We’ve seen the future. And it doesn’t look particularly bright for the Warriors.
This has nothing to do with the short-term. Although that doesn’t look very rosy for Golden State, either.
Currently, they trail the Raptors 3-1 in the NBA Finals heading into tonight’s Game 5 in Toronto. In league history, teams holding that advantage in the Finals are a combined 33-1 in terms of winning the series. The lone exception? The Warriors famously blew a 3-1 lead to LeBron James and the Cavaliers in 2016.
No one in Denver really cares how the rest of the series unfolds. But they should, as it could have major implications on the long-term plans in Golden State, which will have a ripple effect through the Western Conference.
If the Warriors lose the series, it will likely signal the end of their dynastic run. The team that has made five straight trips to the Finals, won three world championships and set an NBA record for wins in the regular season with 73 in 2015-16, will likely split apart.
Klay Thompson, the 29-year-old shooting guard who has played Robin to Steph Curry’s Batman throughout the franchise’s turnaround from perennial doormat to the elite team in the Association, will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason. He could very well decide to leave, looking to go to a team where he can be the marquee player.
Kevin Durant, the MVP of the last two NBA Finals, could also hit the open market at the end of the season, as he has a player option for 2019-20. After getting heavily criticized for joining an already championship-caliber team when he signed with the Warriors in 2016, he may be looking to sign elsewhere, looking to restore some of the luster to his legacy by winning with a less-talent-laden franchise.
And DeMarcus Cousins, the oft-troubled but uber-talented center who signed with Golden State prior to this season, will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, as well. After recovering from an Achilles injury that ended his final campaign in New Orleans, Cousins returned to play 30 games this season with the Warriors; he averaged 16.3 points and 6.8 rebounds, both well below his career averages, and never really seemed to gel with the well-oiled machine that he joined. There’s a good chance he decides to sign with a team where he’ll once again be a major focal point.
As the Finals have shown, the Warriors aren’t the same team when not at full strength. A virtual All-Star team when healthy, they’ve sputtered against the Raptors without Durant in the lineup. And with Thompson hobbled by a bad hamstring, an injury that kept him out of Game 3 entirely, Golden State looked borderline hapless.
Left with just three stars on the floor – Curry, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala – they were been smothered by Toronto’s defense. Curry has tried to carry the load, including a 47-point performance in Game 3, but he hasn’t been able to do it alone; his teammates have been unable to deliver, overwhelmed by the Raptors pressure. As a result, the Warriors sit on the brink of elimination.
With reports that Durant has been cleared to play for the first time since the second round of the playoffs, there is a chance that Golden State could pull off a miraculous comeback. At full strength, they’re certainly capable of winning three straight games. But that seems unlikely; the best team in the league the past half-decade just seems too out of sorts to circle the wagons.
Instead, they appear poised to head into an offseason that could change the balance of power out west.
If Thompson, Durant and Cousins all leave, the Warriors will no longer be the class of the conference. They’d be nowhere near the favorite to advance to the Finals for a sixth straight time.
If either Thompson or Durant leave, Golden State will still come back to the back. While probably remaining the top team in the Western Conference on paper, they’d at least be beatable.
That would open up a championship window for a number of teams, including the Nuggets. The last three years, Denver has been building momentum, grooming young players to be ready to blossom at just the right time. That moment is now.
Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris are all entering the primes of their careers. Jokic is a bona fide superstar, having earned first-team All-NBA honors this past season and emerging as one of the league’s top players with impressive playoff performances against the Spurs and Trail Blazers. Murray had the best season of his career and established himself as the Nuggets second-best player during their postseason run. And Harris is on the brink of becoming one of the NBA’s premier two-way players, able to score and defend at an elite level.
Denver is poised to be one of the top teams in the Western Conference for the next four or five seasons. If they can stay healthy, and keep their three core players on the roster, there’s no reason they can’t be a perennial contender. This past season, they finished 54-28 and earned the No. 2 seed; that’s a bar that should be attainable throughout the first half of the coming decade on an annual basis.
If the Warriors keep their band together, however, that probably won’t be enough. When at full strength, Golden State is almost impossible to beat in a seven-game series. Denver would have to add another major piece to be a legitimate threat to knock them off, something that could be easier said than done due to financial constraints and the track record for luring free agents to the Mile High City.
But if the dream team gets split up at all, if Durant or Thompson decide to go elsewhere, the Nuggets are in the best position to pounce.
Yes, Houston will probably become one of the favorites next season, but they’re aging and have a short window of opportunity. Sure, teams like the Clippers and Blazers would love another shot at the altered version of the Warriors, but they aren’t as all-around talented as the Nuggets. And theoretically, the Lakers will eventually clean up their mess and build a better team around LeBron, but that seems like a major project.
Meanwhile, the Nuggets have the best young core in the conference. The trio of Jokic, Murray and Harris give Denver the most multiple-year upside. That’s what makes them the most likely team to capitalize on the 2020-24 opening that could emerge
Right now, that window is cracked open; there’s a chance Denver could sneak through it and become a championship contender. But after tonight, or whenever the Warriors eventually fall to the Raptors, the opening could become much bigger; that’s why Nuggets fans should be rooting for an ugly exit for Golden State, hoping for dysfunction to reign supreme.
That could lead to the balance of power shifting in the Western Conference. And that tilt will be leaning in the Nuggets direction.
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