April 20, 2024

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The Sports Fanatics

Warriors’ potential resurgence an exercise in patience and frustration, with gained perspective from pandemic

SAN FRANCISCO — If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s to relish the banal. The day-to-day grind that was formerly met with apathy, even disgust, is now embraced as nostalgic and comforting.

At the peak of their powers, the Golden State Warriors were bombarded with so much attention that mandatory media sessions were no doubt viewed as a necessary chore rather than a welcome privilege.

That wasn’t the case on Monday, when the Warriors spoke in the same room as reporters for the first time since the world as we knew it came to a halt in March of 2020. Golden State guard Jordan Poole remarked about how nice it was to field questions in person rather than through a screen. After his availability, forward Juan Toscano-Anderson burst back into the interview room and shouted, “say cheese,” before snapping a photo with the kind of disposable camera you find at the check-out aisle of the drugstore — a fitting metaphor for the ephemerality of moments that we used to take for granted. We’ve learned to treasure them, because we never know when they could be taken from us.

This is supposed to be a season of resurgence for Golden State. Once kings of the basketball world, two seasons in the lottery has set them up for a potential return to glory. Stephen Curry is coming off of one of the best seasons of his career, Draymond Green is a reigning Defensive Player of the Year finalist, Andre Iguodala is back in the Bay. And of course, Klay Thompson, the wild card of all NBA wild cards, is expected to return after missing two full seasons because of consecutive knee and Achilles injuries.

But, as we’ve learned through the pandemic, nothing comes easy. The vaccines that rolled out in early spring were meant to open the world back up. Instead the Delta variant, the return of children to schools, and people refusing to wear masks and/or get the vaccine have halted our return to normalcy.

Nothing is clean. Nothing is easy.

The same is true for this year’s Warriors, most of whom spent a portion of Monday’s Media Day discussing the vaccination status of Andrew Wiggins, who could miss every home game this season if he chooses not to receive the shot.

Given Thompson’s impending return, it would be easy for the Warriors to look ahead, proclaiming themselves title contenders once again. But on Monday they showed an understanding that the journey will require patience. It will cause frustration. There will be stops and starts.

And the Warriors will welcome and embrace every part of the quest, partly because of the perspective they’ve gained over the past 18 months.

“The perspective I have is, number one, how lucky we are to do what we do, how lucky we are when we have our health and the health of those around us — family and friends — and how lucky we are to play basketball for a living in front of an incredible group of fans that provides the energy and joy that we thrive on,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said on Monday. “A lot of those things have been taken away the last couple years, and absolutely brings a fresh perspective — and maybe a necessary one — given everything that’s happened in the world and in our country in the last couple years.”

As much as Thompson could swing the NBA championship picture if he comes back healthy, he acknowledged on Monday that he probably won’t return to game action until at least the 12-month mark since his Achilles injury, which falls in late November. Through all his rehab and absence from the court, Thompson, too, has gained valuable perspective.

“I have such a healthy appreciation for this game,” Thompson said. “I don’t really gloat about my past success, but when you have a lot of time on your hands, and you watch a lot of film, sometimes you watch those and think, ‘How did I do that?’ or, ‘I can’t believe our team did this.’ That’s what inspires me while I’m doing this rehab, to do that type of stuff again.”

In addition to Thompson’s absence, the Warriors also acquired several new players this season, a mix of veterans and two lottery picks — Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody — who need to acclimate to Kerr’s system. So while it may be tempting for Golden State to think about a triumphant return to glory, the reality is that, for now at least, they’re much more similar to last season’s play-in team than the perennial title contenders of the mid-2010s.

“Yeah [Thompson’s] coming back, but he’s not back yet. So we can’t necessarily, from a mental standpoint, depend on that,” Toscano-Anderson said. “We still have to start game one and win game one. Every game matters to set yourself up to get to the playoffs, right? So from that standpoint we’ve still got to lace them up and play without Klay for some time. But when he does get back, I think that’s a scary sight for a lot of people.”

Toscano-Anderson was a big part of the Warriors’ 15-5 surge to close out last season, during which they ranked first in the league in defensive efficiency and eighth in offense. Kerr said that the small-ball attack is the blueprint for the Warriors this season, with Green, Toscano-Anderson and newcomer Nemanja Bjelica all potentially getting turns at center — particularly with 2020 No. 2 overall pick James Wiseman expected to miss a chunk of the regular season while he recovers from April knee surgery.

They also lost key defensive pieces in Kelly Oubre and Kent Bazemore, and the veterans and rookies will battle it out to see who earns those minutes. It may be too much to expect two teenagers to contribute to winning right away, but the Warriors veterans have raved about the maturity and work ethic of Kuminga and Moody.

“They just ask a lot of questions, and that’s one thing that you really want from a bunch of young guys — guys that are willing to ask questions and want to learn,” Warriors guard Damion Lee said of Kuminga and Moody. “Pretty sure you can ask all the vets on this team, that’s what they did when they first came in.”

But ultimately, no matter what happens along the fringes, this team needs its stars healthy if it’s going to compete for a championship. President of basketball operations Bob Myers admitted as much on Monday, and previously said that Thompson’s health will be the barometer for the team’s ceiling. So it’s as important as ever for the Warriors to stay grounded, put in the work and resist the temptation to get ahead of themselves.

“I’m all the way into the moment, just enjoying what’s happening right now,” Curry said on Monday. “There’s so many things that we just don’t know, but I’m just at peace with the now and living in the now and enjoying just the fact that the season is here. I think when you get at this stage, going into my 13th year, nothing’s new. Nothing’s surprising. You have to really be intentional about how much fun you’re having at this stage in your career, and it only happens by just staying in the now and being committed to what that means. However you describe that, peace or just finding fun in everything and taking the challenges head on, I’m right there.”

No matter how the season begins, however, the eventual return of a healthy Thompson would automatically catapult Golden State back to the top of the NBA pecking order, at least on paper. Myers said that Thompson’s first game will be at home, and Curry had to pause while envisioning the return of his Splash Brother because he was overwhelmed by emotion. Despite the injuries, Thompson expects to return to his All-NBA form of the past.

“My last taste of hoops was the 2019 Finals, and I was really shooting the heck out of the ball. I might not get there right away, but I expect to be there at some point during the season,” Thompson said on Monday. “I think very highly of myself when it comes to scoring and being a two-way player.

“Although I’ve been through tough injuries, I’m not gonna use that as a crutch. I was on my way. I was playing the best I ever played in the Finals, so I expect to take off on that note. That’s just my attitude.”