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Warriors ready to feed competitive souls as underdogs again

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A sizable contingent of hoops cognoscenti does not believe Steph Curry’s body is up to the punishment sure to come his way, much less the task of the 72-game schedule.

They all know Klay Thompson won’t be available.

They don’t necessarily believe Draymond Green still can summon the stuff that made him a three-time All-Star, much less a Defensive Player of the Year.

They all know Kevin Durant is in Brooklyn, Andre Iguodala is in Miami and Shaun Livingston is in the Golden State front office.

They don’t believe James Wiseman, at age 19, is ready to make a significant impact in the NBA. They’re entirely skeptical of Andrew Wiggins burying his underperformer reputation and Kevon Looney staying able, moderately skeptical of Kelly Oubre Jr. becoming a star and generally unimpressed with the rest of the roster.

Which explains, for example, the ESPN projection that has the Warriors posting a losing record and missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season. Among the many voices of doubt, this might be the one that rings loudest.

Less than two years after being branded “Super Villains,” a marauding squad determined to reduce the rest of the NBA to a pile of smoldering jerseys, the Warriors are back to being what they’ve been for so much of their existence.

Underdogs.

Their sweet spot.

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One need not look or listen for long to see and hear the disrespect splashing all over them. Big, broad waves of it, crashing up against their compromised roster. After finishing last season with a league-worst 15-50 record and then being jolted by the loss of Thompson for a second consecutive season, maybe it’s deserved.

The Western Conference, once a collection of distinctly inferior challengers, with only the Rockets posing a semblance of a threat, is now rife with teams built to run for rings. The defending champion Lakers have two All-Stars. So do the Clippers, the Nuggets, the Jazz and, possibly, the Mavericks. The Trail Blazers are improved, the Suns vastly improved.

The West is deep and dangerous, and the Warriors had better brace for nightly wars.

That, though, is when they seem to do their best work. Since the ascendance of MVP Steph in 2014-15, the Warriors have vanquished pretty much every menace and threat confronted except suspension (2016 Finals) and injuries (2019 Finals, 2019-20 season).

It is the timing and severity of Thompson’s injury that has fostered so much distrust among observers.

Golden State’s championship odds took a massive hit, falling from fourth of fifth likeliest to win the NBA Finals to no higher than seventh and in some cases completely out of the top 10.

Perfect, eh?

“I don't think we really need any extra motivation right now, given that we had the worst record in the league last year,” Kerr said. “We're coming off a horrible season. We want to bounce back and have a good year.

"Everything else we're sort of used to. The noise, whatever you want to call it. There's part of this job that is just the expectations, the judgment, the criticism, the praise. It all lumps into one thing.”

Kerr knows better, even if he won’t admit it publicly. He came close, though, as saying they don’t “need” extra motivation is not the same as saying they aren’t motivated by the steady stream of slights.

They are.

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The Warriors’ climb to the top of the NBA was fueled by disrespect. By those inside the locker room believing a championship was in the field of view a full two years before anyone else. Curry and Green, in particular, thrive on widespread doubt. They’ve spent most of their athletic careers coping with rejection and feeling its lingering stings. 

College recruiters didn’t flock to teenage Curry, and NBA personnel hawks made him the fifth guard taken in the 2009 draft. Three years later, those same front offices jumped over Green to pursue the likes of Thomas Robinson, Jared Sullinger and Perry Jones.

Curry and Green live to prove their worth and to make their teammates better. To silence the scoffers.

They’re back in that position. Back beneath that warm, familiar blanket of doubt. I suspect there’s no place they’d rather be as training camp gets under way.