While we have spent an unreasonably satisfying amount of time mocking the unsightly undercarriage of the Western Conference and more specifically the Los Angeles Lakers’ role in it, we have been skipping over the next level of weirdo chaos the conference has to offer: its absurd upper end.
As day dawned, or maybe in your case oozed, the Golden State Warriors are now not only not as good as Phoenix and Memphis but now Dallas as well, and not appreciably better than Utah or Denver. True, this isn’t quite the sexy mosh pit of despair and recriminations than the 9–11 spots are (and while we’re at it congratulations to Sacramento for not only staving off elimination but passing Portland for 12th), but it’s still a version of puppy love—it only matters to the puppies.
Last night’s big show was in San Francisco, where the home side has been wrestling with the new notion of moral victories. The Warriors lost to Phoenix, but ONLY 107-103, which given their recent road-trip showings at Memphis (123-95 losers), Washington (123-115 losers), Atlanta (121-110 losers), Miami (118-104 winners but only because the Heat were trying to kill each other during timeouts), and Orlando (94-90 losers) was an absolute triumph of the soul. The game offered the Suns at their most obstinate and the Warriors in their best defensive poses but eventually collapsed around Golden State’s inability to finish shots or change momentum, two skills they used to be among the best in the game at before they turned from magic to being the Magic.
True, they have had their aging core of Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson on the floor for only 11 minutes this year, but they have largely been getting by on a great start and crinkling memories of the good old days. The fan base which once loved all three with a passion that would never die are now actively debating their remaining shelf lives while they make googly eyes at Jordan Poole—not that Poole hasn’t been very good, but the fan base startlingly quickly abandoned the old stalwarts for the new pretty thing. Bay Area fans have done this forever, but that’s only because every fan base has done this forever; you can count on one suckered tentacle the number of players in any sport who have never felt their one-time acolytes abandon them for some itinerant draft choice. Curry is one of those, but when he went through his early season shooting slump chasing Ray Allen’s meaningless three-point record the fan base started imagining a post-Steph existence.
Mostly, though, the Warriors are readjusting yet again to their changing place in the environment. They have played without Thompson, then without Green, and now without Curry, but the only recurring theme is that as a unit they have hit E before the season has. They were a great defensive team, then a decent one, and now a mediocre one. They were a highly reliable and even electrifying team of distance shooters; now they are barely league-average. Steve Kerr has been looking for trustworthy lineups and rotations all year, and the legion of civilians who are absolutely certain he is screwing up the team have grown in volume and for all we know number as well. In sum, their sights have shifted from winning home court in all series to winning home court against Utah.
There is still that feeling these moral victories count and that this will all right itself once Curry returns and all the pieces are back in place, but that doesn’t allow the likelihood of rust, not just on his foot but with his teammates. Thompson had (and maybe still has) after-effects from his absurdly long layoff, and Green did not exactly fly from the blocks after his 30-game absence with a back issue. Indeed, there is no way of knowing when Curry will return because injury estimates are now fueled less by eagerness and more by caution; he may not be ready when the playoffs start, at which point victory has nothing to do with morality at all. The Warriors are until further notice just another OK team with a one-syllable nickname off the nickname, like the Mavs and the Jazz and the Nugs and maybe even the Wolves. As close as they came last night, the Dubs are definitely not the Suns, and they are barely in competitive contact with the Grizz.
But at least they’re not the Spurs, Pels, or Lakes. Lakes? Nahhh. That’s a nickname that even sub-mediocrity cannot shorten.