SAN FRANCISCO — Joe Lacob and the rest of the Warriors ownership group proudly celebrated their dream, their vision, with a championship parade down Market Street almost exactly one year ago.
Lacob boisterously promised championships to a franchise that hadn’t seen one since 1975, and then won three in Oakland. His prized jewel was Chase Center and bringing a water-front arena to San Francisco. The first season of its opening was overshadowed by COVID-19 and an injury-plagued team. Steph Curry shined but the Warriors still weren’t whole in Year 2 as they fell in the NBA play-in tournament.
Chase Center’s third Warriors season saw them first celebrate on the floor of TD Garden, and then down the streets of San Francisco.
Everything was a celebration. The Warriors proved their dynasty still is very much alive, and let everyone know about it. And then came this season, one that came to a halt in Hollywood with the lights turning off earlier than the Warriors are used to.
“I think for me, the way I look at this season is that sometimes losing can give you clarity in terms of where you need to be better,” Steve Kerr said Tuesday. “It probably would have been tough to walk in first day of training camp this year and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to improve in this area or that area,’ and then the guys are looking at me like, ‘We just won the damn championship.’
“It’s a lot easier when you lose for everybody to look in the mirror and say, ‘What can we do better? What can I do better? What can we do better?
“So that’s the job of the coaching staff this year. Really figure out where we can improve and find ways to teach those things, implement them in the summer, next training camp, and get better. That’s an exciting prospect. That’s the whole idea is to use this opportunity to improve and to take another step.”
That’s how Kerr began his end-of-the-season media session four days after the Warriors were blown out by the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals. He specifically was focused on himself and his coaching staff with his opening answer. However, Kerr’s message can trickle down to a long list of Warriors.
The Warriors lost to a Western Conference opponent in the playoffs for the first time under Kerr. They snapped an NBA record streak of winning at least one road game in 28 straight playoff series. The conference semifinals came down to the Warriors’ losses in Game 1 and Game 4, in Kerr’s eyes.
Game 1 ended in a five-point loss. The Lakers, on the road, outscored the Warriors by 20 points at the free-throw line in the series opener, attempted 23 more free throws than them and were whistled for half as many of the Warriors’ 24 fouls. But the third quarter also saw Klay Thompson go 1 of 8 from the field and former Warrior D’Angelo Russell go 5 of 8 from the field.
Golden State squandered a seven-point lead entering the fourth quarter of Game 4 as Lonnie Walker IV lit them up for 15 points in the final frame, all while Curry went 4-of-11 shooting.
Fans call conspiracy, but the fact is, the Warriors fouled like crazy (according to the officials) in the four games they lost to the Lakers to end the season.
“But that’s on me as the head coach to get our staff and all the players locked in right away next year on X, Y and Z,” Kerr said. “This is where we’re going to make improvements. We’ve got to have our practices and drill work laid out to make the specific improvements that we need to make, and we’ve got to see results.
“That’s part of what coaching is about.”
Kerr also has admitted the Warriors were swimming upstream from the start, in his own words. Draymond Green punching Jordan Poole, who is 10 years younger than him and the face of the Warriors’ next chapter, sent shock waves throughout the basketball world and fractured trust among the Warriors all season. The team’s top priority this offseason is an honest rekindling between the two.
The veteran leader and four-time champion must look himself in the mirror and take charge of making things right. Poole needs to look himself in the mirror for different reasons, understanding how he can be the player he was a year prior in his breakout campaign.
Green also has a player option and can opt to test free agency, though he has made it clear he prefers to remain a Warrior.
Thompson’s evolution at 33 years old and with two career-changing injuries behind him is a question that needs the right answer. Jonathan Kuminga’s patience is being tested, but the mirror can only show him a 20-year-old who still has so much room to grow across the board.
Curry continued to prove he remains one of the league’s elite. He’ll look to improve areas that can use some finetuning, as he always does. The mild-mannered superstar also might owe himself and the Warriors an honest assessment. In taking the next steps and getting back to being championship contenders, Curry’s voice should be heard.
Even if that means him possibly wanting a true No. 2 offensively, no matter his allegiance to Thompson, Poole and Andrew Wiggins, or calling for defensive help — despite his respect for Green, Wiggins and Kevon Looney.
The front office and management require the longest look in the mirror. The two-timeline plan failed. Kuminga still has time to reach his star potential. Moses Moody looks like a winning player for years and years ahead. A Poole bounce-back season is easily attainable, the Warriors have high expectations for Patrick Baldwin Jr. and Ryan Rollins is a shrug of the shoulders right now.
The moment the Warriors traded former No. 2 pick James Wiseman in a four-team deal that brought them back Gary Payton II from the Portland Trail Blazers, a player Kerr and the veteran core badly wanted the front office to re-sign last summer, the plan was over. It blows up then and there.
Now the lone focus can only be building what gives Curry the best chance to win another ring. Those steps, somewhat, have already begun. Payton proved what an impact he has on the Warriors again, and will be here from the start. Wiggins usually is another Iron Man for them and the expectation is he plays plenty more than the 37 games he played this season, maybe doubling that number.
“It gives me a lot of confidence,” Kerr said of a full season with Payton and Wiggins. “I said a little while ago, the regular season matters, and I felt like this group finally found its form probably during the Sacramento series. But there were still so many question marks. You could see it in the Lakers series when we were threatened and countered at every move.
“We weren’t quite sure who we were at the end of the year. We found ourselves in terms of our grit and our determination, and that’s why we beat Sacramento and put up a pretty good fight against the Lakers, but we didn’t have an identity. Steph said it after Game 6: We didn’t have enough variety in the way we could score. That only happens through repetition in the course of the regular season.
“I think coming back next year, hopefully as you said with Wiggs and Gary for full years, young players continuing to get better, I think from the start we can build that identity and be a more efficient, more versatile team come playoff time.”
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Poole, Wiggins, Payton, Kuminga, Moody and others hold keys to what’s next for the Warriors in their own ways. The master key still belongs to the Big Three — Curry, Thompson and Green. They’ve won four titles with Kerr leading the way, and reached the top of the mountain six times together as a group.
They too can take time to absorb their reflecting, some looking longer than others.
“Our older guys are obviously the ones who are responsible for the banners that are hanging in there, Draymond, Steph, Klay,” Kerr said. “I know they are determined to come back and play at a high level. I have no doubt that they’re going to be prepared and ready to start camp. There will be some energy and maybe a little more of an edge than we started with this year from those guys.
“The young guys have to just continue to work and grow. As I said, this has to be a team-wide thing. Everybody has to improve, including me. We all have to really do some reflection, and then as a staff we have to present to the players, here’s how we can get to the next level and implement that immediately starting this summer and try to check those boxes and take the next step.”
The Warriors rightfully aren’t in the business of moral victories, and aren’t throwing around silver linings right now. The playbook is there for them to study. They’ve never really had this kind of chance to deliberate, contemplate and persist at the finish line.
As Kerr said, this has to be a team-wide thing, each respecting self-reflection.
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