The NBA is a narrative-driven league that feeds on teams and players that are making noise at any given point in time. In recent seasons, the Golden State Warriors—and LeBron James—were the centers of this universe, largely owed to the fact that the Dubs and James’ Cleveland Cavaliers faced off in the NBA Finals in the past three seasons. James still commands the spotlight like only he can, but as we approach the 2018 NBA playoffs, the Warriors have been reduced to an afterthought, overshadowed by a Houston Rockets team that’s well on its way to the top seed in the Western Conference. But just because the defending champions haven’t churned out the usual title-driven narratives we’ve all gotten used to, it doesn’t mean that their status has been diminished.
As good as James Harden and the Rockets have been, as good as Damian Lillard and the Portland Trailblazers have been too, the road to an NBA title in the Western Conference still goes through Oakland, California.
We suppose it’s normal to see the Warriors’ vulnerability given the rash of injuries they've had just as the playoffs approach. Stephen Curry went down with an ankle sprain, missed six games, came back, and sprained his MCL in his first game back. His co-Splash Brother, Klay Thompson, is also banged up with a thumb injury that has forced him to miss the last seven games. Kevin Durant went down a game later with bruised ribs. He’s missed the last six games, though he is reportedly close to returning. Draymond Green’s been out for the last three games because of a combination of injuries and illnesses, but like KD, he’s also close to returning.
That’s the current state of the Warriors. It’s hardly a surprise that in the games where they were without at least three of their superstars, the team posted a pedestrian 3-4 record. This is the narrative that’s going to carry Golden State in the playoffs, but let’s also not kid ourselves into thinking that the Warriors are vulnerable. They may be now, when the remaining games they have are practically meaningless now that they’ve all but locked up the second seed in the West.
Curry’s going to be out for some time, but Durant’s coming back, possibly as early as Friday. Green is also targeting a return on the same day, while Thompson could return to the lineup by next week. In other words, they’re going to be as close to full strength by the time the playoffs start in a little over two weeks.
Hopping on the Rockets’ bandwagon may be the cool thing to do these days. It certainly doesn’t come without reason considering the kind of season Harden has been having. It’s also understandable to start looking at the Blazers as a legitimate title contender now that Dame has ascended to full-fledged superstar status. The rest of the West can make some noise, too. Anthony Davis has been an eater of worlds for the New Orleans Pelicans. The Oklahoma City Thunder are trending in the right direction. Who knows what to make of the San Antonio Spurs, Minnesota Timberwolves, and Utah Jazz. There are cases to be made for all of these teams to make a deep run in the playoffs.
But just because you can make cases for all those teams, that doesn’t mean you can just ignore the wounded giant that still casts the biggest shadow over the NBA, bigger even than the Rockets and James Harden’s beard.
That giant is on the mend. It’s happening slowly, sure, but when that giant is up and about and ready to roll, the whole league will need to make their preparations. The NBA title still goes through Oakland, California, and the Golden State Warriors.
How’s that for a narrative?