It was hard to tell what the Golden State Warriors enjoyed more last summer — hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy or waving it in the faces of the many critics who proclaimed their championship-winning days over.
Whichever it was, they’re going to get a chance to do it all again.
While the skepticism is not as strong as it was leading up to the Warriors’ defeat of the Boston Celtics last June for their fifth title in the last nine years — and first after a two-year absence from the postseason altogether — a healthy sampling of NBA scouts, GMs and coaches polled by FOX Sports had no trouble offering a host of reasons the Warriors will not be in this year’s Finals. And that’s not just because of their slow start, at 3-4 heading into Tuesday’s game in Miami.
The most popular reason: the Los Angeles Clippers, a team that has never won a conference title in its 53-year history. Granted, the Clippers have undergone a massive transformation since billionaire Steve Ballmer acquired them eight years ago. They now have star power in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, a championship-caliber head coach in Tyronn Lue and a sharp-shooting, physical, versatile roster. They’re already ahead of the Warriors this season in one respect: player payroll. The Clippers have the largest by a few hundred thousand over the Warriors, thanks to an astounding nine players making $10 million or more, led by both George and Leonard pulling in more than $42 million each.
Still, it’s hard for the average fan to wrap his or her head around seeing “Clippers” and “champions” in the same sentence, even with Ballmer’s largesse. There are, after all, the checkered injury histories of George and Leonard; George hasn’t played more than 54 games in any of the last three seasons, Leonard hasn’t played more than 57 and missed all of last season with a torn ACL. The belief in the Clippers around the league speaks to just how deep they are. They nearly went to the Finals two years ago after losing Leonard to that ACL tear, eventually falling in six games to the Phoenix Suns – an ill-timed injury that the normally reserved Leonard recently described to FOX Sports as “devastating.” Since then, they’ve added Norm Powell, Robert Covington and John Wall. A few injuries might actually help Lue keep everyone happy.
Although the Clippers have also opened the season a modest 2-4, no one appears swayed.
“I don’t think they care about the regular season,” an Eastern Conference scout said. “I don’t expect them to have a great regular-season record. It’s all about having all their guys ready for the playoffs.”
It’s clear Lue is still experimenting with his roster; 11 players are averaging 15 minutes or more a game and Leonard is a part-time player right now. He’s appeared in two games, both off the bench, and played a total of 42 minutes.
“The Clippers are the team to beat,” a Western Conference GM said. “I don’t even think Golden State is in their class. The Clippers have too much depth. I admire the Warriors’ can-do attitude. But they sat everybody for two years and then won the battle of attrition. I don’t know that they’ll be able to last this time around.”
“Sat everybody” is a bit of an overstatement, but the franchise did have two years to retool and regroup. The Warriors’ championship core — Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green — was essentially missing in action for the 2019-20 season after five consecutive runs to the Finals. Thompson missed all of two seasons recovering from a torn ACL followed by a torn Achilles’ tendon. Green and Curry returned to play the bulk of the 2020-21 season, giving them a chance to mesh with new additions Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins but getting bounced in the play-in tournament still meant a second long offseason. Playing fewer than 70 games and having plenty of vacation days had to be restorative compared to their previous five seasons, when they played 100-plus games and had 10 weeks total of offseason downtime.
Those expecting the Warriors to falter are also expecting a dip because the squad that won last June has been disassembled. A host of key role players off the bench — Otto Porter Jr., Gary Payton II and Nemanja Bjelica — are elsewhere. The Warriors are hoping a group of young talent — Jonathan Kuminga, Moses Moody and James Wiseman — can fill the void. Talent that has shown flashes in the regular season but was limited to waving towels on the bench in the playoffs. Opposing scouts don’t share the Warriors’ optimism.
“I understand why they let their veteran bench players go and made a big bet on Kuminga, Moody and Wiseman,” an Eastern Conference scout said. “Moody is probably fine and can pick up some of the minutes that equivalent players played last year. Kuminga is not that good and can probably only be used situationally and so, depending on matchups, downgrading from Otto Porter or Gary Payton to him could be a problem. Wiseman is just not good at all and to the extent that they’re not going to play him in any game that really matters, that could be debilitating to their ability to win.”
Another Eastern Conference scout shared similar skepticism.
“For the Warriors to be back in the Finals, Wiseman or Kuminga has to have a Jordan Poole year, has to break out,” the scout said. “Neither one of them played college basketball and they’ve been thrown into the best team in the NBA. A group of players who all know how to play and cut and are smart.”
So far, the results have been mixed. Kerr has been in experimentation mode as well, with a dozen players averaging at least 10 minutes and Curry and Wiggins the only players averaging more than 30. The defending champions are 13th in offensive efficiency and 20th on defense.
Kuminga has struggled, posting the worst offensive rating on the team (70) and is at the tail end of that 12-man rotation. A slow start by Thompson has resulted in Moody getting almost as much playing time as Wiseman, but he hasn’t been any better than Thompson. Wiseman has been surprisingly effective as a change-of-pace offensive weapon off the bench, diving to the rim on pick and rolls to average 11 points in 16 minutes on 67 percent shooting. The problem is that what the Warriors need from him most is rim protection and he hasn’t delivered; his impact on the defense hasn’t been noticeable and he’s averaging less than one blocked shot per game. Both Wiggins and Moody are averaging more.
Wiseman has shown promise diving to the rim in pick-and-roll sets during the preseason; the issue is that the Warriors, unlike every other NBA team, run an offense with the big men as passers and the guards screening for each other off the ball to get open.
The other issue is that the Warriors’ offense requires their big men to be adept passers; Wiseman is not. In five games, he has four assists. (And five turnovers.)
“They run the fewest pick and rolls in a pick-and-roll league,” the Western Conference executive said. “That’s always an advantage. They’ve done an incredible job programming their bigs for Steph. Are they going to change the way they play for Wiseman? Because he’s different than the bigs they’ve had.”
Even if they had come back intact, no one viewed last year’s Warriors in the same dominant light as they did during their previous two title runs with Kevin Durant.
“A couple years ago, it was Golden State and then the rest of us,” one Eastern Conference assistant coach said. “I’d say now there are a bunch of teams that have a chance to win it.”
More than one rival suggested the Warriors weren’t even the most talented team last year but simply the healthiest at the right time. While Curry, Green and Thompson all missed significant time last season — again — the majority of it was before the playoffs. Thompson returned in early January. Green missed 36 games, including a stretch of 28 games from January to March with a back issue. Curry sustained a sprained ligament in his left foot that forced him to miss the last dozen games of the regular season, but he returned in time for the playoffs, albeit coming off the bench for the first three games.
Their opponents weren’t quite as fortunate. Their first-round challenger, the Denver Nuggets, was without its second-best player all season, Jamal Murray, and another starter, Michael Porter Jr., for most of it. The Memphis Grizzlies lost All-Star point guard Ja Morant to a knee issue halfway through their six-game second-round series. The Dallas Mavericks‘ starting shooting guard, Tim Hardaway Jr., was injured for remainder of the season in January.
“It lined up perfectly for them last year,” a Western Conference executive said of the Warriors. “When everybody was losing players to injury, they were getting healthy.”
The doubt that they will be as lucky this year is based on the age of Curry and Green, combined with a short offseason recovery thanks to their championship run. Curry will turn 35 in March. Green will turn 33 a few days earlier.
“Their two most important players, Steph and Draymond, are in their mid-30s and can easily get injured or have age-related decline,” an Eastern Conference scout said. “That’s just very common. Although I’d say Steph is probably a better bet than anyone at that age to still be good. It’s just more of a risk for him than guys in their mid-20s.”
There’s also the unknown concerning Thompson. Estimates vary on what percentage of his former ability he displayed after those two major injuries, but no one saw anything close to full strength.
“We saw 50-percent Klay last year and I think there’s a better Klay coming back this year,” the second Eastern Conference scout said. “I thought there were times last year he was bad and they won in spite of him. I think there’s going to be more to him this year. How much more is the question.”
Finally, there’s that little issue of the Green-Poole beef in a team practice two weeks before the season that ended with Green punching Poole, all of it caught surreptitiously on video and leaked to the public. Green was fined an undisclosed amount but not suspended. Poole said Green apologized to him but was otherwise terse about their relationship.
“We’re here to play basketball and everybody on our team and in the locker room knows what it takes to win a championship, and we’re going to do that on the court,” he said.
“That’s really all I have to say on the matter. We’re here to win a championship and keep hanging banners.”
There’s no way to know if there will be lingering effects on the team’s chemistry. There have been no subsequent incidents and Wiggins told FOX Sports that it’s up to Poole and Green to put it behind them. Green has not been as vocal with teammates this season, but it’s not clear if that is connected to the incident with Poole. In any case, the video going viral undoubtedly has made moving past it more of a challenge.
“What’s rare is a leak like that,” one Eastern Conference assistant coach said. “Guys get into it in practice all the time but it doesn’t get caught on video and go public. It’s going to be as healing as Jordan Poole and Draymond make it. The franchise has always had this golden aura around them, like nothing bad ever happens there like it does other places, and this punches a hole in that.”
A hole that results in a sinking ship or merely a shot across the bow that results in the crew drawing closer together? That’s to be determined. If there’s any solace for the Warriors and their fans, it’s history — that of the Clippers, as well as that of league personnel prognostications.
In the annual NBA.com GM survey last year, the Warriors were picked to finish fifth. In the conference. This year? Second.
Not nearly as dismissive, but for the Warriors, enough to make proving otherwise just as sweet.
Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” on NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds.” He also has a daily podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.
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