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The Warriors Lost Their Religion This Summer

Finally, after a seismic NBA free-agency stretch that was like nothing we’ve ever seen before, things have quieted down, and all the moving and shaking has just about ceased. This is the calm before the storm; one in which a wide array of teams may feel they have a shot at winning an NBA title.

With all this in mind, we pieced together four questions that lie ahead for a handful of teams before the league goes into its late-summer slumber.

Will the Warriors have enough defense?

Losing Kevin Durant was an obvious blow for Golden State, but even if you set aside his departure, you could intelligently argue that the club lost its heart and soul this summer.

This isn’t a reference to Andre Iguodala alone. (Though some would make the claim that he is — or at least wasthat vital all by himself.) Instead, it’s more a nod to the smothering style of defense the Warriors figure to lose without him, Shaun Livingston and, to some extent, Durant.

Simply put: It’s not clear if Golden State will be elite again on the defensive side of the ball without the versatility, speed, synchronization and smarts they once enjoyed. The Warriors will always be known for their incredible perimeter shooting. But what was often lost was their ability to repeatedly pull off ridiculous comebacks because of their defense, which exposed other teams’ inability to play small.

There were signs that the “Death Lineup” was beginning to lose steam throughout this past season, something that became apparent as Iguodala (and even more so with Livingston) were growing older and slowing down. But there will be a steep learning curve this season with so many new faces on the team — especially without the rehabbing Klay Thompson in the lineup for months.

Golden State, which ranked No. 1 in defensive efficiency in 2014-15 — the first season of their five consecutive trips to the NBA Finals — has since finished sixth in 2015-16, second in 2016-17, No. 11 in 2017-18 and No. 11 in 2018-19. And by plugging in D’Angelo Russell and Willie Cauley-Stein,1 it wouldn’t be all that surprising if the Warriors fall into the bottom third of the league defensively.

There are some potential upsides to this, of course. Former Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green could view this situation — critics counting the Warriors out now, the lack of standout defenders around him2, and his upcoming free agency3 — as a personal challenge. And if the Warriors do end up being lackluster on D, it could make for some fun shootouts.

But on some level, it really does feel like the engine that once made this team unbeatable — their suffocating defense — has been replaced with one that simply doesn’t have the same gears.

How will the Bucks’ Malcolm Brogdon gamble play out?

There will understandably be considerable attention surrounding Brooklyn and possibly Philadelphia out East heading into the regular season, but it will be intriguing to see how the Bucks fare following their 60-win season. Going into the summer, we knew that Milwaukee was going to be doing damage control in free agency, with Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, Brook Lopez and Nikola Mirotic all hitting the market.

The club batted .500 in terms of retention, losing Brogdon4 — a restricted free agent the Bucks could’ve kept had they been willing to go into the luxury tax — and Mirotic (to Europe) while maxing out Middleton and hanging onto Lopez.

How successful this summer was for Milwaukee will ultimately come down to whether the Bucks can take the next step, and much of that is rooted in the team’s guard play. Brogdon was solid as could be, and now will hand the reins fully to inconsistent playoff performer Eric Bledsoe5 and 33-year-old George Hill, who was impressive in the postseason. Surrounding Giannis Antetokounmpo with catch-and-shoot threats like Kyle Korver and Wes Matthews6 could also help, as could Robin Lopez, Brook’s long-haired twin brother, who will make an impact defensively and on the glass.

Of course, Giannis could render much of this moot if he makes another leap this season. (Shooting more consistently from three — which he showed glimpses of after New Year’s — would be one way of accomplishing this.) Still, Brogdon’s ability to handle, defend, shoot and create competently was really integral to this team. It remains to be seen whether the Bucks can replace enough of those things piecemeal with this new roster, but it certainly feels like a lot could be riding on the answer to that key factor.

The Thunder are still kind of interesting. But are they a playoff team?

There’s no question that this has been a tough offseason for Thunder fans to swallow, even if it was relatively clear that the Russell Westbrook-and-Paul George-led team wasn’t going anywhere.

The franchise has cashed in its stagnant present for a future full of first-round picks, yet still has a lot of talent left on the roster, including a 34-year-old Chris Paul (with a contract that could age like a used diaper); Danilo Gallinari; Steven Adams; and talented guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

Understandably, most have written off Oklahoma City for this coming season now that the rebuild is just about in full-swing with George and Westbrook out the door. But people shouldn’t mistake that the team can’t compete on the court — at least not yet.

Yes, the wheels may come all the way off health-wise if Paul and Gallinari log heavy minutes (it seems a safe bet that one or both won’t finish the season on the Thunder roster). But it’s also not inconceivable in the slightest that OKC’s new core could make an unlikely run at a playoff spot. The team, deficient in shooting for the longest time, now has some perimeter threats. Turnovers will decrease by swapping Westbrook for Paul. The club’s defense could also take a step forward with the new cast and by bringing back Andre Roberson, one of the league’s premier stoppers before getting injured and missing all of last year.

This isn’t a suggestion that the Thunder will be better. They probably won’t be. But our current projections have them finishing 41-417 — a mark that would leave them just two games out of the projected No. 8 spot out West (while getting them into the East playoffs somewhat comfortably). So while few, if any, would give OKC a chance of reaching the playoffs in the crowded West, crazier things have happened. Until the club sells off more parts, there’s still enough talent.

Will the Pistons’ smaller moves make up for the bigger one that didn’t happen?

No, Detroit didn’t land Westbrook via trade. But even without the former MVP — who would’ve clogged their cap space even more, all without definitively making them even the third-best club in the East — it’s easy to see how the Pistons might have gotten at least slightly better for this coming season.

Similar to the Thunder, Detroit had issues with outside shooting — even when opponents abandoned defending the perimeter altogether. As such, the Pistons made a draft-night deal with the salary-shedding Bucks to acquire Tony Snell — and the 30th pick in the draft, which Detroit opted to flip for multiple second-rounders — who’s knocked down triples at around a 40 percent clip each of the past three seasons in Milwaukee.

Beyond that, you might remember how mightily the Pistons struggled last season when backup guard Ish Smith, of all people, was out of the lineup. (The team saw one of the biggest win-loss-percentage swings in the entire NBA depending on whether he played.) So the team sought to find a bigger, higher-scoring replica in Smith, and did so by signing Derrick Rose.

The obvious question here is whether Rose, who for years was railroaded by his own injury problems, will be healthy enough to be a consistent enough upgrade at the position. But if he is and can score anywhere near as efficiently as he did last season, it would give Detroit another much-needed scoring threat, and another player, aside from Blake Griffin or Reggie Jackson, to set up players like Snell and sharpshooter Luke Kennard. And on some level, Rose, doing that would give the Pistons a poor man’s version of Westbrook — and a former MVP who doesn’t further cripple the team’s future cap scenario the way a Westbrook acquisition would have done.

Footnotes

  1. A player who was a beast defensively in college, but hasn’t come anywhere near that level on D at the pro level yet.

  2. With the exception of Thompson when healthy and center Kevon Looney

  3. If he doesn’t sign an extension this summer

  4. While getting a first-round pick protected in the top-14 from 2020 to 2025 and two future second-rounders from Indiana — an admittedly decent consolation, but not one that figures to move the needle considering this team needs to win now in hopes of convincing Giannis Antetokounmpo to sign a long-term extension.

  5. Whose postseason true-shooting percentage numbers have now dropped from 62 percent and 55 percent in 2012 and 2013 to 51 percent and just 49 percent in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

  6. Milwaukee would be wise to tell Matthews that posting up isn’t allowed after how that went last season, when he shot 39 percent from 2-point range.

  7. Surprisingly better than both the Blazers and the Spurs, who made the playoffs last season.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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