There was a time early last season when Steve Kerr, the coach of the best basketball team in recent NBA history, stood in front of his squad and laid out the truth about the next eight months.
It had been three years since Kerr took the helm, and in those seasons his teams played on the biggest stages. They made three consecutive trips to the Finals, winning twice. Everyone in the room — everyone, period — expected the Golden State Warriors to win another title.
“It’s going to be hard,” Kerr tried to explain to the team, confronting the challenge head-on.
Things seem to get in the way of great teams, Kerr thought, keeping them from annual trips to the championship series. Injuries, malaise, personality conflicts, a lack of competition, overconfidence — each could get in his team’s way and keep them from winning their third title in four seasons.
“It was almost a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Kerr said.
The Warriors were on the edge of elimination in the Western Conference finals after trudging through a seemingly never-ending regular season before pulling through to win another championship.
They don’t need it, he thinks, and that’s bad news for the 29 teams trying to dethrone the Warriors.
“They’re recharged. They’re fresh. I just have a better feeling about this year than I did last year — a better vibe,” Kerr told the Los Angeles Times. “I think there’s less focus on how hard it’s going to be and more focus on how lucky we are to be in this situation, appreciating this time and having a chance to win another championship.”
The gratitude in Kerr’s voice could simply be the product of perspective, acknowledgment that he’s running a once-in-a-generation team. It could come from his past as a player, once a member of a team that pulled off a three-peat, and the awareness that the third title was “by far” the toughest.
Or, Kerr knows that all empires eventually crumble and this might be the end of the Golden State dynasty.
The team could be ravaged at the end of the season by free agency. Star forward Kevin Durant, who has won back-to-back NBA Finals MVP honors since joining the Warriors, could have a thirst for new challenges. He’s expected to opt out of his contract following the season, and while re-signing is a definite possibility, he could also try to wash off the front-runner stigma attached to his name after picking the Warriors three years ago by going out on his own.
Shooting guard Klay Thompson is also set to be an unrestricted free agent and likely will have maximum offers at his feet from teams across the NBA, the perfect complement to any other superstar because of his long-range marksmanship and defensive versatility. Thompson, though, has expressed a desire to play for the Warriors his entire career.
Kerr tried to strangle any free-agency talk on the first day of practice this season, telling reporters he wasn’t going to let it become a distraction — though it certainly has the potential to become one.
“This will probably be the last time I’ll say anything about free agency for next year,” he said. “It’s a good question on the first day of practice because it’s going to be looming for fans and the media. But, it won’t be looming for us.”
The pending free agency of key players is only one of the possible obstacles the Warriors will encounter this season. Lakers coach Luke Walton, who came up one ring short of a three-peat as a player with the Lakers in 2011, remembered just how tough the end was.
“Where we got in trouble is we had been to three straight finals … for whatever reason, we just assumed we were going back. We kind of lost that sharpness, that edge that we had,” said Walton, a Warriors assistant for two trips to the Finals “…It’s human nature. To keep that edge … you have to be ready to sacrifice everything to win a title because every other team is starving to get there.”
“You can’t just sleepwalk through stuff,” Warriors guard Stephen Curry said. “We’ve been exposed at times, that when we’re not completely locked in that we can be beat.”
The Warriors have ways to try to fight that off heading into another season in which they’re the overwhelming favorites.
Kerr, just like Walton, played for Phil Jackson, a master at fighting the natural boredom that comes with greatness. Jackson three-peated three times in a 12-year span, twice with the Bulls and once with the Lakers. He later won back-to-back titles in a second stint with the Lakers.
As the Lakers worked toward a third title, Jackson would use practice time to play mind games.
“He used to do stuff like that all the time, like making practice chippier, not calling fouls so guys would get into fights with one another. At the time, we weren’t aware why,” Walton said. “But I’m sure that was the biggest thing for him all year, finding ways to manipulate us to keep us sharp.”
Kerr probably won’t take the Warriors down that road, though he’s already shortened practices in an effort to make them more efficient, demanding greater focus over a shorter period of time.
And, like they did when they added Durant, the team nabbed a top talent this summer, signing center DeMarcus Cousins to a bargain deal of one year at $5 million. Cousins, who is rehabbing from a ruptured Achilles tendon last season, is participating in on-court drills already, though there’s no timetable for a return.
When Cousins does step on the court, the Warriors will have to figure out how to play with a dynamic post scorer for the first time during their run of dominance.
“DeMarcus, when he’s back, will give our guys a real challenge to incorporate him, a type of player that we haven’t had before,” Kerr said. “With his skill level and his level of physicality, we’re going to be able to do some different things. I think our guys will embrace that challenge.”
“Every year is different and you can isolate one or two things that make it different, whether it’s a personnel change or a goal you want to set or something you want to chase, and you’ve got to adapt,” Curry said. “…We can focus on the challenge of implementing DeMarcus into what we do, highlighting his skill set this year along with continuing to do what we do best. That’s what this year is going to be about.”
The challenges, if things go to plan, will largely go unspoken by Kerr and the coaching staff. He doesn’t want to draw attention to the obvious obstacles to another title. His team, more than any other in the league, knows how much of a grind it can be waiting months and months for the most meaningful basketball to arrive.
The Warriors didn’t get to this point by fading when things get toughest, when history is on the line. The real reason they don’t need to be told what’s in front of them is because players like Curry have a need for exceptionalism pumping through their veins.
Curry knows the Warriors just aren’t playing for a ring. They’re playing for history — maybe for the last time. They’ve rarely flinched when presented with chances to do something this difficult.
“We talk about the three-peat because it’s in front of us. We don’t repeat it every single day,” he said. “When we start the season, we lay everything out onto the table as to what’s at stake as far as expectations. Yes, winning a championship is the goal. How you get there, how you break up that mission on a game-to-game, month-to-month basis is what makes us great. In terms of encouraging each other, being in tune with some of the things that might be thrown at you, whether it’s injuries or it’s a couple slumps on the court — whatever the case is — we adapt really well.
“The overall goal, it just depends on the day and how we communicate it. But as of right now, winning a championship is attainable if we take care of our business, and doing it three years in a row is a tremendous opportunity for us that we should not be afraid to talk about.”