The Warriors are struggling horribly but their future is far from dark

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Photograph: Kyle Terada/USA Today Sports

It took six games for the Warriors’ story to change. In a 288-minute blur, they plummeted from the top of the league to its cellar, a cruel fate for a team widely considered to be one of the best to ever play in the NBA.

The onslaught began at this year’s NBA finals, when the Warriors lost Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson to injuries in back-to-back games, destroying their championship hopes and leaving the next season dangling on the already tenuous fibers of Stephen Curry’s battered extremities.

The latest blow came on Wednesday evening. With eight minutes and 31 seconds left in the third quarter of a game against the Phoenix Suns, Curry collided with Aron Baynes on a drive to the rim, and the Australian – all 260lbs of him – fell on the Warriors star’s hand. It was a freak play. An unfortunate break that left Curry’s hand broken. He will miss at least three months because of the injury, meaning he’ll be sidelined until February, missing 45 games at minimum.

Related: Stephen Curry to miss three months after undergoing surgery on left hand

Now the Warriors, a team that have been to the finals five-straight seasons, winning three championships, are being asked to consider whether tanking is their best option. It’s a question that seemed laughable months ago. But on Wednesday, it was posed to Warriors’ owner Joe Lacob. Not surprisingly, it didn’t sit well with him. Lacob told ESPN that tanking would be “against ever single thing I and we stand for.” He added that the Warriors will continue to “fight like hell” and use this as a chance to develop their younger players.

Falling is never easy. It happens to the few teams that are lucky enough to make it to the top. It’s what makes sports interesting. But the speed at which this team has changed course is stunning, leaving the rest of the NBA with whiplash.

Obviously, the Warriors’ title hopes were on shaky ground before Wednesday. They had already lost a lot of their core over the summer: Durant left for Brooklyn, Shaun Livingston retired and Andre Iguodala was sent to Memphis. And with Thompson out at least until February while he recovers from a torn achilles tendon, Curry and Draymond Green were going to have to carry a roster with nine players 23 years old or younger.

In some ways, this was inevitable: Thompson, Curry and Green have huge amounts of wear-and-tear on their bodies. Over the last five years, the Warriors have played 105 postseason games. Considering a regular season is 82 games, that means they played six seasons of basketball in five years. Warriors’ coach Steve Kerr tried to manage their minutes during the regular season and sit them for minor bumps and bruises. But injuries are bound to happen with that kind of mileage. Nevertheless, these situations leave a long trail littered with what ifs.

What if Green hadn’t cursed at Durant and dared him to leave the Warriors during a fight last November, something Durant recently acknowledged played into him choosing Brooklyn during free agency. Or what if the Warriors hadn’t let Durant play in Game 5 of the finals, when he ruptured his achilles tendon in his first game back after missing a month because of a calf strain? In an alternate universe would Durant have been healthy this season and still on the Warriors? But this is what people always do when things go wrong. They question. They wonder. They perseverate.

There’s a silver lining to all of this for the Warriors, though. The younger guys will get minutes and experience – and losing isn’t a bad thing because that’ll increase the team’s chances of getting a better lottery pick. That coupled with the return of Curry and Thompson could propel the Warriors to being a championship-caliber team next season. For now, the pressure is completely off the Warriors. And in many ways that’s liberating.

“You’re not excited to have everything completely different,” Green told reporters last week. “But I am excited from the standpoint of it’s a new challenge. It’s a different challenge. And even more importantly, these young guys get an opportunity to really try to make a name for themselves and try to build up on their careers, change their lives, change their family’s lives. To see that, that’s exciting.”

And if the Warriors tank – purposely or not – who knows what could happen. The San Antonio Spurs tanked in 1997 so they could acquire Tim Duncan with the top pick in the draft the following season. That led to five championships.

It’s too early to tell whether this is just a lost season for the Warriors. Or whether this marks something much more significant – the end of one of the most exciting runs in NBA history. But while people surmise about the Warriors’ future, one thing is certain: Curry does not seem worried. The day after sustaining his injury, Curry posted a photo to his Instagram account in which he was dressed in a Buzz Lightyear costume, smiling ear-to-ear while standing alongside his family on Halloween. He added a video of him sidestepping along the sidewalk, as his wife laughed along.

If he’s not stressing, perhaps others shouldn’t either. The Warriors will be back. And let’s not forget that anything can happen to any team, even in as few as six games.

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