One camp—mostly within the Bay Area—was under the notion that the team was building a bright future and that the young core of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes would one day make it a championship contender.
The other side—the majority of the rest of the country—believed that 2012-13 was a lone magical season, one filled with enough stolen wins to make the playoffs and enough blistering shooting to advance.
Depending on which side you were on, you probably expected the 2013-14 Warriors to win anywhere from 40-53 games and to either narrowly miss the playoffs or lose in the first two rounds.
There was no realistic third option in people's minds. Certainly the club was not going to fade into obscurity, and becoming a title contender right away seemed impossible.
Conventional wisdom said that the Warriors were destined to have a very quiet offseason.
The team's two significant free agents were Carl Landry and Jarrett Jack, and it was unlikely to be able to afford both. The return of Brandon Rush and a couple cheap veterans were expected to more or less offset either loss.
Whatever happened, the Warriors would come back in 2013-14 and be either a slightly better or slightly worse version of themselves from a season ago. The following summer, $34 million in cap space would open up, and Golden State could get in on the LeBron James/Carmelo Anthony/Paul George/Chris Bosh bidding war.
General manager Bob Myers had something else in mind.
Becoming a Title Contender
First, the Warriors went all-in for Dwight Howard, offering up Andrew Bogut and either Klay Thompson or Harrison Barnes to the Lakers.
Luckily, that did not work out.
The second Myers realized this, he orchestrated what has to go down as one of the all-time-great "clutch" trades.
On July 5, Myers convinced the Utah Jazz to take on $20 million in nearly dead salary (the money was slightly more alive than Richard Jefferson's knees or Andris Biedrins' post game). He gave the Jazz ample reason to do so, throwing in Brandon Rush, first-round picks in 2014 and 2017 and multiple second-round picks.
While the clutch nature of this deal can be debated—some believe it was intended to be a final ploy to lure Howard—the fact is that Myers turned what was supposed to be a silent offseason into a booming loud one by landing one of the top five free agents on the market.
The signing ensured the departures of Jack and Landry, but the Warriors moved so much salary to Utah that there was still enough money to fill out the bench with three quality veterans. Marreese Speights, Jermaine O'Neal and Toney Douglas were all signed within four days of Iguodala.
Suddenly, the Warriors had assembled one of the NBA's best tentative starting fives in Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, David Lee and Bogut. Barnes instantly became one of the most explosive sixth men in the league. The team's deep bench looked much better than last season with Speights, O'Neal, Douglas and an improved Draymond Green and Kent Bazemore in the fold.
Now that the offseason is over and the season is rapidly approaching, the focus has shifted from the Warriors' improved roster to where those upgrades place them in the greater scheme of things.
Ups and Downs at the Top
The Warriors revamped their roster a great deal, but they were not the only Western Conference playoff team to do so.
To narrow this discussion down, let's look at the top nine teams from last season (no one below that improved enough to contend for a title).
Of those nine, Utah lost its two best players in Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. The Los Angeles Lakers lost Howard. Denver lost Iguodala. Not one of these four losses was offset, so these three teams are out of the picture.
Of those five, Oklahoma City regressed the most. It lost Kevin Martin in free agency and failed to replace him at his position or on the stat sheet. Combining the loss of his offense with Russell Westbrook's delayed return to action makes it all but certain that the Thunder won't finish in the conference's top three this season.
The Grizzlies' and Spurs' offseasons were fairly neutral. Neither team added any impact players, but both added a couple nice depth guys. Both also got a year older at key positions, while Memphis lost its head coach. Still, both teams have such strong cores that a significant step backward is unlikely.
The Los Angeles Clippers and Houston are the two teams that—along with Golden State—made real strides forward.
The Rockets' addition of Howard was the single biggest addition of the entire offseason, and they now have the NBA's most dynamic players at both shooting guard and center.
The Clippers didn't add any stars, but J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley, Darren Collison and Byron Mullens significantly upgraded LA's depth. Meanwhile, new head coach Doc Rivers should make this team a tougher out in the postseason.
Neither team's improvements stack up to those of Golden State.
The Rockets added a superstar, but they also added a chemistry-killer and locker-room dismantler. Howard was supposed to turn the Lakers into title favorites last season, but the team fared much worse with him.
The Clippers bolstered their supporting cast offensively, but will still be relying on the same old undersized frontcourt to carry them deep into the playoffs.
The Warriors added a star, a leader and depth.
Where Does Golden State Fit In?
The Warriors are better than the Rockets. Both teams have young, improving cores and both teams made a huge addition. But they differ in three key areas: Depth, chemistry and ceiling.
Golden State was, at its best, far better than Houston last year. The playoffs proved that, as a healthy Bogut was enough to push it near the conference finals (even with Lee out). On the flip side, a Westbrook-less Thunder team still beat the Rockets in six games.
Considering the Warriors' bolstered bench and Houston's lack thereof, the gap widens. The Warriors also figure to have far more communication and far less ball-hogging.
The Clippers and Warriors are closer, but the fact is that Golden State looked like a nightmare matchup for Los Angeles in last year's playoffs, and that was before it had the ability to lock up Chris Paul defensively.
With equal or better talent at all five positions, more size, better defense and only a slightly worse bench, the Warriors are the team to beat in the Pacific Division.
So it's down to the Warriors, Spurs, Grizzlies and Thunder.
Westbrook will be back come playoff time, but it's hard to imagine that a team could win a championship with Kendrick Perkins as its fourth-best player.
Iguodala is one of the few guys in the league who can slow down Westbrook, while Barnes/Thompson and Curry can admirably double Durant.
When Harden was around, this wouldn't fly as a winning blueprint. When Martin was on board, you had to bank on an off-shooting night.
This season, this looks like a clear advantage Golden State would have over OKC in a seven-game series.
Memphis dominated the Warriors last season by pounding them inside, giving shooters no space and playing the passing lanes.
Bogut and Iguodala will change that.
Bogut can hold his own with Marc Gasol, while Iguodala's driving and slashing ability will make the defense far more honest. This would make things incredibly close, and in a playoff series, Curry would likely step up for Golden State in a way that no one could for Memphis.
Then there's San Antonio.
There's so much to talk about here after last year's series, but it's actually pretty simple. The Warriors lost a hard-fought six-game series to the Spurs, who then put away the Grizzlies in four and were a choke-job away from beating the Heat in six.
In that series, Curry and Bogut were playing hurt, Lee wasn't playing and no rotation player or coach on Golden State's side had legitimate playoff experience.
A healthy Curry, Bogut and Lee—along with Iguodala, the Spurs' lack of additions, the experience of last season and how close these two teams were to begin with—should be enough to make the Warriors favorites this time around.
Wait a second—is what's laid out above an argument that the Golden State Warriors are the top team in the Western Conference and would have an edge over anyone come April, May and June?
Almost, but not exactly. There are a couple other teams that this type of argument could be made for—particularly San Antonio and Memphis—and it wouldn't necessarily be wrong to do so.
What would be wrong would be to see the 2013-14 Warriors as anything less than an elite team.
There are always question marks such as health, chemistry, development of talent and statistical improvement or regression, of course. But on paper and in person, this team looks, smells, talks and acts like one that could come out of the Western Conference this season.
Less than four months ago, this type of claim would have to be classified as delusional.
Now, those who dismiss the Warriors as a team still stuck in the conference's second tier are the ones in need of a reality check.
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