Klay Thompson’s torn Achilles is not a great balancing out, because the universe’s equilibrium is there for marks to believe in and cheaters to justify their actions with, and because even if you were looking for such a thing, the Golden State Warriors have several decades of bad breaks feeding into the ecstatic era that probably came to an end when Thompson felt his lower left leg go and limped off the practice court a few hours before the NBA draft on Wednesday. There is no justice, only hard work and dumb luck. Klay suffering what’s definitely a season-ending and likely a career-altering injury, out of nowhere and in the course of an ordinary day, does admittedly feel really, really dumb.
To say it throws the Warriors into flux is obvious, but it’s hard to see very far into their future. They’re not going to blow it up, and they can’t find a Klay replacement on the trade market. Golden State figured to be a contender this year, with the same core that won a title in 2015 and 73 games in 2016, and now they can reasonably expect to contend for one of the last playoff spots in the West. Joe Lacob has said they’ll everything they can to make that happen. On Thursday evening, they shipped out a protected first-rounder for Kelly Oubre. That could be the difference between landing the eight seed and ending up in the lottery. It’s funny: the Lakers or Bucks would be thrilled to add a versatile talent like Oubre to their rotation. As a stand-in for Thompson, he’s less enticing.
We tend to talk about teams, even lousy ones, like they’re building toward a championship. This makes a certain amount of sense, because it’s what everyone is trying to do, whether this season or several seasons down the road. We view players through the lens of whether they could contribute in a big playoff series, if they’re on the path to doing so, if they’re soon going to lose their effectiveness due to advancing age. It seems to lend a purpose to their labor, or at least our analysis of it. When you frame every change using ultimate success or failure, from catastrophic injury to a slight uptick in a player’s three-point shooting percentage, you don’t have to make any argument as to why it matters. This is what lazy fiction writers do. Why should we care about what happens in this story, as opposed to a million others? Because the fate of the world is at stake.
The Warriors now resist that reading. At least for this upcoming year, they’re caught in between, and the questions they’ve got—besides the obvious: is Klay ever again going to be his old self?—are small and specific. We’ll want to see what James Wiseman can do, what Andrew Wiggins looks like now that he’s got his feet under him. Steph Curry will probably be chasing the scoring title, out of needing something to do and because he’ll have to carry the offense. Draymond Green will either rage against the broader meaninglessness of his predicament, or he’s going to get kind of fat. The only klaxon-loud headline we’ll read out of Golden State this season is if Oubre detonates Elon Musk’s marriage.
Not immensely exciting stuff. Typically, teams with lofty aspirations settle into a depression when they suffer a meteor strike like Klay’s torn achilles, but these times are atypical. The league restart in Orlando was tough on players, and a few of the squads that got bounced from the playoffs appeared half-relieved in their post-elimination game pressers, but it’s worth noting that they voted overwhelmingly to trek down to Florida in the first place, in large part because they didn’t want to sacrifice game checks, but also because they wanted to hoop. What else did they have going on? It must have been a relief, even as they grew stir-crazy in their cloistered Disney resorts, to get some shots up and talk some trash, feel the pregame nerves as opposed to the dull emotional tinnitus much of the country has been suffering since March.
Mileage will vary, some players like their job more than others, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Warriors showed up for the season in reasonably high spirits, bummed out about their star teammate yet happy to simply play ball, without the weight of heavy expectation. (And with the ability to drive home after games.) Last year was supposed to be a quasi-sabbatical for Steph, where he could freelance on a team without title aspirations, decompress from the sustained stress of annual Finals runs. Then he broke his hand, missed nearly the whole year, and the globe was thrown into chaos by a pandemic. Now he’s healthy. The league is probably going to stage a relatively normal season. The Warriors can be pretty good, if not great. He’s got 35-foot range, a $43 million salary, and a love for the game. That’s enough to enjoy himself with.
You know this from your own life, and it’s true in sports too: there are years when nothing changes, when you are for some reason stalled in your development, perhaps held in place by forces beyond your control, waiting for circumstances to shift. You worry about the future while knowing it has no effect. The best choice, if you can let yourself make it, is to pass the time as pleasantly as possible. Lose yourself in your craft, get seven or eight hours of sleep every night. This is, metaphorically and actually, all the Warriors can do while they anticipate Klay Thompson’s return. There’s no world for them to save, only the accumulation of days into months, wins and losses that move them in no particular direction, temporary accomplishments, the feeling of a breeze dying against your skin. This is an invitation—to what, exactly, is still to be determined. The Warriors have to locate their own purpose, and so do we.