As Stephen Curry sat at the head of the interview room late Thursday night, reflecting on his second NBA Finals loss in four seasons, he was questioned about a very real possibility for his Golden State Warriors.
Things may never be the same for their dynastic run.
The thrilling Game 6 loss in the NBA Finals, 114-110, which crowned the Toronto Raptors as champions for the first time, signaled the end of Oracle Arena and Warriors basketball in Oakland. It also stopped the team’s chances at a three-peat -- and could be the last time one of the best rosters ever assembled was all under contract together following five consecutive trips to the championship round.
The uncertainty surrounding Kevin Durant’s pending free agency, which hovered over the Warriors’ entire season, hit a dramatic and complicated twist in Game 5 when he tore his Achilles thwarting his dramatic comeback from a calf injury. There’s a belief, before the injury, Durant was expected to bolt to one of the New York teams this summer after his three seasons with Golden State rankled the rest of the league.
Then there’s Klay Thompson, another looming free agent, whom many expect will re-sign with the Warriors as they move to San Francisco and the Chase Center. But he suffered a torn left ACL late in the third quarter Thursday and left the arena on crutches. The time frame for his return is unknown, but it’s likely he’ll be sidelined for most of next season.
So Curry sat in his interview session with reporters contemplating the future after five straight appearances in the NBA Finals, knowing the outside world is going to question if this was truly the end of the historic dynasty.
“There’s a lot of decisions that will go into the summer and we’ll deal with them accordingly,” Curry said, before Thompson’s injury was officially announced. “I think true champions like we are, we should be able to adapt and keep this same kind of DNA no matter what our roster looks like next year. And (we’ll) have high hopes about being back on this stage, whether it looks the same or not.”
The Warriors came into the season as clear favorites for another title, their fourth in five seasons. But losing Durant, dealing with Demarcus Cousins’ uneven return from a quad injury, and then Thompson’s ligament tear Thursday, proved too difficult against a Raptors team that was deeper, healthier, and better positioned for the moment.
The fact the series went six games, and nearly went to a Game 7, had Warriors fans chanting for their team even as the Raptors celebrated following the final horn. Fans in the Bay Area will remember this series as lost because of injuries.
There was a sense of finality to the way coach Steve Kerr spoke about his team after taking Toronto to the wire Thursday on the heels of an impressive comeback win in Game 5 to extend the series after losing Durant.
“It’s hard to put into words how I feel about our team,” Kerr said. “What I’ve witnessed as their coach over the last five years is just an incredible combination of talent and character and commitment to each other. This just doesn’t happen. A group of guys like this doesn’t come around together and do what they did over the last five years. And I’ve been lucky enough to be their coach.”
Presuming the Warriors bring back their core of Curry, Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala, it would be difficult to call Golden State the clear favorite to get back to a sixth straight finals in 2020. Iguodala will turn 36 midway through next season. Backup guard Shaun Livingston, 33, is pondering retirement. Cousins is also slated for free agency in a few weeks.
President of basketball operations, Bob Myers, will have a hard time reconstructing the bench given the team’s financial constraints with Curry, Green and Thompson all earning top dollar. And Thompson’s injury could complicate things further.
The reserves, after all, struggled throughout the series against Toronto given the top-heavy nature of the Warriors’ roster. Kerr intended to roll with six or seven players throughout the playoffs with their core healthy, but injuries and attrition led to Kerr using 10 and 11 players while clawing to the Finals. It was a leading reason why Toronto won the series, aside from the injuries to Durant and Thompson, who missed the Game 3 loss with a hamstring injury.
Still, the Warriors believe they have reasons to be confident going forward.
“I think everybody thinks it’s kind of the end of us,” Green said. “But that’s just not smart. We’re not done yet. We lost this year. Clearly just wasn’t our year, but that’s how the cookie crumbles sometimes.”
Durant’s future is the biggest question mark for the Warriors and the entire NBA.
He hasn’t spoken publicly since suffering his initial calf injury in the conference semi-finals against the Rockets, aside from his post on Instagram announcing his surgery this week. Does he resent the way the training staff handled his calf injury leading to his more serious Achilles tear? Does he appreciate the way his teammates played without him enough to consider coming back, despite whatever plans he might have made for New York?
After all, Durant isn’t likely to play much, if at all, next season because of the injury. So whatever decision he makes will factor in spending the next season rehabbing, either with a new team or with the Warriors (he had the benefit of watching the team handle Cousins’ rehab from an Achilles tear throughout the past year).
If Durant leaves, the Warriors will likely still be well above the league imposed luxury tax threshold, which would make it nearly impossible to replace him with another star-caliber player.
It could be the team loses three All-Stars, either to free agency or lengthy injury rehabs in 2020, leaving a massive void atop the Western Conference hierarchy.
“It’s been a long journey,” Curry said. “We’ve played a lot of basketball. (We’ll) get away from the game a little bit, refresh the minds, guys through some rehabs and get back stronger. Next season will be next season, and we’ll come back with the right mentality.
“It’s kind of hard to talk about because it’s a tough way to go out and it’s tough to lose in the Finals,” he continued.
“But the story’s not over yet.”