The Last Dance? This summer will dictate if the Warriors dynasty evolves or ends

When it became clear it was over, when all that was left was to watch their season expire, the Warriors core sat on the bench letting reality sink in.

The Warriors’ three future Hall of Famers — Draymond Green, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson — were left to ponder if they shared the floor together for the final time. Was this the end of the Warriors dynasty that began nearly a decade ago?

For the first time in all their seasons together, they started every game in a playoff series and lost it. For the first time in 29 series, they found a road venue they couldn’t conquer. For the first time since losing to the Clippers in the first round in 2014, they exit the postseason before reaching the NBA Finals stage.

But even as that reality sank in after the 122-101 loss in Game 6 of these Western Conference semis to the Lakers, as they processed the emotions of getting bounced, it wasn’t frustration that dominated the moment. It wasn’t anger. But another overwhelming sense took over. It was unmistakable, and unshakeable.


“As terrible of a feeling as it is right now,” Curry said, “we feel like we can come back.”

One might’ve expected more reflectiveness after being eliminated. This series concluded a decade of greatness. From upsetting Denver and battling San Antonio in 2013, to upsetting Sacramento and battling the Lakers in 2023. In between were four championships, six finals appearances and earned reputations as legends.

The fact so many expected them to go further than this was a testament to the reputation they built. Nothing about this season suggested they should be this far. It’s been tumultuous and inconsistent. They were hit with numerous injuries. They won only 11 road games. Their young talent, for a myriad of reasons, didn’t flourish. The trio themselves had their own issues and contributions to the season’s mediocrity.

But in the end, their greatness, whatever is left of it, was enough to get them here, well past where it seemed they’d be two months ago.

“Steph, Draymond and Klay,” LeBron James said. “Those are the guys I’ve had the most battles with, those are the guys I’ve been in a war against. Nothing but respect for them.”

This felt like a moment to ponder what they’ve accomplished. Instead, losing triggered their brazenness. A decade later, with gray hairs and ligaments that need extra stretching, they still had the same we’re-not-done energy. They were reminded how much they don’t like this.

Part of it has to do with knowing they could beat these Lakers even if they didn’t deserve to. Make no mistake, this was a tough matchup. The Lakers’ strengths were the Warriors’ weaknesses. L.A.’s size, athleticism and depth bothered the Warriors. Golden State needed to be near perfect and wasn’t. Still, the Warriors are convinced they should’ve won Games 1 and 4. They gave life to the Lakers. They could be going to the Western Conference finals if a few things went differently. If they made more open 3s. If Lonnie Walker IV didn’t turn into Kobe Bryant for a quarter. If they finished the Kings off sooner. If Wiggins wasn’t compromised in the biggest game of the year. If they got just a little more from the bench.

It sounds delusional and may prove to be. But then you remember they’ve built this whole thing on delusion. At their core is an audaciousness that fuels them. Perhaps this refills their well. Certainly, the longer offseason should be of benefit for their aging core. They’ve had three months off in the last 20. Now they’ll get four months before camp.

That’s enough time to do some necessary work on their games. If they are serious about getting back to the top, they can’t rely on past glory. Green and Thompson need to add to their repertoire the way Curry has over the years. Green needs more consistent offensive production and Thompson has to diversify his attack instead of just chucking away. Even Curry can enhance his midrange game and get to the free-throw line.

But will they get the chance to?

Green’s can opt out of his final year and should as he looks to get his final pay day of his career. But can the Warriors financially take that hit, already paying max money to Curry, Klay, Wiggins, and Jordan Poole?

Controlling owner Joe Lacob must green light all financial choices. He has shown to be uneasy in the past about letting the total salary and tax bill sky past $400 million. If everyone is retained, including Green, who has a $27.6 million player option, it’ll stretch significantly beyond that.

But Lacob has a thirst for titles and the front office has again been reminded this season of Green’s indispensable value in that quest. Lose Green and likely lose any realistic path to that ultimate goal.

“I want to be a Warrior for the rest of my life,” Green said after Game 6. “I want to ride out with the same dudes I rode in with.”

The exploding salary cap limits their flexibility. Their bent on winning now sacrificed the development of the young players who were supposed to be their support. But they know they’re close.

In many ways, the Lakers give life to their defiance. Even with James and Anthony Davis, L.A. was struggling to make the play-in tournament. But with a series of roster tweaks at the trade deadline, the Lakers instantly morphed into a contender. The Warriors’ old heads watched James get revitalized.

Why couldn’t the Warriors do that? Add a couple of players. Tweak some things. Be formidable again.

There’s been an unspoken two-timeline tug-of-war the last few years, as the roster beneath the Curry core has been overloaded with youth with an eye toward the future. It reached a tipping point this season and the James Wiseman for Gary Payton II trade was viewed as a necessary concession, reprioritizing the present.

But some tension persists. Jonathan Kuminga had an encouraging second season, emerging into the type of individual defender and slashing wing who should carve out a long career in the NBA. He was great down the stretch of the regular season, helping the Warriors get into the playoffs while Andrew Wiggins was away from the team for a couple months. Kuminga averaged 13.2 points in 24.2 minutes in the 21 games after the All-Star break.

But Wiggins returned, Payton entered the lineup and Kuminga was pulled from the playoff rotation, generating frustration for a young player trying to get his career off the ground and a front office that doesn’t view him as a failed draft pick.

There’s an acknowledgement from the Warriors’ decision makers that some amount of rotation retooling is needed this summer. That could put Kuminga’s future in question. It’s been difficult to fit him into lineup combinations with both Green and Kevon Looney – two non-shooters – and that frontcourt logjam ahead of him is expected to remain in place.

The Warriors either have to commit to the youth as full time players or cash in on them for depth you can actually use and trust in the playoffs.

Tt’s Jordan Poole’s future that is of greater question. His contract extension kicks in next season at $27.4 million. That spike, along with retaining Green, would put the Warriors in a luxury tax tier that could be a non-starter for Lacob. It also now contains other roster-building restrictions, including the loss of the midlevel exception, which allowed them to get Donte DiVincenzo this past summer.

If cost-cutting is required, he profiles as the likeliest candidate. Poole had a turbulent fourth season, beginning when he took the infamous preseason punch from Green during a training camp practice. Poole kept it professional in the aftermath and tensions cooled enough for the two to work together. But the relationship was never fully repaired and Poole’s struggles didn’t help the mood, culminating in a challenging playoffs that saw his efficiency plummet and minutes get reduced.

There’s still hesitancy to move him. Poole averaged 20.4 points this season and has potent offensive capability that is lacking on the roster below Curry and will be needed as the core ages further. Is it wise to move off of that when his value is at its lowest in 12 months? Will the money crunch dictate it?

“As long as we’ve got him, we’ve got a chance,” Kevon Looney said, pointing to Curry’s locker. “As long as we’ve got Superman himself, we’re in the mix.”

It has to be different now, though. For so long, they’ve relied on their talent and will and experience to carry the day. For 10 years, it’s worked. But it’s clear after this postseason they can’t be ridden for the bulk of a season and then expected to have the legs for a title run. They need others, and they’ve got to be part of preparing their supporting cast. They might need lighter burdens so they can have enough in the tank to make a run. Because in this series, the legends are the ones who didn’t get it done.

Game 6, this whole series against the Lakers, was a snapshot of the reality of how they alone aren’t enough anymore.

Thompson scored 8 points on 19 shots Friday. After scoring 30 points in Game 2, making 8 of 11 3s, he went 10-for-36 from 3 over the next three games. He missed a bushel of open shots in Game 6, including some early ones that could’ve set a different tone.

And Green? The Warriors were better Friday with Green off the court. For the first time in his nine postseasons, the Warriors were outscored in his minutes on the court over the course of the playoffs.

And Curry couldn’t make enough 3s on the road in Los Angeles. With the Lakers’ defense packing the paint while aggressively overplaying on the perimeter, the Warriors’ motion offense couldn’t generate its normal volume of good looks — especially against LeBron, who probably knows the Warriors’ offense better than most of the Warriors players. That left Curry to do all the creating. He was the lone hope against a vaunted defense. With not enough offense around him to loosen up the Lakers’ defense, his 26.7 points per game in the series were far less efficient. He shot just 34.3 percent from 3 after going 10-for-39 from deep over the last three games.

He did everything — create shots for his teammates, take shots, fight through double teams and constant pressure, rebound, defend, play — but it wasn’t enough.

But Curry’s sustained eliteness is part of the defiance. His own belief he’s as good as anyone in the league is the seed of their confidence. He carried them to a title last year, getting stellar play from Wiggins and timely performances from role players. He looked just as capable this year but got less by way of support.

What happens if they retool properly around Curry? At 35, he’s still a championship-level superstar.

“We go as he goes,” Green said. “To know that he’s still playing at the top of his game is motivation for all of us to make sure we continue to play at the top of ours.”

Possibility prevented nostalgia. A cause for looking back instead was a catalyst to look ahead. They were reminded how much they don’t like this.

At points during the regular season, they felt like even making the playoffs was not an option. But the Warriors survived the tumult by riding their stars, getting just enough help and finding just enough consistency to get back in the dance.

When they got into the playoffs, they felt the switch internally. The expectations changed. The focus shifted.

In the end, the same warts that put them in jeopardy in the regular season would come back to doom them. But they’d forgotten what it was like to go into playoff mode and then be out in May.

“What are we supposed to do now?” Green said.

“I’ve got to figure out Mother’s Day now,” Curry said.

Usually, when they go into playoff mode, they’re not done until June. Their days are accounted for, routines set, energy consumed, obligations halted. Now they’ve got time. And they remember how much they don’t like this. They vow to be back on top, and that is a message the front office and coaching staff should back.

“Draymond. Klay. Steph. Our core guys, they have plenty left to offer,” Kerr said following the Game 6 loss. “It’s not like this is the end of the road. The organization has some decisions to make. We’ll eventually get to that point.”


Leave a Reply