The Golden State Warriors have had enough time off that when they do return to practice, let alone actual games, they will feel like an expansion team. That's how much has happened since they immortalized their 15-50 record with the longest break in NBA history.
Mostly, though, the benefits of recency bias have given us a series of new very difficult teams to play, and for the first time since 2014 they are just part of a crowded field. Trust me, it'll be fun.
Even in the years in which they had the best record, they only won by double digits once, in 2015. In 2016, when they won 73, San Antonio won 67. But in none of the five years did they look like a team that couldn't boatrace the field once they set their minds and bodies to it.
But now? The one good team they can lord their position over is the Los Angeles Clippers, who not only removed the sting of the Warriors blowing a 3-1 lead but managed it by playing three consecutive second halves as though they were the Minnesota Timberwolves, only with less interest.
But the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets, the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat, and the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks and… well, actually the Clippers, too, if they have the gumption to take their humble and turn it into a driving force that being granted a title ahead of time didn't. If you were of a mind to, you might even throw the Phoenix Suns into the grinder just because they did bubbleball so well, or the Brooklyn Nets because they'll have a refitted roster by then...
In any event, what we have come to learn, other than the fact that the 2020-21 season is going to be able to drop the 2020 part, is that the Warriors end their nine-month pit stop in a much more crowded position on the track. They'll have to treat the regular season as more than an extended preseason because they'll be fighting for positioning, and maybe even a berth itself. The assumptions that Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson and Draymond Green and the whole gang will be back and either as good as new or even better are merely that — assumptions. Not that they can't do this, but that it's finally going to be what most seasons should be.
A struggle with other good teams to see who can not just survive and advance but do it while ducking overhead explosions and shrapnel from every corner.
Good. Struggles are fun. Struggles are educational. Struggles keep the audience engaged. If 2015 or 2017 had been a movie, people would have walked out because there was so little tension. The Warriors might not find it quite so cheery; the first championship is always the best and in Golden State's case, it truly was all of that. But having to live on the adrenaline of constant necessary competition can be a hoot if you're the sort of who watches every game like a hobbyless lunatic.
So enjoy the conference finals and see in them more teams that can make the Warriors sweat. Contrary to popular belief, that's good entertainment.