The Dynasty That Never Was? NBA Rivals See Cracks in Warriors' Armor

Ric Bucher@@RicBucherNBA Senior WriterMarch 30, 2018

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry reacts at the end of the team's NBA basketball game against the Denver Nuggets on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018, in Denver. The Nuggets won 115-108. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Remember when the Golden State Warriors were destined to rule the NBA for the foreseeable future and win, to borrow a phrase, "not five, not six, not seven…" championships?

Ahh, such good times.

Forgive the past tense on that, uh, golden visage, but the injury machete that has lopped off the Warriors' four All-Stars—Steph Curry (sprained knee), Kevin Durant (cracked ribs), Klay Thompson (fractured thumb) and Draymond Green (sore shoulder, contused pelvis)—has opposing coaches and executives revising their projections for just how long the franchise's current run of three NBA Finals' appearances will go. While the majority still consider them the favorite to repeat as champions and win their third title in four years this year, they all included a big if—as in if they're healthy, including their two-time league MVP, Curry.

Not just on-the-floor healthy, either, but playing-at-full-capacity healthy.

"This may be the edge Houston needs," one Western Conference scout said. "If [Curry] is not 100 percent, I mean."

While Durant and Green returned Thursday night, and Thompson is expected back sometime in the next week or so, the length of Curry's absence has yet to be determined—and considering how he wasn't quite the same two years ago when he resumed playing after a less severely sprained knee ligament, it's fair to question if he can come anywhere close to that 100 percent mark this spring.

"I would still favor Golden State, but their depth will be challenged," said an Eastern Conference executive with a championship on his resume. "I don't care what era you're talking about, it requires a certain amount of luck when it comes to health. They've had that over the last few years. The law of averages has reared its head a little right now."

As for how long they will remain the team to beat moving forward, the same executive believes what we've seen this season—stretches of indifferent effort along with the injuries—indicates they are beginning their inexorable slide, at least as presently constituted. If they manage to snare another championship this season, he sees them capturing, at most, one more beyond that.

"They're smack-dab in the middle of their run, but they're descending," the executive said. "They've had four years on the perch, and now it's three, four years fighting their way down from it."

Klay Thompson has been out of the Warriors' lineup since mid-March after fracturing his right thumb.
Klay Thompson has been out of the Warriors' lineup since mid-March after fracturing his right thumb.Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

When Durant, a five-time All-NBA first-teamer, four-time scoring champion and one-time MVP, signed as a free agent with the team two summers ago, the expectation was more than that. Adding KD to a team that already had a title and fell one Kyrie Irving Game 7 three-pointer short of a second had pundits and former champions alike anticipating a stretch of dominance that hadn't been seen since the Michael Jordan-led Bulls won six titles in eight years.

"I'll predict right now, over the next four years, I give 'em four rings," said Mychal Thompson to the Warriors' flagship radio station, 95.7 The Game, after the Warriors won the 2017 title. "Sometimes things pop up and you can lose one. You don't want to get too greedy. But I think they'll win four more over the next five years, as long as they stay healthy. They're so young and so good and so well-coached and so well-run in the front office.

"As long as they stay humble, hungry and healthy, they're going to win another four."

The New York Times' Benjamin Hoffman didn't get into specifics but suggested they had merely planted the "seeds" of a dynasty with that second title.

It's not exactly clear what The Ringer's Danny Chau was forecasting here other than something truly cosmic.

Thompson told B/R he stands by his original prediction ("Yes...Given good health. I've always said that's the main thing that could prevent it."), but several league executives spoke more conservatively than they did at any time over the last year.

"Injuries are the great equalizer in our sport," said the vice president of an Eastern Conference playoff team. "It's tough to judge whether or not these will impact their team long-term. But Houston and Cleveland would have an absolute fighter's chance in a seven-game series this year."

Though Nick Young and the Warriors bench has the third-best scoring differential of any bench unit in the league, some executives feel Golden State doesn't quite have the quality of depth they have had in previous seasons.
Though Nick Young and the Warriors bench has the third-best scoring differential of any bench unit in the league, some executives feel Golden State doesn't quite have the quality of depth they have had in previous seasons.Noah Graham/Getty Images

The biggest reason to question if the Warriors can continue to be the irresistible force of last spring—they were 16-1 in the postseason—both short-term and long-term, is the durability of Curry and Green. After the former's return from a third sprained ankle this season ended after three quarters of a game because of a sprained MCL, coach Steve Kerr said he did not expect him to play in the first round of the playoffs. And while every coach, executive and player B/R spoke to said the Warriors could get through the first round without him, the consensus dissipated when it came to reincorporating him in the heat of later competition.

"The reintegration is more difficult than people believe, especially defensively," said one playoff-bound Western Conference GM. "When major players are out, sometimes it's difficult to re-establish a rhythm."

An Eastern Conference scout added that he is skeptical the Warriors' bench is as good as it has been in the past, and that could prove to be a critical difference as well with so many stars ailing.

"I do think they may be in trouble even if Steph makes it back," the scout said. "They seem to have lost some bench depth (Indeed, the offensive efficiency of that unit has dipped a bit from last season). They've struggled at various times during the season and not just recently." To that end, the Warriors have already lost almost as many games this season as they did in the last two combined, including seven of their last 10 games, including a pair of back-to-backs.

The long-term concern regarding Curry is that this isn't his first bout with injury. Ankle issues limited him to 26 appearances in his third season, and two years ago he sustained a sprained knee ligament in Game 4 of their first-round series against the Rockets. That was a Grade 1 sprain in his right knee—the current one is Grade 2 in his left—and the Warriors were on their way to a 3-1 lead in the series when it happened. His struggles in the Finals (where he shot 40.3 percent in the series after shooting 50.4 percent in the regular season) played a role in the team falling short in its back-to-back title bid.

Other than that, as Curry has noted, he has been fairly durable. But for a player who isn't overpowering from a pure physical sense and creates the air space for his shots with slippery-quick lateral agility, he can ill afford to be physically compromised in any way. Especially now that he's in the first year of a five-year, $201 million contract.

Once again defending players bigger than he is, Draymond Green has already missed 13 games this season.
Once again defending players bigger than he is, Draymond Green has already missed 13 games this season.Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Green arrived in the league with "a bad body," in talent scout parlance, meaning he had a tendency toward being overweight and short on stamina. He defied that description through sheer dedication in the gym and weight room, but pushing himself to stay lean while often defending players 40 and 50 pounds heavier has taken its toll in a host of nagging injuries, not all of which always make the injury report.

"We're seeing freakish things that are more about ligaments and tendons, which don't get stronger," said a former executive who also has a championship pedigree and spoke in reference to the spate of injuries across the league. "It's less about your inherent athleticism and more about your body's underlying durability. Size, tension of ligaments, bones, tendons. Everything is impacted by the added torque created by training to peak performance."

The Eastern Conference executive also pointed to success-dulled desperation as a potential factor for downgrading the Warriors' championship-caliber shelf life. If, for instance, the Warriors have several tough early rounds and then find themselves down 3-1 in a best-of-seven series in the Western Conference Finals (as they did in 2016 to Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder), would they have the resolve to make a comeback?

"Players would never admit it, but knowing the energy that is needed in a situation like that, it's easy to let the thought seep in—'We already have two titles'and that desperation you need just isn't there," he said.

The former executive with a championship pedigree still has the Warriors as the favorite this year and next with the same caveat—if they're healthy—but teams falling short of their projected success is not exactly a novel occurrence.

"There have been many great teams in the league that fell short due to injury, poor coaching decisions, the league office, referees, you name it," he said. "It's what makes the league so great. You have to play the games."

Of course, not everyone is convinced that the Warriors' long list of current injuries will be an impediment, now or later. One player who has faced the Warriors more than once in the playoffs suggested they're merely trying to create an advantage by lulling their opponents into thinking they're vulnerable.

"They're playing opossum," he said.

If so, it's quite the elaborate ruse. If not, it's quite the sobering reality for those who had visions of an epic dynasty.

      

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @RicBucher.

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