Just a few weeks ago, there was still a sense that anything could happen. The Golden State Warriors had the No. 2 overall pick in the draft, the Minnesota Timberwolves' pick in next year's draft, a substantial trade exception, Andrew Wiggins' hefty contract and all the motivation in the world to make win-now moves.
The 2019-20 Warriors went 15-50, but if things went right in the offseason, they could go down in history like the 1996-97 San Antonio Spurs. With David Robinson sidelined, the Spurs sunk to the bottom of the standings, then emerged with Tim Duncan, who would wind up having a pretty decent run with the franchise. Golden State just needed to draft the right guy or make the right trades, and then Stephen Curry's broken hand would be sort of like his rookie contract extension: suboptimal for Curry in the short term, but ultimately a good thing for his chances of winning more championships.
All of that optimism vanished on Nov. 18, the day Klay Thompson tore his Achilles. This was 17 months after Thompson had torn his ACL in the NBA Finals, and the day of the 2020 NBA Draft. Everything the Warriors have done since then has felt provisional, an attempt to salvage a grim situation. They drafted big man James Wiseman, who is now bearing an outsize burden, and traded for forward Kelly Oubre Jr. They brought back wing Kent Bazemore, last seen in a Golden State uniform when he was known for his bench celebrations, and they signed guard Brad Wanamaker. These might have all been good decisions, but none of them erased the general sense of unease about the team's immediate and medium-term future.
With a healthy Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green, Golden State might not have been a title favorite, but it could not have been dismissed. The Warriors had to play some funky lineups en route to the 2019 Finals, but they were still the Warriors, with their dizzying ball movement, unpredictable offense and the kind of connectivity that comes with making it to the biggest stage in basketball five straight times. Whatever this version of the team is, it won't be that.
Taking the temperature
Warriors believer: I'm as bummed as anybody about Klay, but people are sleeping on the Warriors. I expect Steph to win his third MVP award, Dray to reclaim his place on the All-Defensive team and James Wiseman to at least be in the running for Rookie of the Year. And I'm genuinely excited about seeing a more Curry-centric, pick-and-roll-heavy offense. Let's not act as if the Warriors are going to be in the lottery again.
Warriors skeptic: Are you sure they won't be in the lottery? Golden State didn't look particularly impressive before Curry hurt his hand last season, and assuming that Draymond is going to go full-tilt in the regular season is quite the leap of faith. Wiseman wouldn't be a top-two pick in most drafts, and it's generally not a good idea to count on a 19-year-old center being a positive force. I liked the Oubre move, but I would have liked it much more if the Warriors were able to package Wiggins and a pick for a star (or if Oubre were here to complement Thompson, rather than to take his place).
Warriors believer: I'm not going to read too much into the four games Steph played with D'Angelo Russell, and I'm not surprised a Warriors skeptic keeps bringing the conversation back to Thompson instead of talking about the guys who will be playing this season. Everybody seems much more comfortable doing that than taking a look at the roster.
Let's say I'm wrong about Wiseman helping right away. If Golden State gets the Kevon Looney we saw in the 2019 playoffs and the Marquese Chriss we saw last season, I'm not all that worried about the center spot. Dray will get his share of minutes at 5, too, and I'm intrigued with the idea of Eric Paschall playing the 4 next to him. Wanamaker was a perfect backcourt pickup because he can play with or without Steph, and between Oubre, Wiggins, Bazemore and Damion Lee, Golden State has a whole bunch of options on the wing. Everybody says the Warriors are shallow, but I just went 10 deep without even mentioning my high hopes for Mychal Mulder.
Warriors skeptic: Congratulations, the Warriors have a bunch of guys. Unlike you, apparently, I am not looking forward to the playmaking adventures of Wiggins and Oubre, and we should make some sort of bet about this team's offensive rating when Curry is not on the court. These Warriors remind me of the 2013-14 Timberwolves, who had a plus-5.9 net rating when Kevin Love was on the court and a minus-6.2 net rating when he was on the bench.
Those Wolves went 40-42 and missed the playoffs by nine games. Unfortunately for the Warriors, the West is just as brutal now as it was then, and, judging by the statistical projections I've seen, finishing a game under .500 would mean that Golden State has overachieved.
Warriors believer: That Minnesota team didn't have anyone remotely like Draymond, so I'm not buying it. I don't care much about preseason projections, either. You stumbled into a decent point, though: The West does look strong.
Brutal might be pushing it, though. The Thunder aren't making it back to the playoffs, and if the increasingly shaky Rockets crumble, then there will be two spots up for grabs. Are the Warriors definitively worse than Memphis, Phoenix, San Antonio, Sacramento, New Orleans and Minnesota? Would any of those teams be comfortable playing against Steph and Dray in a play-in game?
Warriors skeptic: Your argument would be better if everybody except the last-place team qualified for the play-in. I am not ready to assume that Houston drops all the way to the bottom of the conference, and while it's certainly not inconceivable for Golden State to finish somewhere from seventh to 10th in a shortened and inherently unpredictable season, I'm not sure it is definitively better than any of the teams you mentioned.
The Warriors will be compelling because they have the best shooter in NBA history, but they don't have the shooting to punish teams that swarm him, nor do they have the playmaking to survive when he's not on the court. There is a difference between compelling and good.
Warriors believer: The thing about being the best shooter in NBA history is that you elevate your teammates with your mere presence. Steph's the most dangerous off-ball player this game has ever seen, and as much as I hate that we won't see his Splash Brother this season, you don't need another legendary shooter on the court to take advantage of defenses swarming him on high pick-and-rolls. You just need guys who can make wide-open shots and attack close-outs.
Underestimate the Steph effect -- and the Warriors -- at your own peril.
Eye on: Kevon Looney
It's easy to forget that there is another Warrior whose 2019-20 season was ruined by injuries. It's also easy to forget that Looney is still 24 years old.
The good news: Looney says he feels "like a basketball player again," seven months removed from surgery to repair a core muscle injury. He was a major part of Golden State's Finals run a couple of years ago, especially on the defensive end, and I remain curious about his hypothetical 3-point shooting, even after he shot a miserable 1 for 14 from deep in 262 minutes last season.
Looney could start at center. He could be buried behind Wiseman and Chriss. There is a wide range of outcomes here, and health is clearly the most important variable. In this respect, Looney is a microcosm of the Warriors.