When Lebron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers following the NBA Finals last season, the Eastern Conference felt its lungs fill with fresh air. Its teams sensed the opportunity to pounce, you know, slide their name plate into a finalist slot.
The Boston Celtics tried. The Philadelphia 76ers gave it their best shot. The Milwaukee Bucks ascended. But it was the Toronto Raptors who prevailed and won their first NBA championship on Thursday. The league expected change, change it received.
Now it appears as if another transition is in place in the Western Conference.
There are many ways to catalog the end of an era. Coaches leave. Players retire. Superstars seek new opportunities through free agency. But in the case of the Golden State Warriors, evidence of impending change emerged from these playoffs with players on crutches.
After five straight seasons in the NBA Finals, and three league championships, the Warriors are now in the transition and there is no way to predict how it will work out.
It seems strangely symbolic that Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, two of their top tier, suffered major injuries on the cusp of their free agency. Durant tore his Achilles tendon in Game 5 of the Finals and Thompson tore up his left knee on Thursday.
What will the Warriors do about this when free agency begins on June 30? What can they do, really?
Durant can exercise the option and re-sign with the Warriors for $31.5 million. But would that be the best thing for the team without knowing how long or how foolproof Durant’s recovery will be. And if they do still want him, what’s to stop the New York Knicks, Los Angeles Clippers or Brooklyn Nets from blowing that aspiration up with the promise of a new life and the patience to wait until 2020-21 for a return on their investment
Perhaps the Warriors can convince Thompson to re-sign, offering him a max deal. But what if Thompson has tired of the scene and is looking for something new. Aside from Durant and Kawhi Leonard, who just led the Raptors to the title, Thompson, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker and Jimmy Butler represent the cream of the free agent class. And who wouldn’t want to put a Splash of production into their offense?
That’s why the topic of Golden State’s future seems so relevant. Imagine what the Dubs might be like next season without Durant and Thompson. Imagine what they might be like if they both re-signed, maybe for as much as a half-billion combined, but could not play.
And this does even take into account what’s already known and perceived. Center Andrew Bogut is heading back to Australia and DeMarcus Cousins is likely to leave in free agency.
“We’ll be thinking about this one. It’s tough,” Stephen Curry said after Thursday’s 114-100 loss. “But our DNA and who we are and the character that we have on this team, I wouldn’t bet against us being back on this stage next year and going forward. So, really proud of the way that we fought until the end, and this five-year run’s been awesome, but definitely don’t think it’s over.”
Draymond Green, the Warriors outspoken one, warned pundits not to come to a quick conclusion.
“I think everybody thinks it’s kind of the end of us,” Green said. “But that’s just not smart. We’re not done yet. We lost this year. Clearly just wasn’t our year, but that’s how the cookie crumbles sometimes. But, yeah, I hear a lot of that noise, it’s the end of a run and all that jazz. I don’t see it happening, though. We’ll be back.”
Much like Phil Jackson experienced in Chicago and Boston, Warriors coach Steve Kerr has had the pleasure, the luxury, of presiding over one of the 21st century’s greatest dynasties.
“It’s hard to put into words how I feel about our team,” Kerr said. “What I’ve witnessed as their coach over the last five years is just an incredible combination of talent and character and commitment to each other. This just doesn’t happen. A group of guys like this doesn’t come around together and do what they did over the last five years. And I’ve been lucky enough to be their coach. That’s what I told them in the locker room.”
After Game 6 was over, Warriors owner Joe Lacob admitted to the New York Times that restocking this team would be different than it did after losing in the Finals to the Cavaliers in 2016. That’s when they brought Durant on board.
“This is a little more complicated frankly,” Lacob said. “The last week has just been like a nightmare.”
Hey, there is even more than free agency to deal with. The Warriors core is aging. Andre Iguodala is going to be 36. Shaun Livingston is 33 and they both are expected back.
The Warriors will move into a beautiful new $1.4 billion Chase Center in San Francisco next season and it would be nice to furnish their new home with a team than can compete for another championship.
“We’re planning on owning this team for a long time, so I might have a little longer-term view than that to be honest,” Lacob told The Times. “I think you can rest assured we’ll figure out a way to be very competitive going forward.”