The Golden State Warriors will return almost everyone from a championship winning roster for the upcoming season. On the surface, this seems like a no-brainer. Why mess with a winning formula that enabled the Warriors to storm through the regular season at a 67-15 clip and a 10.1-point scoring differential?
Because, as history has shown us, things never go as smoothly for teams trying to repeat, for three main reasons.
One, there are inevitably more injuries the following year, in part because of accumulated fatigue and a truncated offseason due to playing into late June the season before, and partly because teams that win it all tend to be relatively healthier than the competition and invariably that “injury luck” evens out in the long term.
The top six players on the team missed 30 games combined last season, and half of those came from the notoriously injury-prone Andrew Bogut. A few of the other absences were cases of coach Steve Kerr resting guys. The odds are that between Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala, one or more of them will miss a significant chunk of time next season. Add in Bogut and a reasonable over/under for games missed for those six should be at least 55.
Two, individual goals take precedence over team ones. Bill Simmons, formerly of ESPN.com, referred to then-Lakers coach and current Heat president Pat Riley coining the phrase “the disease of more” in his book Showtime in this column, and specifically this passage should resonate with Warriors fans:
In his book “Showtime,” Pat Riley unveiled “the disease of more” and argued that “success is often the first step toward disaster.” According to Riley, after the 1980 Lakers won, everyone shifted into a more selfish mode. They had sublimated their respective games to win as a group; now they wanted to reap the rewards as individuals, even if those rewards meant having to spend way too much time at Jack Nicholson’s house. Everyone wanted more money, playing time and recognition. Eventually they lost perspective and stopped doing the little things that make teams win and keep winning, eventually imploding in the first round of the postseason. So much for defending the title.
The disease of more won’t apply to Curry, coming off an MVP season, but it may well apply to Green and Thompson, still looking to silence their critics after uneven playoff performances. Certainly Barnes and Festus Ezeli are candidates here as well, since both will be looking to secure lucrative contract extensions.
Finally, the Warriors will have to deal with the stigma of having the proverbial “target on their backs.” As defending champions, they’ll get everyone’s best shot game after game, and a Wednesday back-to-back at Minnesota in February won’t be nearly as meaningful to them as it will to the young pups like Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns looking to make their mark. The Warriors, as long as they’re healthy, will be favorites in almost any game on the schedule, but with that power comes the responsibility of playing like that. It’ll be on Kerr and his assistant coaches to massage egos, keep everyone hungry and focused and pulling on the same rope, and balancing on the tightrope of finding enough rest for his stars and still playing them enough to win games.
And therein lies the question: Are there any new faces on the roster or guys who were non-rotation pieces last season who can actually contribute this year? There’s a reasonable range of expectations for the top six mentioned above, plus Ezeli, Shaun Livingston, Leandro Barbosa and Marreese Speights. That’s your core 10, though Kerr is obviously hoping and counting on improvements from Barnes and Ezeli.
So, what of the others?
The Warriors’ most significant offseason move was trading David Lee to Boston partly at his request and partly as a cost-saving measure. Lee was a good soldier last year who didn’t complain even though he was largely eased out of the rotation, and eventually the deal netted Jason Thompson, formerly of the Kings, in return.
Thompson is only 29, but he’s been in decline for four straight seasons in PER, Win Shares and Win Shares Per 48 minutes, according to Basketball-reference.com. By any measure, Thompson was truly wretched last season, shooting only 47 percent as a power forward with no range, and he finished 54th among qualifiers at his position in WAR, according to ESPN.com, 66th in Real Plus-Minus, 69th in Offensive Real Plus-Minus and 48th in Defensive Real Plus-Minus. He’s essentially a replacement-level player, albeit one who will be the sixth-highest paid guy on the team next season, even though his talent suggests he’ll be the 12- or 13th-most productive on the team. He’s significantly worse than Lee in almost every way.
There’s significantly more potential in James Michael McAdoo, 22, an undrafted rookie out of North Carolina last season who put up very good numbers both in the traditional counting stats and the advanced metrics for the Warriors D-League affiliate in Santa Cruz. McAdoo only played 137 minutes for the big club last year, an absurdly small sample coming almost exclusively in garbage time, but he didn’t look at all out of place, and he led the club’s Summer League squad in scoring as well. The slender McAdoo will probably have to develop a three-point shot to really earn his place as a potential long-term replacement for Barnes or Iguodala, but if he can show more defensive aptitude than Speights, he should be able to leapfrog him in the rotation.
Kevon Looney, the Warriors’ first-round pick out of UCLA, was regarded as a steal with the 30th pick, projecting as a Barnes clone with a better outside stroke and superior rebounding, and the 19-year old justified the hype in Summer League. We then came to learn that other teams were scared off by medical concerns regarding his hip, and indeed the Warriors had Looney go under the knife for arthroscopic surgery on Aug. 20 to repair a torn right labrum. The procedure will keep him out 4-6 months, according to NBA.com. (Incidentally, Tim Lincecum of the San Francisco Giants had the same surgeon, Marc Philippon of the Vail Valley Surgery Center in Vail, Colorado perform the surgery to repair his torn labrum.) Looney will likely play for Santa Cruz once he does come back, but he’s the better bet long-term to fill Barnes’s shoes if the team does indeed decide to let him walk as a free agent.
Brandon Rush, 30, hasn’t been an impact player since 2011-12. He tore his ACL very early the following season and has hardly played since, looking overweight during his infrequent on-court appearances for the Warriors last season. He’s a shell of his former self, and it’s mystifying he’s still in the league, much less on a championship team.
The Warriors brought back Ian Clark, an undersized 2-guard who was the MVP of their Summer League championship-winning team in 2013, scoring 33 points in the final game. Clark has gotten cups of coffee in the league the past two seasons with Utah and Denver and was a prolific, albeit one-dimensional three-point shooter at Belmont University, making 42.5 percent from downtown from the shorter distance. Clark lit it up from long range on Denver’s Summer League squad before the Warriors snatched him up, but hasn’t been as accurate in the pros so far.
Of similar profile is guard Chris Babb, acquired from the Celtics in the Lee trade. He made just cameo appearances for Boston, but 27 of his 30 field goal attempts came from downtown, even though he made just six of them. Babb was hardly a three-point shooter of note at Penn State or Iowa State, but he did perform a bit better for the Maine Red Claws, Boston’s D-League affiliate.
Jarell Eddie has the pedigree of being from the Spurs’ system, having played for their Austin D-League affiliate last season and contributing to their Summer League championship-winning team under first-time coach Becky Hammon this past July. Eddie canned bombs at a 45.2 percent rate for Austin and won the D-League three-point shootout last season (beating some random named “Seth Curry“), and unlike Babb and Clark, he has legit swingman size. However, he’s also as one-dimensional as it gets, a liability as a defender, a non-passer and someone incapable of scoring efficiently inside the stripe.
Finally there’s Juwan Staten, who has a shot to stick if for no other reason than he’s the only natural point guard on the roster besides Curry and Livingston. He really should’ve come out after his junior season at West Virginia when his stock was the highest, though, and he wasn’t nearly as good as a senior. A knee injury contributed to that, however, and it flared up on him during Summer League with the Sacramento Kings. As a result, Staten played just one game for them.
In short, there doesn’t seem to be much aside from McAdoo on hand from the lower end of the roster, so it’d behoove general manager Bob Myers to find some other guys. Counting on the status quo to stay healthy again seems both risky and foolish.