‘It’s real’: Why forgotten $264m weapon could push Steph past LeBron and change NBA history
We’ve already seen a Golden State Warriors dynasty. And there’s a feeling of déjà vu with another one evolving before our eyes.
Steve Kerr’s team entered the season under improved expectations after its shortcomings in the last two campaigns where it finished 15h (15-50) and ninth (39-33) in the Western Conference.
But not many could’ve predicted Golden State would shoot back up to bona fide powerhouse status in the NBA once again, just like from 2015 to 2018 when it won three championships.
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Mon, 10 Jan
Monday January 10th
Well, nearly halfway through the season and the Warriors are on track to win more games than in the last two years combined, currently sitting 29-9 for the second-best record in the league.
And they’ve done it without Klay Thompson, the $264 million star who’ll return in Monday’s clash against the Cleveland Cavaliers (all times AEDT), some 941 days and two and a half seasons since his last NBA game in a major boost.
Thompson hasn’t played since Game 6 of the NBA Finals in June 2019 against the Toronto Raptors when he tore his ACL. The sharpshooting star has since been sidelined by a ruptured Achilles sustained during the 2020 pre-season.
Of course, the 31-year old Thompson, a five-time All-Star and one of the greatest shooters in league history, played a starring role in each of Golden State’s three title triumphs in its recent dynasty, while his absence over the last two seasons has been a significant blow.
And having spent more than two years away from the game, now with a chip on his shoulder from being left off the NBA75 list, Thompson is “hungrier” than ever to help the Warriors get back to the post-season after a two-season hiatus
“I know myself. I know how good I am. I know the things I‘ve done... It’s like – how many times do I have to do something that no one else has ever done before and get respect? Do I have to go score 50 in a quarter now? Like, what the hell? It’s whatever though, man. It’s over with. I’m going to use it as fuel,” he told ESPN ahead of his season debut.
“I‘m excited to get out there and prove to people who I am. I know they forgot because I’ve been out for two years, but I’ve never been hungrier seeing that stuff. Never been hungrier. And the best way at revenge is to win. Seriously.”
It’s scary to think how much better this team could get when it adds a player of Thompson’s ilk, a career-41.9 per cent three-point shooter on 2.9 makes while averaging 19.5 points per game, to a core of Steph Curry (31 years old), Draymond Green (31) and Andrew Wiggins (26), who all have several good years left in them.
Plus what gets lost in the hysteria around the freakish shooting from the ‘Slash Brothers’, Thompson and Curry, is that the former is one of the most reliable defensive guards in the league.
Despite all the excitement around Thompson’s return, former NBA coach and ESPN commentator Jeff Van Gundy called for expectations to be tempered.
“I think we’d all be making a mistake to be Klay Thompson that we know,” he said on the Lowe Post podcast. “These injuries are serious, you don’t take two years off competition and come all the way back.”
However, looking at the Warriors holistically, as important as their stars are, this team is so much more. It’s the brilliant combination of talented personnel buying into team culture and fundamental excellence.
Kerr’s side is built on selflessness, trust and playing for each other at both ends of the court. This season they’re ranked first in the NBA in defensive rating (102.2) and net rating (8.7) and 10th in offensive rating (110.9) – numbers of a fully fledged championship team.
Therefore, no matter who’s on the court, it’s this team-first ethos that will always keep the Warriors competitive on some level and elite when they’re up and running, like now, where they’ve been boosted by an overhauled roster.
Andre Iguodala, Nemanja Bjelica, Damion Lee, Otto Porter Jr., Juan Toscano-Anderson, Kevon Looney and Garry Payton II round out a deep rotation. Not all of them will play every night, but they’re always ready when called upon – another strong attribute.
“The first 20 games there was this feeling of Steph’s incredible, Draymond’s incredible, Wiggins is having the best year of his career. Their names on the roster after Steph and Draymond are like: ‘Are we really counting on these guys, like they’re really winning this many games with these names 3-12?’” ESPN’s Zach Lowe posed on the Lowe Post podcast.
“I think almost halfway through the season, you have to conclude it’s real. That all of those guys know how to play the Warriors style, which is not for everybody and very hard to play against because of how unusual it is.
“And the power of that shared identity, plus a top five player in Steph and maybe the greatest defensive player in modern NBA history in Green, who also happens to be one of the best big man passers in NBA history.
“That is this powerful, I don’t care if the names aren’t sexy, it works.”
Meanwhile, the future is just as bright. Jordan Poole (22 years old) has filled in the starting shooting guard role admirably in Thompson’s absence, averaging 17.7 points and 2.6 triples per contest, as an exciting part of their future.
In addition to Thompson, former Pick 2 James Wisesman (20), another key piece for the future, still hasn’t played this season in his return from meniscus surgery. Throw in last year’s lottery picks Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody (both 19) and this is a roster with so much booming talent across all ages that’s capable of contending for many years to come.
It’s important to note that the main reason Golden State got in so much young talent from early draft picks – and thus potential building blocks for the future – is from compromised seasons through horror injury tolls, not because they were bad.
Alternatively, the franchise’s shrewd president and general manager, Bob Myers, now has a surplus of attractive young assets he can cash in on at any given time on the trade market if he decided to move further into a win-now build
None of the other top teams are in that position, giving the the Warriors a unique point of difference among contenders and one they can manoeuvre to help them win more titles. So despite already being the championship favourites, they’re also extremely well placed moving forward, even better than some rebuilding franchises.
So to recap, Golden State has a returning champion joining its surplus of stars including a top five player in the league and an exciting crop of youngsters that could also be used as trade assets if so desired by a crafty front office. All while holding the second-best record in the league and being as well coached as any team.
Plus, what other sides are genuinely rivalling them in the championship picture in the coming seasons?
The Phoenix Suns are the maybe the biggest threat, although a big part of their rise and success has been because of the 36-year old Chris Paul. As good as the evergreen Paul has been, he’s in the twilight of his career. Beyond him, Phoenix is just a strong playoff team.
The LA Lakers have flopped hard with Russell Westbrook and look like nothing more than a solid middle-tier playoff team at best. And like Paul, as much as the 37-year old LeBron James has defied father time, the clock is ticking on his career. Plus with Westbrook, James and Anthony Davis, the latter two who’ve gone backwards in recent seasons, all locked into max contracts, the Lakers are very limited in terms of roster flexibility.
The Utah Jazz, LA Clippers and maybe Denver Nuggets loom as the only other teams in the West with strong cores that could challenge the Warriors. But the Jazz and Clippers haven’t yet proven they can win in the playoffs, while we don’t really know how good the banged-up Nuggets are.
In the East, the Brooklyn Nets may be the biggest overall threat to the Warriors behind superstar trio Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving. Although so long as Irving, who takes up a big $33 million chunk of the team’s annual salary cap, remains a part-time payer over his unwillingness to get vaccinated, Brooklyn lacks its true potency. And even with Irving in a full-time capacity, the Nets are another unknown in the playoffs (yes, we know about Durant’s shoe size).
Elsewhere, the Milwaukee Bucks are championship-level good and now a proven commodity. But it can’t be denied that last year’s title win was a last man standing of sorts triumph when so many fellow contenders were injury ravaged.
Then there’s the Warriors, who are proven winners with a tested formula and roster with genuine upside.
Furthermore, although Curry has enjoyed a phenomenal season as the MVP frontrunnner, including surpassing Ray Allen’s record for the most ever three-pointers made in NBA history, his shooting numbers are actually down across the board.
Curry’s 26.8 points per game average is his lowest return since the 2017/18 season when he shared the court with both Thompson and Kevin Durant.
It’s come due to Curry shooting 38.8 per cent from downtown and 47 per cent on two-pointers, well below his career averages of 43 per cent and 51 per cent in both areas respectively.
So while Curry has still turned in some incredible individual performance, there’s yet another gear he can go to in a frightening proposition for rivals.
“They have this mass of injury to Thompson, Curry isn’t shooting as well... and they’re dominant. That to me speaks again the depth this year,” Van Gundy said.
Of course, Curry is already a dual MVP winner, but hasn’t won one since 2016 prior to Durant landing in Golden State.
The Ringer’s Bill Simmons compared the Warriors and Curry’s renaissance to NFL legend Tom Brady’s over the years. And he believes given Golden State’s promising future, it could put Curry in a position to win more championships than LeBron James.
“Brady had this thing where he won three titles early, then he had this drought of basically 10 years without a title. Then you had the 2.0 version of Brady, so there was the 1.0 then the 2.0 and he wins three and three (championships) and then the Bucs are basically 3.0,” he said on the Bill Simmons Podcast.
“This Curry thing is now a 2.0 and it’s not just about the fact that I think they’re the favourites to win this year — they’re built to be good for a while. They have their nucleus in place, Klay and Draymond aren’t that old. They have all these young people, trade pieces and money to spend.
“I think Curry is going to age really well, the same way Brady did. Even though LeBron has four rings, Curry has three, LeBron’s made 10 finals, Curry’s made five, there’s a world where that looks completely different in six, seven years from now.
“Maybe Curry is in nine finals by 2026?”
As good as things look for the Warriors, they’re not without their challenges from here.
Van Gundy pondered how Thompson’s return could disrupt Poole’s form — which has had a huge impact on the Warriors winning games — as it more than likely relegates him to a lessened bench role.
“How much does him coming back diminish Poole? I think Poole is a tremendous player now, I didn’t see it coming, but man, has he gotten so much better,” he said.
“This idea that we’re just adding if Thompson comes back, there’s not going to be any subtraction, you could be making a mistake there.”
Lowe added: “I think the Klay thing is, is he going to do more for us than the combination of all these seventh guys but play our style very well? Klay plays our style pretty well, he has for 10 years.
“Is he going to give us more in this theoretically diminished stage than Porter, Bjelica, Toscano-Anderson, ‘GP II’ (Payton). I think that is step one and I suspect he will.”
Van Gundy also questioned if Wiseman, when healthy, actually plays, or if Kerr will stick with a winning formula.
“They have a lot of these guys, Toscano-Anderson may not play but he starts the other night. Bjelica goes from ‘eh, how’s he going to play? (to) He’s our backup five,’” he said.
“Wiseman not being there, no one wants to talk about it, it’s like it’s this taboo. Are we even sure he’s going to be in the rotation when he comes back? And are they as good if they do put him in? Or are they better with Bjelica and Porter, those guys.
“These are hard decisions for Steve Kerr, for Bob Myers. These are challengers.”
But if any team can handle any challenges thrown their way, it’s the Curry-Kerr-led Warriors.
And we’ve now seen a big enough sample size this season to suggest that this team is very good, maybe even championship good.
So whether or not they stick with the current group long-term or target another Durant-esque rival star to again turn the league on its head, the sky is the limit for what this NBA powerhouse can accomplish.