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Is the Warriors’ golden era over?

Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant, left, protects the ball from Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam (43) during first-half basketball game action in Game 5 of the NBA Finals in Toronto. File Photo.

Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant, left, protects the ball from Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam (43) during first-half basketball game action in Game 5 of the NBA Finals in Toronto. File Photo.   | Photo Credit: AP

The team that has dominated the NBA in recent years, reaching five Finals in a row and winning three, is facing challenges on several fronts

The Golden State Warriors are no longer in a golden state of mind or body. After reaching their fifth straight NBA Finals — a feat achieved only by the indomitable Boston Celtics in the 1960s — the Warriors were worn down by the Toronto Raptors who took full advantage of injuries to Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson.

Durant suffered an Achilles tear that required surgery. From the evidence of others who have come back after this injury, he is likely to return a diminished player. Thompson tore his right ACL. With both stars set to miss a major part of the next season, the Warriors are not expected to contend, despite the presence of Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala.

Durant’s absence deprives the Warriors of an MVP-calibre player at both ends of the floor. And as the Raptors showed, losing a sharpshooter like Thompson makes it difficult for Curry to negotiate double teams and trapping schemes. This forces non-shooters like Green and Iguodala to shoulder a load that does not fit their skills.

Creative destruction

In a competitive, well-regulated league such as the NBA, winning goes through cycles. At one level, there is a certain Schumpeterian creative destruction brought about by the game’s evolution — over time, dynasties collapse, unable to cope with change. At another level, physical limits ensure that teams find it difficult to sustain excellence for extended periods.

 

What effect did these two phenomena have on the Warriors?

Steve Kerr based his dominant team on two outstanding sharpshooters who used off-the-ball screens and the constant movement of teammates to get to their sweet spots — which were all across the floor in the case of Curry and Thompson.

The side used a switching defensive scheme anchored by the all-round Green and Durant who were competent on the perimeter and in the paint. Durant, with his otherworldly excellence in offensive isolation plays, was the trump — a challenge that even teams which adjusted to the Warriors’ ploys had no answer to.

Teams such as the Raptors built squads with high-IQ, multi-talented players who challenged the Warriors at the best aspects of their game. Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam out-rebounded, out-hustled and out-scored the Warriors’ remaining wing players while Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet harassed an overworked Curry.

 

So, at one level, the Raptors’ game caught up with the Warriors. But this was possible, in part, because of the second phenomenon — Valar Morghulis (all men must die), as George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire declares.

The injuries to Durant and Thompson did not occur in a vacuum. They were a consequence of five extended, high-intensity seasons in a row — such an accumulation of fatigue often leads to muscular injuries.

Thompson, who has run the farthest in these seasons, suffered a hamstring injury, missing his first-ever post-season game. He returned too quickly and tore his ACL on a relatively simple play at the rim. Durant also made the mistake of rushing back after a calf tear that was agonisingly close to his Achilles. Curry has a past of ankle-related injuries himself. While convalescence exercises have helped him avoid them, carrying a heavy load without his co-stars is fraught with risk.

 

The Warriors are also hampered in other ways. Thompson and Durant hit free agency. If the Warriors sign both on full contracts, despite their long layoffs, they will take a huge luxury-tax hit: the NBA severely penalises teams that breach salary limits in consecutive seasons. Although the Warriors’ ownership can, in theory, absorb such a hit, the team may need to let go of Green, a lynchpin, to keep the salaries feasible.

But all is not lost. Kerr need look no further than his mentor Gregg Popovich. Pop’s San Antonio Spurs prolonged their excellence by relying on scouting expertise during the draft, honing talent that they alone spotted, and adapting the coaching to the skill levels of their changing core of key players.

This isn’t beyond Kerr and the Warriors. After all, they established a dynasty by first getting the right players in the draft and free agency. Only then did they rely on All-Stars for dominance. The uncertainty in health and finances suggests that the hegemony is over. But Spurs-like baby steps could rejuvenate the Warriors and bring them back into contention.

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2020 7:56:40 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sport/other-sports/is-the-golden-state-warriors-era-over-in-nba/article28103204.ece

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