Why the 2021 Golden State Warriors are chillingly similar to the pre-Kevin Durant teams that define their dynasty

THERE'S STEPHEN CURRY with the ball, gliding left of a double-screen at the top of the floor, before passing it off to Draymond Green. And there's Draymond, the game's best big-man facilitator, instantly returning the ball to Steph, who then delivers a touch pass to Andrew Wiggins in the left corner before cutting through to the right corner.

Steph will then lie in wait, like a slasher whose absence on the screen is even more menacing than his presence, a horror the Portland Trail Blazers will suffer soon enough.

There's Wiggins, the rejuvenated attacker, taking a power dribble toward the paint before sending the ball back up top to Green. There are Otto Porter Jr. and Jordan Poole putting their bodies between Curry and his defender, Nassir Little, which gives the two-time MVP his most prized commodity: space. There's Green throwing a perfect strike over two teammates and two opponents directly into Curry's shooting pocket.

And, finally, there's Curry again, draining the 2,960th 3-pointer of his career to give Golden State a nine-point lead just before halftime.

After a two-year hiatus from the league's upper echelon that threatened to become a permanent condition, the Golden State Warriors are back atop the NBA. There were plenty of reasons to believe that while their dynastic run included three championships and five straight Finals appearances, the Warriors were entering their twilight years -- gracefully aging leading men who could be honored for their lifetime achievements even as they fade from the spotlight.

Though they lost Kevin Durant to free agency in 2019, feature a core that is well on the other side of 30, and have endured the two-year absence of Klay Thompson, the Warriors don't look like a team that's been disrupted in the least by the harsh realities of basketball mortality.

They're a league-leading 23-5 with a league-best point differential of 11.6 a third of the way into the 2021-22 season, before Thompson has even suited up for his first game at Chase Center. Curry is playing some of the best basketball of his career, having just broken the NBA's all-time record with 2,977 successful 3-pointers. As the Warriors' anchor on defense and fulcrum on offense, Green has never looked more cunning (or healthier). Statistically and aesthetically, they look very much like their old selves.

Durant's transcendence made us forget that, prior to his arrival, the Warriors had just won an NBA-record 73 regular-season games. One of the features that makes this season's team so tantalizing is its potential to satisfy a lingering curiosity: Would the dominant pre-Durant Warriors have built a dynasty all the same?

Green, for his part, isn't so sure. For all of his pride -- and that of the organization more broadly -- in the Warriors' dominance of 2014-16, he believes the recruitment of Durant wasn't a luxury but a necessity.

"I don't think that would have continued on without Kevin," he says. "Everybody started defending us a certain way, and it got a lot tougher. Every team in the NBA has started building their team to compete against us, to be able to guard us, to literally match us. So I think as great as it was -- and I have no doubt in my mind we would have been right there again -- I do also think it was getting way tougher for us to figure out.

"And then we added Kevin and it wasn't."

But 2021 is not 2015. The NBA has evolved -- in no small part to counter the Warriors -- but there's something about this year's Warriors team that conjures up images of their early reign, a perception that will only be sharpened when Golden State runs its first handback curl for Thompson upon his return. And while the supporting cast is entirely different from the Warriors' first two Finals runs, squint hard enough and you can see the shape of what once was. Open your eyes, and see what they've become this season against expectations.

The first incarnation of the Warriors and the current one are remarkably, chillingly similar.

So, yes, we should have seen this coming. Here are six reasons why.