The Golden State Warriors have won only four times in their last 10 games. They’ve suffered dreadful losses to the Heat, Magic, and the Suns, of all teams. At home, of all places. After taking a 27-11 lead. What most people would consider a slump is for the Warriors yet another referendum on their angsty quest for a three-peat.
The Dubs are also sniping at each other again, and their own fans, in that passive-aggressive way NBA people deal with their problems. It doesn’t take a panhandle prophet to tell the Bay Area vibes are not flowing in peaceful harmony.
This has caused my esteemed SB Nation colleague Tom Ziller to suggest, “everything is on the table” because the Dubs have allowed themselves to be afflicted by a late-winter malaise of boredom and dissatisfaction. That, he believes, has leveled the playing field enough to make their inevitable championship run an open question.
At the risk of betraying my own nihilistic mood at the moment, I’m in the, “None of this matters” camp. Assuming none of their four stars get hurt/suspended, the Warriors will once again hold the championship trophy in June. Anarchy will have to wait until July when free agency shakes us out of our doldrums.
Still, Ziller is much smarter than me and I suppose now is as good a time as any to take Golden State’s temperature, because the Warriors do have some issues. They may be inevitable, but they’re not as unbeatable as we imagined.
Let’s stipulate the obvious: injuries matter.
If the Warriors lose either Steph Curry or Kevin Durant for any length of time during the postseason, then all bets are truly off. They were 5-6 without Curry earlier in the season, and while they survived a first-round series without Steph last year, the Warriors are clearly diminished without their superstar guard.
Durant has missed only one game this season, but he hurt his ankle toward the end of the Suns game. It doesn’t sound serious, but it also comes at a time when Golden State is getting ready for a road trip that includes games in Houston, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, and Minnesota. While there’s never a good time for an ankle injury, better now than April or May.
Because they have two MVP-caliber superstars, the Warriors’ margin for error is simply that much higher than everyone else. Take either one out of the equation and that disappears. They still might be better than everyone without Durant or Curry, but that’s no longer a given.
Let’s amend that. If the Warriors lose any of their other core players, then things get interesting.
This is not a deep team. Strength in numbers has given way to death by superstars, and that’s left a barren bench beyond the top five in the rotation.
The Warriors don’t have a reliable backup point guard, unless you count Shaun Livingston, and then they don’t have a reliable off guard. You don’t miss Klay Thompson until he’s not there. While that’s been infrequent, his absence against Boston last week was notable.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr has tried to plug various players into those roles, from Quinn Cook, to Alfonzo McKinnie and Damion Lee. None have taken control of the job. Wherefore art thou, Leandro Barbosa?
We all know how vital Draymond Green is to the Warriors’ equation. A healthy Andre Iguodala is a necessity. Take any of their top five out of the lineup, and things get dicey.
They might have a DeMarcus Cousins problem.
Boogie’s return from a torn Achilles in mid-January energized the Dubs. They swept an East Coast road trip and went 10-1 heading into the NBA All-Star break. The chemistry appeared copacetic and Cousins has been solid, averaging 15 points and eight rebounds in somewhat limited minutes.
The problem is the Warriors haven’t played all that well with Cousins in the lineup since the break. The offense has cratered and the defense has turned porous. It’s tempting to put all this on Boogie, yet he’s merely a cog in the machine. Big men always look bad when team defense breaks down, and the Warriors have freely acknowledged their effort-related shortcomings of late.
Beyond that, Boogie’s outside shooting hasn’t come around yet and, as always, the Warriors are at their best when they run smaller lineups out on the floor. This is a legitimate concern once the playoffs roll around against say, the Rockets, who will look to run Cousins off the floor.
Cousins was supposed to be a luxury, not a necessity. It will be interesting if Kerr treats him as such when it matters.
Do the vibes matter?
I’m on record as thinking joy matters when trying to win a championship. Basketball is a game that requires trust, communication, and connectivity, especially at the highest levels, when a single slip can mean the difference between winning and losing.
There are two mitigating factors in the happiness spectrum: talent and experience. The Warriors have talent, and their core has been together for more than half a decade. They clearly know how to play with one another, whether they feel like doing it consistently or not.
That’s the main reason why I can’t get too worked about this now. Everyone in the league is miserable in March. It’s merely Golden State’s turn in the barrel.
Can anyone take it from them?
This is the real issue. There are only two teams in the West that can give Golden State problems: Oklahoma City and Houston.
The Rockets came within a Chris Paul hamstring injury of taking the Warriors out last season, and they’re peaking at the right time. While Houston has its own depth issues to deal with, the combination of Paul and James Harden is capable of matching Golden State’s superstar power. Put them down as a maybe.
OKC is the wild card. The Thunder are deep, they have experience, and Paul George has been one of the top five players in the league this year. They’re also young, athletic, and hungry, with a whole bunch of dudes who could get hot at the right moment and cause all kinds of chaos. They could also shoot themselves right out of a series.
You can talk yourself into either one of those teams giving the Warriors a serious run, but that’s where it stops. The Nuggets are not that team, not yet anyway. The matchups don’t favor the Jazz or San Antonio. The Trail Blazers have never offered Golden State serious resistance in the postseason. The Clippers would be a huge pain in the neck, for about five games.
The Finals may be a different story. Milwaukee is loaded, and brimming with that elusive element of joy everyone keeps trying to find. Boston is playing with effort again. The Sixers are dangerous. The Raptors are … something.
Still, the Warriors only have to beat one of those four teams in June, when all their issues should be a thing of the past. As long as their problems are self-inflicted, it would take an upset of monumental proportions to deny the Warriors their three-peat.
Whether anyone enjoys it or not is another story.