As the last seconds of the Warriors’ season ticked off the clock, Stephen Curry sat along the home baseline with a towel over his head. When the buzzer sounded on a 117-112 loss to the Grizzlies in the final round of the play-in tournament, Curry got up and exchanged obligatory pleasantries with the victors, before crossing paths with Draymond Green, his partner in chips. After trying one last time to carry their undermanned squad, the two healthy pillars of the Warriors’ dynasty then walked toward the locker room for the last time this season.
For much of the season, the Warriors have fought against this fate of falling short of the playoffs. Since Kevin Durant left in 2019, the organization has told anyone who’d listen that it would be back in contention once players were healthy. Last season, they toiled through an injury-riddled season cut short by COVID. This season, with Klay Thompson out, Green and Curry tried to foster a young roster, and when that wasn’t enough, they’d carry them along. But they could only rely on championship fortitude for so long. Now, the franchise finds itself at a crossroads.
“This is very unfamiliar territory,” Curry said following Friday’s loss. “Very tough way to end it with these last two games coming down to the wire and us giving everything we had in the tank.”
It almost worked Friday evening. Curry, despite missing 14 of his first 24 shots, finished with a team-high 39 points, ducking and running around a defense hell-bent to stop him. When Curry couldn’t score, Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins picked up the slack. When Curry couldn’t escape the quadruple-teams, Draymond made key plays in the final minutes, helping the Warriors erase a double-digit deficit and garnering a collective “How the hell are the Warriors still in this?” from everyone in the building along the way. In the final seconds of regulation, they were a Green runner away from winning the game and moving on to face the top-seeded Jazz.
But it wasn’t enough. Even though Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins sat on his coaches’ challenge instead of calling for a review on a questionable three-shot foul on Poole, nearly costing Memphis in regulation, Ja Morant proved too much, finishing with 35 points, five made 3s (one shy of Curry), and two huge buckets late to seal the victory.
“I love pressure, honestly,” Morant said.
Though their season is over, the Warriors now face perhaps even more pressure. Curry proved this season that he’s still one of the best players in the league, piecing together one of the best offensive seasons in recent history and earning a top-three spot in this year’s MVP voting. But he’s 33 and entering the final year of his max contract. He could’ve signed a three-year extension last offseason but chose not to, which GM Bob Myers said recently had more to do with the length of the contract the Warriors were able to offer.
Most dynasties have two options: die or reinvent. The Bulls of the ’90s did the former, letting Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson retire while trading away any remnants of a functioning team. The Miami Heat tried to retool around Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, but Wade was on the back end of his career and a heart issue forced Bosh to retire prematurely. The special ones, like the Celtics of the ’60s, the Showtime Lakers, and the San Antonio Spurs of the early aughts were able to retool for decade-long runs. As of now, Golden State doesn’t know what it is. Is it a rebuilding unit looking to develop James Wiseman, Eric Paschall, and Poole, or will it look to cash in on some of its young assets to go all in while Curry is still in his prime?
“In order to win a championship, you’ve got to be in the playoffs,” Green said. “So we’re clearly a ways away. A few tweaks here and there and we’re not that far, but right now we’re a ways away because we are not in the playoffs.”
The Warriors have options. They could trade Wiseman, Wiggins, and/or their first-round picks in a deal for an All-Star. They could keep Minnesota’s top-three-protected pick and hope the prospect contributes right away. They can run it back with this roster, add Thompson, and hope for the best, though retaining Kent Bazemore and Kelly Oubre Jr. could mean another steep luxury tax bill. Following the loss, Green said he’ll be involved in the front office’s quest for redemption. Thompson sent out a written message on Instagram that he’s “never been hungrier.”
“It’s exciting,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “We’re going to have some guys come back who are so much further along than they were in training camp this year. So our depth is going to improve and we’ve got some assets with possibly a couple of first-round picks. You know, some great, great veteran players like Steph and Draymond and obviously Klay coming back will change a lot about our team.”
For the last decade, the Warriors have seemed to always have the goods to figure it out. But Friday evening felt different. The Warriors were gassed down the stretch and couldn’t simply turn to a Death Lineup or a Hamptons 5 to blow away the opponent in a late-game situation. Instead, it was Memphis’s young core who had all the answers. Morant, all of 21 years old, was the one hitting timely contested shots with the game on the line, while Green, one of the league’s smartest players, airballed a layup that would’ve won the game.
The Warriors will still have Dray and Steph and that championship fortitude. The hope is that the Thompson of old can still return to his former level after two missed seasons. The rest, however, is anyone’s guess.
“The reality is one team at the end of the year will have had a successful year by any means necessary, and that’s whoever goes home as champions,” Green said. “So a lot of successes came out of this year. But ultimately we didn’t win it and we got to go back to the drawing board and try to figure this thing out.”