OAKLAND, Calif. — The Golden State Warriors have seemingly turned another parade along Lake Merritt into a see-you-in-June formality, barring any debilitating injuries or suspensions. They have set themselves up for a dynastic run that could only be undone by hubris, boredom, infighting or finances. Their last championship chase was so dominant that they pushed their closest rival to split, made others with no hope tap out until the Warriors call it quits, and forced would-be challengers to cross their fingers and hope they’ll find reward in risky combinations.
To provide a distraction from an expected Warriors coronation, the NBA needed the wildest offseason in more than two decades. The league needed to produce more intriguing All-Star alliances that relegated the rest of the league to “garbage,” as Charlotte Hornets owner and widely accepted GOAT Michael Jordan said. Jordan should know about aiming the opposition for a trash can because he owned the 1990s and led the last team that ended much of the title suspense in October. Now it’s the Warriors’ turn.
With four All-Stars all in their primes, the Warriors have a chance to rule for the foreseeable future, especially after an offseason in which the team added more shooting and depth. Reigning MVP Russell Westbrook is now flanked by All-Stars Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. MVP runner-up James Harden has Chris Paul. The Cleveland Cavaliers added Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade and flipped Kyrie Irving into more depth, becoming arguably more dangerous should Isaiah Thomas return to full health. But with coach Steve Kerr stating that two-time MVP Stephen Curry is now at his physical peak, Kevin Durant more familiar with the system and his teammates more familiar with him, the Warriors should actually be better because the rest of the league built teams meant to catch up to where Golden State has already been.
The Warriors wanted respect in 2015. They wanted to show the world they weren’t lucky in 2016. They wanted to hush those 3-1 blown-lead joke tellers in 2017. But what will they rely on in 2017-18, when there is nothing left to prove?
“I think it’s a misnomer that you need a reason to go out and win, or you need a reason to go out and compete,” Warriors general manager Bob Myers told Yahoo Sports. “Some people say, ‘What is your motivation?’ Sometimes, it’s just as simple as, ‘I don’t like to lose.’ That could last your whole life. You could have 20 championships and it cannot be enough. People ask the question, ‘How do you come back after winning?’ Well, the same way you went in when you did win. Because you care about your craft, you’re a professional. Losing hurts and you try to do anything you can to avoid that.”
The season before the Warriors eased on down their unexpected, yellow-brick road to two titles and three Finals trips in three years, the San Antonio Spurs had defeated the Miami Heat in a championship rematch between two organizations that found success through seemingly antithetical means. The Spurs built their core organically with players they drafted and developed, while the Heat pulled off the greatest free-agent coup in NBA history and aligned three in-their-prime super friends. The Warriors weren’t even an afterthought back then but now stand as the envy of the league. First, by following the Spurs in building a super-team organically, though without the benefit of any top five picks. Then, by turning that squad into a combination of fission and fusion reactions by taking a cue from the Heat and using a salary-cap glitch to pull off another free-agent coup.
Considering what the Warriors had mostly been the previous 40 years — a wasteland of deferred dreams and dimwitted decisions — their ascension and sustained success remains one of the most remarkable in professional sports. The basketball gods have shone down on the franchise, turning that past misery into some worthwhile glory. The misfortune of Curry’s ankles led to a favorable contract that allowed them to build a juggernaut and add a former MVP. The failure in never finding that franchise-altering center — which could be found in several heinous trades and draft picks — became forgivable when they happened to have the two best shooters in the game at the exact time the NBA embraced the 3-pointer like never before.
But Golden State needed more than luck to go from being hunted to having Draymond Green laugh at those now attempting to chase them down. The Warriors have a collection of competitors who don’t want to concede any games, no matter how potentially taxing that drive could prove to be. They’ve won a record 207 regular-season games over the past three years, including a record 73 games in 2015-16. They are also responsible for three of the 12 seasons in NBA history in which a team finished with at least 67 wins. And their 16-1 run through last postseason is another mark unlikely to be matched any time soon. Unless, of course, it’s by them.
“You can’t teach that. You can’t coach that. You either have that or you don’t. And our guys have it,” Kerr told Yahoo Sports. “This year, for me, is about pacing ourselves and keeping our edge. That sounds like an oxymoron, or dichotomy, or a paradox, whatever the word is. But it’s the truth. Our competitive nature will come out because that’s who they are. That won’t change, but it’s my job to pace our guys and keep them from burning out with that competitive juice.”
Kerr plans to assist his players, as he always has, by using a deep rotation to keep every player on the roster engaged — a strategy he borrowed from both Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich, who both believed “the more guys who feel a real part of it, the stronger you are.” He will also have lighter practices to reduce the physical strain and give his players the occasional game-night rest, though not all at once.
A few weeks on the job is all Kerr needed to recognize the passion within his players. Curry was reserved but revealed his internal fire by the vigilant manner in which he responded to adversity. Klay Thompson was more laid-back, a quality Kerr shared given their Southern California roots, but he recognized that his shooting guard used that aloofness to mask his fury. “But you’d never know it because he keeps a poker face,” Kerr told Yahoo Sports.
Green was obviously the most vocal and visibly passionate, a walking audiobook that never had to be read. “Draymond gets too intense and I say that cautiously, because I don’t want him to change,” Kerr told Yahoo Sports. “We need Draymond’s competitive fire, we need his energy. He gives us an edge that we otherwise don’t have. Draymond talks more [expletive] than anybody in the league. On those nights when we’re struggling for energy, sometimes it’s Draymond’s fire that will pull us together. On the other end, sometimes, he’ll snap three or four times a year and he’s too competitive at those times, but I’m not about to change that because what he does for us is critical and if that’s the price, who cares?”
That competitiveness comes with a dose of cockiness, which Curry flashes with a shoulder-wiggle or a high-stepping celebration, or Green showcases with his belittling words to inferior players. But the Warriors also have some humility with that edge, as they refused to let pride stand in the way of their pursuit of Durant. Curry, Green, Thompson and Andre Iguodala — “The Core Four” — were all at the table, making their pitches to a player they had just defeated in the conference finals. “We had a great team. We won a title. We almost won another one. We won 73 games. But we were vulnerable,” Kerr told Yahoo Sports. “If we weren’t vulnerable, we wouldn’t have lost to Cleveland in the Finals. Every team is vulnerable. We told them, ‘We’ve got a chance to get K.D.’ They want to win. K.D. gives us a better chance to win. Duh.”
Durant isn’t really some 7-foot can of loss repellent, but LeBron James acknowledged during the last NBA Finals the difficulty of beating a Warriors team that required the flukiest of circumstances to experience defeat without him. They are meticulous perfectionists, unwilling to cut corners on either side of the ball, and motivated to smash their opponents with a smile. The addition of Durant made them hated, but the Warriors never lost their joy, which is easy to find in victory.
Golden State has accomplished a lot in a short amount of time, but the franchise has never won back-to-back titles and there is a reason only four franchises in NBA history have made at least four consecutive trips to the Finals. During their preseason trip to China earlier this month, tennis legend Roger Federer spoke to the team about what drove him to a men’s record 19 Grand Slam singles titles and how he once held the No. 1 ranking in men’s tennis for a record 237 consecutive weeks. “He said, ‘I remember why I got in it, because I love playing tennis. And I also keep a balance on my life so I don’t get burned out on it,’ ” Myers told Yahoo Sports.
But as an example of Thompson’s competitive edge, he couldn’t let the opportunity to meet Federer go to waste without challenging him to a table-tennis duel. “It’s a very competitive league. I don’t think anybody, including us, can rest on their laurels. It’s nice when it permeates the whole organization because you can’t help but jump in and try to be the best version of your own self,” Myers told Yahoo Sports before adding the theory from the late motivational speaker Jim Rohn, who theorized that a person is the average of the five people with whom they spent the most time. “If you or I spent time with people who are the best at what they do, you’re probably going to get better. Part of it is, the rising tide lifts all boats. So if you put someone in a situation where they’re watching Steph Curry or Klay Thompson get their work in everyday after practice, you start saying, ‘Well, if they’re that good and they’re still working, shouldn’t I be doing that?’ That’s where that consistency in effort comes from.”
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