"I’m not presumptuous enough to think you should always win,” he says. “But you had that team. We were that team.”
That’s what Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told SI’s Lee Jenkins late in the summer of 2014, not long after LeBron James had left Miami for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Spoelstra was bemoaning the fact that in four years with James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on his roster, his Heat teams "only" won two titles.
The Heat missed the playoffs their first season after LeBron, and are now stuck in a complicated rebuild that serves as a stark reminder of how fragile NBA dynasties can be in the 21st century. After Kevin Durant went down with a knee injury earlier this week, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Warriors are in danger of suffering the same fate.
The Warriors are currently that team. In 2014–15, they burst onto the scene with a dynamic offense buoyed by what seemed like, on some level, unsustainable shooting. Last year, the Warriors somehow improved, putting together the winningest regular season in NBA history, only to fall short in the Finals, thanks in small part to a unquantifiably hobbled Stephen Curry and in large part to an untimely suspension of Draymond Green.
The aggregate score of last June’s Finals was even through six games and 47 minutes, a tie that was broken on a contested three by Kyrie Irving. That’s how thin the margin can be in the NBA Finals. Just ask the Spurs—one ridiculous three–pointer, the kind your blissfully unaware younger sibling launches in a game of 2K, can be the difference between the greatest season and the greatest collapse.
Adding Durant was supposed to erase the possibility of another Warriors series coming close to being decided in the margins. But with Durant sustaining a knee injury that will keep him out at least a month, the Warriors are ever so slightly at risk of turning into a dreaded what-if team.
None of this could matter. Perhaps Durant comes back in full form, the Warriors cruise through the playoffs, and the title that seemed overwhelmingly in their grasp until KD's injury is indeed won easily. But what if Durant’s injury lingers throughout the postseason, the same way Curry’s did in 2016? What if Durant re-aggravates his injury while playing extended minutes in the playoffs? What if he faces a setback in his recovery?
That’s how delicate any team’s title chances really are. Marcin Gortat can flap his wings, Zaza Pachulia can fall, and the next thing you know your best player and MVP candidate is in a wheelchair six weeks before the playoffs are set to start. And make no mistake, despite the Warriors surplus of talent, their future isn’t as cloudless as one would expect.
Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston could both leave this off-season, as both Durant and Curry are in line for big raises on their current salaries. What happens if the Warriors' already top–heavy roster is robbed of even more of its depth? As we’re finding out right now, at some point, every player on a team’s roster will be tested. Losing guys like Iguodala and Livingston may not sound like a big deal, but with each of them likely commanding big paydays on the open market, the Warriors could certainly come back closer to the pack if they keep losing essential role players who allow the larger machine to function.
It’s easy to look at the Warriors now and imagine a team that wins multiple titles while LeBron slows down and everyone else struggles to catch up. But the Durant injury—even if it ultimately turns out to be completely meaningless—should at the very least send a jolt of a reminder through Golden State and the rest of the NBA: It really is now or never.
No one knows how long Golden State will be that team. A freak injury or overzealous opponent can easily derail even the best laid plans.
Hopefully none of us will even remember Durant’s injury come playoff time, and the Finals will feature two healthy, star-studded teams battling for a championship. But like Pachulia falling right into Durant’s knee, you never know what random act of basketball will crash the party. And if KD never recovers fully this season, the Warriors will be one step closer to disappointment than dynasty.