The provenance of ubiquitous quotes is notoriously difficult to decrypt, but surely you’ve heard some variation of the adage: “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”
That sentiment has been attributed to everyone from Confucius to Nelson Mandela to Vince Lombardi to Ralph Waldo Emerson, and was even the theme of one of those tear-jerking Nike commercials some time ago that happened to be narrated by LeBron James. This year, it perfectly applies to the Golden State Warriors, whose five straight Finals appearances from 2015-2019 — unprecedented in the modern NBA — have been followed by an injury-riddled, 15-win season and a play-in loss that prevented them from even making the playoffs.
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But instead of waxing poetic about the halcyon days of the mid-to-late 2010s, the Warriors and their fans are anticipating a forcible return to glory, like Daenerys Targaryen taking back the Iron Throne by torching everything in her path. Instead of fire-breathing dragons, however, the Warriors will ride the scorching hands of two of the greatest shooters in basketball history.
At 33 years old, Stephen Curry is coming off an MVP-caliber season and appears to be at the peak of his powers and Klay Thompson, who has missed two full seasons due to successive ACL and Achilles injuries, is expected back at some point this year. Additionally, Draymond Green’s resurgence last season made him a Defensive Player of the Year finalist, and world-weary sage Andre Iguodala, essential to the Warriors’ three titles in five years, is back for yet another battle with his former confreres.
But their march to the Finals is far from a path paved in gold. It’s a windy, bumpy road that will, and will reveal the answer, one way or another, to four of the team’s most confounding riddles entering the season.
Golden State Warriors roster
1. What version of Klay will the Warriors get?
It’s rare to find an athlete as universally beloved as Klay Thompson. Off the court, he’s jovial, understated and charismatic. On the court he’s as low maintenance as they come, once famously scoring 60 points while dribbling the ball just 11 times. When Thompson suffered his ACL injury during the Warriors’ last playoff game — Game 6 of the 2019 Finals — he was playing arguably the best basketball of his career. At 31, however, coming off two years of relentless rehab and zero NBA games, it may not be fair to expect Thompson to return to the Klay we’re all used to seeing on the floor.
“My last taste of hoops was the 2019 Finals, and I was really shooting the heck out of the ball,” Thompson said at Warriors Media Day. “I might not get there right away, but I expect to be there at some point during the season.”
The Warriors have not offered a timetable on Thompson’s return — Christmas Day has been thrown around as a potential date to circle, but Golden State general manager Bob Myers said that Thompson’s first game will definitely be at home, so that rules out Christmas in Phoenix.
No matter when he returns, he’ll need to be close to what he was in those 2019 Finals for the Warriors to realistically compete for a championship. History says it’s difficult for athletes to achieve that level after such serious injuries, but we’ve recently seen players like Kevin Durant and Breanna Stewart return to elite performance following Achilles tears. Whether it’s medical science, stringent rehab, muscle memory or some combination of the three, the Warriors need Thompson to approximate his former status.
2. Is Jordan Poole for real?
The Jordan Poole hype train that looked like a rickety old clunker at the beginning of last season has morphed into a pristine locomotive barreling down the rails at hypersonic speed. After a strong finish to last season, Poole has set the preseason ablaze, averaging 23.3 points on 52/40/85 shooting splits in his first four games. Many of Poole’s 3-pointers have been of the self-created variety, like this malevolent tango with Lakers vet Wayne Ellington.
Poole will likely slot alongside Curry in the Warriors’ starting backcourt to begin the year with Thompson sidelined. The two have had great success playing together in the past, producing a plus-17.9 net rating in 221 overlapping minutes last season.
“We’ve got two playmakers on the floor at the same time,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “Two guys who can attack and get into the paint and move the ball, so there’s a lot of offense generated with Steph and Jordan on the floor at the same time. They play off of each other pretty well. They give each other plenty of space, and you can see Jordan’s not shy out there.”
Poole’s greatest use to this specific Warriors team, however, could ultimately be his ability to carry the offense with Curry on the bench.
Last season, the Warriors offense fell into a bottomless chasm when Curry rested, nose-diving from 114.2 points per 100 possessions to 101.8. Poole, in theory, can help close that gap — especially if and when Thompson returns to his rightful place in the starting lineup and Poole presumably shifts to the bench. In addition to his scoring exploits, Poole has dished out 3.5 assists per game this preseason as his playmaking continues to evolve and he draws more defensive attention. Things might not go as smoothly as they have during camp, but Poole will make the Warriors much more dangerous if he’s able to keep the offense afloat when Curry sits.
3. Will the Warriors get anything from the youngsters?
Golden State has added three promising lottery picks in the last two years — James Wiseman (No. 2 overall), Jonathan Kuminga (No. 7) and Moses Moody (No. 14) — but it’s unclear how much impact they’ll have on the team this year. Entering his second season with some added muscularity, Wiseman is hypothetically the most ready to contribute, but there are a couple of obvious snags.
First, he’s still recovering from meniscus surgery undergone in April, and has just resumed full jumping, which means it could be a while until we see the 7-foot, 20-year-old at full strength in games. Second, the Warriors took off toward the end of last season after Wiseman went down, finding success with small lineups that Kerr said are going to be the “blueprint” for this season.
Kerr has seemingly unending trust in Kevon Looney, who will likely start most games at center, and with Draymond Green, Juan Toscano-Anderson and newly acquired Nemanja Bjelica all capable of playing small-ball five, minutes for Wiseman may be hard to come by. Even when he plays, we could see a much more simplified version of Wiseman than we saw during his rookie season — which is probably a good thing.
“We frankly threw [Wiseman] into the deep end and let him sort of sink or swim,” Kerr said. “He did some of both. He had some spectacular games and moments, but he had times where he looked like a rookie would look. [This season], defining his role more clearly is what I see. … When he comes back, whenever it is, we can plug him into a couple of simple actions he can get really good with and start from there.”
For Kuminga and Moody, the sightline to regular minutes is even murkier. In addition to starter Andrew Wiggins, the Warriors have Iguodala, Toscano-Anderson, Otto Porter Jr. and Damion Lee presumably ahead of them on the wing/forward depth chart. Injuries could open up some opportunity, but it seems like tempered expectations for the 19-year-old rookies is probably the best course of action. That being said, both have skill sets that could prove useful — particularly Moody’s shooting and Kuminga’s defensive potential — so it’s not unthinkable that by March or April, one or both of them has earned rotation minutes.
4. Can the defense hold up?
Kerr often points to the Warriors’ 15-5 stretch to end last season when discussing the potential of this year’s team, highlighting the team’s league-leading 106.6 defensive rating over those games. Overall the Warriors finished fifth in defensive efficiency last season, which is what Kerr envisioned at the beginning of the year. The offense, which ranked 20th in the league, should improve with the addition of something the Warriors haven’t really possessed over the last several seasons — shooting depth. New additions Porter and Bjelica are proven knock-down 3-point marksmen, while Lee shot 40 percent from deep last season and Poole is steadily improving.
But if Porter and Bjelica play significant minutes off the bench and possibly in closing lineups, what does that mean for the Warriors defense? The group that jelled to close last season featured Kent Bazemore and Toscano-Anderson, both long, versatile defenders. Bazemore is in Los Angeles and Toscano-Anderson will have to fight for minutes once Thompson and Wiseman are back, so that could lead to a significant decline from the Golden State defense.
Playing Bjelica at center opens up all sorts of offensive possibilities, but will cause obvious defensive issues.
“Of course, for me, it’s better to play offense as a five than defense, but basketball is a team sport,” Bjelica said on Media Day. “This is the best league in the world. Of course you have to guard your guy one-on-one, but maybe I’ll need some help. I’m excited just to be here and see what the coaches want from me.”
The challenge that faces Kerr, and pretty much every NBA coach, is how to find the appropriate balance between offense and defense. That will likely require plenty of experimentation in the first few months of the season.