SAN FRANCISCO, CA – In a matter of months, the once-unbeatable Warriors have gone from a starting lineup featuring five All-Stars to a cast of youngsters almost nobody knows.
At least to start the season they had staples Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Kevon Looney to lean on for leadership.
Now, Curry and Looney are hurt and Green is dealing with a balky back. And the Warriors have looked anything but dominant during a 1-3 start.
"It's been a tough start for us on many levels, so we're just trying to find our footing," coach Steve Kerr said. "This puts us in a tough spot, so we'll assess it and go from there."
Curry joined Splash Brother Klay Thompson as the latest sidelined star. The two-time MVP broke his left hand in a 121-110 loss to Phoenix on Wednesday night and it remained unclear a day later how long he might be sidelined, while Splash Brother Thompson could miss the entire season recovering from July 2 surgery for a torn ACL in his left knee that he hurt in a Game 6 loss in the NBA Finals that gave Toronto its first title. Curry underwent a CT scan Thursday but the team said it would have specialists evaluate the results before providing an update on his status.
However long he is out, it hurts for far more than what he brings on the court. Curry's presence in the locker room provides an example for the young Warriors, and he is their longest-tenured player and their oldest at age 31. It will be up to players like Russell and Green to help keep things afloat for the time being.
Many already consider it a lost season, with playoff hopes in the powerful Western Conference grim at best. Golden State might instead be lining itself up for a lottery pick in next year's NBA draft.
Still, Curry posted a smiling photo of himself, with the hand heavily wrapped, Thursday on his Instagram account with the message: "Appreciate all the love/texts/support all that ... Be back soon!"
The two-time MVP drove to his left defended by Kelly Oubre Jr. and, with Aron Baynes standing solidly in the paint, trying to draw a charge. Curry leapt with the ball then came down head first landing awkwardly on his hands to brace himself from the court, with Baynes crashing onto Curry's left hand. Curry grimaced in pain grabbing his hand then walked to the locker room with 8:31 left in the third quarter.
D'Angelo Russell has done this before, forced to take on a far bigger role just last season because of injuries in Brooklyn. And now the new Golden State guard must do it again with a suddenly short-handed backcourt. Russell understands he faces a tall task.
"Definitely trying to take on that leadership role and continue to get better every year with being able to lead guys on what I see and what I've been through," he said. "It's definitely a similar situation, but it's going to be tougher. We've got a lot of young guys that are going to be forced to mature and step up, so I'm looking forward to it as well. ... It's an opportunity. Go back to the drawing board with the team and the coaching staff, and see what we can do to prepare for each game day in and day out. The big thing I see is just opportunity for a lot of people."
In fact, Kerr planned to gather his staff Thursday — the player development coaches have already been working on overload — for a serious meeting of the minds to figure out how to push ahead and what combinations might work going forward with so many men down. Golden State already was missing key big man Looney, who is dealing with a hamstring injury and scheduled to see specialists next week because of an "on-going presence of a neuropathic condition in his body."
The challenge of putting a winning team on the court now seems daunting. The rookies have been thrown into action right away out of necessity — not the norm with these Warriors in recent years.
"We just got to make up for it by playing hard and playing together, and making sure we're together the time he's out," said rookie Eric Paschall, who made his first career start and scored a team-high 20 points against the Suns.
The losses have been ugly — Phoenix led 43-14 after the first quarter — at home in new Chase Center, where the Warriors are winless and hardly have that imposing home-court advantage that Oracle Arena provided night after night across the bay in Oakland.
Two players returned from injuries Wednesday to make their debuts with Golden State: center Willie Cauley-Stein and guard Alec Burks.
General manager Bob Myers mentioned months ago this would be a rebuilding season for the Warriors in many ways.
The Warriors' recent fortunes also shed light on just how much must go right to win a championship, let alone reach five straight NBA Finals and capture three titles in four years.
There are nine players age 23 or younger.
"I don't know how long it'll take. It'll take as long as it takes, I guess," Myers said at media day. "... I do know this: We believe that things take time to evolve, and we're prepared especially with a younger roster to allow that to happen, and that's the mindset that we have from a coaching staff, from a front office staff, is 'let's see how things are going before we make any blanket decisions or judgment on any of it.' But we're excited. I mean, look, we're excited about the youth. We're excited about the unknown. In years past we've had a lot of known, which has been fantastic, but this is different."
Notes: The Warriors on Thursday announced they have exercised the third-year contract options for the 2020-21 season on guard Jacob Evans III and forward Omari Spellman.