Heading into the 2022–23 season, the Golden State Warriors were reasonable bets to repeat as champions. However, the team has endured far more bumps on the road back to the playoffs than anyone expected.
Steve Kerr’s crew has spent most of the season hovering around .500 (though they finished 44-38 after winning eight of their last 10 games), with most of their struggles occurring outside of San Francisco. At home, the Warriors have looked every bit like the contenders everyone thought they would be (33-8, fifth in net rating), but they have played like a lottery team everywhere else (11-30, 23rd in net rating).
There are several factors that have contributed to this dip. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Andrew Wiggins have all missed significant time due to either injury or personal reasons. Jordan Poole, who earned a lavish extension this past offseason, has struggled to translate his impressive rate stats (20.4 points per game) into positive team value (minus-0.5 estimated plus/minus). And their bench hasn’t played well enough to paper over these setbacks (17th in net rating).
Despite these problems, some fans and analysts still believe that this struggling team could make another run to the Finals.
Of course, the Warriors’ championship pedigree and top-heavy roster give them a chance in the wide-open Western Conference, but will that be enough?
Wiggins’ impending return breathes some life into that idea. Golden State has been demonstrably better when he plays (plus-5.3 net rating with him, plus-0.3 without him), and his rejoining the Warriors should provide the team with versatile wing defense, solid rebounding (particularly on the offensive end), and marksmanship from 3-point range (39.6 percent on 6.1 attempts per game).
Even if Wiggins doesn’t return at the start of the playoffs — or needs time to re-acclimate once he comes back — the trio of Curry, Thompson, and Draymond Green is more than effective enough to carry this club.
With those three on the floor, the Warriors score 118.5 points per 100 possessions and sport a plus-8.3 net rating, which shouldn’t surprise you if you’ve watched any Warriors games over the last several years. Add Wiggins to the mix, and the offensive rating jumps to 120.4 and the net rating increases to plus-11.9. So, you see why some folks aren’t concerned about the Warriors’ odds at full strength.
It also helps that there’s no clear favorite in the West this year. The Denver Nuggets and the Memphis Grizzlies, the top two seeds in the conference, are still in the “we’ll believe it when we see it” category of contenders. Golden State’s first-round opponent, the Sacramento Kings, has blossomed into one of the league’s most exciting offenses, but it wouldn’t take much imagination to envision a healthy Warriors team dissecting their suspect defense.
The Clippers have the personnel to compete for a championship, but they haven’t played that well since adding Eric Gordon and Russell Westbrook (11-10 record, plus-1.0 net rating since Feb. 22). The Phoenix Suns have looked like a juggernaut in the eight games Kevin Durant has played for them, but can they continue to get by without generating a bunch of looks at the rim (26th in drives per game since the Durant trade) or trips to the line (26th in attempts per 100 this year)?
Everyone on this half of the bracket has as many — if not more — issues as the Warriors. Knowing that, is it unreasonable to accept the idea of a full-strength Warriors squad beating any of these teams in a seven-game series, especially considering how impressive they looked to close the season?
Still, it doesn’t immunize Golden State from its own risks. They’re still depending on a heavy workload and pristine health from one of the older rosters in the league (while knowing that any hitch in the plan would force them to turn to their ho-hum bench for quality minutes). And the lack of home-court advantage makes ignoring their road woes harder to do.
Even if those things go right, it won’t be easy for the Warriors to get out of the West. But this team has too much skill and chemistry for anyone to dismiss their chances. The idea that a team can “flip the switch” and suddenly play well after producing months of mediocre basketball is, at best, foolhardy. If any team can do it, though, it’s the Warriors.