The shot bounced off the back rim. The crowd fell silent. Seconds later, the Toronto Raptors were celebrating their first NBA championship. At the time we knew it was his last game at Oracle Arena, but none of us could predict that final missed 3-pointer by Stephen Curry would be his last meaningful shot attempt in 18 months.
Even the most pessimistic minds expected the Golden State Warriors to, at the very least, compete for a playoff spot last season without Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, both of whom had suffered career-altering injuries in the Finals. Instead, in just the fourth game of the season, all 260 pounds of Aron Baynes proved too much for Curry's left hand to bear, sending the two-time MVP to the sidelines for four months. Curry made his triumphant return in March, with the Warriors well out of the playoff hunt, only for his season to be stifled once again -- this time by a menacing, relentless virus infinitely more dangerous than the injury bug that seemed so fixated on Golden State's locker room.
Eventually, however, frustration turned to hope. The Warriors' futility and lottery luck earned them the No. 2 pick in the draft. The pick, who turned out to be big man James Wiseman, coupled with the healthy return of Curry and Thompson, a refreshed Draymond Green and a refocused Andrew Wiggins meant the Warriors would be back in the championship picture once again.
But, as the old adage made famous by John Lennon reminds us, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." This sentiment should be ingrained in our psyches after enduring the horrors of 2020, but it's a testament to human resiliency that we continually allow optimism to triumph over despair.
And just like that, with one awkward step by Thompson during an offseason pickup game in Southern California, the Warriors' potential resurgence has become a rescue mission. The news of Thompson's torn right Achilles tendon -- following a season lost to an ACL tear -- is a sucker punch that induces more sympathy for Thompson than concern over the franchise's basketball future. On Thursday, during a press conference that was supposed to be a celebratory introduction of the Warriors' future stars, general manager Bob Myers spent the first 15 minutes grasping for words to encapsulate the devastation of Thompson's latest injury.
"In my job, these are those phone calls where the color drains from your face," Myers said.
"It's not that we can't deal with these things. We do, and we will, and we have. ... But what hurts the most is the time we put into our jobs, the sacrifices we make to do what we do, and to do what [Klay] does. And for him to have to now not be able to play basketball, that's the pain. That's the pain we feel for him being here since day one, since Klay showed up nine years ago, or however many years ago it was."
In the most unfair of manners, here the Warriors are, in a nearly identical place that they were before last season. No Thompson. No Durant. No sage veteran leaders like Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston. Just a longing for what could have been, and confusion about what comes next.
"We found ourselves with a hole at a position that we can't find many better guys to fill than a Klay Thompson," Myers said. "So now we write our board up, and under the two guard position we have a blank space."
So once again, the fate of the season, and perhaps the Warriors' championship window, rests squarely on the shoulders of Stephen Curry.
Before Curry's injury last year, we wondered whether head coach Steve Kerr would alter the ball-movement-based offense to provide more pick-and-rolls for his superstar in the absence of Thompson and Durant. That proved difficult in the limited time Curry was on the court due to the presence of D'Angelo Russell, a ball-dominant guard whose off-ball skills never progressed to the Warriors' liking. With Russell gone, Curry is now flanked by Wiggins and the recently acquired Kelly Oubre, two athletic wings capable of wearing opponents down with back-cuts, and who will bring delight to the organization if they can consistently sink 3-pointers at a good clip.
As currently constructed, the Warriors have no secondary ball-handler in the backcourt. Those honors to go Green, who has led the team in assists per game in each of the past five seasons. So it's not hard to envision an offense where Curry runs more pick-and-rolls and dribble hand-offs, though Kerr has been reluctant to revamp his offense in the past.
No matter how it happens, Curry is going to have to turn in a monstrous season in order for the Warriors to compete in the Western Conference. In addition to the star-studded Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers at the top, there are at least nine other legitimate playoff contenders, maybe 10 depending on how the Houston Rockets proceed.
But if there's any player capable of -- and ready for -- such an explosion, it's Curry.
The last time Curry was unbridled, back in the 2015-16 season when he was free of the sacrifices that came with welcoming Durant into the fold, Curry assaulted the league with one of the greatest seasons in NBA history -- 30.1 points, 6.7 assists, 5.4 rebounds and 2.1 steals per game on 50/45/90 splits with an absurd 5.1 3-pointers made per game. That earned him the first unanimous MVP selection in NBA history, and he might need to approximate that production this season for the Warriors to have a chance at the playoffs and beyond.
Everyone in the NBA is adjusting to this strange offseason, and nobody knows how it will play out. Some teams are coming off of a quick turnaround from the playoffs while others, like the Warriors, will have gone nine months since playing in an NBA game. Curry will have played exactly five games -- 139 minutes -- in 18 months. You can say he'll be rested -- Curry always keeps himself in phenomenal shape -- but it would be foolish to think there won't be a significant period of rust-shedding to begin the season. With the Warriors situation what it is, a rocky start could mean missing out on the postseason.
While it's premature to close the book on the Warriors dynasty, there's a growing chance that they don't get back to the Finals during Curry's tenure. Thompson will be coming back from a torn ACL and a torn Achilles after missing two years. He might be the only player in major sports history besides former Warrior DeMarcus Cousins to suffer both of those injuries. There has long been concern that Green's performance could deteriorate rapidly as he ages. There's no guarantee that Wiggins and/or Oubre ever fulfill the potential that their natural talent suggests. Wiseman could end up being what some draft evaluators warned us about -- an overhyped Hassan Whiteside. The Timberwolves could be surprisingly good next season, crushing the value of their 2021 top-three protected pick -- by far the Warriors' best asset. And if Curry gets hurt, well ... let's not even go there.
This is obviously the worst-case scenario, but after the last year and a half, it's only natural for the Warriors to expect disaster. And that's where the challenge comes in. That's where having a leader like Curry, both on and off the court, can make all the difference. If Curry can keep the Warriors in contention, Golden State can remain a potential destination for the next disgruntled star, at which point Myers and the front office can deploy whatever assets necessary to bolster the roster for when Thompson returns. Then we'll be right back to talking about the Warriors as title contenders next summer.
It's a difficult task, but Curry has proven in his 11-year career that his contagious work ethic and enthusiasm can inspire and galvanize his teammates.
"The challenge in these times is staying together, when your fabric is tested," Myers said on Thursday. "Our fabric was tested last year. People don't know it, our record was 15-50, but we didn't break as an organization. We didn't falter. We didn't start blaming people. And that's hard to do in this day and age."