The Golden State Warriors have plummeted to the bottom of the NBA, but Steve Kerr is finding new motivation for this season and beyond.
Steve Kerr exited State Farm Arena in early December, holding his game suit in one hand and a Modelo Especial in the other. The Golden State Warriors had just been blown out by the equally miserable Atlanta Hawks for their sixth loss in seven games, and Kerr was understandably in need of some relief. A passing reporter gestured at the beverage in the coach’s hand and quipped that it might help assuage the letdown of the defeat. “Yeah,” Kerr replied. “I might need more than one.”
It’s been that kind of season for Kerr and the Warriors, who, after coming within two games of a third consecutive NBA championship, now have fewer wins than the New York Knicks. Dynasties are elusive and precious things in professional sports, and it seems no team — no matter how talented or well-prepared — can anticipate their declines. No team in the NBA has fallen more quickly or more steeply than the Warriors have over the last five months.
It became clear Golden State would be a vastly different team once the organization traded Andre Iguodala away in order to facilitate a sign-and-trade that sent Kevin Durant to Brooklyn for D’Angelo Russell, but even then the Warriors remained squarely in playoff contention — with an even higher upside if things broke their way. When Stephen Curry broke his hand four games into the year, it sent Golden State into a worst-case scenario few could have foreseen.
That has created a new kind of challenge — and thus, a new perspective on the season — for Kerr and his staff. Rather than spending the regular season finely tuning their schemes and gearing up for a deep playoff run, the Warriors have returned to the basics. Kerr has been forced to re-instill the stylistic principles that made his teams so revolutionary over the last half-decade, only without the Hall-of-Fame talent that executed them. Golden State’s active roster is almost entirely new — only Draymond Green and Kevon Looney played in last season’s Finals — and strikingly inexperienced relative to the veteran groups with which Kerr worked in the beginning of his tenure.
It was never as simple as Kerr simply showing up and letting his stars do as they wanted, but he has never had to focus on the minutiae of coaching like he has this season. He inherited a roster with near-fully formed players; he needed only to deploy them in the right context. That’s a more challenging task than it might seem, but still entirely different from training the most basic NBA skills and knowledge with a team on pace to win fewer than 20 games.
“It’s not easy losing, but I’ve enjoyed the teaching part of it,” Kerr said. “We’ve got great, great guys. These young guys are eager to learn and competing every night, and our veteran players are really doing a good job.”
The confluence of Durant and Iguodala’s departures and Curry’s injury has given Golden State a clear view of itself. The Warriors are under no delusions of making the playoffs, and can therefore be patient with Curry and Klay Thompson while letting their young players grow into pieces that might one day replenish the depth the team had in the early years of its dominant run.
“The whole point of this year is: Let’s get healthy and let’s really try to develop these young guys and see if we can fortify our roster, and develop some players who can be a big part of our future, then bring back the healthy guys and make another run at it,” Kerr said.
Nearly every player Golden State has is overextended by necessity. In the absence of devastating offensive weapons, the Warriors can only use what little firepower they have. They own the worst offense and fourth-worst defense in the NBA. After five consecutive years of leading the league in effective field goal percentage, Golden State now ranks dead last. Russell is the only real offensive catalyst, but doesn’t score nearly efficiently enough to lift the team’s offense from the depths of the league.
But the Warriors don’t need their young players to contribute to a winning cause this season; they’re preparing them to fit into a more functional system next season and beyond. Eric Paschall may not be called upon to score in isolation next season, but it could be a handy skill for a canny passer and versatile defender to have in a pinch. None of Golden State’s bigs is a particularly effective scorer, but how might they fit in when they have the luxury of screening for and playing off two shooters like Curry and Thompson? Robinson isn’t quite a wing stopper, but could be quite useful as a versatile cog in a more talented defensive machine.
Taking a year to retool also allows Curry, Thompson and — to some extent — Green, who have each played over 450 games over the last five seasons, to take some much-needed time off to rest before they pivot into a new epoch of their careers.
“I made a comment after we lost to Toronto at the end of last year that we should just go on sabbatical, go to Italy and sip wine,” Kerr said. “I was half-joking. But it did feel like our guys were just wiped out. So in an ironic way, not the way you draw it up, but in a strange way, this is probably the time for Steph and Klay to kind of decompress.”
Golden State may still have work to do, even with a healthy Curry and Thompson — both of whom are aging toward the end of their primes. While Curry has proven capable of lifting an offense to great heights, the supporting cast, as currently constructed, likely isn’t good enough for the Warriors to compete for a title. Trading Russell looms as a means of strengthening the roster with more complementary talent, and it’s possible that one of the team’s young players exceeds expectations. They will fundamentally never be the same team that won the West five straight years. Still, Kerr believes the team can reach a level just below that with their guards back in the fold — provided it can endure a season without them.
“It’s not easy for anybody to lose,” Kerr said. “It wears on you, and you want those efforts to be rewarded. You have to keep the faith and you just have to keep fighting. And that’s my job to keep their spirits up and turn it around.”