Time to face reality for Warriors

Team should look to next season after injuries to Klay Thompson, Steph Curry

From the jump, everyone in the organization knew this season wouldn’t pass the usual smell or sight test — and definitely not the court test — and they didn’t really need a 19-point opening-night smackdown from the LA Clippers to confirm the suspicions.

They knew, and you knew, and they knew you knew, that the five-year thrill ride had reached the station. Yet the Warriors couldn’t exactly speak truth to power because, well, that’d be kinda-sorta breaking the competition code that says you must ignore the grim warning signs (even when those signs are more in your face than Draymond Green in a bad mood).

But now? Today it’s safe for them to come out, shout it out and get it off their chest and conscious. They may even feel better about it.

The same basketball gods that have been so kind to Golden State this decade just issued it a punishment and a pass the other night. Stephen Curry’s broken left hand is the excuse the Warriors need to concede that, indeed, this is a Gap Year and it’s time to plan and build around 2020-21. They can officially play that card and nobody will blame them, not even those fans who paid roughly a trust fund for those nice seats at the new Chase Center.

Here’s what the Warriors need to do, should do, must do: Preserve Curry and Klay Thompson as much as possible — even if that means shelving them for the year — and pour Draymond a glass of wine after every game because he’ll need it. This is the right course of action, even if that’s a gut-punch for a franchise drunk on success and spoiled by five straight Finals trips.

Yes, it’s Nov. 1 and it’s already time to think about next November for the team that won three of the last five NBA titles. Time to envision a retooled Warriors’ team with a healthy Curry, a healed and restless Thompson, a smoldering Draymond, a possible NBA-ready teenager fresh from the Draft lottery and whomever D’Angelo Russell fetches in a trade. It might be enough to make the two Los Angeles teams pause from their death match and take notice.

This of course means the Warriors are running the risk of uttering the four-letter T-word that the basketball purists abhor. Well, if you stank, you must tank, and the Warriors without the Splash Brothers are all but guaranteed to reek, even in their new home that still has that new-home aroma.

Even with Curry and an abbreviated season from Thompson, the Warriors would’ve scuffled to make the 2020 playoffs in their first season after Kevin Durant. Yes, they’re proud and all that, and you can never underestimate the heart of a champion. Yet this season in the West could belong to LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard — whomever survives that turf battle. Even in a best-case scenario, the Warriors were a one-(round) and-done in the playoffs.

You don’t have time to react to losing players. You continue to develop the young kids, play the way you need to play to win games but also to teach because they’re going to be there next year, for the most part.”

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, offering advice to Warriors coach Steve Kerr

Their first-round pick in 2020 belongs to the Nets if it falls outside the top 20. By understanding if not embracing the reality of the moment, the Warriors can keep their future Hall of Fame backcourt healthy and also maintain their pick (which is likely to fall in the lottery). This team has a history of making wise Draft decisions. This presents a delicious twist: Do you know how hard it is for a team with great players to add a lottery pick? It rarely happens.

This is somewhat similar to, though not exactly like, the 1996-97 San Antonio Spurs. They were fresh off 59- and 62-win seasons, but back and foot injuries limited former MVP winner David Robinson to six games that season. When the Spurs started 3-15, then-general manager Gregg Popovich fired and took over for coach Bob Hill. With Robinson put on ice by Christmas, the Spurs went 20-62. They stunned the NBA world in winning the Draft lottery, snagging Tim Duncan and haven’t had a losing season or missed the playoffs since.

Coincidentally, the Warriors’ first game without Curry will be Friday against the Spurs (10:30 ET, League Pass), who are now stretching their legacy into a third decade. But that ’96-97 season hasn’t been forgotten by those still attached to the organization, such as former Spurs legend and current TV analyst Sean Elliott. That season, he was limited to 39 games because of injury.

“David was such a focal part of the club, that everything we did was predicated on him,” Elliott said. “When you lose him, you just can’t plug in another David. It’s partly going to be a little of that without Steph Curry. He’s so much a part of their offense that you can’t replicate that.”

With Duncan looming as the game-changing No. 1 pick, the tanking accusations were flying — and not just in the direction of the Spurs, but others as well. The Boston Celtics held better odds of winning the lottery yet whiffed. Had they won, Rick Pitino might still be coaching in Boston, as Popovich is in San Antonio. Elliott said the T-word was never spoken of in the locker room.

“Guys were playing hard,” he said. “It wasn’t that we were tanking games. It’s just that everybody had more than what we had.”

Popovich has advice for Steve Kerr, his friend and former protege, as the Warriors coach braces for the inevitable.

“You don’t have time to react to losing players,” said Popovich. “You continue to develop the young kids, play the way you need to play to win games but also to teach because they’re going to be there next year, for the most part. And the players who were hurt are going to come back. You can’t just stagnate. You don’t miss a beat. You just keep going.”

Kerr has nine new players, most of whom are a work in progress and none bring the championship chops necessary to extend a dynasty. The Warriors’ dynasty likely died when Durant bailed to Brooklyn last summer. Before Curry’s injury, Golden State was trying to merely stay in the playoff conversation this season (and maybe pull a surprise if Thompson returned in early spring).

With Curry and Thompson both out for an extended period, the Warriors will likely be buried by then. The blueprint has been hastily rewritten with Jordan Poole and Willie Cauley-Stein and Glenn Robinson III doing heavy lifting. That’s the core right now. And so, why bother playing for today when tomorrow means so much more?

They’ll need to make a decision at some point on Russell, who’s off to a shaky start and won’t have the security blanket of Curry for a chunk of the season at the very least. Do they shop him at the trade deadline? Is he worth more to them in another uniform?

It’s always a hard swallow for teams when forced to make a sudden shift in philosophy and not for the better. It’s about lowering expectations (that weren’t steep to begin with) while watching those championship trophies start to gather dust and wondering what the pavement feels like before the fall.

The tickets at Chase Center have already been sold and those fans aren’t unrealistic. There’s no need for the Warriors to apologize for the long nights coming their way. They can blame circumstances beyond their control.

In certain, dire situations, even teams that don’t try to lose end up losing anyway. This league is about talent. And the once-loaded Warriors, shockingly and suddenly, after five fruitful seasons of living in a make-believe bubble loaded with champagne and championships, are about to learn how the other half lives.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .

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