The dynasty had crumbled, seemingly all at once.
Kevin Durant blew an Achilles in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals. Klay Thompson tore an ACL three nights later in Game 6.
By the time Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors celebrated an NBA championship in the last game ever played at Oracle Arena, it felt more like the end (or at least a pause) of an epic era.
Everyone suspected KD would soon leave via free agency. They knew Klay was headed to a year of rehab. When the 2019-20 season finally arrived, Stephen Curry would battle injuries as well, playing just five games. Did all those playoff games, those long seasons, those extra miles finally catch up to the Warriors?
Just like that, Golden State was bad, winning just 15 games and securing the second pick in the 2020 NBA draft.
And so Wednesday was set to represent the light at the end of the tunnel, the rebirth of a championship contender.
The NBA draft was expected to bring the kind of young superstar who aging championship cores rarely get. He’d join a healthy Steph, a rehabbed Klay and a roster and coaching staff with its eyes on a return to dominance.
Then word broke, less than two hours before the start of the draft, that Thompson had suffered an injury while playing in a pickup game in Los Angeles. It wasn’t the knee in his left leg. That was healed. Sources confirmed to Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes on Thursday that it was a season-ending Achilles tear.
The mood around the team and the league was somber. Teammates and opponents took to social media to offer prayers and well-wishes to Thompson. This was no turned ankle.
Thompson being gone for another season changed everything.
“As soon as I [saw] it, it was kind of down for me, emotionally,” said James Wiseman, the University of Memphis product whom the Warriors picked second overall, about Thompson.
Wiseman may have been new to the scene, but he encompassed the emotions that swept over the oldest of Warrior fans.
Suddenly, the wait for Wiseman didn’t feel like a celebration. It didn’t look like a sign of hope or a reward for a season of suffering. This was no longer a finish line, but another lap toward the start.
It’s not that Wiseman wasn’t exactly what the Warriors needed: a 7-foot-1 athlete with a 7-6 wingspan who can run the court, finish and guard a slew of positions. This was the energy and excitement that might mesh perfectly with an offense built on motion and creativity. It seemed destined. Back in high school, Wiseman had even attended Curry’s camp. Back in middle school, he used to rock old-school Warriors jerseys.
— Draymond Green (@Money23Green) November 19, 2020
It was easy to see how coach Steve Kerr would fit a guy like this into that dream Golden State offense.
“James is incredibly talented,” Kerr said via the team’s website. “He’s just bursting with potential.”
“I’m truly ready,” Wiseman promised.
Except that offense isn’t a dream without Thompson.
The Warriors know what championship teams look like and what almost-championship teams look like. For Golden State, it starts with Steph and Klay, the Splash Brothers, the two sons of two NBA stars who arrived a decade or so ago and took a long irrelevant franchise and made it a global phenomenon.
You need both, not just one. They go together. Neither one can be truly replaced.
Nothing ever lasts in the NBA. Stars get old. New ones arrive on other teams. Coaches move on. Styles change. Yet for five years, Golden State ruled the league, everything running through their concrete basketball barn by the interstate in Oakland.
Five Finals. Three titles. Seventy-three wins in one season. MVPs. Historic comebacks. Thorough blowouts. A rollicking, unstoppable wave of basketball purity that was equal parts skill and smarts. They weren’t just good, they were a sensation.
Sometimes it comes so easy and for so long, the end seems distant.
It isn’t necessarily over in Golden State. It’s too early to say that. But at the very least, it’s delayed or forced onto a different path. Barring unexpectedly good medical news on Thursday, there is no flip of the switch back to Finals favorite.
That night Klay was hurt and KD was out the door and Toronto was popping champagne, Draymond Green knew what the rest of the basketball world was thinking.
“I think everybody thinks it's kind of the end of us,” Green said then. “But that’s just not smart. We’re not done yet.”
They shouldn’t have been. And that comeback should have begun Wednesday with the arrival of a new, young talent to an old, retooled core hungry for another banner.
Only Klay is hurt again and not even James Wiseman and his highlight reel full of alley-oops and blocked shots could ease the dread of the Warriors’ now familiar reality of contemplating long rehabs and maybe even another season, or more, in hoops purgatory.
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