What's wrong with the Golden State Warriors? Maybe that's not the right question

With Steph Curry and Draymond Green injured and Kevin Durant taking heat from his own locker room, the all-conquering reigning champions are facing very different challenges this season

The Warriors are facing fresh challenges this season
The Warriors are facing fresh challenges this season

"This is the real NBA." Steve Kerr’s sum-up of the Golden State Warriors’ three losses on the recent road trip to Texas might be the defining quote of the opening stanza of this season. Shorn of the iconic Steph Curry – and latterly Draymond Green, but more about him later – the team which is arguably the greatest in the competition’s history has for once looked mortal.

"We haven’t been in the real NBA these past few years,” the coach continued after defeat to the San Antonio Spurs. “We’ve been in this dream and so now we’re faced with real adversity - and we’ve got to get out of it ourselves.” After a home hammering by the Oklahoma City Thunder extended that run to an unprecedented four straight reverses (the worst run of Kerr’s untouchable tenure), the Warriors have roused themselves according to Kerr’s demands, fighting hard for wins over the Sacramento Kings and Orlando Magic, after which they stand at a modest fourth in the Western Conference.

The Kevin Durant-led fourth quarter surge which led them to a Monday night win over an improving – but still modest – Magic, who had been up 17 points at half-time, was thrilling but not the sort of effort that the regular season Warriors are used to having to employ. Their trademark since Kerr’s arrival in 2014 has been brutalising the opposition in the third quarter, and then putting their feet up in the fourth.

The Warriors survived on Monday night

Curry is expected to make his comeback this week on the team’s upcoming five-game road trip in the east – which climaxes with a trip to Wisconsin to face the high-flying Milwaukee Bucks. Green, who one assumes would play through his current toe injury at a more crucial stage of the season, has been equally missed. Losing those two would hobble any team.

More concerning is the perception of internal disquiet, largely centring around a spectacular fall-out between Durant and Green at the end of regulation time in the OT loss at the Los Angeles Clippers a fortnight ago. The former was annoyed that the latter hadn’t played him in for a game-winning basket on the final play, going alone and being dispossessed, and let him know. Green bit back with enough ferocity that once the dust settled, he was suspended by the organisation for a game “for conduct detrimental to the team.”

It certainly wasn’t an everyday tiff, even for someone as highly-strung as Green. Yahoo’s Chris Haynes reported that he called Durant a “bitch” several times, topping it off by telling him: “We don’t need you. We won without you.” What probably hurt Durant the most is that Green has a point when he says they don’t “need” him to win. The Warriors already showed they could be the best without him. The difference between them with and without KD is between being the best and being unbeatable in the part of the season which counts.

Durant is at the centre of controversy 

Durant being nothing more than elite icing on the champions’ cake is a barb that has followed him from the minute he walked away from the Thunder in summer 2016 free agency to join a team that weren’t champions, but that were clearly the best. If his former partner-in-crime Russell Westbrook’s famous ‘cupcake’ diss irritated a shot taken from inside the tent is something else entirely, especially when Green is the Warriors’ spiritual soul. It was Green who led the way when the team’s big guns made their hard sell to recruit Durant over a weekend in the Hamptons two-and-a-bit years ago.

Now, the sense is that the Warriors are almost recruiting Durant all over again, something that sprung to mind as the injured Green, in street clothes, wildly celebrated Durant’s late explosion to overcome the Magic on courtside. Many believe the bump Durant needs to be seen at least alongside LeBron James as the league’s greatest player is a ‘challenge’ move – making stuff happen for a current no-hoper like the New York Knicks rather than a dominant force.

Nobody likes uncertainty, but that’s what the Warriors face as Durant and sharp-shooter Klay Thompson head towards unrestricted free agency in 2019. The indications are Green, whose deal expires in 2020, is not inclined to take a new deal below the max. The Warriors, who move from Oakland to San Francisco’s Chase Center next season (and still face paying a $40 million bill for improvements to the Oracle Arena, which they’re leaving), are going to have a hard job keeping the superteam together.

Curry and Green are currently sidelined 

Maybe we’re just convincing ourselves of vulnerability because we want to believe in the thrill of the chase, rather than a procession towards another inevitable championship. Maybe the Warriors are even happy to have it this way. Kerr’s comments about his team being in the “real” were laying it on a bit thick, perhaps an attempt at poking the bear. Having fallen short at the last against the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016 after clinching the regular season win record of 73, surpassing the 72 set by Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in 1996, the feeling is that coach, staff and players alike might like to stay as far away from chasing any regular season records as possible.

The NBA is “real” for other teams at the moment, with the Houston Rockets (who compiled the West’s best regular season record in 17-18 and took the Warriors to seven games in the Western Conference finals) struggling and the Boston Celtics, widely expected to dominate the East after Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward returned, looking painfully short on team chemistry. Barring a long-term injury plague the Warriors getting it together in spring is as sure as night following day. The real question is how long they can keep the dynasty going for.

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