The 2019-20 NBA season is almost upon us, but Hot Take SZN is here, and at the end of another eventful summer we will see how close to the sun we can fly and still stand the swelter of these viewpoints.
[Hot takes we might actually believe: The Lakers are wildly overrated • The 76ers are Eastern Conference locks • The Clippers are overwhelming title favorites • The Nets will be worse than last season]
The Golden State Warriors have not had this important a preseason in some time, and the retooled roster that was supposed to use training camp as a relaunch of their brilliant brand of basketball has thus far failed. The new-look Los Angeles Lakers have handed them three losses already, with a fourth meeting set for Friday night. Based on what we have seen so far, the only logical conclusion anyone could draw is that LeBron James’ Lakers are the contender and Stephen Curry’s Warriors are the pretender.
But looks can be deceiving. Curry rested for the worst of those losses, and injuries to Golden State’s two candidates for starting center have left a glaring hole in the paint for Anthony Davis to use as his canvas. This is to say nothing of the void left on the wing by the free agency departure of Kevin Durant and the ACL injured to Klay Thompson. James has been free to feast, too.
Call me crazy, but I still think there is a path to contention for these Warriors paved by Curry’s brilliance, Draymond Green’s underdog mentality and a culture of winning set in the five years since Steve Kerr took over the coaching reins. We have not heard the last from Golden State, a standard-bearing organization that has yielded five straight trips to the Finals and three titles.
As Curry told our own Chris Haynes on Thursday, “A championship is still the goal. It’s always been.”
Last we saw Curry free from the constraints of sharing superstar responsibilities with Durant, the two-time MVP submitted one of the most incredible offensive seasons we have ever seen, averaging a league-best 30.1 points on 50/45/90 shooting splits that included 11 3-point attempts per game. The Warriors won a record 73 games that season, primarily because their offense operated at an all-time level with Curry on the court, scoring 117.5 points per 100 possessions with him as the center of gravity.
Now, that team also featured a healthy Thompson, another one of the greatest shooters in basketball history. He has set a return this season as his goal, knowing that his earliest recovery projections still point to the end of the regular season. That leaves the playoffs to work himself back into game shape, and that may be too great a burden for Thompson, even if he has been resilient in the face of injury before. Still, it is not inconceivable to imagine his shooting could space the floor enough to survive a first-round series before he steadily finds his footing as one of the game’s best two-way shooting guards by the conference finals.
The more glaring absence is that of Durant. The Warriors started Alfonzo McKinnie at small forward in Wednesday’s disastrous loss, and he might not even be on the roster to start the regular season (if Golden State’s front office follows a salary cap-clearing strategy laid out by The Athletic’s John Hollinger that would make room for two buyout candidates in the spring). Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III are the veteran candidates to fill the position, but rookie Jordan Poole might be their best option.
Durant’s exit did bring D’Angelo Russell back in return. The All-Star guard can absorb some of Durant’s shot creation duties in the pick and roll, and his scoring ability has the potential to serve as a special complement to Curry off the ball. He could also be used as a trade chip starting December 15 for whichever NBA superstar next decides he wants to make a midseason demand.
Russell does little to solve Golden State’s defensive concerns on the perimeter without Thompson. The Warriors have few, if any, defensive wing options to effectively counter the attack of opposing ones, twos and threes. Their division alone features James and Kawhi Leonard, much less the wealth of guard talent around the Western Conference. It will fall mostly on Curry’s shoulders to spearhead an offensive juggernaut that is capable of masking those defensive woes, and you can think of worse options.
The Warriors do feature Green, still one of the league’s best defenders and maybe its most versatile. He, along with the healthy returns of Kevon Looney (hamstring) and Willie Cauley-Stein (foot), are capable of at least providing serviceable rim protection and rebounding behind a weak defensive front line. Green’s greatest contribution to these Warriors might be as their inspiration. His intensity already seems to have rubbed off on Marquese Chriss, the former lottery pick who has impressed this preseason.
You can think of few players better suited than Green to motivate a Warriors team that will be feeling the effects of five straight 100-game seasons. There are few things he would enjoy more than proving Golden State does not need Durant to contend.
There are a lot of things that have to break the Warriors way this season, certainly far more than in the five previous seasons, but there is a world in which one of the game’s greatest offensive players and one of its best defensive players lead them to 50 wins and a middling playoff seed, only to be joined by another future Hall of Fame shooter with the same championship resolve.
A healthy quintet of Curry, Russell, Thompson, Green and either Looney or Cauley-Stein has the makings of a formidable unit, especially when they are coached by a man wearing eight rings. Add a productive buyout candidate or two. Bank on one or more of the flyers they took on Chriss, Robinson, Burks and Omari Spellman bearing fruit. Hope Poole and fellow recent draft picks Jacob Evans and Eric Baschall progress enough to contribute. Suddenly you have the makings of a shadow contender.
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