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Improvement a Laudable but Unlikely Goal for Warriors

The Golden State Warriors set off an atomic bomb on the rest of the league last season, Steve Kerr’s first as head coach, winning 67 regular season games, storming through the playoffs and compiling a 10.1-point scoring differential along the way.

So when they declared their intentions of being even better in Year Two under Kerr, you didn’t know quite whether to dismiss those goals as the typical arrogant hubris we see from the young and famous or to be actively terrified of the possibilities.

“That second year of that new offense is when things start to really click,” Stephen Curry explained during the team’s Media Day. “(Kerr) always was telling us that 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.”

Curry’s sentiments were echoed by Draymond Green, who told the Associated Press, “I think a lot of times last year we kind of would depend on Steph to bail us out, depend on Klay (Thompson) to bail us out, and I think that’s where Year 2 you get more comfortable with the offense, you learn to get to the third, fourth and fifth option. I think that’s going to help this team continue to grow.”

Harrison Barnes, meanwhile, invoked the Spurs, whom Kerr has made no secret of liberally borrowing from for his organizational philosophy. “I think this year now we can finally get better… add those different layers that Coach Kerr always talks about, add those nuances that when you look at teams like the Spurs, it looks like they’ve been playing together for a lifetime,” Barnes said. “When you add new guys into the system, and they get more comfortable, everyone starts to play better.”

On one hand, you can see the rationale for continued improvement. The Warriors certainly didn’t rest on their laurels in the off-season, even though they kept their rotation intact and didn’t add any difference-making talent. They replaced (and thus, one would assume, improved) their training staff and added Steve Nash as a “player development consultant,” ostensibly to work mostly with Curry but also the team’s other ball-handlers.

It’s certainly possible that individuals on the team can play better, and theoretically, the by-product of that should make for an even more dominant team. Curry, Thompson, Green and Barnes—four of the team’s best players—all haven’t reached their primes yet, and there are a couple of young talents on the bench in Festus Ezeli and James Michael McAdoo.

Of those six guys, though, how realistic is it all of them to improve? Curry is coming off a historic campaign in terms of efficiency rivaled only by Chris Paul among players 6’3 or shorter. Paul had his best years in his age 22 and 23 seasons for New Orleans. So far he’s been fantastic in preseason, for what it’s worth, but I’m not sure how fair it is to hold him to this MVP standard or to expect him to exceed it.

Green is the antithesis to Curry. He lasted to the second round of the draft for a reason. He’s small for his position, not overly quick or explosive, and not particularly skilled in any one facet of the game except passing. Teams leave him wide open at the three-point line because they were so preoccupied with stopping Curry, Thompson and the other threats—and he still shot just 33.7 percent from downtown and then even worse in the playoffs.

There’s only so much you can ever see his jumper improving. Green will always be valuable for his versatility on both ends of the floor, but there are guys he has difficulty guarding and a ceiling to what the offense can accomplish with him if he can’t hit when open.

Barnes is another guy with a limited skill-set. He doesn’t have a handle, his left hand is weak, his finishing around the rim is spotty, he doesn’t create for others, and he doesn’t diagnose opponent’s plays well on defense. Even in a season in which he shot 48.2 percent from the field and 40.5 from downtown he posted a below-average PER.

Barnes rejected a four-year, $64 million contract extension offer from the Warriors and is poised to strike it rich in the off-season, if for no other reason that teams have to spend their oodles of cap space on somebody as mandated by the league’s collective bargaining agreement. He and his agent are taking advantage of their fortunate timing and the loopholes than actively looking to cash in based on Barnes’ worth relative to his peers.

Nevertheless, as long as Barnes doesn’t sign, the contract will be looming over his head, inviting questions and creating the bane of every professional locker room, those infernal, nebulous “distractions.” The young forward will repeatedly be asked about his future, especially if he gets off to a bad start. And unlike Green, he doesn’t seem to have the brash confidence or temperament to deal with the scrutiny of being in a contract year well.

Couple that with the team’s likelihood of regressing to the mean in terms of injuries—new trainers or no—after missing the fourth-fewest games in the league last season (and most of those were by Andrew Bogut and David Lee).  Add in the mathematical improbability of improving upon 67 wins with their chasm-like scoring differential, and it’s just difficult to see the Warriors accomplishing it.

An improvement would be miraculous for the Warriors, but even sustaining last year’s level would be a remarkable achievement.

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