The Golden State Warriors find themselves in a tricky and unexpected position, and you’ll forgive them if no one in the organization has any idea what to do next. There’s no road map here, they’re navigating uncharted waters, and hurtling through unexplored space. Choose the cartographic metaphor that best suits you.
What Happened Last Season
It’s not that coach Steve Kerr didn’t expect to win a championship eventually. That was always the intention of owner Joe Lacob and general manager Bob Myers. Virtually everyone affiliated with the NBA understood the Warriors had one of the best young talented rosters in the league, and Golden State’s front office were hardly the only ones of the opinion that Kerr’s predecessor Mark Jackson had underachieved in 2013-14, hitting a plateau after having changed the losing culture within the team.
Kerr’s bosses expected improvement both tangible and intangible, especially offensively, where he and lead assistant Alvin Gentry revamped Jackson’s staid isolation-heavy offense into a modern pace-and-space attack emphasizing ball movement and finding open shots. Mostly Myers and Lacob wanted improved channels of communication between the various levels of the organizational depth chart, for Kerr to put together a quality staff that valued, respected and utilized the analytic department, and for there to be a franchise-wide commitment to process over proselytizing. Kerr delivered on all fronts, as expected.
What wasn’t expected was what Kerr and his players accomplished last season, a year or two ahead of schedule. Instead of modest gains and maybe a trip to the Western Conference Finals if everything broke right, the Warriors took off on a rocket ship. They led the West wire-to-wire, won 67 regular-season games with a historic 10.1-point scoring differential and made use of their home-court advantage to advance all the way to the NBA Finals, triumphing over LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers to capture their first NBA championship since 1975. Stephen Curry won league MVP and became the first player ever to defeat his four fellow members on the All-NBA First Team by vanquishing, in order, Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol, James Harden and Final-ly, James.
Nearly four months have passed and it all still feels rather unbelievable.
What Happened This Summer
The Warriors moved David Lee and his problematic contract in a deal with the Celtics and eventually wound up with veteran power forward Jason Thompson, formerly of the Kings. He’s been a pedestrian (or worse, if you go by the advanced stats) performer the past few years and figures to be worse than Lee in almost every conceivable way except perhaps in guarding the pick-and-roll. The team also drafted Kevon Looney, a one-and-done forward out of UCLA whose game is eerily similar to Barnes’s. He impressed early on but wound up needing hip surgery and now seems like a long shot to contribute at all this season. The Warriors’ biggest transaction was to re-sign Draymond Green to a five-year extension at near-max money, and that’s really the only thing that matters. Their rotation returns intact, even though they could’ve used a couple of upgrades on the bench.
Green got his money, but fellow starter Harrison Barnes recently turned down a four-year, $64 million extension. Coincidentally enough, the impetus for the Warriors to offer that reportedly came from Charlotte extending Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to a four-year, $52 million deal, and now MKG is expected to miss the whole season due to a freak shoulder injury.
If I’m Barnes, I’d sign on the dotted line before you finished this sentence, but alas I am not. If that deal is still hanging over his head during the season, then it’s going to be difficult indeed for him to play free and easy, especially when he’s essentially the fourth option in the half-court offense and still extremely limited in many facets of his game. He doesn’t have a left hand, he’s a so-so finisher, he doesn’t dribble or run a pick-and-roll, and he’s wildly overrated defensively.
I fail to see Barnes’s appeal, frankly, but obviously both the team and his agent strongly disagree, and there seems to be quite the market for his services. How his individual drama plays out in contrast to the team’s goals will be fascinating to watch.
On one hand, the organization has every right to expect improvement. The team’s three best players, Curry, Klay Thompson and Green, all still have their primes ahead of them, as do youngsters Barnes, Festus Ezeli and James McAdoo. That’s the majority of the rotation. Kerr and Curry have gone on the record as saying they expect to be even more efficient and devastating offensively, now that everyone has had a year to learn the system.
“As players, we felt like we could go out and really learn on the fly and still play well, even though it’s still the first year and we’re still getting used to it,’’ Curry explained during the team’s Media Day. “But (Kerr) always was telling us that the second, third year is when you really take off. So if we did what we did last year and we’re still learning about the system and how we’re going to go out and play it, I like our chances going into this year too.”
On the other hand, it’s just not sensible to expect more wins, a higher scoring margin, or even to ask for fewer games missed, which they ostensibly did by overhauling the training staff in the offseason. Just about everything that could conceivably go right for the Warriors last year did, from fortuitous injuries on their team — Lee getting hurt in preseason opened the door for Green to break out as a starter — to key injuries to opponents in the playoffs, to brackets breaking their way in the playoffs. The Dubs got to avoid both the Spurs and the Clippers, teams that had rosters best poised to give them severe matchup difficulties.
I think the luck catches up to them a bit this year. There will be more injuries. A creaky, inconsistent bench will get creakier and more inconsistent. Aside from Ezeli and McAdoo, it’s just not rational to not expect a drop-off from the others. The Spurs and Clippers have both retooled and San Antonio especially, with length on the wings and small-ball destroyers in LaMarcus Aldridge and Tim Duncan down low, may prove to be their undoing. The Warriors will still be very good and a viable contender for years to come, but it’s hard to bet against the field.