- After losing in the NBA Finals, the Warriors face a significant uphill battle for the first time in years. How will injuries and the upcoming free agency of Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson impact the team? Those answers can only come with time.
OAKLAND, Ca. — “Just a two minute rest. I’ll be ready.”
That’s what Klay Thompson told Steve Kerr Thursday night, back when everything still seemed possible for the Warriors.
Moments earlier, after crashing to the floor and being helped off, Thompson had emerged from the tunnel, hopped up and down, and sunk two free throws, giving Golden State an 85-80 lead with fourteen minutes until Game 7. Inside Oracle Arena, the din was reminiscent of the old days, when Nellie’s troops toppled the Dirk-led Mavs. When the Warriors were underdogs. Now they just needed one more miracle. One more dagger.
In that moment, before the ACL diagnosis and the heartbreaking, last-minute loss, before the full weight of the week’s events had time to settle, the old magic remained. So did the dynasty. The questions posed were different. The future was still bright.
Eighteen hours later, when Steve Kerr and Bob Myers emerged from the Warriors’ offices at the practice facility in Oakland on Friday afternoon to address the media, walking across the court, stone-faced, much had changed. Myers sat on a high-backed chair, still seemingly in shock. “I don’t know how to explain anything in the last two weeks,” he said.
Remember the events of November? It feels like an eternity ago in the narrative of the Warriors. That’s when Draymond Green and Kevin Durant got into a shouting match on the bench. At the time, it posed what Kerr called, “Our biggest challenge to date.” Sounds almost quaint now.
The team went into crisis-management mode. It’s something the coaches, players, and front office excel at, a defining franchise trait these last five years. Make the adjustments. Manage emotions and relationships. Patch the leaks and emerge stronger. If Kerr and Myers have a superpower, this is it. From converting Andre Iguodala to a sixth man to later starting him on LeBron to win that first title, from acquiring Durant in the wake of a crippling Finals collapse to managing the nuclear reactor that is Draymond Green, it’s what the Warriors do. “Every season has turning points and moments that can make or break it, and I’m happy we’ve gone through ours,” Green told me two weeks after that incident. “It’s going to make the journey much sweeter when we do it again.”
Despite Green’s optimism, the chemistry never returned, not in full. Still, the Warriors looked good enough to win a fourth title in five years. That’s the luxury of that much talent and experience. Entering the playoffs, another banner-raising seemed inevitable. Durant’s calf injury in the Rockets series instilled momentary doubt but then—as the Warriors do—they overcame the loss to win Game 5 against Houston and the clincher in Oakland and all seemed right again. Or right enough. Just hold down the fort in the Finals until KD returns. Or win without him if need be.
Only, the Raptors proved more vexing than the 2018 skeleton version of the Cavs. Deep. Defensive-minded. The margin for error shrunk. When Klay landed awkwardly in Game 2, tweaking his hamstring, that margin evaporated. Toronto won, and won again. The team reached an all-is-lost moment, that point in the screenplay where the hero hits rock bottom, and the viewer’s faith recedes, even if she knows it can’t end that way, because that’s not how these type of stories work. And, as if on cue, Durant returned, casually sinking more three-pointers in the first quarter of Game 5 than most teammates had the entire series. Order restored. Act Three could commence.
Only it didn’t. Instead, Durant crumpled to the court. Despite winning the game, the Warriors reeled. Bob Myers delivered that tearful presser. Outside forces pressed in, second-guessing not just the decision to play KD but all of it—the entire Warriors ethos. I happened to be with Myers on Wednesday afternoon, just beginning an interview, when his cell phone rang a few minutes before 1 p.m. It was Rich Kleiman, Durant’s agent, giving Myers a heads-up. Durant was about to post the news on Instagram, confirming both the Achilles tear and his surgery (the Warriors agreed to let Durant announce it on his own timeline).
The worst-case scenario had come to pass. Or so they thought.
Game 6 arrived. Ten minutes before tipoff, Joe Lacob sat on a folding chair in a small room near the Warriors locker room, knee bouncing up and down. At the time, Klay was still healthy and the title still in play. Lacob sounded both hopeful and anxious.
“I’m not allowed to say what we’re going to do,” he said about re-signing Klay Thompson. “I will just say, I love Klay Thompson. We love Klay Thompson. We find it very difficult to see Klay Thompson in any other uniform.”
As for Durant, Lacob equivocated when asked whether he’d hesitate to offer the maximum five-year deal. “I’d be lying if I sat here and said, no hesitation. I don’t know. I’d have to get more information... Probably no hesitation, probably, that’s what I want to be able to say.” He continued. “But I have to listen to Bob. I need more data.”
Finally, he addressed the idea of the end of an era. “I know everyone says that,” he began. “But after nine years owning a team in the NBA, I know that whatever you think you know, things will change. Look what happened. Who predicted KD’s injury? No one. Who could predict this stuff? So you just don’t know.” He paused. “It may still not be over, how we think about all of this.”
He was right, of course. Just not the way he hoped.
Had the Warriors won, the plan was for Curry to address the crowd at Oracle. Thank them for all those years and memories in the East Bay.
Instead, Curry’s final shot was off the mark. Stunned fans trudged up the aisles while NBA staff hurriedly rolled out risers for the Raptors’ title celebration. Nearby, at a medical facility in Berkeley, Thompson emerged from an MRI, confirming what team trainers feared almost immediately: an ACL tear (As Ramona Shelburne detailed, when Thompson emerged from the scan he asked: “What happened? Did we win?”)
At Oracle, the Warriors players dealt with the loss, and the final night in the building, each in his own way: Curry thanking staff and snapping photos, Green projecting confidence (“We’ll be back,” he said at his presser). Meanwhile, Kerr and his staff—Mike Brown, Ron Adams, Jarron Collins, Bruce Fraser, Willie Green, video scouts—eventually congregated in the coach’s office, cracking Modelo Especial. By now, they knew about Klay and had digested it. “It was weird,” recalls Kerr. “We’re all kind of in shock. The finality of it all.” Kerr describes it as “commiserating.” Fraser describes it differently. “Steve basically went around and connected with our staff, talking about his appreciation for each of us, which he’d never done like that before,” he says. “Not trying to make us feel better. Just letting us know he cared.”
Finally, Kerr drove home, where he ended up on his couch, the TV on and his dog next to him. The dog fell asleep; Kerr couldn’t. Instead, he ended up flipping the channels. He didn’t really want to watch the coverage. He ended up doing so anyway.
Finally, around 2:30, he crashed.
The reality the Warriors woke to Friday morning was unlike any the team has faced in the Kerr era.
By midmorning, as Kerr and Myers conducted exit interviews at the practice facility in Oakland, a flood of news and takes swamped social media. The Warriors will offer the max to both Klay and Durant. Jay Williams is on ESPN claiming the team misdiagnosed Durant. Klay is expected to miss nine to 10 months. Klay is now a “lock” to re-sign.
Realistically, Golden State’s options are limited. DeMarcus Cousins can only come back for a fraction of his market value, making a return unlikely (if not impossible). The team is already facing cap issues. No All-Star acquisitions are forthcoming. Beyond that, larger questions arise. Will the Warriors’ stellar organizational reputation, constructed over a half-decade, take a hit? Will free agents no longer take a pay cut to join a winner? Will players and staff reconsider their commitment, now that their roles could be dramatically altered? What of veterans like Andre Iguodala—so valuable on a championship team—and how they fit into what could be a transitional season?
Those answers can only come with time. Repeatedly on Friday, Myers apologized for not having any answers. Not allowed by league rules to talk about free agents, he did his best to iterate the team’s commitment to Thompson and Durant in the strongest non-fine-inducing language. He fretted about having so little time to prepare for an NBA draft now freighted with importance. He talked about “the long game”, publicly backed trainer Rick Celebrini, and affirmed his devotion to the job.
When Myers finished, Kerr took his place, echoing many of the same notes. (“It’s hard to even picture what next year’s team will look like” he said while also reinforcing that, “we can still be really good”). Afterward, once the cameras left, the coach stood off to the side, recounting the emotions of the previous day. He spoke of having “no regrets in terms of how we approached it,” and returned to one theme in particular: how proud he was of the team. How this was in some ways their most impressive run. Later that afternoon, assistant coach Bruce Fraser said something similar. “We’ve always been known for our talent and it’s always assumed, fairly or unfairly, that’s the reason why we win,” he said over the phone. “People look at our roster most of the time and figure, they’re just too good. And there’s truth to that but what people saw in this run was the character of our guys.”
Granted, this is the kind of thing lots of coaches say after a tough loss. The old ‘moral victory’ spiel. But it also has the ring of truth. I grew up in the Bay Area, through the long dark years of the Warriors—Joe Barely Cares and Mister Jennings and Corey Maggette, and live in the East Bay. It’s been interesting to watch the tenor of fandom evolve. The initial surprise and excitement at the dawn of the current era—The Warriors are actually sorta good!—giving way to elation when they won the first title and then, slowly, a change. Andre Iguodala touched on the player’s perspective when we spoke on the eve of the Finals. “Especially at the beginning, there was a joy about it,” he said. “People are like, I love watching you guys play and I love this. You get jaded the more and more success you have. Now people—their success is through you. So it's a different type of interaction. I need you to get another one. I need you to get another one. No! Do you realize what you just said?”
Meanwhile, nationally, the Warriors morphed into the equivalent of an NBA Death Star, especially since Durant’s arrival. Curry in particular had always embodied the underdog. His size, his style of play, his humility, the way he’s constantly underestimated. The last couple years, he made for a weird antagonist. Hard to hate but also, for many outside the Bay, hard to root for.
These Finals may have changed that, surreal and improbable as they were (among all the other craziness, can you remember the last time there was one catastrophic injury to a star in the Finals, let alone two in back to back games?). They gave us a glimpse of the Warriors as a likeable underdog again. Not just coasting but fighting to survive. Needing not to just cover the spread but beat the odds. To wit: Kerr says he received a blast of texts from coaches and people around the league in the last twenty-four hours, lauding the Warriors’ effort. Indeed, it wasn’t hard to come away from these Finals more impressed by the Warriors than the Raptors.
Is this what it takes to change an image? It’s an unfair bargain, especially for Durant. Did it really require a sacrifice this drastic—coming back from an injury for the good of a team and then suffering a more devastating one—for Durant to switch his black hat out for a white one? Think about it: What else could he have done this season, or next—after signing some huge deal, either in the Bay or (most likely) elsewhere—that could have altered the national perception of him so emphatically? How else could he have proven he played for the “right” reasons?
Maybe that goes for the Warriors, too. They now face a significant uphill battle for the first time in years. Skeptics have long questioned how good each individual part of the whole really is. Was Kerr a great coach or is it the talent? Would Draymond be good without all the superstars? Is Bob Myers a genius or just in the right place at the right time?
Now, for better or worse, the Warriors have no choice but to find out.