Is the championship window still open for the Warriors?

By Sports Desk October 29, 2021

From 2014 to 2019, the Golden State Warriors put together one of the best stretches in basketball history, playing in the NBA Finals in five straight years and lifting the Larry O'Brien Trophy three times as league champions. 

Those Warriors teams were a combined 322-88 in the regular season, giving them the most wins in a five-year stretch in NBA history. That .785 winning percentage is also an all-time NBA record over five consecutive seasons. 

While Golden State's time for dynastic dominance is likely in the past, is the team's window for winning NBA titles closed, or does the Warriors' 4-1 start to this season foreshadow a return trip to the Finals next June?

The cornerstones of last decade's title teams, head coach Steve Kerr and point guard Stephen Curry, remain in place and appear as capable as ever. 

While the Warriors' failures in last season's play-in tournament kept them from a true playoff appearance, their 16-6 finish to the regular season showed that a team can still thrive with role players around Curry when he is right, and the two-time MVP was that and more down the stretch. 

After returning from a tailbone contusion in late March, Curry averaged 36.9 points per game and shot 43.7 per cent from three-point range in his last 24 games, seemingly single-handedly boosting Golden State from below .500 into the Western Conference playoff race. 

Despite a rotating cast of team-mates – including the arrival and subsequent departure of Kevin Durant – Curry has been the engine that powers the Warriors' high-scoring offense. Over the past eight seasons, Golden State score 116.4 points per 100 possessions with Curry on the court and just 103.5 per 100 possessions when he is on the bench. 

More surprising, however, is that the Warriors are better in almost every aspect of the game when their star guard is on the court, even in areas considered some of Curry's weaknesses. Since the start of the 2014-15 season, a sample size of over 26,500 minutes, Curry's presence has also helped Golden State improve their points allowed per 100 possessions, field goal defense, three-point defense, points in the paint and rebounding rate.

Curry is averaging 30.4 points, 8.0 rebounds and 6.6 assists during the Warriors' 4-1 start and appears to be as potent as ever bombing three-pointers and pushing opposing defenses to their breaking point.

Klay's comeback, Green's regression

The uncertainty about Golden State's title hopes likely falls at the feet of the team's two remaining stars: Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.

Thompson, a five-time All-Star and Curry's 'Splash Brothers' backcourt partner, could be the most pivotal player in the NBA this season. 

The 31-year-old guard last appeared in a game well over two years ago in the 2019 NBA Finals against the Toronto Raptors, suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during Game 6. In November 2020, Thompson ruptured his right Achilles tendon during a workout. 

The Warriors fully expect Thompson to return to action this season, with Christmas Day's matchup against the Phoenix Suns set as an initial goal, 13 months since having surgery to repair his Achilles. 

While every injury and recovery is as unique as the players who endure them, Thompson and the Warriors can look to Durant's story as reason for hope. 

Durant made huge contributions last season for the Brooklyn Nets after missing the entire 2019-20 campaign while recovering from a ruptured Achilles. Durant's return to the court came about 18 months after surgery, but he almost immediately looked like himself, scoring 22 points in 25 minutes in his first game back. Within a month of his return, Durant had his first 40-point game and played over 50 minutes in a double-overtime road game. 

The Nets handled Durant with care last season, giving him occasional rest days and treating a strained hamstring cautiously, but he had no restrictions in the postseason, where he carried the load for Brooklyn and was inches away from defeating the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks in a Game 7. 

The Warriors will likely ease Thompson back into action as he builds endurance and re-adjusts to the speed of live games, but the team have said they expect him to make a "full recovery".

Green is a three-time All-Star and five-time All-Defensive Team selection who appears to be battling age regression while still playing a vital role. 

Never known for his scoring prowess, Green averaged 7.1 rebounds and a career-high 8.9 assists last season while providing the defensive versatility to play in almost any lineup the Warriors wanted. 

Green's problem has been the gradual decline in his offensive production, most notably his outside shooting. Through the 2017-18 season, Green shot 32.7 per cent from three-point range and averaged 11.6 points per game. Since 2018-19, his three-point shooting has dipped to 28.1 per cent and he is scoring 7.4 points per night. 

While those declines feel relatively small now, they will likely be magnified in a playoff series where opposing coaches will be hell-bent on creating defenses to get the ball out of Curry's hands at the expense of leaving Green wide open.

Green garnered a reputation as someone who steps up in the postseason and shot 34.2 per cent from deep in his first 80 career playoff games. 

Since 2018, however, Green has converted just 25.4 per cent of his postseason three-point attempts over 45 games, and he has made just 21.1 per cent over his past 35 playoff games. Teams will continue to leave Green open in crucial games, and the Warriors' title hopes may hinge on whether he hits just enough to make defenses think twice. 

Wiseman, Wiggins and depth

Golden State's trio of battle-tested stars will be the core of any potential playoff run this spring, but the Warriors have another asset this season that they have lacked in recent years: depth. 

Going 54-83 over the previous two seasons was certainly not an ideal way to follow five straight Finals appearances, but a pair of non-contending years gave the team some extra assets and helped some of the Warriors' younger players gain experience. 

The dismal 2019-20 season yielded number two overall pick James Wiseman, whose rookie year was marred by injuries, including a season-ending meniscus tear in April. The 20-year-old center has played just 42 basketball games since leaving high school and remains raw, but his talent could prove vital in a Western Conference playoff bracket that will likely include Nikola Jokic, Deandre Ayton and Rudy Gobert. 

Wiseman is still recovering from his knee injury, but the Warriors are expected to provide an update early in November with a more definitive timeline for his return. 

Rookies Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody, the number seven and number 14 picks in this year's draft, will also look to compete for playing time, although Kuminga has yet to play due to a knee strain. 

The rest of Golden State's supporting cast has plenty of experience – at least in the regular season – but still has room for improvement. 

Andrew Wiggins, the maligned former number one overall pick who was acquired from the Minnesota Timberwolves, has begun a second chapter of his career in a supporting role, and the move to Golden State has revived his career. Wiggins had a career-best shooting season last year, converting 47.3 per cent from the field and 38.0 per cent from three-point range. 

After sputtering a bit early last season, Wiggins excelled down the stretch and has averaged 20.0 points over his last 35 games. 

Damion Lee and Jordan Poole have gone through growing pains the past two seasons, attempting to fill in for Thompson in the backcourt, but both have emerged as interesting contributors. 

Lee has ignited the offense off the bench, averaging 14.2 points through five games this season with 12-for-26 shooting (46.2 per cent) from three-point range.  

Poole, a 2019 draft pick, showed a lot of improvement during last year's sophomore campaign. Although he is off to a slow shooting start this season, he is averaging 18.3 in 12 games as a starter, dating back to the start of last season. 

Back is 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala to provide a veteran presence on the wing, while six-foot-10 forward Nemanja Bjelica adds both size and outside shooting to a frontcourt still in flux. 

Contenders again?

The sum of all those pieces is a team with a relatively wide range of possibilities in 2021-22. 

So much weight rests on Curry's shoulders, and any serious injury to the Warriors' top man could spell disaster, as it did in 2019-20. 

There is no guarantee that Thompson can make signature contributions after returning from an absence that spans 28 months and counting. The playoff stage may prove to be too big for Golden State's collection of young prospects, and players like Green and Iguodala might be too far past their primes to provide the requisite lift. 

But the Warriors' roster holds the potential for a championship contender once again. 

Curry remains on the short list of star players who can control a playoff series, and there is enough depth in place to ease Thompson back into NBA action. After years of filling their roster with late draft choices and minimum salary veterans, the Warriors now have three lottery picks in Wiseman, Kuminga and Moody who could blossom into key pieces. 

In a competitive but wide-open Western Conference, Golden State still have questions to answer but have the potential to make a run at a fourth NBA title in the past eight seasons.

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