Dynasties don’t usually end gracefully. We’ve heard it time and time again, and for the most part, it’s true.
Even by those standards, what the Golden State Warriors were subjected to over the last week amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. It would have been one thing to lose the NBA Finals to the Toronto Raptors because the Raptors were legitimately a better team. That would have been fine.
But that wasn’t the case. The Raptors weren’t the better team. They didn’t win the series; the Warriors lost it. And they lost it because by the end of Game 6 on Thursday, they were so battered, so beaten up that Quinn Cook was playing pivotal minutes in an elimination game in the championship.
Cook is a decent player. He can handle the ball well and shoot from deep. He put in an admirable effort given the circumstances. But even on a bad team, Cook might be the sixth or seventh man. On a dynasty like the Warriors, he shouldn’t be sniffing the court in the fourth quarter with the team down 3-2 in the NBA Finals.
That is what happens, though, when misfortune roars its ugly head.
Kevin Durant was playing the best basketball of his Hall of Fame career before he hurt his calf against the Houston Rockets in the second round. Then, to watch him be called out and criticized for not playing in the Finals despite his injury was sickening.
We were all guilty of this. Durant is easy to pick on because of his perceived insecurity toward the smallest slights, his social media habits and his attitude, which can at times be confrontational. And so we questioned his reasons for not coming back until the Warriors were on the brink of elimination.
All of that made his Achilles tear even more heartbreaking. Forget this series. Forget that after his injury, the Warriors’ odds at coming back from a 3-1 deficit were next to impossible. Forget Durant’s impending free agency. The human side is far more important. The fact that Durant, who considers basketball his life, can’t play basketball for the foreseeable future and may never be the same dominant player again because he came back far too early from a severe injury to try and save his team from elimination is tragic.
And then Klay Thompson. We don’t deserve Klay Thompson. We take him for granted at times as the fourth component of a superteam, the laid-back, low-maintenance sharpshooter who never complains about his role. He was also playing the best basketball of his career in the Finals, averaging an absurd 59 percent from three in the series.
Thompson’s ACL tear in the waning minutes of Game 6 was the knockout blow to a battered and bruised team that had already been beaten to a pulp. The Warriors withstood Durant’s injury for as long as they did only because of Thompson’s increased role, because Draymond Green stepped up and because Stephen Curry reverted back to MVP form.
They could withstand one star going down. They couldn’t withstand two. Even if they had somehow pulled off a miracle in Game 6, they would have been way overmatched in Game 7. That is the issue with superteams, especially the 2019 Warriors, who were perhaps the most top-heavy version of the Warriors since their Finals runs began. No bench player besides Andre Iguodala was a consistent option throughout the season, and once Iguodala had to start for Durant, Golden State had nothing on its bench.
There was no way such a team could prevail against the depth of the Raptors. And that’s the sad thing: these Warriors weren’t built to sustain injuries. When Durant decided to sign with the Warriors in the summer of 2016, it was a no-brainer for Bob Myers to dump Harrison Barnes and let role players like Leandro Barbosa and Marreese Speights walk. You sacrifice your bench for Kevin Durant, because, well, it’s Kevin freakin’ Durant.
Nowhere was the script supposed to call for Durant to be hurt at the wrong time, or for Thompson to suffer the first major injury of his career when his team needed him the most. For the better part of five years, the Warriors have been extremely fortunate with health. All of their key players have stayed on the court, and for a top-heavy club, that is the most pivotal thing. The best ability is availability.
Ironically, what turned the Warriors into a dynasty wound up potentially ending it. The Warriors aren’t a dynasty if their best players can’t play, because their best players happen to be some of the greatest to ever touch a basketball. The Warriors are good because Durant’s skillset, combined with his length, is unguardable. They are good because Thompson is the perfect ying to Curry’s yang, because he seems to have timely explosions that gave him the nickname “Game 6 Klay.”
Remove Durant and Thompson from the equation and the Warriors are just a normal team that will struggle to win 50 games next season. Remove those two and there is something this franchise hasn’t experienced in half a decade: uncertainty. No longer are the Warriors clear favorites to win the championship. No longer will they cruise to 20-point wins without breaking a sweat.
And yes, fans of the other 29 teams will understandably think, “Cry me a river.” Any team will take three rings in five years. But to have it end like this, with the roof suddenly caving in, the building set on fire and no water hose in sight — that is the cruel part.
Welcome to uncertainty. It already feels like the depths of hell.
Eric He is a freelance writer and a USC graduate currently interning at the Southern California News Group. He has been Sharks beat writer and covered a variety of Bay Area sports teams for SFBay. His column runs every Monday.