Have Golden State Warriors Joined OKC Thunder as West's Next Great Hope?

Simon Cherin-Gordon@SimoncgoContributor IIIMay 28, 2013

OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 23: Carl Landry #7 of the Golden State Warriors dunks the ball against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Oracle Arena on January 23, 2013 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

No NBA franchise nor fanbase should ever use injuries as an excuse for losing.

Every team deals with them, staying healthy is part of the game and it's difficult to predict what would have happened had this player or that player been on the court.

However, injuries do impact the outcomes of games, and it is not only acceptable but is the responsibility of us in the business of analysis and predictions to factor injuries into our conclusions.

For example: Had the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder been healthy during Round 2 of the playoffs, they probably would have met in the Western Conference Finals this season.

See? There's one of those conclusions. Try and stop me.

The notion that OKC would be a conference finalist is not a bold one. They were the best team in the west during the regular season and were led by two of the NBA's top 10 players in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

Had Westbrook been healthy in Round 2, the Thunder would have had an explosive penetrator to break down the Memphis Grizzlies' defense and a dominant defender to slow Mike Conley.

Seeing as every game in the series was decided by two possessions or less, it seems safe to say that Westbrook's presence on the floor instead of Derek Fisher's would have made the difference.

To say that the Warriors would have advanced to Round 3 is much more problematic.

For one, they lost to the San Antonio Spurs, who just swept the Grizzlies en route to the NBA Finals. Secondly, they technically were only missing a role player in Brandon Rush due to injury.

However, the Warriors were arguably more hurt than OKC. David Lee was essentially operating on one leg and played for only 5 minutes a game. Stephen Curry was standing on two sprained ankles. Andrew Bogut was extremely hobbled by a swollen ankle of his own. Harrison Barnes injured his head midway through Game 6.

That's 80 percent of the Warriors' starting lineup.

Considering how much trouble San Antonio had dealing with each of these players when they were on the court and moving around well, it's a strong possibility that a healthy Warriors team would have won what was a tight series to begin with.

But what's done is done. The healthier teams prevailed in Round 2, and they deserve credit. The Spurs and Grizzlies out-hustled, out-executed and outplayed the Warriors and Thunder, respectively.

Such may not be the case in future.

Oklahoma City has already established itself as one of the two elite teams in Western Conference, along with San Antonio. The Thunder were in the conference finals in both 2011 and 2012, made the NBA Finals in 2012 and finished with the conference's best record this season.

With such a dominant young core (Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka) locked up for several more seasons, the Thunder will be a Western Conference powerhouse for a long time.

The Warriors have a chance to join them.

Golden State went 47-35 during the regular season, placing sixth in the Western Conference. They became arguably the second-best team in the conference this postseason as they dealt the eventual conference champions their only two losses during the first three rounds.

This range—second-best to sixth-best—is a good starting point for figuring out where the Warriors stand in the conference hierarchy moving forward.

They should be better than sixth. They played most of the 2012-13 regular season with two rookies in their starting lineup, while seven of their nine rotation players were new to their team. They also had a combined five playoff starts and 36 playoff games of experience amongst those nine players.

After a year of building familiarity and an offseason that should bring little change (Jarrett Jack is the only unrestricted free agent), next year's team should be far more cohesive on offense and defense. The team's talented core also gained invaluable postseason experience, which should help them play better on the road and in high-pressure situations.

The injury to David Lee allowed the Warriors to feature Harrison Barnes far more prominently, and the success he had as a focal point of the offense could lead to a breakout year next season. Head coach Mark Jackson (a playoff rookie himself) should be an improved strategist after six-game chess matches with George Karl and Gregg Popovich.

This all adds up to Golden State joining the elite ranks of the Western Conference next season. With the Thunder being the class of the Northwest Division and the Spurs of the Southwest, the Warriors should emerge as the leaders of the Pacific Division and the West's third elite team.

Stephen Curry's ankles, the ability to re-sign young talent and the savvy to build a roster around them will determine whether or not the Warriors will hang with the Thunder atop the conference for years to come.

For the time being, the old guard is still on top out west, which is a reality that both the Warriors and the Thunder have to spend this summer trying to change.