Most assumed after Kevin Durant left the Golden State Warriors in 2019 that their time atop the NBA mountain had come to an end.

There appeared to be significant evidence to support that school of thought when the Warriors spent the 2019-20 in the cellar as Stephen Curry joined Klay Thompson in being sidelined through injury, and an Achilles injury suffered by the latter helped leave Golden State ill-equipped to compete in 2020-21.

But after a season in which the Warriors meshed championship experience and difference-making youth, Golden State heads into the 2022-23 campaign back at the summit having seen off the Boston Celtics in six games in last term's NBA Finals.

Curry added the missing component of his Hall of Fame resume, winning Finals MVP for the first time in his illustrious career, and he and the Warriors are the bookmakers' favourites to lift the Larry O'Brien Trophy for the fifth time in nine seasons.

Yet their build-up to the new campaign is a reminder of the many obstacles, including internal ones, that can scupper hopes of sustained success, with Thompson held out of exhibition games in his first preseason since 2018-19 and an altercation between Draymond Green and Jordan Poole in which the former punched his young team-mate, overshadowing Golden State's preparations for a push for a second successive title.

It is an extremely difficult situation to navigate with both Green and Poole looking to receive lucrative contract extensions, and whether the Warriors can overcome the discord between two key players will play a huge role in their ability to successfully defend their crown, but what will be the other key factors, and who will be their primary competition? Stats Perform looks at the Warriors' odds of fending off their rivals and improving their standing among the best dynasties in NBA history.

Staying strong on defense

Though Curry was the obvious centrepiece of the Warriors' championship push, they would not have regained the title without the defensive strength displayed throughout the campaign.

Golden State allowed 105.5 points per game, the third-fewest in the NBA, with opponents shooting just 43.8 per cent against them from the field. Only the Celtics (43.4 per cent) fared better in that regard.

Though those numbers ballooned to 111.9 points per game and a field goal percentage of 48 in the postseason overall, the Warriors' Finals performance was in part defined by four stellar defensive performances.

Indeed, in each of their four Finals wins, the Warriors did not allow the Celtics to score 100 points. Boston's average points total across those games was 92.25. For context, the lowest points per game total in the regular season was the Oklahoma City Thunder's 103.7.

Though his standing is likely at an all-time low after the incident with Poole, Green is still the heartbeat of the defense. His defensive rating of 102.8 was the sixth-best among players to have featured in at least 50 regular-season games last season.

Green never lacks for motivation, but the fact he does not have an extension from Golden State and likely lost a lot of leverage after his fight with Poole may add even more fuel to his eternal fire. Andrew Wiggins (defensive rating - 105.4), whose defense on Jayson Tatum in the Finals drew effusive praise will also be key to the Warriors' success to containing opponents, while Kevon Looney (107.2) and returning veteran Andre Iguodala (97 in 31 games) will be tasked with providing crucial support on the defensive end.

Yet with Gary Payton II (102.2) and Otto Porter Jr. (103.2) departing for pastures new in free agency, the Warriors must replace the impact they had off the bench if they are to remain one of the NBA's premier defensive teams. While the Warriors made a free-agent addition with their defense in mind, there will be a significant onus on recent high-profile draft selections to have a consistent influence on that end of the floor.

The kids are (hopefully) alright

The Warriors did move to address the departures of Payton and Porter by signing Donte DiVincenzo, a member of the Milwaukee Bucks' championship-winning team whose defensive rating of 108.9 since entering the NBA in 2018 is tied for 43rd among players to have featured in at least 200 games in that span.

But the Warriors will also have been comfortable letting Payton and Porter walk because of the faith they have in recent draft picks to contribute on the defensive end.

Jonathan Kuminga finished his rookie year level with Payton for rebounds per 48 minutes with 9.5, and he was fourth on the team with 7.3 defensive boards every 48 minutes. The Warriors will look for him to use his exciting athleticism to harness that same efficiency over a higher number of minutes in 2022-23.

Moses Moody, the second of the Warriors' two 2021 first-rounders, had five defensive rebounds per 48 minutes and is seen as a player who could thrive as a three-and-d player at the highest level.

The three-ball provided significant joy for rookie Patrick Baldwin Jr. in the Warriors' second of two games with the Washington Wizards in Japan, in which he went four of five from deep. Any first-year success for Baldwin would be a luxury for Golden State. By contrast, they will likely view third-year strides from former second overall pick James Wiseman as a necessity.

Wiseman did not feature in the Warriors' championship campaign due to setbacks in his recovery from the torn meniscus that ended his rookie year. He has played only 39 games in the NBA having featured in just three in college, but the flashes he produced in his first year and in this year's Summer League provided evidence he can blossom into a dynamic center at both ends of the court for a team that has long since lacked a definitive answer at the 5 spot.

The Warriors do not lack answers in the frontcourt. The question they face this season is how they will divide the minutes of the three players who produced pivotal play at guard last campaign.

Stick with the Splash Brothers or go to the Poole party?

The Splash Brothers finally reunited last season as Thompson made his long awaited return from injury after over two years on the sideline.

By the time he made his comeback, the Warriors already had a 29-9 record, with their success in large part down to the combination Curry had formed with Poole, the Warriors' 2019 first-round pick who blossomed into a key part of their rotation.

Poole averaged 30 minutes a game in his third season and a career-high 18.5 points per game despite giving his starting role back to Thompson.

Across a much smaller sample size of 32 games compared to Poole's 76, Thompson averaged 20.4 points in his comeback season, though there is a case to be made the Warriors were more effective with Poole on the court.

Poole had a plus-minus per game of 4.3 to Thompson's 2.1 and had a marginally better field goal percentage. Thompson shot 42.9 per cent from the field while Poole converted on 44.8 per cent of field goal attempts. 

As Thompson went cold in the NBA Finals, shooting at a 35.6 per cent clip, Poole shot 43.5 per cent against the Celtics and rattled through half of his field goal attempts in the postseason overall.

It is too early, though, to make the judgement that Thompson's best days are behind him and head coach Steve Kerr should lean more towards the energetic Poole. The challenge for Kerr is to find balance between relying on the spot-up ability of arguably the best catch-and-shoot player of the modern era and the young spark-plug with a well-rounded offensive game who can produce dazzling finishes at the basket and confound defenses with deep shooting.

 

Even if Kerr, who has suggested Thompson could play power forward this season, initially struggles to find that balance, it is unlikely to stop the Warriors from thriving, so long as Curry is available to Golden State. Curry's plus-minus per game of 7.9 was the second-best in the NBA last campaign, one that ended with him silencing any critics questioning his resume by averaging 31.2 points per game in the six games with the Celtics to win his first Finals MVP award.

The need for the right mix of Curry, Thompson and Poole will come if the former endures a drop-off, but having three players of their talents allows Kerr to be more experimental in the regular season and better preserve the two-time MVP for the postseason, when those looking to dethrone the Warriors will face the substantial challenge of trying to stymie his enduring brilliance.

West rivals flawed, but Bucks could set up mouth-watering Finals

The Warriors aren't short of challengers blessed with star power in the Western Conference, but it's tough to pick out many who have an overall roster that looks as strong as the one Kerr has as its disposal.

While the Phoenix Suns have an established but still youthful core that could allow them to push the Warriors, they are coming off an extremely chaotic offseason and will again be relying on 38-year-old Chris Paul as creator-in-chief. Curry's history of success against the 'Point God' suggests that is a matchup stacked firmly in Golden State's favour.

By contrast, Kawhi Leonard has consistently been a thorn in the side of the Warriors and he and Paul George will hope to lead a success-starved Los Angeles Clippers franchise to glory. However, such hopes rely on Leonard returning to his best in the wake of a long lay-off with a partially torn ACL. Similarly, the Denver Nuggets have the back-to-back MVP in Nikola Jokic, but his support comes from players in Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. who are both returning from long spells on the sideline. Without that pair, the Warriors breezed to a 4-1 first-round win over the Nuggets last season.

That was also the margin in the Western Conference Finals as the Warriors beat Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks. Simply put, the Slovenian superstar did not have enough around him, especially on defense, for the Mavs to compete with Golden State, and the Memphis Grizzlies were ill-equipped to upset the Warriors once Ja Morant went out with a knee injury in the previous round.

The problem is the same for so many teams in the West, who do not have the depth to beat the Warriors over seven games. The Los Angeles Lakers possess a star-studded lineup with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook on the roster, but Darvin Ham has too many problems to fix surrounding their chemistry and even getting that trio on the court at the same time for the Lakers to be considered a legitimate threat to Golden State at this stage.

It is in the Eastern Conference where the teams that have the best shot of dethroning the Warriors reside. For all the drama in Brooklyn, the combination of Durant, Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons is still one that could deliver a title if their respective talents can be harnessed by Steve Nash, and former Net James Harden and Joel Embiid offer the Philadelphia 76ers a duo that could deliver a long-awaited championship.

Erik Spoelstra's coaching, Jimmy Butler's frequently tireless performances and the well-rounded nature of their roster makes the Miami Heat a tough team to rule out but, in terms of top-end talent and depth, it is the Celtics and the non-Miami team they beat in seven games last season, the Milwaukee Bucks, who stand as the Warriors' biggest threats.

The Celtics' offseason was overshadowed by the scandal surrounding suspended head coach Ime Udoka, but they are led by two stars in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown who are both 25 or under and should be better for the experience of losing in the Finals.

Yet the argument could be made the Celtics never would have got beyond the second round had the Bucks had Khris Middleton available for Game 7.

Giannis Antetokounmpo's athleticism, length and all-round skill set still makes him the most physically fearsome player in the NBA and, when both Middleton and Jrue Holiday are healthy, the Bucks have a big three to rival any team in scoring, facilitation and defense.

Milwaukee had eight players average at least nine points last year and seven are still on the team. Plenty can and will change over the course of a long season but, heading into a year in which everyone will be desperate to knock them off, the team most likely to prevent the Warriors from retaining the trophy is the team that lifted it before them.

Golden State Warriors general manager Bob Myers called Wednesday's practice fight between Draymond Green and Jordan Poole "unfortunate".

Initially reported by The Athletic, Wednesday's session turned heated and led to the two players becoming involved in an altercation.

Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes later claimed "league sources" said "there was a build-up stemming from team-mates noticing a change in Poole’s behaviour throughout camp with the guard on the verge of securing a lucrative extension".

Speaking to the media on Thursday, Myers said fights in practice will always be a part of highly competitive team sports.

"Everybody's fine," he said. "Look, it's the NBA, professional sports, these things happen. Nobody likes it. We don't condone it, but it happened.

"Draymond apologised to the team this morning, Jordan was there in the room, I was there in the room with the team, the coaches, the players and we heard that.

"It's unfortunate, I'm not going to deny it. It'll take some time to move through, but we'll move through it and move forward, and I'm confident that we will. 

"We've got a good team, we've got good leadership, we've got some guys that have been here a long time.

"This isn't our first thing that's happened, first sense of adversity; we've been through some of this before. Don't like going through it, but it's part of the NBA and it's part of sports."

But Myers suggested reports of conflict relating to player contracts were wide of the mark, saying "[it's not about] who's getting paid and who isn't; I don't sense that".

Green was not at practice on Thursday, with Myers adding "space is good" and that time is needed to cool things down. 

Myers finished by saying any potential suspension for Green will be handled internally.

Poole, 23, is coming off a career-best season in which he became a major asset for the championship-winning Warriors, averaging 17 points per game in the playoffs at over 50 per cent shooting while leading the NBA in free throw percentage (92.5 per cent).

This upcoming season will be the last of his rookie contract, and he will be expecting an extension similar to that recently awarded to the Miami Heat's Tyler Herro, in the region of four years and $130million.

Meanwhile, Green is also in a crucial contract year, as after the season he will have the ability to opt out of the final campaign of his four-year, $99m deal to seek what will likely be the last big extension of his career.

The Boston Celtics have made sure to do it the hard way en route to the NBA Finals.

Sometimes this can suggest a team's name is on the trophy; look at Real Madrid's remarkable run in European football's Champions League before winning their record-extending 14th title.

The Celtics, an organisation with similar prestige, will hope they can now follow suit.

After all, this is a team who reached the turn of the year with a 17-19 record under a rookie coach, then recovered to take the second seed in the Eastern Conference.

Having worked so hard to secure home court in the second round of the playoffs, the Celtics lost to a Milwaukee Bucks outfit missing Khris Middleton in Game 5, falling 3-2 behind in the series and requiring another fightback.

Then the Celtics again failed to make the most of the Boston crowd in the Eastern Conference Finals, allowing the Miami Heat to return home for a Game 7.

Still, the Celtics made it through, and now they must take on the Golden State Warriors, back in contention and looking to extend the sort of dynasty Madrid would be proud of.

The Warriors are going to their sixth Finals in eight seasons; Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green have played in each of them.

On the other hand, the Celtics are in their first Finals since 2010 – Curry's rookie season. Not a single member of the Boston roster has reached this stage before.

And yet, against the Warriors of all teams, the Celtics should have little to fear.

This is a battle of defense versus offense – Boston allowed a league-low 104.5 points per game in the regular season, while Golden State have scored a season-high 114.5 points per game in the playoffs – and it is a battle the Celtics have won numerous times in recent seasons.

In the 10 years since the Steph-Klay-Draymond Warriors came together, the Celtics are 10-10 against Golden State. Boston are the only team with a winning record (9-7) against Steve Kerr's Warriors, and they are a hugely impressive 7-3 in this matchup since drafting Jayson Tatum in 2017.

Before splitting this season's two-game series, the Celtics had won five in a row against the Warriors.

The key to this success has been defense. The Celtics have held both the Steph-Klay-Draymond Warriors (103.3 points per game) and Kerr's Warriors (104.4) to fewer points than any other defense. The same is true of Boston in Tatum's five years in the league, during which they have outscored Golden State 110.7-103.1 on average.

In Curry and Thompson, the Warriors boast two of the best shooters of all time, yet the Celtics have repeatedly forced them to take bad shots.

In the past five years, the Warriors have attempted just 83.2 field goals per game against the Celtics – only mustering fewer against the Detroit Pistons (80.8) – yet they have had a lofty 36.5 three-point attempts on average in these games. That means 43.9 per cent of Golden State's field goal attempts against the Celtics since 2017 have come from beyond the arc, attempting a higher percentage of their shots from deep against the Brooklyn Nets alone (44.1).

Given the talent in this Warriors team, shooting from range is not generally an issue, yet they have made just 31.8 per cent of those threes – again only performing worse against the Nets (31.4 per cent).

This has contributed to the Warriors making a meagre 43.1 per cent of their field goals against the Celtics, comfortably their worst rate against any team over this period.

Still, with the title on the line, the Warriors will undoubtedly back themselves to overcome this hurdle.

Curry (52.6 per cent), Thompson (50.0) and Jordan Poole (50.0) are all counted among the 10 players to attempt 10 or more contested shots (with the closest defender within two feet) and make at least half in this postseason.

Curry and Poole are two of only five players to make such a shot from three-point range, although that Golden State trio are a combined two-for-eight from beyond the arc in these circumstances – a record that does not look quite so bad next to Heat wing Max Strus' miserable one-for-seven shooting on contested threes. Four of those low-percentage shots came in the Celtics series alone.

The Warriors have not yet faced an elite defense in this playoff run, with the four best teams on that end of the floor operating in the East.

It figures that the best offense should emerge from the West, where teams averaged 109.2 points per game in the postseason, while the standout defense came out of the East, with playoff teams averaging 103.9 points.

The Finals will surely, therefore, be decided by what sort of series this becomes.

Tatum may be out to prove himself as one of the best players in the world, but the Celtics' success in keeping Curry, Thompson and Poole quiet is likely to be far more pivotal to their hopes.

As long ago as December, when his team were toiling, Celtics coach Ime Udoka explained: "The identity is to rely on defense, be a great defensive team and give ourselves a chance every night as far as that."

They have done that just about ever since – and now it is time to prove their winning identity can be a title-winning identity.

Memphis Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins told reporters on Sunday "there's a really good chance" superstar Ja Morant does not play in Game 4 against the Golden State Warriors.

Morant – who is averaging 38 points, eight assists and six rebounds in the three games against Golden State this series – suffered a knee injury in the fourth quarter of Game 3 after an awkward tangle at mid-court where Jordan Poole appeared to grab and pull his knee.

After the game, Morant took to Twitter and claimed Poole "broke the code" in the incident – referencing Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, who said Dillon Brooks "broke the code" with his flagrant two foul that resulted in Gary Payton's fractured elbow – before deleting the tweet.

Speaking to reporters, Jenkins said "there's probably a really good chance he won't play tomorrow".

The NBA has come out and said it will not be taking any action against Poole for his role in the incident. The Grizzlies trail 2-1, with Game 4 to take place at Golden State before returning to Memphis for Game 5.

 

There are just days remaining in the 2021-22 NBA regular season, but plenty is still on the line.

While the red-hot Phoenix Suns have long since secured the top seed in the Western Conference, four teams retain realistic hopes of leading the East.

Which of their superstar players are in the best shape heading into April, though?

Stats Perform's NBA Heat Check highlights the standout performers of the past month...

RUNNING HOT...

Jayson Tatum

Only the Suns (.867) had a better winning percentage in March than the Boston Celtics (.786, tied with the Memphis Grizzlies and Milwaukee Bucks) – and much of that was due to an outstanding month from three-time All-Star Tatum.

His 32.8 points per game in March ranked third behind LeBron James (34.3) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (33.3) but significantly appeared to represent a major leap, having averaged 25.7 to that point. It was the fourth-largest increase in scoring across the NBA last month.

It figures that Tatum's three-point shooting should also be up, as he made 4.2 threes per game in March, compared to 2.8 previously.

Tatum actually saw the fourth-largest decrease in rebounding, from 8.3 per game to 6.6, but the Celtics were down in this regard across the board and it did not seem to hamper them.

Jordan Poole

As the Celtics climbed in the East, the Golden State Warriors fell in the West – but Poole did more than most to keep them competitive.

Stephen Curry's absence for the second half of the month was the chief factor in the Warriors' fading form, yet Poole is increasingly proving he can be the man to fill the void when the team's superstar guard is out.

Poole was the sole player to see a greater increase in threes made than Tatum in March (2.3 per game to 4.2), while his scoring improved from 16.1 points per game to 25.4 – second only to Drew Eubanks in this regard (4.8 to 15.0).

Those are stunning statistics but remain in line with how Poole has played all season long when Curry has been out. He has started all 12 games he has played without Curry, averaging 35.7 minutes (up from 28.6), 10.7 three-point attempts (up from 6.8), 4.3 three-point makes (up from 2.4), 5.2 assists (up from 3.5) and, admittedly, 3.3 turnovers (up from 2.2).

While taking more shots, Poole's field-goal percentage decreases slightly without Curry, yet his three-point shooting and free-throw percentage are both up, perhaps showing Golden State a future beyond the two-time MVP.

Cade Cunningham

The Detroit Pistons are nowhere near the playoff picture, but March did wonders for Cunningham's Rookie of the Year hopes.

While Evan Mobley suffered an ankle sprain that makes another appearance before the end of the regular season far from certain, Cunningham averaged 22.9 points, up on 16.0. The number one overall pick is up to 17.6 for the year, leading all rookies.

GOING COLD...

D'Angelo Russell

Russell is merely the third man on the Minnesota Timberwolves, but that looked to be evidence of the team's depth of scoring options at the start of March.

Although the T-Wolves remain one of only five teams to have had three different players average 18 or more points while playing in at least 60 games, Russell's scoring has dipped significantly from 19.4 at the end of February to 18.0 now.

Having scored just 13.1 points per game in March, Russell saw the largest decrease in the league, while his fall in three-point shots made (3.0 to 1.7) was also the greatest.

The former Warrior has too often struggled for consistency this season, but his four-point performance in the face of intense Celtics defense last weekend was especially alarming.

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