The length of an NBA season is the ultimate reality check. Over the course of 82 games, even the best teams go through bouts when their weaknesses are exposed. The large sample size inevitably makes good teams look bad and bad teams look promising during stretches, and no squad is immune—not even the Golden State Warriors.
Every once in a while, Golden State decides to entertain us by struggling just enough to allow us to proselytize about their few flaws, and eight games ago, the defending champs apparently concluded it was time to make themselves relatable again. Thank you for the content, Warriors. Golden State has gone 3-5 over the past two weeks, with losses to Orlando and Miami (yikes), as well as Houston and Portland. The NBA’s best offense dropped down to 21st in the league during those games, and the team’s defense has dropped to 27th in efficiency (letting up 114.5 points per 100 possessions), worse than the Hawks, Cavs, and Suns.
The Warriors faced off against the Celtics on Tuesday night, and they came out looking lethargic and disinterested. They failed to score 100 points for the second time in three games, losing 128-95, and the contest largely felt like a glorified preseason game for them. If any team can afford to have a slump like this at this point in the season, it’s the Warriors. But while the Celtics came into Tuesday night’s game as the NBA’s premier problem child, they were the ones who left with smiles on their faces.
At this point in the Warriors dynasty, the process of parsing what is wrong with the team—or even whether anything is wrong with the team—is exhausting and counterintuitive. We’re already familiar with the symptoms: the half-court offense looks discombobulated (they had 26 assists Tuesday, which is three fewer than their league-best season average, while Boston had 38), especially without Klay Thompson on the floor; the defense is giving up a slew of points in the paint (the Celtics scored 50); and the postgame scene is tense. On Tuesday, the tension came from a disagreement between Kevin Durant and Steve Kerr. Kerr said the Warriors needed to play with more anger, and when Durant was told that, he recoiled: “I thought we moved off joy. Now anger?” he told reporters. “I disagree with that one.” And when one reporter prefaced a question by mentioning Durant’s choice to come to the Warriors three years ago, Durant responded with: “We’re still talking about me coming here?”
Kevin Durant asked about Kerr saying the team needed to play with more anger: “I thought we moved off joy. Now anger? I disagree with that one.” pic.twitter.com/M7o4nFDori— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) March 6, 2019
Outside of Durant’s quotes, we can also read some other tea leaves. There was his postgame interaction with Kyrie Irving, in which he looked giddy, and the decision he made last week, when Golden State played in Charlotte, to warm up after all his teammates were gone. Those choices inevitably become talking points in part because they’re odd, but mostly because Durant has seemed on edge all season—especially after the Knicks traded away Kristaps Porzingis in a deal that generated cap space for next season. Durant is one of the Knicks’ rumored targets and has been linked to the team for a while now (he also recently moved the headquarters of his new company to New York). Durant avoided the media following the trade deadline, refusing to talk about the Knicks rumors, and then when he finally did talk after a game in early February against the Spurs, he went off on reporters for asking about his impending free agency. Kerr has said that “it’s not easy” to have Durant’s decision looming over the season. And yet, not even that discomfort has kept the Warriors from a 56-win pace and the no. 1 seed in the West.
The Warriors are just that good. But after making the climb to the Finals for four straight years, they also need some extra motivation. This season, DeMarcus Cousins’s arrival was supposed to be that spark. When Cousins returned from his Achilles injury in mid-January, he looked like the final Infinity Stone for a team that was already loaded with unbeatable talent. But recent games have exposed his weaknesses. The Warriors’ second-most-used lineup includes Cousins, and has a net rating of minus-0.9, making it the only one of the team’s five most-used lineups that is in the red. Golden State has lost only four times with Cousins in the lineup, though during those games he’s amassed a plus-minus of minus-44 and shot 38 percent from the field.
The team’s contingency plan? Bringing in old friend Andrew Bogut, who the Warriors reportedly signed Wednesday morning. Bogut is 34 and just finished a season in Australia; it’s unclear how much he has left in the tank, but Golden State simply needed another big body. One would imagine that Bogut won’t get a ton of playing time, especially in the playoffs, but this is the Warriors trying to guard against one of their weaknesses.
The sneaky, not-so-secret deficiency of the Warriors is that while they’re the most talented team ever, they’re also the most top-heavy. When you get past the fact their five starters are all, you know, All-Stars, the rest of the roster is shaky. Between the lack of depth, the brewing Cousins question, and the off-court drama, there is enough fodder to be presented as false hope in a shiny package to the rest of the league. The Warriors may be beatable in theory, but in reality, their weaknesses feel like blips we’ll forget about come June. Give them this, though: They’re giving us something to talk about.