The Warriors are no longer on top – and they may not have a route back either | Golden State Warriors

The detractors of the Golden State Warriors dynasty of the past decade thought the party was over when Kevin Durant left in 2019 after three seasons and two NBA titles. They thought it again when the Warriors were a dreadful 15-50 in 2019-2020 and missed the playoffs again the next year. But the doubters have yet to be proved correct and Golden State got the band back together to win the championship in 2022.

This time, however, those waiting for an end to this Warriors era of dominance may have a point. On Tuesday, Golden State lost in the NBA’s Play-In Tournament to the Sacramento Kings, 118-94. The game was never close, and it was heavy on symbolism. Sharpshooting guard Klay Thompson had perhaps the worst game of his career, going 0-for-10 from the field and putting a zero on his scoreline. Draymond Green, the defensive and playmaking wizard, found himself bullied in the post by the Kings’ Domantas Sabonis. Chris Paul, the future Hall of Fame guard, had all of three points in 18 minutes of action. Underpinning it all was the face of the franchise, Stephen Curry, scoring a fine 22 points but unable to carry the whole team.

Afterward, the coach at the helm of these four Golden State championship teams struck a reasonable but fatalistic note. “This is life,” Steve Kerr said. “This is how it works. You don’t get to stay on top forever.”

These Warriors are no longer on top. For the first time, they may not have a road back, either.

They were not much to behold in 2023-24. The Warriors limped into the Play-In as the Western Conference’s No 10 seed. In the league’s traditional playoff format, rather than the one adopted a few years ago to juice drama, they would have missed the postseason altogether. They went 46-36 and gradually showed the signs of a team that doesn’t quite have it any more. All of it came to a head in Sacramento, where the Warriors were outclassed by a solid but unspectacular Kings team.

In the wake of the loss, Thompson’s future is the most immediate question. His contract expires this summer. He will be 34 next season. He remains a quality player but, given his age and some hellish injury luck in recent years, is no longer the game-wrecker he used to be. Kerr says the Warriors “desperately” wants Thompson back, and the notion of his final game for the franchise being a zero-point dud can’t sit right with anyone. But the Warriors’ dealings with Thompson are a demarcation point between past and future.

It isn’t just Thompson. Green will also be 34 next season. Curry will be 37 when it ends. (Paul, more of a role player at this stage of his career, will be pushing 40.) Even Andrew Wiggins, the former No 1 overall pick who has enjoyed a career revival in northern California, turns 30 in February. Among this team’s stars, Wiggins is a spring chicken. Time is a cruel and consistent beast, and it’s bearing down on the Warriors.

Finding outside reinforcements will be an immense challenge. The Warriors have the most expensive roster in the NBA and pay a luxury-tax bill that exceeds the entire payroll of most teams. They have limited flexibility to make changes within the league’s salary cap structure, though their front office could get creative. The upcoming draft is thought to feature one of the weakest incoming classes in years, and the Warriors are not slated to pick until the 52nd selection, anyway.

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Where does that leave the franchise? Ostensibly, in purgatory. From a storytelling perspective, it is enticing to imagine the Warriors deciding on a logical endpoint for their legendary group of star players, and then breaking up the roster all at once. While the team has shuffled out supporting players and even a megastar or two over the years, this Golden State dynasty has always had Kerr, Curry, Thompson, and Green. It would be fitting for the team to load up for one or two more tries with them, then wish them all farewell at the same moment and turn toward the future all at once.

Things are unlikely to be that clean, though. More likely is that the dynasty core dissolves bit by bit, as it arguably started to do when longtime general manager Bob Meyers stepped down after last season. Thompson’s contract is up now, but Curry has another two years on his. The same goes for the deals for Wiggins and Green, but both of those contracts contain player options for another season. Nobody can say for sure when Kerr will call it a day, but it won’t sync cleanly with the exits of each of his stars.

Betting wholesale against a group that has accomplished so much seems foolish. We can’t rule out that the Warriors find a rabbit in the hat. But reality eventually knocks for everyone, as Kerr said from the podium after Tuesday’s loss. The Western Conference has a handful of rising teams, and the one that knocked out the Warriors isn’t even among the best of them. The key pieces to the Warriors’ run may hang around for a bit longer, or they may not. But what they built is already fading, and there is no reversing that. There is only putting off the end for a little bit longer.

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