Curry’s last, best chance at another title

The NBA is back and all of us hoop freaks are just days away from complaining about League Pass glitches and creating spreadsheets to track whether take fouls have actually gone down. The Golden State Warriors, who entered last season with supremely excellent vibes, are due to begin their campaign to repeat, with the vibes of this go-round more accurately described as “messy” or “yikes.” The most charitable descriptor would be “uncertain.” The punch and subsequent bag-getting are, of course, both factors in the aforementioned vibe shift. How will this well-adjusted team respond to an adversity that can’t be cleaned up with a gentleman’s sweep?

My guess is they will respond pretty well and win a lot of games! But when you start out the season chasing Pyrrhic victories, what’s the logical endpoint?

What this Warriors season feels like now, especially after the girthy contracts handed out to Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins, is the official beginning of the end. Bittersweet or just bitter? That remains to be written, but it’s difficult, barring James Wiseman and Jonathan Kuminga wildly surpassing any realistic timeline, to not see this as the final year of realistic title contention. And again, that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with being the next New Orleans Pelicans. They compete! They’re fun! There are worse things the young Warriors could become in the next few years. Even so, special things ending isn’t exactly an enjoyable experience.

The Warriors and their more zealous adherents have been known to excessively extol the team’s winning culture. It can come across as self-mythologizing or just propaganda, but there is some truth behind the cringe. through all the wild history, the even-keeled leadership of Steve Kerr and Steph Curry has kept the troops in line almost without exception; it’s a support system and infrastructure most teams in professional sports don’t have any clue how to maintain. Maybe a true acceleration of decay and meltdown of norms is coming. It seems far more likely, though, that the defending champs will recognize this year for what is — that is to say their last best chance — and play accordingly.

So, what kind of “ending” do we most plausibly get? I think a pretty good one, all things considered. More a last stand than a whimper. Let’s start with the obvious.

Better than a thousand (The Big Three)

It’s easy to forget after a post-season for the ages, but Curry shot horribly (for Curry) during a large stretch of the regular season. Beyond the numbers — and those numbers include shooting 17% in a win over the Heat — it was a surreal experience, like your senses were failing over and over again. Thankfully, by the time the playoffs rolled around, he was a flamethrower again, and that’s the Curry I expect to see in the opening weeks of the season, not the one whose brain was momentarily broken.

Klay Thompson is playing basketball in October again, bringing with him his deadpan wit and his Jack-in-the-Box at midnight energy, as he tries to solidify his new role, with parts of his skill set now somewhat replicated in certain aspects by Wiggins (defensive stopper) and Poole (momentum-swinging scoring machine). That’s all potentially a bit messy, but Thompson has proven himself a good soldier for too long to expect trouble. At worst he’ll blame himself for any residual struggles and start reading Samuel Beckett plays on his boat.

Draymond Green memorized the names of everyone drafted before him. And he’s got a lot to prove in a short amount of time, which should feel dangerous, both to the league and to the Warriors themselves. Aside from the threat of serious injuries, and even with their shooting slumps and brain farts and the hand of Father Time at their throats, I’m arrogant enough to say this: Curry/Thompson/Green is the defining trio of the modern NBA and to bet against them feels like betting against dying. It’s just wishful thinking until proven otherwise. They’ve become what Joe Lacob has been wishing for all along: an artisanal homage to the Rasputin Spurs of the Duncan/Parker/Ginobili era.

Chain of strength (the next three and new reinforcements)

Andrew Wiggins was the second-best Warrior in the Finals. People were actually, I assume mostly seriously, floating his name for Finals MVP. His clutch shooting and frankly disrespectful defense on Jayson Tatum got him paid, and beyond that, he’s pretty much the exact midpoint on this Bridge to the Future stuff. Because this team is loaded with potential talent, the likelihood of Wiggins ever having to become “the guy” is close to negligible. And that’s great, because he doesn’t want to be the guy. He just wants to be a guy.

Jordan Poole is the first young guard in the Curry era that has really made a name for himself. During the Dynasty, the Warriors weren’t interested in spindly, high-scoring combo-guards, and Poole is very much a departure from their typical love language. After taking exponential leaps each of his three seasons, the question people keep asking at Wendy’s drive-thrus nationwide is … can he do it again? Personally, I’m not sure that’s necessary on the offensive end. He’s already the platonic ideal of scoring freak off the bench. Defense: Yes, we know! That’s a harder slog.

If Golden State gets close to what they got last year from Kevon Looney, they’ll be forgiven for cackling with malicious glee at the rest of the league for not taking the opportunity to share this extremely good man what he earned these past few, sometimes thank you year. morons! Thanks, though. Appreciate it, big guy.

Losing Otto Porter Jr. and Gary Payton II feels like it’s going to hurt the Warriors most along the upper-margins. Especially Payton. Casuals might not comprehend the utter bedlam Payton dragged onto the floor with him each time he checked in, whether he was poking away errant passes or methodically posterizing players half a foot taller than him. But alas, it’s a business and they both earned their prime rib.

In the place of Porter and Payton, the Warriors brought on low-risk, medium-reward savants Donte DiVincenzo and JaMychal Green, who are sort of like fun-house mirror versions of the departing bench mafia duo. DiVincenzo is another good defender — though not nearly as capable of pandemonium as Payton — and he certainly won’t be a lob threat that inspires spectators to try their hands at poetry, but he’s solid and sound and possesses an offensive game that isn’t just corner threes and dunks. He also crashes the boards, and Andre Iguodala has already given him the highest of compliments.

Green, at 6 feet, 8 inches with a similar build, was the best bargain-bin Otto Porter available. Not as accurate from deep, and coming off a forgettable year in Denver, Green is nonetheless a solid ninth man and signing him was fine. I don’t have strong feelings about him yet, but he had a few nice passes in the preseason and showed out offensively against the hapless Trail Blazers, which is a Warriors tradition.

Andre Iguodala is also on this team, playing the role of recurring character West Coast Udonis Haslem.

Youth brigade (the kids are … all right?)

And now we come to the elephant with upside in Chase Center: the kids. Jordan Poole has unequivocally graduated from this group; he’s the teacher now. He’s Screech in “Saved By The Bell: The New Class.” Patrick Baldwin Jr. and Ryan Rollins have a free year to explore the Bay Area and get acclimated to the speed of the NBA. Moses Moody, likewise, has n’t yet taken a Poole-level leap, but he feels sort of like his own category. The franchise won’t live and die based on Moody developing into the next Desmond Bane.

Kuminga hasn’t quite mastered Kerr’s system yet.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

After a lost year for Wiseman, it’s nice to see him on the court. He’s quite large, which is interesting, seeing how he’s a Golden State Warrior. Trying to avoid joining a group DM with Darko Milicic and Hasheem Thabeet probably weighs heavily on a young big man’s head. In the grand tradition of Kwame Brown or Mikki Moore, Wiseman’s suspect hands were derided by some observers during his rookie year, and the pressure of expectations clearly chiseled into his mood. Happily, with a simplified role, he’s shown signs of better understanding Steve Kerr’s inflexible offense. In the preseason, he’s made a few nice reads, showed a marked improvement of patience and, despite miscues, seems to be calming down out there. That he’s Joe Lacob’s project and not Steve Kerr’s will matter less and less as he gets more reps.

It’s Jonathan Kuminga who remains the ultimate enigma, still flashing moments when you can squint and see him dominating the league for a decade with his effortless penetration and strength and (let’s just pretend) revamped shooting form. There are also moments — arguably more of these — where you can squint and see him dominating Australia’s NBL for a decade. What exactly we’re meant to realistically expect from Kuminga and Wiseman is still unclear, especially since neither are natural fits in Kerr’s system. It’s sound policy to draft for upside when you’re already a juggernaut, but these two in particular feel like nails that will get hammered down by this coach if they continually blunder into the wrong angles during Byzantine split-actions and backdoor cuts.

Alone in a crowd

No matter how professional these professionals are in their professional lives, the harmony of a close-knit locker room was unavoidably shattered by the punch. The Warriors are going to be a good team and win a lot of games, but the whole expedition feels vaguely torpedoed before launch. The reactions of Kerr and the team told that plain enough: In a departure from usual policy, no one made excuses for Draymond Green. He took responsibility, for the most part, for what went down that day. All at once, just a few months after their greatest triumph, the friendly illusion that this would all last forever and end with everyone walking into the sunset together was shattered.

the wild, unlikely victories have been decisively won; the statues and retired jerseys are still coming. There’s nothing left to prove. But because the team is still good, I expect to enjoy the games and watch every single one as if they were Game 6. (It’s always Game 6.) But the clean highs of last summer are gone. Again, that’s fine. It’s important to readjust and recalibrate our expectations, not just to the win-loss column, but to more cosmic concerns. We’re just about done here. It was nice while it lasted.

My prediction: 56-26. Make it to the Western Conference Finals. Jordan Poole: Sixth Man of the Year. Draymond Green: gone at the trade deadline (we’ll talk about it then). Moses Moody wins the 3-point contest during All-Star Weekend; Klay signs something even weirder than a toaster, maybe a copy of “Moby Dick” or a sword. Steve Kerr, a basketball coach, is sadly forced to address gun violence again.

Next year, everything changes.

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