The Warriors are playing like they’re defending champs, and that’s a huge problem
Warning: NBA fans might be disturbed by the graphic nature of these quotes from the Golden State Warriors after their 20-point loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday night. In short, they sum up everything that's currently wrong with the Dubs (via the San Francisco Chronicle):
“There’s going to be nights where you don’t have quite the energy or the emotion that you had the previous night,” head coach Steve Kerr said. “You have to be able to rely on execution, defense and toughness. … We had none of that.”
“I just don’t think we had the focus level you need to have,” Draymond Green said. “That’s a young, hungry team. They’re not bad anymore.”
“We’re not going to be perfect every game, man,” said Kevin Durant, who paced six Warriors in double digits with a game-high 27 points. “As much as you want us to be, we’re not.”
Did you catch that? The commonality between all three of those dejected lines from the Warriors? “We could have done better. We should have done better. But we just … didn't. Oh well!”
As much as Kerr and Durant want to say that this is something that happens in the NBA, there's a much bigger problem for Golden State. This team is playing like it's the defending champion, yet it's still miles away from claiming a ring as a group. And this isn't about Golden State being on a back-to-back on Friday after an emotional game against the Thunder or anything like that. Frankly, the NBA's newest superteam is playing like it expects to win.
The Warriors are lackluster in their transition defense. They're lazy in their offensive sets. They look around and expect the other superstars to carry the load when they don't feel like it. And when the starters rest, the bench comes in and can't accomplish much of anything. It's as if Pat Riley's infamous “Disease of Me” seeped into the Golden State locker room before the Warriors actually accomplished anything.
Of course, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and the rest of the Golden State core did win a championship just two short years ago. One could argue that they know what it takes to get their acts together and vie for a championship. Perhaps that's true, and all this hand-wringing over the Warriors is so much noise early in the season. We saw such struggles from the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers in LeBron's first years in town; why shouldn't we expect two steps forward, one step back from Golden State in the first year after the Durant signing?
But those teams treated the regular season like the months-long experiment that it really is. One of the open secrets in the NBA is that teams have little room to practice — in the true sense, anyway, with what you and I would envision as a “full practice.” Instead, the games often must serve as a team's laboratory and proving ground all at once. In fact, that's one of the biggest reasons San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich rests his key players so much. He wants to keep them healthy, but he also wants to test his bench and see whom he can count on when the playoffs roll around. Pop and the rest of the game's elite understand that while you don't need to win all 82 games, every matchup matters. If you throw away games, you're depriving yourself of precious learning time.
Furthermore, KD hasn't won a ring. He thinks he knows what it takes to climb the game's tallest mountain, but until he faces that summit, he can't really know the demands of becoming a champion. And this team simply isn't the same squad as the one that dominated in 2014-15. Andre Iguodala is falling apart, Andrew Bogut is gone, and the coaching staff has seen a massive brain-drain from assistants taking head coaching gigs elsewhere. Do you think Steve Kerr is thrilled about having Mike Brown on the bench next to him rather than Alvin Gentry? Because I don't think he is, friends.
And then there's last season's 73-win campaign. The 2015-16 season beat the hell out of the Warriors and convinced them that, despite their apparent improvement this offseason, it wasn't worth chasing history once more. In a vacuum, that's a wise decision. Could it be, however, that Golden State tempered its own fire by acknowledging that it doesn't need to strive for every win?
(In other news, the Warriors had megastar entertainer Drake join them on their flight to Los Angeles before they faced the Lakers, which strikes me as the kind of thing you do when you're already champions — or when you're not taking your season for granted, anyway.)
This isn't just about the loss to the Lakers, either — which honestly should embarrass the Warriors, regardless of how much better Los Angeles is this season. Golden State opened the year with an incredibly dull performance against the San Antonio Spurs, who are facing offseason changes of their own. (Miss you, Timmy.) The Warriors then allowed the Pelicans and Suns, two of the worst teams in the league, to hang around before putting those wins to bed. Only the drama of the first meeting with the Thunder and Damian Lillard's battle for superiority with Curry were enough to motivate Golden State to play a game like it actually matters.
And that's ridiculous. Those games against the dregs of the NBA should serve as glorified practices where you work out what works and throw away what doesn't. Those are the contests that make champions, believe it or not. And the Warriors approached them with all the enthusiasm of mandatory volunteer work.
Add it all up, and you have an extraordinarily talented squad that seems distracted and annoyed by the regular season — which is typically what we see from defending champs. Instead, the Cavaliers are locked in as they leave a path of destruction in the Eastern Conference, and the Warriors are shrugging off their struggles. Maybe that's for the best; one must move past the losses and focus on the next game. And Golden State can keep convincing itself that's all this is: a few random losses sprinkled in among a team building chemistry toward a championship.
If this team can't get on the right track sooner than later, though, the Warriors will have no one to blame but themselves.