new challenge, bigger spotlight, the opportunity to prove that he can succeed as the lone alpha –– still apply, even post-injury.

Thompson, on the other hand, is a surefire bet to re-sign according to his dad. But given the history of torn ACLs, Thompson will likely miss most (if not all) of next season. Cousins will probably bolt for a larger contract. Shaun Livingston has hinted at retirement. This leaves the supporting cast surrounding Stephen Curry and Draymond Green next season incredibly bare, which includes a declining Andre Iguodala (Iggy turns 36 in seven months) and a glut of underwhelming late first rounders and second-rounders.

Because of the three big-money contracts tied to Curry, Green, and most likely Thompson, they have very little financial flexibility to improve their roster this offseason. While the new-look Lakers, Clippers, Nets, and Knicks are looking at the likes of Irving and Jimmy Butler to bolster their squads, the Warriors next acquisition is probably someone like Wayne Ellington or Dion Waiters. Not exactly the most glamorous additions (though the few remaining inhabitants of Waiters Island would beg to differ!).

To put it simply, the immediate future of the Warriors looks extremely bleak. For the first time in five years, there are more question marks surrounding this team than assurances. Next season will be a litmus test on the greatness of Curry, Green, and Steve Kerr. They need to work their hardest to show that their combined genius can lift an otherwise dreadful roster to success.

The Warriors potentially being mediocre next season is a sigh of relief for fans of the 29 other teams. Love them or hate them, however, it’s an indisputable fact that those Golden State Warriors have defined a significant era of the NBA. They are an iconic team.

Kids these days have grown up watching these Warriors demoralize teams, much like how my Dad grew up watching Magic and Bird trade chips, how my titos grew up watching Jordan’s Bulls amass six rings, or how I spent many of my post-school afternoons watching replays of LeBron’s Heat teams dismantling the rest of the NBA. And much like the runs of Bird, Magic, Jordan, and LeBron teams, these Warriors too are not safe from the blade of dissolution. All dynasties end, in one form or another.

So instead of celebrating the end of their reign in the NBA, maybe it’s best to appreciate the brand of greatness that we’ve witnessed from these Steph-KD-Dray-Klay Warriors. There’s a good chance that we will never see it, in full-force, ever again.

Photos from AP