OAKLAND, Calif. — The Warriors’ didn’t let on how challenging their 2017-18 season was.
Yes, there were injuries — big ones as well as small, nagging ones — and improved competition around the league, but the champs’ biggest challenge was mental.
The Warriors had to fight boredom and complacency all season, and frankly, they weren’t all that good at it. There’s sandbagging and lollygagging, then there’s what the Warriors did last season. And while the end result was a four-game NBA Finals sweep, the Warriors’ path to the trophy was neither direct nor particularly clean.
Remember: last season’s Warriors didn’t reckon with their own mortality until they found themselves down double-digits on the road at halftime of Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals in May.
Then again, that’s the natural result of not just believing — but knowing — that you’re the best team in the NBA.
The Warriors will carry that same knowledge into the 2018-19 season.
It’s a burden — one that the rest of the league would love to have, but a burden nonetheless — and this year, it’s likely to weigh on Golden State a bit more.
After all, if winning three titles in four years is a challenge — particularly when you consistently walk the line between control and apathy, perhaps as an effort to feel something other than dominance — then winning four in five, something that’s unprecedented in the modern era, is on an entirely different level.
Add in the fact that The Warriors come into this season with the same coach, the same core players, and similarly inferior competition, and the challenge for Steve Kerr and his players is obvious.
Yes, it’s hard to imagine a circumstance where this team will feel “appropriate fear”, but it’s not too difficult to see a circumstance where this team trips itself.
As soon as the Warriors won the title in 2017 behind an incredible 16-1 playoff run, Kerr started to push a narrative for the 2017-18 season — the next one is going to be harder. It was a bit of a buzzkill, but Kerr knew what it would take to repeat from his time with Michael Jordan’s Bulls and the Tim Duncan Spurs and the sooner the message was received, the easier it would be to handle.
“There’s no formula for this stuff. You just try to feel it as a coach. I’m usually pretty frank with you guys, with the players. So I didn’t want to come in last year and sugarcoat it and say this is all going to be real easy. I knew exactly what they were facing, having gone through a similar experience as a player,” Kerr said. “I thought last year we made it through. It was a grind and we won.”
But instead of doubling down on the challenge for this year — instead of acknowledging the unique circumstances these “league-ruining” Warriors face and trying to combat them head-on — Kerr is pushing a surprising, downright opposite, theme for this upcoming season:
Gratitude. Joy. Appreciation.
“We are playing with some house money… Our place in the history of the league is pretty secure,” Kerr said. “I don’t think our guys should feel a ton of pressure. I think they should feel the importance of trying to do it again, because this may be the last time we have this current iteration of the Warriors, just given all the free agents and the money crunch and everything else.
We don’t know what’s going to happen. So why not just go all out and enjoy every step of the way?”
It’s an interesting strategy, though Kerr’s quotes could put a damper on fans’ excitement for the season.
It might be a genius strategy — an invigorating plan that taps into the pride that was so often dormant for the Warriors last season. That pride is powerful — we saw how the Warriors ultimately responded when they finally felt challenged last year, even if it was only for a few moments.
But the strategy could also be foolhardy — you could argue that “playing with house money” only emboldens the Warriors’ complacency, which is, again, the thing most likely to stop this team from going down as one of sports’ all-time great dynasties.
At the same time, Kerr’s right — it might be the last go around.
Dynasties like this always end sooner than expected, and I’m of the belief that when this Warriors run ends, it will not end gracefully.
No one knows when that end will happen. But in the meantime, the Warriors are nothing if not intriguing.
Kevin Durant only signed a one-year deal this past offseason. Perhaps he did so to set himself up to sign a five-year max contract with the Warriors; perhaps he’s aiming to leave town at the end of the season. He hasn’t provided many hints to his coaches or teammates, much less the media.
Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are due new deals after this season as well (Thompson is a free agent in 2019, Green is signed through 2020) — will the Warriors be willing to keep both players, likely setting (if Durant sticks around) a new payroll record?
Frankly, the only guarantee for the 2019-2020 season is that Stephen Curry and Kerr (who signed a contract extension this summer) will be Warriors.
Outside of that, what these Warriors look like a year from now is anyone’s guess.
Kerr, to his credit, seems to have a good perspective about it all. He said Tuesday that at the breakneck speed of today’s NBA, you’d be a fool to look at anything as more than year-to-year.
So while these Warriors have the ability to do something incredible in the years to come — if they stay together they could become a modern-day version of the Bill Russell-era Celtics — no one in Oakland can, in good conscience, look that far ahead.
Luckily, there’s plenty to be excited about this season.
The Warriors will likely get injured center DeMarcus Cousins on the court sooner than expected — on Tuesday, Kerr said Cousins, who tore his left Achilles while playing with New Orleans last season, is close to practicing with the team. (Though don’t expect the big man to play a game anytime soon (it behooves neither him nor the Warriors for him to play at anything less than 100 percent). When Boogie does hit the floor, the Warriors will arguably have the greatest five-man lineup in modern basketball history.
That, or he will have deteriorated the Warriors’ legendary camaraderie.
I’m no Cousins apologist — there’s a reason he’s never made the playoffs in his career — but even so, I lean towards the former option.
Either way, it sounds fun, no?
(Also, I’m currently accepting nickname suggestions for the five All-Star lineup — I’m leaning towards calling it the MegaDeath lineup or, as a callback to my childhood days watching Power Rangers, the Megazord lineup.)
There’s also a stable of young players Kerr is poised to provide serious responsibility to in 2018-19 — the Warriors think playing more young players will inject life into the team’s veteran core.
Everyone loves young players, right? And, seeing real-time maturation is always enjoyable, no?
And while the competition level might not be as strong as it was last year — the Warriors’ top rival, the Rockets, appreciably worsened in the offseason — the Celtics, Sixers, and Raptors looked poised to claim the Eastern Conference crown, the Thunder look formidable, and team’s No. 1 rival moved to the Lakers, creating at least four must-see regular-season games. (While also thinning out the everyday media crowd in Oakland. Thanks, LeBron!)
Yes, this Warriors season might end the same way last year ended — it might even play out more-or-less the same way, too.
But between now and June, the 2018-19 Warriors will play out as a grand experiment the likes of which are unlikely to ever be replicated.
So even if this isn’t the last hurrah, I agree with Kerr — let’s enjoy the ride.