These Warriors, blending youth with experience, are eager to shed memories of a wretched season in which injuries derailed any chance of prosperity. After finishing 35 games under .500, there is reasonable doubt about success this season.
To the skeptics, particularly those forecasting another trip to the lottery, Andrew Wiggins the other day offered the team’s response: “Why not us?”
How long has it been, exactly, since the Warriors were mostly young and eager and coming off an abysmal season during which injuries deprived them of a glimpse of the future? How long since they arrived at training camp with a new lottery pick and vowing to make a giant leap?
Eight years. And that team far exceeded low expectations.
The 2012-13 Warriors were coming off a season in which they finished 20 games under .500, with Steph Curry missing 40 games and Andrew Bogut -- acquired in a midseason trade for Monta Ellis -- not playing at all. Their simple wish was for good health.
The recovery started in the summer, with three draft choices: Lottery pick Harrison Barnes, first-rounder Festus Ezeli and second-rounder Draymond Green. With a recovered Curry, Klay Thompson in his first full season as a starter and Bogut making his long-awaited debut, the Warriors had a distinctly new look. They were mostly young, and eager to forget.
Those Warriors lost four of their first seven games, and then set their collective jaw and won 12 of the next 15. David Lee was headed to the All-Star Game, Curry and Thompson were rapidly becoming the best-shooting backcourt in NBA history and a couple vets named Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry were proving their worth off the bench.
Those Warriors earned a No. 6 playoff seed, upset No. 3 Denver in the first round and in the second round got the full attention of the Spurs, who owned the No. 2 seed.
These Warriors have a lot in common with those Warriors, from the forgettable previous season to the lottery pick, 7-foot center James Wiseman, to the revamped roster.
The most important of those analogous components, though, is the commitment to defense.
Mark Jackson had made it a higher priority than any Warriors coach since, maybe, Al Attles. The Warriors rose from 26th in defensive rating in 2011-12 to 13th in 2012-13 to fourth in 2013-14, Jackson’s final season.
“Once you see the results of effort, intensity and focus on that end of floor and how it makes certain games a little bit easier, especially down the stretch, you get a little edge around that,” Curry said Saturday night.
“It was pretty cool to see the results of that and the success of that,” he added. “And now we have to do it in a different way with different cast of characters. But we understand how important it is.”
The 2019-20 Warriors also finished 26th in defensive rating. Coach Steve Kerr has stated a goal of returning to top-10 status in 2020-21.
Early signs, visible in a 107-105 win over the Nuggets in the preseason opener, indicate the players are buying into the request for hustle.
“He sees the potential, and the length, and the versatility that we have,” Kelly Oubre Jr. said of Kerr. “And we don’t even have Draymond right now, who is a first-team defensive caliber player. Once he comes in, I can learn from him and Wiggs can learn from him and other guys. We can all just focus on reaching that full potential on defense so that we can be a great defensive team.”
The Warriors lack great height. Until Wiseman is active and able, 6-foot-10 Alen Smailagic, currently the third-string center, is as tall as it gets, with Marquese Chriss and Kevon Looney both at 6-foot-9.
What these Warriors have in abundance is arms and hands that seem to stretch across time zones. Kent Bazemore, Chriss, Looney, Eric Paschall, Green, Oubre, Smailagic, Wiggins and Wiseman all stretch at least 7-feet fingertip to fingertip. Bazemore, Oubre and Wiggins can all play in the backcourt.
“We have a chance to be an excellent defensive team,” Kerr said. “I’m really excited. Obviously, Draymond and James aren’t out there yet. But when you think about the length and athleticism that we can put out there ... if we play with activity and energy, we can be really good.”
The Warriors forced 18 turnovers, turning them into 20 points. Starting guards Jamal Murray and Gary Harris combined for 15 points on 7-of-17 shooting, with four turnovers and three assists. The only Nugget to play more than 10 minutes and not commit a turnover was All-Star center Nikola Jokic.
The Warriors complemented their length with aggression, and that’s essential for them to become a playoff team. The constant chatter about the fast pace and high energy during the first week of practice is not unlike that which drove the 2012-13 team.
“Even after the game tonight, we got probably 95 percent of the team in the weight room lifting,” Bazemore said. “The mentality here has definitely shifted to breeding champions. Over last 10 years, this franchise has really risen to new heights. To wear this jersey, it comes with sacrifice. It comes with hard work. We’ve got a lot of guys that just love to get after it.”
It should. That what was said eight years ago of young Steph, young Klay, young Draymond. Landry was an energy guy. Jack played with a contagious swagger. Those Warriors were onto something only they could see.
These Warriors seem to be out to replicate that spirit. They have two All-Stars, Curry and Green. They have two solid vets, both new, in Brad Wanamaker and Bazemore. They have in Oubre and Wiggins a pair of wings athletically superior to any two on the 2012-13 squad.
It’s a different NBA. But defense is a constant among quality teams. It remains a factor that can separate the mediocre from the bad and the playoff team from the mediocre. And it always separates the contender from the playoff team.
If the Warriors bring it as they did eight years ago, they can achieve as that team did. And in the process torch more than a few forecasts.