They’re on pace for the largest reversal of fortune from one season to the next in NBA history, a precipitous fall from grace to the ground at a speed that would normally leave most players and coaches whiplashed, dazed and in the dumps.
But where’s all the worry within the Warriors?
There’s a noticeable absence of doom and despair from a team that takes its lumps almost nightly, is stuck at the bottom of the West like gum on a hot summer sidewalk and would get flexed out of the Christmas Day schedule if the NBA could do it in a pinch.
The mood around the 4-19 Warriors is mainly upbeat, at least before the jump ball and not long after the final buzzer. Get this: Draymond Green, known to combust even during championship times, has only been tossed once this season.
Don’t get it twisted; of course the Warriors would rather win regularly, as they did spectacularly the last five seasons. But while they lack a healthy win-loss record and seasonal outlook right now, they’re maintaining a healthy perspective, and for good reason.
I'm actually really enjoying this season.
They know, and we know, that this pain is temporary, and the fun returns next season when they can finally lift their finger off the reset button and put a superior product on the floor again
You can classify this as a halftime break, a well-earned breather from an era where the Warriors worked from October into June for half a decade. So don’t cry for the Warriors — not that anyone is actually doing so — especially because they aren’t crying themselves.
"I'm actually really enjoying this season," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “And that may sound strange.”
Some context is in order: Kerr isn’t embracing all these Ls. He’s merely taking a level of satisfaction from the sudden shift from the rigors of winning. All the expectations, demands, pressure, outside noise, egos and trying to motivate a historically-great team for several months are no longer on his shoulders. The drastic scenery change is giving Kerr a fresh outlook on basketball, the coaching profession and what’s now required of him. It’s a different sort of challenge that’s rousting a new energy from within him.
But the real reason Kerr and company aren’t troubled by the current state of Golden State is the blueprint sitting in front of them, waiting to be realized in 2020-21. Seriously, it’s borderline brilliant:
Get a healthy Steph Curry and Klay Thompson back, rested and rejuvenated.
Prevent Draymond from overload this season — he’s currently taking his time allowing a bruised heel to heal — and unleash him this time next year.
Finish low enough in the standings this season to increase the odds of landing a high lottery pick next June, and select such a player, or swap him for more immediate help.
Determine if D’Angelo Russell fits well within a three-guard rotation with Curry and Thompson — three players who can each drop 20-plus points a night — or trade him for a versatile swingman or proven rim protector.
Develop next season’s supporting cast right now, with emerging young talent such as Eric Paschall, Glenn Robinson III, Ky Bowman and Alec Burks all getting plenty of playing time and doing promising things with it.
You can safely project the Warriors as a championship contender if all of the above fall into place. Should they also get lucky and add a distressed star or a diamond in the rough, then they’d vault right back into the favorite’s chair, currently being kept warm by the Lakers, Clippers and Bucks.
“We’ll have a very different team,” said Kerr. “We won’t have the same group that was in The Finals last year. We lost a lot from that group. But the whole point this year is ‘let’s get healthy, 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, bring back our regular guys and make a run at it again.’ It’s exciting.”
This could be a redux of the Spurs in 1996-97, Gregg Popovich’s first year as coach. David Robinson was hurt early, and then Sean Elliott as well, and the Spurs went from 59 wins to 20. The reward was drafting Tim Duncan, who joined an already-solid team, and the rest is history.
Next season the Warriors will bring a mix of championship proven stars still in their prime, a hungry veteran or two who can still produce in spots (think another Shaun Livingston or David West), a core of up-and-coming young players, and maybe the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft.
They’re working on setting that table now, and the early returns are encouraging. Paschall was a second-round pick but if the All-Rookie team was chosen today, he’d appear. That’s a major bonus for an established winner such as the Warriors, who don’t get the benefit of choosing high in the Draft every year. He’s an undersized power player who makes up for a lack of height with desire, disciplined footwork and fundamentals.
Then there’s Robinson III, son of the “Big Dog,” who found himself trapped in a mid-career crisis before landing with the Warriors, his fifth team in six years. He’s getting more minutes than ever and playing respectably, shooting 45 percent from the floor and 38 from deep. At the very least, Robinson is all but assured of getting another look from the Warriors next season, which is the goal.
“I came here for an opportunity and compete for a spot and showcase myself,” he said. “I took a gamble on myself after Detroit didn’t pick up my option last summer. I knew this would be a good spot and a good opportunity. Always got to stay ready and take advantage of opportunity.
“The culture here is all positive and all winning even when we’re not winning. From the coaching staff to the player’s mindset, it’s great. You get to talk to Draymond, Steph and Klay, players who are locked in on winning. I’ve learned so much from these guys, from Steve and the coaches."
Robinson, Bowman and Paschall are what keeps Kerr motivated despite the losing. No coach can teach Curry how to shoot better or Kevin Durant how to score. In this situation, however, Kerr and his staff conduct practices of a different flavor.
“I enjoy the teaching part of it,” he said. “We’ve got great young guys, eager to learn, competing every night. It’s a totally different set of circumstances but for me as a coach I’m taking a lot of satisfaction out of the details of coaching and the individual attention I have to give to young players. These young guys are fantastic. They are eager to learn. They are playing so hard. They are getting better.
"I think I've learned how to be a better coach. I haven't had to coach a situation like this. It's been a good reminder that every circumstance is different, every year is different. The last five years we have been championship contenders. I had to manage the team through the season and prepare for the playoffs. This is much more about teaching and developing young players.”
The season and situation will get tricky when Curry and Thompson are finally cleared to play. Do the Warriors put them on the floor? Curry disputed a report last month that ruled him out. Most likely, the decision on Curry and Thompson will be an organizational group effort. In another few months, when the two players are healed and starting to round into shape, the Warriors could be completely buried in the standings with no hope of making the playoffs. So why bother suit them up, risk injury and also ruin a chance at a high Draft pick?
Besides, as Kerr said, maybe the break is needed for mental reasons, too.
“I made a comment after we lost to Toronto that maybe we should just take a sabbatical, go to Italy and sip wine,” he said. “And I was half-joking. It did feel our guys were wiped out. In an ironic way, not the way you draw it up, this is a time for Steph and Klay to maybe decompress. I don’t know that anybody could fathom what it takes to go to The Finals five straight years. It’s exhausting. Guys put everything on the line for five straight years, nine month seasons, where every game is the biggest game of the year for the opponent. My sense is it’s kind of a good thing for some of our key guys.”
The Warriors have a reputation to keep and a splashy new arena to fill, and yet the most important task is preparing for next season. There’s no sense of urgency from ownership or fandom to produce right now, given the circumstances, and especially after three championships.
The Warriors bought themselves time and goodwill. In the absence of wins, that’s their current currency, and they’re wisely cashing in.
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.