Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr has repeatedly identified the 20-game mark as the first point at which he could make an honest assessment about what his team was, and more importantly, what it could be moving forward. We're at that point. Entering Tuesday's matchup with the Boston Celtics, the Warriors are 11-9, good enough for No. 7 in the West and just one game back of the No. 5 spot.
They're also just two games up in the loss column on No. 12 Oklahoma City Thunder.
Truth be told, the Warriors are an average team. They can beat anyone. They can lose to anyone. They pulled a couple rabbits out of their hat with a 19- and 22-point rally to beat the Lakers and Clippers, respectively, but seven of their 11 victories have come against sub-.500 teams.
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Is this a playoff team? Assuming good health, probably. It's hard to imagine a team with Stephen Curry not at least making the expanded play-in round. Beyond that, the Warriors aren't anywhere close to a contender. Under normal circumstances, with a player like Curry entering the back end of his prime with just one year remaining on his contract after this season, the urgency to upgrade the roster would be on full tilt.
But in this case, Golden State has an ace up its sleeve, and that ace is Klay Thompson. If you want to take the most optimistic viewpoint of the Warriors' next nine months, they spend the rest of this season developing rookie James Wiseman, crack the playoffs, draft a stud with the Timberwolves' 2021 first-round pick, then become contenders again when Thompson returns next year.
Call me a pessimist, but I can't see all that happening. For starters, the Minnesota pick is top-three protected, and at present the Wolves are in statistical line for a top-three pick. In that case, the pick would become unprotected in 2022. In other words, unless the Warriors trade that pick, there's a decent chance it won't mean anything to their 2021-22 roster.
More importantly, the idea that Thompson is just going to come back firing on all cylinders feels like a reach. By the time next season begins, Thompson won't have played in an NBA game for almost 30 months. He's going to turn 31 in a week, which means he'll be 32 a few months into next season, and, as we know, he'll be coming off a torn ACL and a torn Achilles.
If the Warriors don't make any big moves, a 90 percent Thompson likely isn't enough. It's not even certain that a 100 percent Thompson puts the Warriors within the ranks of legitimate contenders. Seeing how great Kevin Durant and John Wall look so far, given that they are both coming off Achilles tears, gives the Warriors hope that Thompson can return to his old self. That's deceiving, however, in the fact that Durant sat 18 months from the day he tore his Achilles, and Wall sat 21 months. Thompson will be trying to come back in the neighborhood of 12 months post-Achilles tear.
"That extra time rehabbing and getting strong again can make a big difference," Dr. Alan Beyer, an orthopedic surgeon and the executive medical director at Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Southern California, told CBS Sports. "You just don't know how one guy is going to come back as opposed to another. Those are two major injuries, and these things are cumulative. ... I'll say this: If you're depending on a player, Klay Thompson or otherwise, to come back after an ACL tear and a full Achilles rupture and be the same player he was before those injuries, it's a gamble. It's a very big gamble."
None of this is to suggest Thompson shouldn't be expected to return as a really good player. Whether that's 85 percent of his old self or whatever, he's going to be good. You wonder about the defense, but at the very least, he'll be a great shooter, and by the time the 2022 playoffs arrive, Thompson will have had close to the 18 months Durant had post-Achilles tear.
But that's assuming Thompson doesn't suffer any other injuries, even minor ones that stunt his progress as he tries to regain previous rhythms. As Dr. Beyer said, these thing are cumulative. Wiseman looks like he has a lot of potential, but will he be ready to contribute at a championship level in his second season? Will whomever the Warriors select with Minnesota's pick, should that pick even convey, be ready to contribute as a rookie?
It's a lot of unknowns when the Warriors would effectively need everything to go almost exactly according to plan to return to contention in the short term. And if next year doesn't go as planned, now Curry will be 33 years old and entering the last year of his contract.
Nobody thinks he'll leave, but if he looks up and sees a team that has prioritized the future at the expense of maximizing his rapidly dwindling prime, can we be so sure? The Warriors could, and perhaps likely will, sign him to a huge extension before that, but then you're paying an aging Curry max money on a team that can't realistically compete for titles. You've become, in essence, the Trail Blazers with Damian Lillard.
All of which points to the Warriors making strong moves to ensure contention, at least to the extent of their control, beyond putting all their eggs in the Klay comeback basket. There have been rumors of the Warriors having interest in Lonzo Ball. In theory, Ball would fit pretty darn well with Curry and Thompson next season as a guy with the type of high-IQ, ball-movement DNA Kerr fancies. Ball has always needed shooters and scorers around him to thrive, and his up-tempo instincts and defensive versatility scream Warriors basketball.
Still, that move, or an equivalent, isn't one that significantly changes Golden State's temperature. The Ringer's Jonathan Tjarks recently suggested the Warriors think much bigger by throwing a Godfather offer at the Wizards for Bradley Beal. It would most certainly cost the Warriors Wiseman and the Minnesota pick, plus more future picks in all likelihood, but the thinking is that Curry is a once-in-a-generation player, and when you have that kind of player, you don't let your roster-building mind start skipping too far ahead.
Rather, you do what the Heat, Cavaliers and Lakers did when they got their hands on prime LeBron James. You give that kind of superstar the pieces he needs to compete, because you know having that kind of superstar is the rarest of NBA luxuries that cannot, under any circumstances, or in any capacity, be wasted.
What makes it complicated, again is Wiseman and the Minnesota pick are Golden State's lone remaining big-time assets. Once the Warriors deal those, they're pretty much all-in for the foreseeable future with whatever they've gotten in return. You might look at the Warriors trading Wiseman and a potential top-five pick like the Lakers trading Brandon Ingram and a top-five pick, but the difference is the Lakers' package netted them Anthony Davis.
Beal, if the Wizards were to even make him available, isn't Davis. But Beal is a great enough player that he would give Curry a chance to at least compete this season, and next season, with Beal, Thompson, Curry and Draymond Green, you would be talking about a top-tier contender.
For the record, Beal apparently continues to assert behind closed doors that he's committed to Washington, per The Athletic. But this isn't about what Beal wants (to whatever extent you think Beal would actually fight a trade); this is about what's best for the Wizards. I'm with Tjarks. I think a Warriors offer centered on Wiseman and the 2021 Minnesota pick would potentially call Washington's "we're not trading Beal" bluff, and if it did, and Washington relented, I would jump on the deal if I were the Warriors.
I understand the counter argument of using Wiseman and the Minnesota pick to usher in the next era of Warriors basketball, as the Spurs were able to do with Kawhi Leonard without ever having to fall out of the playoffs, but in the spirit of Bradley Beal not being Anthony Davis, you're really reaching trying to put James Wiseman in the Kawhi Leonard conversation.
Chances are, by the time Wiseman and whoever comes of the Minnesota pick are ready to lead a contender, Curry, Thompson and Green no longer will be. To me, that's too big a risk to take when you have Stephen Curry on your team. Trading for Lonzo might be a nice start, but if the Warriors want to truly do right by Curry -- whether it's trying to get into the seemingly inevitable Beal sweepstakes or getting creative via some other route -- they'll have to think far bigger than that.