OAKLAND -- After 23 consecutive days in the state of California, nearly all of them at home, the Warriors are gliding into 2018. Despite injuries to three starters, two of them All-Stars, they were 13-2 in December and now own the NBA’s best record.
There are obvious reasons for this, and for the success the Warriors have enjoyed in recent seasons. Great talent and depth, healthy chemistry, exemplary work habits and skilled coaching has vaulted them to three straight trips to the NBA Finals while being the first team to average 69 wins over three seasons.
Another secret to their success is that the Warriors don’t do hard labor.
To ask players and coaches when the Warriors last endured a 5-on-5 scrimmage is to get a pause for recollection followed by a similar response.
“Training camp,” assistant coach Mike Brown says three months after training camp.
“I don’t think we’ve scrimmaged all year,” head coach Steve Kerr says.
“A full, 5-on-5 scrimmage?” Shaun Livingston says with a quizzical glance. “I don’t think we’ve done that since training camp.”
This approach is by design an important component of what essentially is a maintenance program put in place by Kerr and members of the training staff.
Unlike the NFL, where training camps last about three weeks, or MLB, where spring training goes on for about six weeks, NBA camps generally last about one week. All teams scrimmage in camp, but the vast majority still believe in regular scrimmages during the regular season.
The Chicago Bulls were scrimmaging two days before their season opener when forward Bobby Portis launched his fist into the face of teammate Nikola Mirotic, causing him to miss the first six weeks of the season.
Doc Rivers once put the Boston Celtics through a two-hour practice in January. And this was a veteran team with NBA Finals appearance in two of the previous three seasons. Ray Allen was 36, Kevin Garnett 35 and Paul Pierce 34.
The Warriors don’t see the value in that, particularly with this team.
“That’s a huge part of it,” Kerr says. “We definitely practiced a lot harder the first year I was here. We scrimmaged a lot more. Any time we had two days off before a game, we always scrimmaged on the second day. I felt like we needed to play.
“Now I feel like we need to NOT play. It’s about seeing the big picture. And there’s a comfort level in knowing what we are.”
Livingston, 32, is something of an authority on training and practice methods around the league. He has played for eight different teams in the 13 seasons since he was drafted fourth overall in 2004.
“There were teams, that if they lost a game, they were back practicing hard the next day, two hours maybe,” he recalls. “It was different. You would think coaches that played wouldn’t be like that. But I think some of them just believe this is the way to do it. ‘We did it this way, so this is the way you’re going to do it.’ I went through it, especially early on, with the Clippers and Mike Dunleavy. Larry Brown was that way in Charlotte.”
Just because scrimmages have always been part of the regimen doesn’t mean the regimen always makes sense.
For the Warriors, most of their “practice time” is spent watching and studying video, rather than running the court. There is plenty of sweat, to be sure, but the idea is to keep players from feeling exhausted as they leave the facility.
Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau is known to push his players particularly hard. Starters on his teams in Minnesota, and when he was in Chicago, were always among the leaders in minutes per game. That the Timberwolves approach the midway point of the season as the NBA’s worst fourth-quarter defensive team is more likely natural result than coincidence.
His practice habits were no different. Thibodeau once called for a practice the day after the Bulls had played three games in four nights and seven in 11 days. His assistants and veteran players talked him down. He settled for a team meeting.
The Warriors on Saturday completed a stretch of three games in four nights and seven in 11 days. What did Kerr do? He gave the players consecutive days off. When they return to practice Tuesday, it’ll be in the wake of 60 hours of personal time.
“It’s a balance and a feel thing. Some days we get it right, some days we don’t,” Kerr says. “The biggest job for a coach, at least in my position, is to navigate the season, see the big picture.”
The Warriors believe in life/work balance as well as taking preventative steps to enhance health. Stress levels of the players are monitored regularly. There are yoga sessions with players and coaches following the lead of Lisa Goodwin, the team’s senior director of corporate communications and a yoga instructor.
The idea is to put players in position to perform at their best when it matters most and keep them as fresh as possible for a season that could last nine months.
This perspective is one reason David West is so comfortable with his decision to return to the Warriors. In the weeks after the Warriors won the NBA Finals last June, the 37-year-old forward/center pondered retirement. He’d finally achieved what he’d spent his career chasing. He earned himself a ring.
Retiring players, in almost every sport, don’t walk away because they’re tired of playing games. They generally cite practices and training routines as the factors that pushed them away from doing what they love. Why put up with the aggravation and put out the energy required to play well?
“That’s the luxury of being in a place like this, being with coach and people that understand that,” West says. “That’s not necessarily an issue in this environment. That’s what makes it work and why I’m able to play.
“Steve gets it. He understands that this is a long-haul thing and he understands that the way to get there should have the players’ health and sense of self and understanding and mental needs in mind.”
There was a moment earlier this season when Kerr thought maybe a scrimmage was in order. The Warriors, with Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant sidelined, were defeated by the lowly Sacramento Kings at Oracle Arena and, on the following day, Kerr contemplated his response.
“We’d played very poorly down the stretch and we’ve got guys banged up,” Kerr says. “What are we going to do?”
Kerr consulted with his staff, and it was decided that the Warriors would do less, not more. The big picture always seems to win.
“We did a defensive segment that we shortened to six minutes, instead of 12,” Kerr says. “And then we did some skill work, conceptual work that’s not going to tax them but give them a good groove and work up a sweat.
“It’s just a feel thing. It helps that I played.”
What the Warriors are doing isn’t exactly revolutionary. The concept is not that different from the approach taken by the NFL Seattle Seahawks and their coach Pete Carroll, someone from whom Kerr has borrowed a few theories.
There is an acknowledgment of the needs of the players, on and off the court, something Kerr picked up from two of his coaches, Phil Jackson in Chicago and Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, two of the top five coaches in NBA history.
Kerr believes in strategically resting players in certain games and going easier on the veterans, occasionally excusing them from even the usual light drills.
“From a player’s standpoint, especially an older player, you look at is as being able to preserve and prolong your career,” Livingston says. “It’s amazing. It’s the best job in the world, but we only get so long to do it. There’s a window. But if you can increase that window, what more could you ask for as a player?
“This situation provides a unique opportunity to do that. Steve likes to make sure guys are fresh for the games and the playoffs, so he doesn’t run us into the ground.”