Is this the sunset of the Golden State Warriors?
Thearon W. Henderson
Kevin Durant, a human stick of basketball dynamite who just put the Clippers to sleep with an even-more-ridiculous-than-usual 50-point performance in Game 6 of the Warriors' first round series, will be a free agent this summer. ESPN's Ian Begley has sources among Durant's current and former teammates who think he'll sign with the Knicks. That would be stupid—even if the Knicks get two max free agents and land Zion Williamson in the draft, James Dolan will still find a way to screw it up. Regardless, the fact that a lot of people think they know where Durant is going probably indicates that he is, one way or another, going.
Boogie Cousins is hurt again, and nobody knows if the Warriors even want to re-sign him, and rumors are that he could be Lakers-bound. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson both have right ankle injuries, and though both still played in the Warriors’ Game 1 win against the Rockets, Curry in particular is a worry—he's had a ton of ankle injuries, he hurt his groin earlier this year, and he's 31. Granted, he's still awesome, and I'm not writing him off in any way, shape, or form. His shooting and scoring are as good as ever, and even with his injuries this year, he still played 69 of 82 regular season games. Thompson doesn't have the same history of injuries, and though he's also a free agent this summer, he's far less likely to leave Golden State.
But remember the last time the Warriors were just a semi-injured Curry, Thompson, and the reckless cannonball known as Draymond Green? It was 2016, when they got extremely, extremely lucky to get past Oklahoma City in the Western Conference Finals—seriously, go back to that Game 6 in OKC and tell me how they survived—and then lost to the Cavs in the finals. Granted, that's not a picture of a "bad" team, but it's a far cry from what we've seen in the last two years, when they turned on cheat mode by signing Durant and lightning-stormed their way to two more championships.
Now we're three years down the road, and it's time to ask not only if the Warriors can win another championship—the answer is yes, absolutely, but it's going to be harder this time around, and the Bucks and Raptors could arguably be called favorites in a hypothetical finals match-up—but what they'll look like next season if Durant leaves and Cousins is either gone or ineffective.
At the very least, even with perfect health, they won't scream out "dynasty" unless the front office can sign someone like Anthony Davis—which, as Patrick Murray laid out in great detail at Forbes while examining the tricky offseason for Warriors management, isn't likely. While Murray doesn't count out the Warriors—not by a longshot—he also doesn't mince words on the consequences of Durant jumping ship: "If he leaves the Warriors will not be the same, and it will be incredibly challenging to put quite that level of talent together on a basketball court again."
The NBA is famously fickle and difficult to predict—many of the recent "dynasties" have been three years and out at most, and then others, like the Spurs, have won championships that spanned a decade. The Warriors may lose in this year's Finals and never win another title with the current group, or they could end up with seven or eight titles before Curry and Klay retire. But if it's too early to pronounce the sunset of the dynasty, we are at least seeing the first hint of dusky shadows.
"The best team in basketball that now has to prove it" of the week: Milwaukee Bucks
Giannis Antetokounmpo is an absolute delight, and so are the Milwaukee Bucks. They finished this season with the best record in the NBA, and the league's most efficient defense (and third-most efficient offense). They have a great coach in Mike Budenholzer, a terrific supporting cast, and they have winning records this year against the Celtics (current opponent) and both the Sixers and Raptors (potential eastern conference finals opponents). There is absolutely no reason they shouldn't make the finals, and when they're there, despite the looming Warriors juggernaut, there is absolutely no reason they can't win a title.
So why does it still feel so far-fetched? Is it the fact that we're talking about the Milwaukee Bucks, a team that last won a title in 1971, is practically located in Canada, and doesn't seem like a legitimate powerhouse? Is it the fact that they came on so suddenly this year, leaping from 7th to first in the eastern conference in the space of a single season under a new coach? Is it that they have to face the Boston Celtics in the second round, a team that is not only a historical giant but has a coach in Brad Stevens who loves nothing more than letting his defense-oriented supercomputer brain run through millions of algorithms until he finds the perfect plan to shackle an icon like Giannis?
The concept of Milwaukee Bucks as champion still produces that "too much too fast" vibe, and though that's certainly not based in logic—if you looked at NBA team stats blind, you'd peg them for winners—it has created a scenario where they have an extra burden of perception. Losing the first game to the Celtics on Sunday, at home, in the ugliest possible fashion—in a classic Brad Stevens clamp-down game, no less—didn't help, and if they can't overcome that hurdle, it will confirm the notion in many heads that the 60 regular wins only made them a paper tiger.
The "let's blow it all up and have a fun champ" team of the week: Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets are a blast, and Nikola Jokic is the revelation of the season as a top-five player. Just watch him pass—a fascinating, sometimes-spectacular, always deeply intelligent exhibition of basketball IQ:
They managed to survive a terrible first-round match-up with the Spurs (see below on the unbelievable Spurs blunder at the end of game seven), and now they have homecourt advantage against the Blazers. They probably can't win a title—let's be real—but if there's any year where the juggernaut dominos might fall the right way and open it up for a breezy, cool team like the Nuggets, this could be it.
The crabby press conference of the week: Gregg Popovich
Even by Popovich standards, this is good stuff following his team's game seven loss, when they failed to foul down four with less than 20 seconds left and watched the Nuggets basically run the clock down to zero. The first two answers alone are worth the price of admission, but stick through the more sincere third answer for the ensuing Jokic question:
We hope this man consoles himself with some very good wine.