Future uncertain even for heavily favored Warriors

Change looms for Golden State as it begins its bid for a three-peat

OAKLAND — They’re only one game into a season where they once again find themselves heavy favorites to take a confetti shower in June, and the Golden State Warriors have already identified perhaps their toughest battle.

It’s their tug-of-war with change, which was evident Tuesday on Opening Night, their last in this city before moving to a new home in San Francisco. And eight months from now, who knows, maybe change is tapping them on their shoulder once more. Or more specifically, it’s Kevin Durant, a free agent next summer, rapping the franchise with his two-week notice.

Until another team steps forward and issues a challenge that the Warriors can’t beat, this will be their reality, for better or possibly for worse.

That’s why the vibe in Oracle Arena ran high on sentiment as the Warriors, one by one, collected their championship rings before tipoff against Oklahoma City. Crafted by Jason of Beverley Hills, the rings showcase a unique and unprecedented reversible crown. How nice, although that feature runs counter philosophically to a team trying to keep a good thing going in the same direction.

It’s two straight titles and three in four seasons for the Warriors, and they know the drill by now. They must navigate through an 82-game obstacle course and try to stay interested until the postseason, when the real fun begins.

“We know we have something special standing right before us, and these kind of opportunities don’t come along very often,” said Stephen Curry. “But it’s one thing to talk about it. We have to do the things necessary to get it. We feel confident that we can.”

There were stretches during their 108-100 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder that didn’t appear championship-like. Sloppy play and 5-for-20 shooting from Klay Thompson made for a more suspenseful game than necessary against a Thunder team without Russell Westbrook, still mending from an offseason knee procedure. But Curry was good for 32 points and nine assists, with Durant chipping in 27 points.

Coach Steve Kerr offered that his Warriors are not fine-tuned yet, adding: “We didn’t look much like ourselves, but that isn’t surprising. We need another couple of weeks.”

As a bonus, the Warriors got a combined 22 points and 13 rebounds worth of raw energy from Damian Jones — who’s keeping the starting center spot warm for DeMarcus Cousins — and Kevon Looney (who also split time at center).

“It’s going to come after a while,” said Durant. “I love where we are.”

This is their 47th and final year in Oakland, a sister city that, win or more often lose, has always embraced the Warriors. In many ways, Oakland reflects the team — majority African-American, resilient and, yes, dealing with change itself. You can see it in the cranes that pierce the sky over downtown construction sites.

With Silicon Valley churning out well-paying high-tech jobs to the south, gentrification is creeping to the East Bay, pushing up real estate prices and pushing out some long-time residents. The transition is perhaps inevitable and maybe necessary to some degree, but it’s also awkward and runs the risk of causing Oakland to lose a portion of its identity, of what made it unique and set it apart.

“We love Oakland,” Kerr said. “We feel very close to the people here whether that’s walking into Oracle or going out to lunch. We know the new arena is going to be amazing and we are looking forward to it, but we’re going to miss Oracle and we’re going to miss Oakland. There’s no easy way to slice it. It’s a great move for this organization but this place is special and we want to make it a special season.”

Money talks, and the clamoring for a wildly successful franchise is getting louder from across the Bay. The privately-financed Chase Center will bring all the amenities you’d expect inside a splashy arena that will instantly become a destination spot. The Warriors should make lots of money there, an entertainment playpen for the dot-commers (and not celebrities) who populate the front rows at Warriors games.

Even better, the timing is impeccable. Chances are very good that the Warriors will open their new place next fall by raising another banner — one they won in the old place. They’re still a three-time champion in their prime, with only Durant, Curry and Andre Iguodala having reached 30 among the core. Despite a potential beast in the making in L.A. with LeBron James joining the Lakers, and the Boston Celtics anxious to see the damage a healthy team can do, this remains a Warriors world.

That’s because, should Cousins effectively heal from his Achilles injury and returns to the level of a four-time All-Star — admittedly, nothing is certain — then the Warriors will boast stars at every position on the floor.

In their prime.

“We’re good,” said Durant.

That’s why it’s unusual to see Durant so uncommitted about his future plans. Surely it’s not financial; he’ll get paid by the Warriors. Something else? A chance to put his own stamp on a team, the way Kyrie Irving did when he bolted Cleveland? Who knows. Maybe Durant isn’t sure himself and clarity is several months away. Thompson says he wants to stay, but can the Warriors pay everyone, especially with Draymond Green up for renewal in 2020?

And so it begins. In a classy and neat touch, Curry invited Eric Housen to join the players on the floor for the banner ceremony. Housen began as a ball boy with the Warriors in the late 1980s and stayed with the club, eventually working his way up to equipment manager and valued jack-of-all-trades.

What a scene: A 30-year club employee, laughing and smiling at his unexpected good fortune, getting playful shoves from the players, helping to put the final touch on the Warriors’ recent past. A new journey awaits the champions, and what lies ahead is equal parts promising and potentially frightening.

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Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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