The Golden State Warriors had the ultimate bittersweet season last year, Team Icarus, flying too close to the sun. They started 24-0, even without the sideline guidance of Steve Kerr, who himself was sidelined for the first 43 games of the season due to complications from off-season back surgery. They ran roughshod over the entire league, eviscerating everyone and everything in their path and humiliating the Cleveland Cavaliers on the road so thoroughly that their front office felt compelled to fire coach David Blatt.
They rained death from above, making 1,077 threes at a 41.6 percent clip, with Stephen Curry breaking his own single-season record with 402 triples. Klay Thompson emerged as a bona fide consistent second-banana and Draymond Green flourished as the offensive fulcrum — a two-way, triple-double threat who could anchor the defense as a small-ball center and facilitate the offense when opponents trapped Curry.
By the time the dust settled on the regular season, they won 73 games, breaking the single-season record previously set by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, a squad on which Kerr was a backup guard.
All their regular season accomplishments fell by the wayside, however, because unlike those Bulls, the Warriors were unable to win the title. Curry sprained his knee in the first round against the Rockets, missed some time and never quite looked right upon returning. They almost lost in the Western Conference Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder, with Green inviting controversy and scrutiny with a couple of rough fouls on Steven Adams. They made it back to the Finals however, but fell to the Cavs and their new coach, Tyronn Lue, in Game 7.
Most teams would be traumatized beyond repair after such an epic collapse. The Warriors’ responded to it by signing Kevin Durant, thereby crippling their closest challengers in the West and widening the gap between themselves and everyone else in the conference.
The salary cap gymnastics involved in being able to sign Durant to a max contract meant moving on from Harrison Barnes — that’s a feature, not a bug — and also injury prone big-men Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli, fan favorites Marreese Speights, Leandro Barbosa and Barnes understudy Brandon Rush. Luke Walton, who was the interim coach while Kerr was out, has also moved on, taking on the clipboard for the rebuilding Los Angeles Lakers.
Joining Durant as newcomers to the Warriors are draft picks Damian Jones and Patrick McCaw, the former a center from Vanderbilt who’ll be out a while recovering from surgery for a torn pectoral and the latter a shooting guard from UNLV who tore up the Las Vegas Summer League and is expected to back up Thompson. They’ve also added Zaza Pachulia, a capable, much cheaper replacement for Bogut though less subtle in his use of the dark arts; David West, still chasing that elusive ring, and possibly JaVale McGee, for the unintentional comedy.
The question isn’t really whether we should expect the Warriors to win the title. It’s fairly obvious that we should. They were the best team when healthy last year and they’ve added one of the top five players in the world to that, essentially making what was an unguardable offense more unguardable. Whereas opponents could just leave Barnes wide open and count on him to miss, now they’ve got to pick their executioner between Curry, Thompson and Durant, all three of them a fair bet to destroy anyone in a 1-on-1 match-up.
The real question is whether intangible factors such as the team’s perceived heel turn and the non-stop scrutiny and attention they’ll receive for eight months straight will wear on them, causing tension both internal and external. Kerr and his core players are all insisting that they won’t chase a record win total again, chastened by what that effort took out of them for the playoff run, but at the same time every team they play will treat Golden State like Game 7 of the Finals and it’s only natural.
In the heat of competition, the Warriors will need to respond to the challenge in kind. They’ll be embarrassed any time they don’t take games seriously, no differently then they’ll humiliate anyone who doesn’t go all out against them. They’ll be surprised at first by how hard everyone goes at them, but they’ll be steeled for it by January or so, ready for everybody’s fifth gear.
The best-case scenario for the Dubs is a season relatively free of serious injuries or controversy, with Kerr and the team’s brass somehow finding a way to keep Green, Durant and Thompson from saying or doing anything too interesting or polarizing. Ideally, Kerr will be able to find plenty of rest for his stars, the rookies and youngsters like Kevon Dooley, James Michael McAdoo and Ian Clark can further develop and contribute, and the team will be at its frightening peak come the playoffs, with no ill-timed sprains or suspensions.
On paper, no one, not even Cleveland, should be able to seriously pose a threat to them on the way lifting the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Injuries can and do have a way of ruining the best laid plans, however, and you can’t ever predict them, no matter the resources teams invest in their sports science departments. Maybe Green will be worn down from having to constantly play against those bigger and stronger than he. Maybe Curry’s history of ankle issues will rear its ugly head again. Or maybe there will be genuine chemistry and stylistic issues between the Fab Four, with Green or Thompson unable to find his footing in the new normal.
It’s difficult to foresee what combination of factors would have to conspire for them to lose four times in seven games — especially considering that 10 different things had to go wrong at once for them to lose to Cleveland last year — but the Warriors don’t hold a monopoly on the talent across the league, even if it seems like it.
I’m not saying I’d bet my firstborn on them winning the title or anything, but I’d be more than comfortable betting on your offspring that they will.