Can the Warriors return to Western Conference elite? That leap hinges on one man’s health – East Bay Times

From his boat in June, Klay Thompson went on a live Instagram broadcast and clearly stated the Warriors’ goal next season: “2022 NBA champs.”

That would be quite the swing for a team that has missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons. Even after a busy offseason that saw Golden State revamp its depth, Thompson remains the biggest potential addition.

Regardless of how a pair of lottery picks or newly-acquired veterans work out, the Warriors’ ceiling will almost entirely be determined by the effectiveness of Thompson.

“With a healthy Klay Thompson, I think we’re right there with everybody,” general manager Bob Myers said. “But I don’t know when, or how, I expect him to come back healthy. I don’t want to put any pressure on the date because it’s not going to be at the start of the season. It’s not going to be the first game.”

This is because it typically takes 12 months to rehabilitate from an Achilles tear. That puts the earliest return for Thompson, who missed all of last season after tearing his Achilles in November, at nearly a month into the regular season that tips Oct. 19.

However, because Thompson hasn’t played a game since tearing his ACL in Game 6 of the 2019 Finals, the working assumption is that Thompson won’t return until early 2022.

“I also have to factor in my left knee,” Thompson said during the same Instagram live session, “because I don’t want to come back and be half myself.”

Half of Thompson simply won’t be good enough. Since Thompson and the Warriors were last in the Finals, they have won just 54 games over two seasons and contenders have risen in Los Angeles, Denver, Utah and Phoenix.

If he can get back to his 2019 form, when he averaged 21.5 points on 40.2% shooting from 3-point range, Golden State should be in the mix with the Lakers, Suns and Jazz near the top of the Western Conference. If he takes a substantial step back, the Warriors may have to set their sights lower to just making the playoffs.

So even though Thompson will return at some point in the season, it’s possible the Warriors won’t know exactly what their team is until closer to the All-Star break.

“It’s hard to really gauge where we are against the rest of the Western Conference,” Kerr recently told NBC Sports Bay Area. “There’s a lot of great teams, and we haven’t even had a practice to put the group together. But I’m very excited about the potential. It feels to me that we’re going to be back in a situation where we can compete on a nightly basis.”

Of course, the Warriors still have the NBA’s top scorer in Stephen Curry and Defensive Player of the Year finalist Draymond Green. Lottery picks Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody made strong impressions in Summer League, and the front office in free agency brought in proven shooters Otto Porter Jr. and Nemanja Bjelica and the familiar Andre Iguodala.

Besides Thompson, there are plenty of other “big ifs” that stand to sway the Warriors’ season.

If James Wiseman can make a substantial leap in his second season.

If the rookies can contribute sooner rather than later.

If Porter and Bjelica, neither of whom played 40 games last season, can stay healthy.

If Kerr can identify a reliable starter to fill in until Thompson returns, whether that’s Porter, Jordan Poole or Damion Lee.

But even the best case of all those scenarios fails to elevate the Warriors to contenders if Thompson doesn’t reprise his All-Star form.

Any chance of the Warriors vaulting back to contention and advancing in the postseason depends on his availability and productivity. They already know what they are without Thompson, and what they can do when he’s at his best.

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