We may not find out the full ripple effect of the last week of NBA Free Agency madness for a few years, but one thing is certain in the present: The Golden State Warriors suddenly find themselves having lost their stranglehold on the Western Conference.
Things will be different when the Warriors open up at Chase Center in the fall. Very different. Instead of rolling out a lineup that could start in an All-Star Game, the Warriors will trot out Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and … a bunch of uncertainty. Who knows how D’Angelo Russell will fit in, whether he will become the second coming of Monta Ellis or provide a badly-needed scoring boost while Klay Thompson heals? Will role players like Kevon Looney and Willie Cauley-Stein be serviceable given the departures of Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins?
For five years, the Warriors have had the enviable luxury of having stars upon stars to mask issues, like lack of depth or poor defensive play. Now, with the team leaning closer to the middle-of-the-pack than King of the Hill, those problems will factor into the results of games. In other words, the Warriors are just going to be your normal, everyday basketball team.
And they will have to contend with juggernauts just within their own division. The Lakers with LeBron James and Anthony Davis and the Clippers with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have tilted the Pacific Division on its axis. That is a scary thought. While there is a chance that the Lakers — who lucked themselves into acquiring two of the top five players in the league — might just self-destruct again, the Clippers will be a power for a long time.
This is a team that gave the Warriors all sorts of trouble in the first round of the playoffs, a foreboding of sorts of Golden State’s calamitous exit in the Finals. They rallied from 31 points down on the road behind Patrick Beverley, Landry Shamet and Montrezl Harrell and nearly took the Warriors to a seventh game as an No. 8 seed. Now, add Leonard — who knows all about beating the Warriors — and another All-Star in George to that equation. Yikes.
As ominous as the future looks, this shouldn’t be the end of the road for the Warriors as we know it. The way the team whimpered to the finish line against the Raptors before losing its best player to free agency cannot be how this all ends. And management has indicated that this will not be the case.
Bob Myers extracted maximum value for losing Durant by acquiring the best-available asset from Brooklyn in Russell. Whether he fits in or is traded within a year is up in the air, but it’s better than nothing. Myers brought back Looney and signed Stein to shore up the frontcourt. These are not moves that a rebuilding team would make. The Warriors aren’t rebuilding, but reloading.
Regardless, reloading will only get them so far considering their direct competition made vast improvements. We’ll learn a lot about this team in the upcoming season. Curry, who made sacrifices to integrate Durant into the team the last few years, is undoubtedly the No. 1 option again. This is his chance to shine, to silence the doubters who claim he needed Durant to pad his rings (as if he didn’t win two MVPs before Durant came to Golden State).
This is Green’s time to bear down on the leadership mantle. His midseason rift with Durant was one of the first public signs that something was rotten in the state of Denmark. With Durant out of the picture, can he and Curry hold down the fort before Thompson joins them on the redemption tour?
And Steve Kerr will have to bring fresh ideas to this team. He inherited a good team, made it a great one and then was handed an incredible gift in Durant. This team could have coached itself to the Finals the last three years.
Now, without the comfort of vastly-superior skill, Kerr’s decisions will be looked at more closely. No longer can the Warriors afford to sleepwalk to blowouts. Games that were once guaranteed wins will now come down to the wire. The spotlight, then, will be on the coach to maximize Curry’s abilities, to find the best role for Russell before and after Thompson returns and to develop a roster that is on the young side.
This is going to be a strange year for the Warriors. They’ll be in a new city. They won’t be raising a banner. They are third-fiddle in their own division. Concerns linger from the past, are here in the present and will continue in the future. Not having a superteam is going to be … different.
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.