The Golden State Warriors are learning how to be mortal

Stephen A. marvels over Steph's 62-point performance (1:42)

Stephen A. Smith explains why he believes Steph Curry is the greatest shooter in NBA history after his 62-point game against the Trail Blazers. (1:42)

THE CHASE CENTER in San Francisco sits empty, even as the Golden State Warriors occupy the floor. It's a cavernous structure, an ark whose features capture the novelties and aesthetics of the technology age. Not so long ago, Golden State was one of those novelties, a team that changed how basketball was played. Stephen Curry defied what for decades was deemed a good shot. Draymond Green challenged what for decades tacticians believed an NBA center should be. Klay Thompson embodied a modern-day shooting guard. The team struck the right balance between data-driven efficiency and the fine arts of basketball.

Five consecutive NBA Finals appearances, three championships.

Two and a half years removed from their most recent title and seven games into the season, the Warriors today appear more like a workaday NBA team than an exceptional one, grappling with the same issues that middle-of-the-pack squads spend the early months trying to solve -- team identity, individual roles, collective buy-in. They still have Curry, a star who is demonstrating he's capable of dragging an average roster by the scruff of its neck into the postseason. But without much depth, the Warriors have to empower young prospects and fringe players to fill functions previously performed by savants such as Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston.

With Thompson out for the season, they'll spend the time acclimating newcomers such as Andrew Wiggins and Kelly Oubre Jr. and coaching up their promising rookie, James Wiseman. These are exciting projects for the Warriors. If they squint hard enough and imagine Thompson swinging around stagger screens, the sum of those parts could tantalize in 2021-22.

But the Warriors also have an existential uncertainty: Will this core ever win another title?

That question informs every item on the to-do list. Wiseman is being groomed to have the skills and know-how to be the stretch-5 on a championship team. Curry and Green are charged with maintaining their prime playing level and the aptitude that enabled the Warriors to outsmart opponents. There's the larger imperative of bringing strangers into the fold and feeding them that Golden State special sauce.

The Warriors don't figure to be contenders this season, not absent Thompson. The early results say as much, as they come into their two-game series with the LA Clippers (10 p.m. ET Wednesday on ESPN) at 4-3, ranking 18th in offensive efficiency and 24th in defense.

But the Warriors have as much at stake as any other fringe playoff contender -- so much of it invested in Curry, Green and Wiseman -- even as they wait to place their bet. They are in a state of discovery, learning how to be mortal in a league in which they were transcendent for an NBA lifetime.

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