Every four decades, the basketball galaxy is in alignment for the Golden State Warriors. And on cue, last season was one of those moments as the Warriors won their first NBA championship since the days of Rick Barry 40 years ago.
Last season’s Warriors were a talented group, particularly deep and immune to significant health problems, which they managed to avoid. In a breakthrough season, Stephen Curry achieved NBA Most Valuable Player status. Even their postseason matchups seemed to be hand-picked. And they did all of this with a rookie coach, no less.
Now comes the hard part.
As defending champions, the Warriors will have a bull’s-eye on their backs. They figure to get the best from every opponent, every night. Some of the players who help make the Warriors champions now want to be paid like champions. And the injury list is topped by coach Steve Kerr, who has been absent for much of the preseason due to back woes.
Here are five things to watch with the Warriors this season in their bid to repeat.
1. Can Stephen Curry and his playmates possibly make it look this easy again?
It’s highly unlikely, especially in a loaded Western Conference, and they know it. Golden State equaled the sixth-highest win total in NBA history last season. The only team in NBA history to post consecutive 65-win seasons is the Chicago Bulls of 1995-96 and 1996-97.
“There is not going to be much change there, but we can’t just say we’re going to be the same team and show up and win 67 games and win a championship,” Curry said. “It’s not going to be easy.”
As the champs have discovered already, no two seasons are alike.
In Game 5 of the NBA Finals, coach Steve Kerr suffered a ruptured disk that required two surgeries. After complications arose, Kerr was forced to take an indefinite leave of absence that left his status for the regular season in doubt.
With Kerr’s top assistant Alvin Gentry leaving for the head job with New Orleans and defensive guru Ron Adams preferring to remain an assistant, Kerr’s position temporarily has gone to Luke Walton, who has no head coaching experience.
“We’re going to get everybody’s best shot every single night, and we know that” Curry said. “So we have to at our best every time we step foot on the floor.”
2. That being said, are the NBA Finals a reasonable goal?
“I’m 25,” forward Draymond Green said. “Harrison (Barnes) is 23. Steph is 27. Klay (Thompson) is 27. Bogues just turned 30, Dre, 30,31, Shaun (Livingston), 29. We’ve still got a lot left in the tank, and we want to make sure that we capitalize on that.”
To a man, the players agree with the many critics who say they can’t possibly be as good as last season. They will be even better in substance if not in record, they say. The same core group thrived in a new system, and better for the experience.
Said Green, “I definitely think we can get better. A lot of times last year we kind of would depend on stuff to bail us out, depend on (Curry or) Klay to bail us out. That’s where in year two you get more comfortable with the offense. You learn to get the third, fourth and fifth option (involved). That’s going to help this team continue to grow.”
Another scary thought: New team consultant Steve Nash has been brought in to improve what already is the most efficient offense in the league.
3. Can the team overcome the absence of their coach for an extended period?
Other than the players, Kerr is the person whom the Warriors can least afford to lose for any length of time. His communication skills, selfless character and championship pedigree played no small role in team success last season.
“I’m 50 years old,” Kerr said. “I’m in good shape. I’m in good overall health. This is a unique circumstance, and once it’s resolved, I’ll be fine.”
When it will be resolved, however, is still unclear.
“I’m not going to put a timetable on when I’m going to come back,” the coach said. “I have to get my health right before I can coach the team, before I can bring the energy that’s necessary to coach the team.”
If Kerr is sidelined for longer than expected, then what? Can the champs hold their own in a loaded conference with Walton, an inexperienced assistant, in charge? Remember, Gentry isn’t available to take over this time.
For now, Walton will heed the advice of his father, Bill.
“He told me to call about six different coaches — coach (Phil) Jackson, Lute Olson … ” Walton said. “Then he told me to read about seven different books. He gave me a lot of advice.
“I’m 35, but I’m feeling like I’m 48.”
4. Is there a potential distraction that could undermine the repeat bid?
Barnes reportedly turned down a four-year, $64-million contract extension this offseason, a hefty chunk of change for a valuable role player who averaged a career-high 10.1 points last season. The forward has visions of a maximum four-year, $89 million deal next summer, when the new TV deal will increase the salary cap to a record $90 million.
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Barnes expressed optimism that a new deal would be struck before the Nov. 2 deadline. If not, he becomes a restricted free agent next summer, when many teams will have max cap space.
“That’s the goal,” Barnes said. “Things don’t always happen that way. I know for sure I love it here in Oakland. This is home. Negotiations are ongoing. I’m optimistic that things are going to work out. You hope that happens. That’s a little bit out of my circle of competency.”
The longer the stalemate, the easier it will be for Barnes and Warriors to part ways.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the organization has started to talk up James Michael McAdoo, who happens to play Barnes’ position. McAdoo spent most of last season with Santa Cruz, helping it win the D-League championship.
“I’m a lot better and a lot more confident. I know my role and what coach expects out of me,” said McAdoo, whose father is the second cousin of former NBA MVP Bob McAdoo. “Just having that year of experience always helps, but I definitely feel that I need to come out here and prove myself.”
5. Will there be a lack of motivation?
If Houston Rockets superstar James Harden didn’t claim that he wuz robbed in last season’s MVP vote, then Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers advertised that the Warriors were fortunate to avoid his team and the San Antonio Spurs in the playoffs.
While few neutral observers would argue that the Warriors were the beneficiaries of some favorable matchups last spring, Rivers conveniently didn’t mention that his team squandered a 3-1 lead in being eliminated by the Rockets, whom the Warriors kicked to the curb in five games. Or that the Warriors beat his Clippers three times in four tries in the regular season.
“That sounds pretty bitter to me,” Thompson said. “If we got lucky, look at our record against them last year. I’m pretty sure we smacked them.”
Even the mild-mannered Curry was moved to respond with tongue planted firmly in cheek.
“I apologize for us being healthy,” he snarked. “I apologize for us playing who was in front of us. I apologize for all the accolades we received as a team and individually. I’m very, truly sorry, and we’ll rectify that situation this year.”
Round One of the Clippers-Warriors slugfest is actually in the preseason on Oct. 20 in Los Angeles, and Bogut has his brass knuckle at the ready.
“I’ve actually got my (championship) ring fitted for my middle finger,” Bogut said. “So they can kiss that one.”
If the games are anything like the preseason talk, then the champs have a wild ride ahead of them.
Paul Ladewski is a veteran Chicago sports journalist who recently relocated to the Bay Area and a contributor to SheridanHoops.com.