For the first time in what feels like an eternity, the Golden State Warriors enter a season with more questions than answers.
The reasons are simple: the injury to Klay Thompson and the departures of Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston.
On Friday, the Warriors begin their quest for a sixth straight trip to the NBA Finals in a new building against a team that many have pegged as the prohibitive favourite. The LA Clippers won't pull any punches either coming off an impressive season-opening win over the Los Angeles Lakers.
It's the first of what promises to be an 82-game grind for a Warriors team that's had the luxury of easing into the regular season in hopes of peaking come spring. Given the landscape of an ultra-competitive Western Conference, the Warriors can no longer afford to do that and enter the 2019-20 season with an unfamiliar identity: underdogs.
Here are six of the biggest questions facing the Warriors along with fearless predictions about where they'll ultimately finish in the West.
Will/when Klay Thompson come back?
It's arguably the single biggest question entering the season and one with the most potential to disrupt the entire NBA landscape.
Steve Kerr's latest update provides some clarity, and the news isn't good for Warriors fans.
"It's unlikely that he's going to play this year," Kerr told NBC Sports Bay Area in a recent interview.
He could have left it at that, but wasn't done yet.
"Generally, an ACL for a basketball player is a full-year recovery, and if it's a full year for Klay, that puts him out for the season. We've kind of left the door open in case the rehab goes perfectly and the doctors say he can go. But the reality is, on April 1, that's the nine-month mark".
It's almost impossible to imagine Klay playing this season after hearing those words. And it makes sense for the Warriors to play it safe with a key player that was just handed a max extension this summer. This isn't a Warriors team that's once again a heavy favourite to return to the Finals (though given Stephen Curry's greatness and the potential for a magical run, it shouldn't be entirely dismissed) and if anything they begin the season behind a minimum of four or five teams in the West.
On the heels of what happened to Kevin Durant, why would they speed up the process and put Thompson back on the court after almost a year out, right into the thick of the hardest part of the season? It's a high-risk move and given the competition out West, one that might not present many rewards either. There's simply no guarantee that the Warriors, even with Thompson back, would have enough to go toe-to-toe with the likes of the Clippers, Lakers, Nuggets, Rockets and Jazz.
It makes sense to play it safe and wait for a huge comeback next season.
- Leandro Fernandez (@FernandezLea)
What are reasonable expectations for Stephen Curry?
Count me among those who expect BIG things from Stephen Curry this season.
His numbers over the last three seasons without Durant and Thompson on the floor are absurd:
- 42.7 pts/36 in 271 minutes in 2018-19
- 45.1 pts/36 in 233 minutes in 2017-18
- 34.7 pts/36 in 467 minutes in 2016-17
Look, it's obviously MUCH harder to do that over an entire season than it is for a handful of minutes each night. And a significant portion of those minutes were played alongside Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, both of whom are now gone. There's no denying that Curry will carry a load, unlike anything he's had to do on a nightly basis over the last half a decade.
Everybody already knows that. That fact isn't breaking news and by now, you've probably read or heard that in a hundred different places.
But there's another reason to feel bullish about Curry and it's the objective fact that he simply makes guys better. There might be better individual players in the NBA and some of his limitations can be magnified in a playoff series, but there isn't anyone else that holds a candle to his ability to elevate those around him. When Curry is commanding attention from multiple defenders 30 feet from the basket, everyone else benefits: passing lines tend to open up, contested shots suddenly become open, more 4-on-3s create easy looks for players who might not otherwise manufacture clean looks.
I expect Curry to be in the mix for the scoring title and hover around 30 points per game. I expect Curry to adapt his own games and allow D'Angelo Russell to thrive. I expect all sorts of stories emanating from the Bay Area about how Curry's play results in career years from the likes of Willie Cauley-Stein or Alec Burks or Glenn Robinson III, the types of players new to Golden State that are about to discover just how good life can be playing alongside the most unselfish superstar in today's game.
- Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13)
How will D'Angelo Russell integrate into Thompson's role?
Aside from ensuring both Klay Thompson and Draymond Green remained in the franchise's future plans, acquiring All-Star guard D'Angelo Russell from the Brooklyn Nets was the biggest move made by the Warriors in a busy offseason.
With the departure of Kevin Durant and Thompson's ACL rehab putting a midseason return in question, the Warriors desperately need an offensive jolt and Russell appears to be able to provide just that.
The 23-year-old is coming off of a season in which he averaged a career-best 21.1 points per game while connecting on 2.9 triples per game at a 36.9% clip.
Without Thompson, it begs the question: Can Russell fill the void as Stephen Curry's backcourt mate?
While some of the scoring numbers are somewhat similar - Thompson averaged 21.5 points per game while connecting on 3.1 triples per game at a 40.2% clip - the manner in which their production came was not.
This season, Russell must either add a new dynamic to his game in becoming more proficient in catching and shooting on the move off of screens, or Kerr and the team can adjust to him by putting the ball in his hands more to allow him to do what he did best last season in Brooklyn.
Ideally, both parties find a middle ground, which would allow for a seamless implementation of Thompson should he return to the team before season's end.
- Gil McGregor (@GMcGregor21)
How much of an offensive role will Draymond Green play?
The first thing that jumps off the page with Kevin Durant now plying his trade in Brooklyn is that Draymond will once again be asked to be a focal point of the Warriors offence.
According to NBA Stats, Green had the highest usage rating of his career in 2015-16, the last season the Dubs played without Durant. A lot of Golden State's offence in the halfcourt that season was initiated by the power forward.
Green parlayed his 18.4% usage to career-high averages of 14.0 points, 9.5 rebounds and 7.4 assists per game. He played well enough that there was a small - a very small - debate as to whether Green was more important to the Warriors than Stephen Curry. We all know the answer, but the voters acknowledged Green's play and gave him a couple of second-place votes on the MVP ballot.
This season, without KD and potentially Thompson, Green will once again be asked to be point-Draymond. Assists will be easy to come by for Green as Curry and D'Angelo Russell are elite spot-up shooters, but he'll also have to score if Golden State plans to be competitive. He can do that - especially in pick-and-roll situations with Curry.
In 2015-16, Green was on the receiving end of a Curry assists 119, by far the most of any other Warrior. Both Curry and Russell will have plenty of assist opportunities with Green rolling to the basket this year. The one thing Green needs to do is try and find ways to score without help.
Nearly 30% of Green's baskets were unassisted in 2015-16. If he can get back to that number, the Warriors will be getting everything they need from Draymond Green on offence.
- Carlan Gay (@TheCarlanGay)
Do the Warriors have enough depth?
Yes, the 2019-20 season is the beginning of a new era, and not just because of the franchise's new arena - the Chase Center. Their roster this season looks very different from the past few seasons, where they were considered to be title favourites even before opening night.
This team is very thin after Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, both of whom will need to be managed throughout the year considering the miles on their body during their five consecutive trips to the NBA Finals from 2015 to 2019.
Of the 16 players - officially at the time of writing - on the Warriors' 2019-20 roster, seven players have less than three years of experience in the league (four of the seven are rookies). Of the remaining nine, Thompson (as mentioned earlier) may not suit up at all this season.
During their Finals trips, the Warriors were able to plug anyone around their superstars and succeed. This season, not only has their superstar count gone from four to two, but they have also lost key veterans in Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, players who would hold the second unit together.
Not including their two-way players, here's a look at their depth chart (pro experience):
|PG||Stephen Curry (10)||Jacob Evans (1)|
|SG||D'Angelo Russell (4)||Alec Burks (8)||Jordan Poole (R)||Klay Thompson (8)|
|SF||Glenn Robinson III (5)||Eric Paschall (R)|
|PF||Draymond Green (7)||Omari Spellman (5)||Marquese Chriss (3)|
|C||Kevon Looney (4)||Willie Cauley-Stein (4)||Alen Smailgic (R)|
Quite clearly, there's not much experience on the roster. Even the players with several years of experience are still trying to find their place in the league, such as Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III.
Given Curry's impact, the Warriors could ride the two-time MVP to the playoffs but they are one injury (to a key rotation player, mind alone Steph or Draymond) away from missing the postseason and ending their current streak of seven straight playoff appearances.
- Yash Matange (@yashmatange2694)
What's the one move Golden State should make?
There isn't really a move that jumps out to be because the Warriors are rather low on assets right now. They're not trading Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green anytime soon, and the rest of the roster is made up of players on minimum contracts ... except for D'Angelo Russell.
Would it be weird for them to trade Russell after signing him to a four-year, $117 million contract? Sort of, which is why I was tempted to make the shrug emoji my answer to this question initially. But if the Warriors are going to make a move this season, it would likely revolve around him.
One trade that's been floated around endlessly: Russell to the Minnesota Timberwolves for a package headlined by Robert Covington. (Covington plus one of Jeff Teague or Gorgui Dieng is enough to match salaries).
For the Warriors, they'd surround their core of Curry, Thompson and Green with a high volume 3-point shooter who, at his best, is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. It would be nice if they could also get a young prospect in return - Josh Okogie comes to mind - but who knows what the Timberwolves would be willing to part ways with.
For the Timberwolves, they'd finally get an All-Star caliber point guard to pair with Karl-Anthony Towns. The Timberwolves have been interested in Russell before, and Russell and Towns have made it quite clear that they'd like to play together at some point in the near future.
It's not necessarily a no-brainer for either side - Covington isn't exactly a star and a team made up of Russell and Towns isn't destined for great things defensively - but it wouldn't shock me if it happened.
- Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles)
That's tons of questions for a team searching for answers. Will it ultimately cost them a playoff berth in a crowded Western Conference?
|Make the playoffs?||W-L||Finish|
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