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These Warriors Look Light-Years Behind

Golden State’s defense looks putrid, and Steph Curry’s solo act is off to a rough start. Is this the new normal for the team that dominated the past half-decade?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Four and a half months ago, Draymond Green faced the future with a stiff upper lip. The Warriors had lost Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson to career-altering injuries; had lost Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals and with it their chance to repeat as NBA champions; and had seemingly lost the spot atop the NBA they’d occupied for a half-decade. And yet, there was Green, staring out from the podium at a room full of reporters, radiating confidence.

“I think everybody thinks it’s kind of the end of us,” he said. “But that’s just not smart. We’re not done yet [...] I hear a lot of that noise, it’s the end of a run and all that jazz. I don’t see it happening, though. We’ll be back.”

On Sunday, though, Green sang a very different tune.

“The reality is, we fucking suck right now,” he told reporters in Oklahoma City after a 120-92 evisceration at the hands of the Thunder. “You know, hopefully we’ll get better, and we’ll continue working at it and trying to get better. But we just not that good right now.”

You’d be forgiven if your first instinct was to pump the brakes after Golden State opened the 2019-20 season by absorbing a 141-122 pummeling from the Clippers. L.A.’s expected to be the class of the Western Conference, after all, while everyone figured the Warriors would get off to a bumpy start after undergoing so much roster turnover this summer. But after Sunday’s matinee mauling in Oklahoma City—an abysmal affair in which a Thunder team widely projected to finish outside of the playoffs needed only three minutes to roll up a double-digit lead it would never relinquish—it’s tough to argue with Professor Green’s succinct assessment.

The Warriors have played 96 minutes of basketball this season, and haven’t led for a single second of them. Through two games, they are allowing 133.7 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions and conceding a staggering effective field goal percentage of 71.2 percent, both far and away the worst defensive ratings in the league, according to Cleaning the Glass. Which is to say: Right now, the Warriors are giving up points like they’re playing against a version of the peak Kevin Durant–era Death Lineup in which every player hits his shots as often as 28-year-old DeAndre Jordan made his dunks—but, like, from everywhere, and all the time.

If that sounds historically awful, that’s because it is. Ringer teammate Zach Kram notes that the Warriors’ defensive field goal percentage, effective field goal percentage, and true shooting percentage marks through two games are all the worst in Basketball-Reference.com’s database, which goes back to the 1983-84 season. With ace defenders Durant, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston gone, Thompson sidelined (perhaps for the whole season) by an ACL tear, and a slew of young, unproven, or flat-out-bad defensive players stepping in to take their places, it was easy to predict that the Warriors would struggle to field the sort of defense that became a staple of their five consecutive Finals runs. This, though? Starting the season by giving up at least 30 points in your first seven quarters, with a reprieve only coming because Billy Donovan gave virtually every relevant piece of his rotation the fourth quarter off? It’s been jaw-dropping, even if it’s not exactly unexpected.

The Warriors’ roster is tilted overwhelmingly toward its stars—Stephen Curry, Thompson, Green, and new arrival D’Angelo Russell combine to make $118.8 million of Golden State’s $137.9 million total salary outlay this season, per Spotrac. That fact has been made even more glaring by a spate of early injuries. With a preseason foot strain putting Willie Cauley-Stein on the shelf, and Kevon Looney suffering from a “neuropathic condition” affecting his hamstring, the Warriors have to rely on reclamation project Marquese Chriss and second-year power forward Omari Spellman to protect the rim; in a related story, Oklahoma City shot 17-for-21 (81 percent) at the rim on Sunday.

Alec Burks, one of the few actual veterans the Warriors were able to import on the cheap this summer, hasn’t suited up yet due to an ankle injury. He’s not exactly the guy I’d pick to stop the bleeding on defense, but he might offer a bit more on the other end than first-round pick Jordan Poole, who has shot a smooth 3-for-22 from the field to open his career. Rookies Poole, Eric Paschall, and Ky Bowman, sophomores Spellman and Jacob Evans—these are the players Steve Kerr now has to coach up and count on. It’s not going so hot.

“We don’t have a sense of who we are as a team yet,” Kerr said Sunday. “We haven’t established much. We’re playing without centers. We’re playing with nine new players. I realize I’m making plenty of excuses. But they’re real.”

Just as real, and just as bracing: Fixing this isn’t as simple as Curry starting to bomb away as soon as he reaches half court and scoring 50 a game. (He doesn’t yet have 50 after two games, as a matter of fact; he’s shooting 39.5 percent from the field, and just 4-for-20 from beyond the arc, as he gets acquainted with a new normal minus a galaxy of shooting stars around him.)

Maximum Steph would certainly help, as would Russell (9-for-26 from the field, ejected midway through the third quarter of Sunday’s beatdown) finding the scoring and playmaking touch he displayed last season in Brooklyn. The Warriors are scoring a paltry 86.1 points-per-100 in the half court, per CtG; they’ve been more effective in transition, but have gotten out on the break at the league’s fourth-lowest rate, due in large part to the fact they’re constantly taking the ball out of the basket. If the Warriors can’t get stops, they can’t get their offense on track, and if they can’t overwhelm opponents with scoring flurries from Curry and Russell … well, it’s going to be an awfully long season in the Bay, the kind Warriors fans haven’t seen since the days of Charles Jenkins, Dominic McGuire, Mikki Moore, and Andris Biedrins. Who, as it happens, might stack up pretty favorably to the roster Golden State’s trotting out along with Curry, Green, and Russell to start this season.

It’s possible that, in a few months’ time, we’ll look at this as little more than an unsightly blip on the radar—the engine backfiring before eventually getting into gear as Golden State drives toward a sixth straight deep postseason run. Kerr and Co. will look to begin that process on Monday, when they go to New Orleans on the second night of a back-to-back to take on a Pelicans team that has opened up winless amid injuries to phenom Zion Williamson and veteran leader Jrue Holiday, but that still has the depth and two-way talent to keep the bad times rolling for the visitors.

Even if the Warriors get off the schneid on Monday, though, it won’t change perhaps the most bracing thing about the first week of the NBA season: the possibility that this isn’t just a blip, that Golden State won’t just get it into gear, and that this is, in fact, really happening.

“This is not a one-off,” Kerr told reporters after the opening-night loss to the Clippers. “This is the reality.” (You’d imagine Kerr didn’t think he’d have only the second-best “reality”-based headline on the Warriors in the season’s opening week.)

For the past half-decade, the Warriors stood apart as the class of the NBA, a franchise so forward-thinking and all-consuming that its governor bragged about being “light-years ahead” of its competition, now and far into the future. Right now, though, the only thing in the Bay moving at light speed seems to be life—which, after a five-year delay, is coming at the Warriors extremely friggin’ fast.