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Is There A Path For The Warriors To Compete For A Title This Season?

It was really weird watching the Golden State Warriors look mortal last season. Yes, there were a number of unique circumstances that contributed to this, but recent NBA history has been defined by Golden State having an air of indomitability around them.

Think of what it took for them to get to that point — devastating injuries to a pair of likely Hall of Fame inductees in the previous NBA Finals, and one of those players leaving in the offseason, and an injury suffered by a third likely Hall of Fame inductee during the season, and a number of players who played crucial roles during their reign of dominance (Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, etc.) no longer being on the roster, and Draymond Green getting load managed, and this, and that, and a few other things, and a few more.

Basically, if it took a remarkable sequence of events for the Warriors to land Kevin Durant in free agency in 2016 — a cap spike, an already-loaded roster with a spot for him, a pair of 3-1 series comebacks in the Western Conference Finals and the NBA Finals that went in opposite directions for the Dubs — it took, arguably, an even more remarkable sequence of events for the house of cards to come tumbling down so magnificently last season. The once-inevitable Golden State Warriors went 15-50, the worst record in the NBA by four games.

The renewed optimism around this team took a major blow last week, when Klay Thompson blew out his achilles. He is set to miss his second consecutive season, which is awful news for anyone who likes basketball, even if they are someone who views the Warriors as a New York Yankees-esque evil empire. But like Yankees teams of old, their stretch of excellence raised the bar to the point that all hurdles are expected to be cleared, no matter how gigantic they are.

As such, Golden State is expected to compete for a title, even if one could argue very easily that they are not in the same tier as squads like the Milwaukee Bucks or the Los Angeles teams, regardless of whether Thompson would have been able to play. This begs the question: How the heck could the Warriors win their fourth title in seven seasons?

The easiest and most likely answer, of course, is they cannot. It is impossibly difficult to win a championship, and even the team with the best odds as of this writing (the Lakers) have implied odds of only about 22 percent to lift the Larry O’Brien trophy. At +2000, Golden State is tied for the seventh-best odds to win it all, and that’s still quite the mountain to climb.

It almost feels silly to say this, but Steph Curry and Green are simultaneously crucial and extremely easy to figure out in this whole equation. If the two of them do not play like the absolute best versions of themselves — Curry a two-time league MVP who is in perpetual control of everything on the offensive end of the floor, Green a defensive stalwart and magnificent playmaker — this entire conversation is over. The Warriors cannot achieve what they want to achieve without this happening. They both had strange seasons last year, with Curry missing all but five games due to injury and Green never needing to get out of first gear. The grind of their run atop the league was so physically and mentally draining that, if all goes well, they will return to the team re-energized this time around.

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Everything else is far trickier. The Warriors have no clear answer as to who defends Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, who guards whichever of LeBron James or Anthony Davis isn’t being checked by Green, or who is going to bang with Nikola Jokic, or who checks James Harden or Damian Lillard. Firepower beyond their former MVP is a question, too. For the brilliance of Curry and Green, Steve Kerr has to figure out a way to make the puzzle pieces fit around them in such a way that everyone’s abilities can be maximized.

Take, for example, the entire frontcourt beyond Green. Golden State has to find out what it has in James Wiseman, the No. 2 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. Theoretically, he can anchor the defense and be a devastating lob threat, but that is a ton to put on someone who has not played in a competitive basketball game since last November due to the NCAA’s general desire to make everything it touches worse. Kevon Looney has been reliable over the years, but only appeared in 20 games last season and has never been much more than a role player. Guys like Marquese Chriss and Eric Paschall got a ton of run last year and showed flashes — Paschall especially, as the former Villanova standout averaged 14 points and 4.6 rebounds in 27.6 minutes a night. Chriss, who is only 23, has never consistently put it all together, while Paschall has to show he can still contribute in a lesser role on a team with higher expectations.

In the backcourt, the Warriors made a pair of savvy moves by bringing in Kelly Oubre as Thompson insurance and signing heady backup point guard Brad Wanamaker away from Boston. Andrew Wiggins is still here, while Damion Lee is in a similar boat to Paschall as someone who looked nice last season but did not exactly get high-stakes reps.

Things can basically be broken down to the Chriss/Lee/Paschall camp — basically, how do these guys respond to expectations after cutting their teeth in a low-stakes environment last season? — and whatever Oubre and Wiggins give them. I will not sit here and say this is a make-or-break year for Wiggins, because everyone (myself included!) has gotten burnt by thinking the Wiggins breakout could be on the horizon. Having all the time he’s had in the Warriors’ system could, perhaps, really help him, and maybe the team can maximize his athletic gifts and occasional ability to score in bunches, but that might be an overly-rosy hope for someone who has never quite put it all together despite being the former No. 1 pick in the Draft.

Oubre gives them a similar player to Wiggins in terms of being something of a black hole with interesting physical gifts, although he settled into a role as a nice No. 2 option next to Devin Booker in Phoenix next year. Neither dude is a world-class shooter, but playing next to Curry and Green will mean they’ll get really good looks, and they have to knock them down somewhat reliably. They can both attack the rim and take dudes off the bounce a bit, too, a pair of skills that could work nicely with their teammates’ ability to playmaker.

And while neither guy is prime Gary Payton as a defender, they have the length and athleticism to contribute on that end of the floor if they’re engaged, which has been a huge question mark for both in their careers — this could be the most important contribution that these two and Wiseman can make, because while Golden State’s offense should be much better than it was in last season (30th in offensive rating), there’s no guarantee its defense (26th) will take a requisite step forward.

Again, there are so many ifs here that the Warriors winning a championship can be really hard to imagine. That is before we even consider that Curry will turn 33 during the season and Green will turn 31, and that teams seemed to relish beating up on them last year as payback for all the times the Dubs beat up on them during their run atop the league, and it’s plausible teams will find that extra gear to beat a now-healthy Golden State side.

For all of that, the Warriors have earned the benefit of the doubt to some extent. Their run has been defined in part by their ability to come up with answers when questions arise, and this season will certainly present a whole lot of those. Whether Curry, Green, Kerr, and everyone else can answer them will be the difference between Golden State being in the title hunt again, or the fat lady warming up her vocal cords to belt out a song to formally announce the end of this era.

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