THE WARRIORS PRESENT: KLAY THOMPSON IN THE SUN

(Corbin got jammed up when the season started, so some of the previews lulled. We will post them over the next two days or so. The first is a Dubs preview by Katie Heindl, the Basketball Feelings Wizard)

Klay Thompson in the sun. 

That’s how I was going to start this preview before he got hurt, so I’m sticking to it.

Thompson on the beach, doing yoga at dawn or the golden hour or both. Thompson on boats, sitting alone at the bow, squinting and smiling out at the water. Thompson at the precipice of a very high hill, shirtless, making a bodybuilder pose out at the water. Thompson back on boats, dropping anchor so he can, the caption says, play chess all day.

Klay Thompson had one of the greatest summers anyone could have in the year 2020. Before that, sidelined since Game 6 of the 2019 Finals, he’d had what seemed like a pretty good, well I’m not sure what to call it, because it felt like an offseason but the early part was filled with Thompson probably going through a difficult recovery process and the latter half, like when the NBA bubble started in Orlando, was when the boats started. And then he got hurt again.

If this all seems secondary to the season the Warriors are starting then you’re wrong. Because where the Warriors are — a pretty rough looking team with a lot of root-for-able qualities — is somewhere they haven’t been in years.

It’s hard to decide what came first: the Warriors being good or the Warriors being hated. That first 2015 title of this same core was triumphant, but it didn’t hold to the most beloved narrative of sports — the underdog winning, the good guys taking it. LeBron James getting the Cavs all the way there was the final heaving arc on his redemption curve, and might have been the more storybook of a win. Maybe that’s why it took no time for the 2016 Warriors to clinch their spot as league villains. A golden behemoth that garnered vitriol so caustic it could’ve melted steel. Them blowing it in 2016 only made it worse, because they didn’t just come back better, they came back with Kevin Durant. It was like being razzed on the playground for your shoes and showing up the next week with an entirely new, tags still on, wardrobe. It was so obvious. So effortful. But what did they care, they went on to win two years straight.

It’s not that Golden State’s been a team in decline so much as they’ve been a team that’s been vanished. After the start of the 2019-2020 season, when it was clear Draymond Green and Steph Curry couldn’t sustain this on their own, when it stopped feeling fun to revel in how far the mighty had fallen down the rankings, there was a collective looking away. The Warriors weren’t mentioned until some thought to notice how strange it was to see a postseason, weird as it was, without them. But even then it felt like amnesia, felt like trying to pin down a word that’s been running around the backstage of your brain before blinking, giving up on it.

If you said you thought it would be possible for everyone to forget about a team that employed Steph Curry you’d be lying through your teeth.

Smack dab in that fugue state was when Thompson emerged for the first time back out into the world, perched on the front of a pleasurecraft and smiling. A new identity started to materialize around the Warriors due in large part to Thompson. Shoved so far out of the spotlight, with a roster like a pickup game, they spent an unrecognizable season in stubborn pursuit. Stubborn because it’s difficult to just give up on being not only good, but the very best, and unrecognizable because after Curry busted his hand on Devil’s Night the lineup most games looked like Green and several guys you swore you knew from somewhere. Green, too, seemed to phase in and out of the season, shouldering a strange load of leader and identity keeper, when really he’s most comfortable as a very jacked up heckler. He seemed easier with himself when he became a part time broadcaster during the bubble, with a necessary distance from the floor, than he did for the large and lonely part of the season he was out on it alone.

Maybe it’s because for the first time in so long, they were quiet, too. Half of that isn’t their fault, was the incessant chatter of the discourse and media when they were at their best, but the 2019-2020 Warriors seemed a team internalizing. Which is why Thompson (and whoever was taking these beautiful photos) was perfect with all these solitary trips out in the sun. You didn’t feel so sad for Thompson luxuriating in his enjoyment of a very long breather, and didn’t feel so bad for the Warriors when you remembered they were still playing basketball, because you knew they would be back.

But now, in a league with a topography that morphs and melts like a live volcano, the landscape looks completely different. Golden State had a good chance if it came back this season to get a handle on where they fit given how many contending teams went through the Orlando exercise, or are now collectively getting a handle on what late December basketball will feel like. But given the relative parity of both conferences going into 2020-2021, how in-game dynamics have changed, the size shift, and a lot more hard to place intangibles, what the Warriors come back to is going to feel akin to waking from a coma.

But this season. Right. It’s hard to get a handle on the time you’re talking in, when time has all but quit.

For Golden State this season could be lightness, a sunny fluke. It could have Curry and Green acquiesce to how awkward some of their new, young teammates look, commit to bringing them around. James Wiseman is all torque and rangy fearlessness where Andrew Wiggins still seems so goddamn nervous of intention, any at all. Marquese Chriss loves to crash — boards, screens, into people — and plays with such a complete lack of reluctance, like he’s never even stubbed a toe before. Kent Bazemore and Kelly Oubre Jr. are just beacons, all light and alacrity, very happy to be there. This season could also be difficult for the team’s lonely core, Curry and Green huddled together like Jupiter and Saturn in their conjunction. Two impossibly big entities brought together by the natural course of their careers aligning, but already shifting away from each other. 

It’s where Thompson comes in, even if he can’t. In how much the team rallies behind him, even the idea of him. That they need to stick it out enough so that the thing he left behind is still there when he gets back. It’s also where the Warriors come full circle, or a little more oblong, to where they were headed when Thompson was still going to be on the floor this week — being a likeable team again. 

Whether it was out of curiosity, or the craning look of derision, or because after what felt like a season and a half for how long it went everyone remembered who the Warriors were and that they, maybe, missed them, Golden State was going to be back. There were, are, new villains, new juggernauts, new cloying dynasties, and among them the Warriors were going to look like underdogs, outliers. It wasn’t dramatic at all watching their season opener against the Nets and Durant, I’m not sure it would have been even with Thompson in the mix. They’ve leapfrogged out of the rivalries and old storylines because they spent a season so far removed from the throbbing and fickle heart of the league’s stagecraft. They’re not all Klay Thompson in the sun, like I’m not sure Green has the patience for that, but they are, a little, holding their breath, wanting so bad to be good again. And for the first time in years we want that too.

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