The Last Waltz?

The Warriors' quest for a third straight title has felt more like a chore than a celebration. With KD, Klay and others possibly gone this summer, the Dubs are preparing for the end of their run atop the NBA.
photo of Ric BucherRic Bucher@@RicBucherNBA Senior WriterMay 10, 2019

At the start of the season, the Warriors dismissed any suggestion that their pursuit of a third consecutive championship would end the way it did for the 1998 Chicago Bulls—with a championship parade quickly followed by the departure of the stars who made it possible.

Now? They're just hoping to get a parade.

"We all know it could possibly be it," backup guard Shaun Livingston said. "As an option. We're aware of it. The main goal is just winning. Period. For all of us. That's really what it's all about. And everything else will take care of itself."

Winning didn't seem to be a prerequisite to keeping the team intact in September. Another title, even for much of the season, was considered a foregone conclusion. So was keeping their championship core. "I'm perfectly content here," said All-Star guard Klay Thompson, a pending free agent, to NBC Bay Area.

"I'm confident I'll be here a very long time," said defensive quarterback Draymond Green, who is seeking an extension on a deal that ends after next season.

Even Kevin Durant, the MVP of the last two Finals, downplayed questions raised by his decision last summer to sign a deal that allows him to become a free agent once again this summer. "I could've easily signed a long-term deal, but I just wanted to take it a season by season and see where it takes me," he told reporters on Warriors Media Day. "And I think this whole year is going to be a fun, exciting year for us all and I'm looking forward to just focusing on that."

Less than eight months later, it appears the future is more intriguing than the present for the two-time defending champions. Green switched agents, from B.J. Armstrong of the Wasserman Media Group to Rich Paul of the Klutch Sports Group, who, fairly or otherwise, is best known for his highest-profile clients either moving (LeBron James) or demanding to be moved (Anthony Davis). And Thompson, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, could be enticed to join the rival Los Angeles Clippers, who have cleared salary-cap room for two max-salary players, if the Warriors offer him anything less than a maximum contract.

In short: The fun Durant anticipated has been in limited supply, the excitement hard to separate from the tension, both due to uncharacteristic blowout losses as well as a steady litany of reports that he is bound elsewhere. The Warriors admit now they've discussed the possibility not all of them will be around for the move from Oakland's Oracle Arena to their shiny new digs in San Francisco next season. "It's not an everyday thing," Green said. "We've said it at different points, like, 'Hey, man, you never know' or 'This is the last year at Oracle' but it hasn't been, like, a rally call."

The Bulls did use their team's pending breakup—led by Michael Jordan and coach Phil Jackson's intention to retire—as a rallying cry, calling it "The Last Dance."

The Bulls used the impending retirements of Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson to fuel a sixth and final run to the Finals in the 1990s.
The Bulls used the impending retirements of Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson to fuel a sixth and final run to the Finals in the 1990s.JEFF HAYNES/Getty Images

Warriors coach Steve Kerr was a backup guard for that Bulls squad. He, too, dismissed any similarity to this Warriors team in training camp, musing to ESPN.com, "Last Dance? I hope not. I hope we keep on dancing." But as spring hit, he recognized some familiar telltale signs.

"The similarities between our run and the Bulls' run is that when it's going on, it feels like it's going to last forever, and, of course, it doesn't," he told B/R. "It ends, and it ends sooner than everyone would like to have happen. Phil, as you know, was kind of the Zen master and frequently talked about staying in the moment. We were aware of that idea, but until you actually go through it, you can't really feel it. Having been through it as a player and knowing how quickly that thing ended, that's why I'm much more aware of it as a coach."

While Kerr has talked to players individually about making the most of this season, he hasn't used his experience with the Bulls to drive home the point.

"Very rarely does he bring up his experience other than, 'I understand what you guys are going through because our last year with the Bulls, that third championship, was, like, everybody was sick of [the grind] and then we popped through,' but never the meat of it," Green told B/R.

The uncertainty of the future rests largely on Durant, who has been rumored to be headed to New York this summer to resurrect the hapless Knicks. The Warriors are getting a glimpse of life without KD earlier than they expected, surviving Wednesday night to win Game 5 of their second-round series with the Houston Rockets after Durant limped to the locker room with a strained right calf. He is expected to miss the rest of the series, which continues Friday, but it could've been worse—initial speculation was that he'd suffered a season-ending Achilles injury. As is, his return remains uncertain, but the Warriors are optimistic he will be back at some point.

Jarring as it is to think Durant would pass up being part of the first modern-era team to win four titles in a row for a team that hasn't reached the playoffs since 2013, the possibility doesn't raise as many questions now as when rumors of his intended departure first surfaced.

Durant has groused about the rampant speculation but never denied its actual merit. His interaction with teammates does not appear to be the same as it was a year ago, especially since a widely reported locker room dispute in which Green used Durant's pending free agency to question his commitment to the team. In recent weeks, Durant has been seen chatting with individual reporters more often than teammates. After owner Joe Lacob walked into the Warriors' locker room following their Game 1 win over the Rockets and bumped into Durant, they exchanged a brief and awkward handshake, Lacob wearing a tight smile while congratulating him on his 35-point performance before quickly exiting again.

One other reason Durant's supposed interest in leaving is generating fewer questions: After dropping two games to the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers in the first round and now certain to go at least six games with the Houston Rockets, three-peating is far from a given. There was a time when some starry-eyed fans (and media members) projected the Warriors actually making good on LeBron James' hyperbolic promise when he first arrived in Miami: "Not five, not six, not seven"…as in championships.

Though Kevin Durant has bristled at questions over his potential free agency this summer, he has not denied reports that he may be headed to the Knicks.
Though Kevin Durant has bristled at questions over his potential free agency this summer, he has not denied reports that he may be headed to the Knicks.Ben Margot/Associated Press

The consensus among executives around the league is that if Durant stays, Golden State will remain a title favorite. But if he leaves, the Warriors' run as title contenders is in serious jeopardy.

Sure, they won a championship without him and were one win away from a second before their historic collapse in the 2016 Finals, but Durant's arrival the next season camouflaged a natural decline from the wear and tear of playing four seasons longer than any other nucleus. They have not made a significant addition to their core other than Durant since the run began in 2015. Key complementary veterans—Leandro Barbosa, David West, JaVale McGee, Zaza Pachulia, Patrick McCaw—have retired or moved on and not been replaced. DeMarcus Cousins, their big offseason free-agent signing, didn't play until mid-January while recovering from a torn Achilles tendon and then suffered a torn quadricep tendon in their second playoff game. He is unlikely to play again this season.

Winning titles is as much about the depth and versatility of a roster as it is its star power, and the Warriors have seen theirs fall off dramatically in both areas. Kerr already felt it necessary to start his best lineup—Andre Iguodala, Green, Durant, Thompson and Stephen Curry—which he traditionally has saved to close games, and it still wasn't enough to win Game 4 against the Rockets.

Through the first 10 games of last year's championship playoff run, Kerr got at least 60 minutes out of his bench, sometimes as much as 100, and had at least three players contribute 10-plus minutes. This year, only two subs reached double-figure minutes in four games, and the bench has provided no more than 48 minutes in any one game against the Rockets and only 38 in a Game 3 loss. The Warriors' struggle to maintain their focus and energy for entire games in the regular season has carried over to the playoffs, when they were supposedly going to throw the proverbial switch.

"I don't think anybody really expected six games, 1 vs. 8," said third-year center Jordan Bell of the Clippers' series. "We had them down but we didn't turn the knife; we just stabbed them and left it there, thought they were going to bleed out … This is quite possibly your last one, so you want to go out swinging, giving it your all. We want to walk out in the sunset. We want to say, 'Yeah, we did that, walk away, you can't say shit to us.' But it could be, 'Y'all fucked this one up,' and we keep looking back, like, 'Wish we could've had that one and wish we could've had that one.'"

The younger players, especially those among the team's seven pending free agents, seem to have given a possible dissolution more weight than the veterans, particularly those under contract beyond this season. Andre Iguodala, 35, is in the second year of a three-year, $48 million deal. He understands the sense of finality surrounding this season but says the team has been through this before.

"That's the message we've had many times—enjoy the time with one another—this might be the last time we have this group together," Iguodala said. "We've had that happen 2-3 times."

He's right—sort of. The franchise had 10 free agents in 2017 after winning their second title in three years, including Durant and Curry. But there was never an indication either of them was even contemplating other options. Curry signed a maximum five-year, $202 million deal, and Durant delayed his signing only to provide the Warriors the necessary financial flexibility to re-sign Iguodala and Shaun Livingston.

The anticipation of change with the Warriors is so great that some within the team wonder if the latter two will be back, even though they're signed through next season. "I've heard (Andre and Shaun) say it's possibly their last season," Bell said in reference to the idea both may retire.

That, perhaps, explains the growing sense of inevitability that the Warriors are certain to look and feel different next season. While finances will not be a factor, they just seem ready for a change.

Klay Thompson is one of seven potential free agents the Warriors will have to consider keeping or letting leave this summer.
Klay Thompson is one of seven potential free agents the Warriors will have to consider keeping or letting leave this summer.Ben Margot/Associated Press

"Steve has talked about how this is the one time this group is going to be together, how we know we can't win forever and the window is getting shorter," center Kevon Looney said. "Guys are getting older. So take advantage of the opportunity now. There's going to be a lot of change. We've got a lot of free agents, we're changing buildings. We want to say goodbye to Oracle the right way, win one for Oakland."

If the Warriors' run is indeed coming to an end, Livingston sees it as a positive—for the league as a whole.

"Obviously, when you win, you become the blueprint," he said. "Teams have just been gearing up, year after year after year. In that sense, it just gets harder. That's just how it goes. You would hope that teams would figure it out. It makes the league better. It's a good thing that that happens."

Warriors fans may still need some convincing, but maybe that's because they're not quite where their team is—searching for the good in an unwanted change that (now) seems inevitable. 

    

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

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