SAN FRANCISCO – With Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston no longer on the roster and Klay Thompson rehabbing for perhaps the entire season, the Warriors knew this was going be the most difficult season in at least eight years.
When Steph Curry went down six days after opening night, and was told he’d miss at least three months, the Warriors knew they were destined for horrors beyond the imagination.
Yet the Warriors felt they could be respectable. They had enough decent players to believe they could compete with most opponents and pick a few wins against inferior squads. They’d win once every three or four games.
Instead, they’re winning once every five.
Which means it’s time to change the lens through which the Warriors are viewed. Rather than focus on team results, turn all spotlight toward the things that will matter next season.
Meanwhile, the coaches, as well as mainstay Draymond Green, are seeking new ways to deliver today the same message that we delivered but not absorbed yesterday.
“It’s not easy,” coach Steve Kerr said Tuesday after practice. “The toughest thing is not seeing the results that I believe are coming. When I keep saying ‘Believe it, believe it, believe it,’ and so far, it hasn’t come. It’s frustrating.
“But I’m going to keep preaching what I’m seeing, which is when we’re focused and we play with a purpose and we play together, we could be a pretty good team.”
Kerr’s optimism is sincere.
His conclusion is, um, dubious.
For a Western Conference team to compete for a championship, it requires franchise players. Plural. The Lakers and Clippers both have two. The Rockets believe they have two.
At least one franchise player is required to compete for the playoffs. The Nuggets, Trail Blazers, Mavericks. Jazz, Suns and Timberwolves meet that standard. The Spurs and Kings are making strong cases to be represented in the All-Star Game.
Teams that are “pretty good” generally have one All-Star and also compete for the playoffs.
The Warriors’ best player is Green. At his best, he is the hub of the defense and offense, giving his team an edge at both ends. But Draymond is hurting beyond the usual, and it shows. To use a football analogy, he’s a terrific middle linebacker surrounded by ordinary – or worse – defensive linemen, outside linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties.
Draymond is not making a case to be on the All-Star team, and neither is D’Angelo Russell, whose occasional incredible scoring nights aren’t enough in the West.
The rest of the roster features unaccomplished veterans – Alec Burks, Willie Cauley-Stein and Glenn Robinson III – that appear to be more impressive as citizens than basketball players, and a bevy of rookies and other youngsters out to prove they have a place in the league.
“Considering the circumstances, it’s rough,” said center Marquese Chriss, who falls into the latter category. “We’re in a tough situation. But I’ve been on teams where it’s been worse.”
That was a direct reference to Phoenix, where Chriss spent his first two NBA seasons. The Suns won 24 games in Chriss’ rookie season, 21 the next. They traded Chriss to the Rockets in August 2018, and then proceeded to go 19-63.
Even as those Suns were going through two coaches in Chriss’ first two years, they realized they had a potential franchise player in young Devin Booker. His value was evident, and it gave them an initial building block.
The Warriors don’t have a Booker on their active roster. The closest they have is Russell, now on his third team. Robinson is on his fifth team, while Burks and Chriss are each on their fourth team. The average age for those four: 24.5 years.
That’s a lot of moving in a short time, and with all of them on the same team it’s a lot to expect that team to become “pretty good.” It will get better, because they are pros. It will not get appreciably better because they are not equipped to lift a team to a higher place.
“When we’re looking at the bench, we’re seeing a lot of guys who are really even,” Kerr said. “So, we have to decide on a nightly basis how we’re going to handle this. The way we’ve been trying to handle it lately is if a group is going well let’s stay with that group. We’ll keep going down that road, trying to win a game and see what happens.”
It’s hard, if not impossible, to stay positive when the same mistakes keep coming. Leaving shooters. Failing to box out. Getting beat on back-door cuts. Sloppy or selfish possessions. And so, so many defenders standing flat footings, arms limply at their sides.
The habits will get better, particularly when all the new faces accept that they are on trial for next season, either with the Warriors are elsewhere. That will result in a few more victories.
The Warriors will take the wins, but this is that season in which they really are paying closer attention to the play of individuals than to that of the overall team. Not until next season will we know how bad, or good, this season was.