Why the Warriors’ chase for greatness has become such a slog
Steve Kerr still remembers the moment that the Golden State Warriors’ dynasty could have died before it even began. As he walked into the Memphis Grizzlies’ practice facility last week, Kerr couldn’t help but think back to being down 2-1 to Zach Randolph & Co., wondering if the Warriors would ever reach their full potential.
“I had a flashback walking into this building, in this practice gym,” Kerr told ESPN. “[Warriors GM] Bob Myers and I laid on that floor over there down 2-1 to Memphis in 2015 and we were basically talking, ‘Can we do this? Can we pull this off? Can we beat Memphis?'”
Four years later, the Warriors remain in the midst of one of the greatest runs in NBA history. They have gone to four straight NBA Finals and have won three of the past four NBA championships. They have won more games — 317– over the past five seasons than any team in any five-year span in NBA history, breaking their own record set from 2013-14 through 2017-18.
However, when the Warriors set that record on Sunday night — breaking their own mark that encompassed Mark Jackson’s final season as coach and Kerr’s first four — there was no major celebration. No trophy was handed out, and no banner will be raised to commemorate it.
As the Warriors come to the end of another long, 82-game regular season, the grind of winning another championship has never been more apparent. Still, Kerr has remained upbeat and optimistic about his team’s present and future, even in the wake of unexpected blowout losses that appeared to show cracks in the Warriors’ facade. When his players just didn’t have it on a particular night, notably in a March 23 home loss to the Dallas Mavericks when they were embarrassed by 35 points, neither Kerr nor his players were too concerned. The group has always believed that there were more important games ahead, so why sweat games that didn’t matter as much in the grand scheme of a long season?
“If we had a night like we had against Dallas four years ago nobody [outside the team] would care,” Stephen Curry said. “[Now] it becomes a bigger story and we have to answer to it and we felt s—ty and the whole deal. So that pressure and the expectations that we put on ourselves and ones that are coming from the outside. As much as guys want to go home and turn it off and they have balance in their lives, it’s always in the back of your head, so year after year of that is tough.”
Heading into the final week of the regular season, the Warriors have displayed two main characteristics throughout this arduous chapter of their story:
1. They can still beat anybody when they are focused and playing their best.
2. The process of chasing greatness has worn out the group to a level we’re not used to seeing.
That wear has reflected itself in the Warriors’ record. In a season in which they wanted to savor the last moments inside Oracle Arena, they come into Tuesday’s showdown with the Denver Nuggets having already lost 11 home games, more than the team lost in Kerr’s first three seasons combined.
After winning 67 total regular-season games in Kerr’s first season, the Warriors won 73 in 2015-16, then 67, then 58, and currently sit with just 52 wins on the season. The urgency to win on a nightly basis that came at the beginning of the run isn’t there anymore. The spotlight and speculation that can only come after this kind of success has mentally exhausted the group at times during the season.
“I don’t know why it’s so tough to do,” Warriors forward Draymond Green said when asked why it has been so difficult to maintain year-over-year success. “But whatever that reason is, [it’s] the reason why there ain’t many greats and many people don’t reach greatness.”
Green couldn’t help but smile wide as he marinated on the question. The Warriors appreciate what they’ve already accomplished, which helps them to not sweat the small stuff when they have bad losses like those they’ve had this season. After almost a decade and a half in professional basketball, veteran point guard Shaun Livingston offered a solid summation of why the process of winning big year after year can wear teams out.
“The hardest thing to do in this league is be consistent,” Livingston said. “That’s what separates [the] bad from the good [from] the great.”
Livingston is one of five players who’ve been with the Warriors for the entire five-year run, along with Curry, Green, Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson. Though that group is championship-tested, playing important games in early April is something with which they’re not very familiar, and something they’ll face over the next week. Golden State enters Tuesday with a one-game lead over Denver for the top seed in the West. The No. 1 seed is a goal the Warriors, in their own inconsistent manner, have alternately called “extremely important” and not the top priority down the stretch.
The last time the Warriors played games of consequence in the season’s final week — their record-chasing 73-win season in 2016 — marked the one time in the past four years they failed to win the title. In 2015 and 2017, the top seed was an inevitability at this point, and the Warriors entered April of last year locked into the second seed.
“Once you get to that level, it’s that cliché: It’s harder to stay at the mountaintop than it is to get there. You get everybody’s best shot,” Curry said of the difficulty of maintaining the kind of regular-season success the Warriors had in 2015, 2016 and 2017. “You’re picked apart in the media, you’re picked apart from fans. The pressure to be great every night, as much as it fuels you, it wears on you, too. You got to keep everything in perspective.”
Kerr echoed Curry’s sentiments, pointing out that the Warriors have spent at least the past four seasons getting every opponent’s best shot every night, which can wear on a team. However, he says that’s part of what comes with being considered one of the all-time great teams.
“A team wins one championship and it’s a hell of an accomplishment, but nobody talks about their legacy in terms of a dynasty or greatness, whatever the word is,” he said. “If you really want to be put into that category, that the best teams in history have been put into, the greatest teams, you’ve got to do it for years. The NBA season is tough enough for every team. Eighty-two games and all the travel and the wear and tear, to do what we’ve done five straight years.”
The Warriors have to grind through six more games before the regular season ends and they can refocus on the goal of winning a third consecutive championship, something no team has done since the 2000-2002 Los Angeles Lakers. Three of the next four games are at home, where they’ll try to close out their regular-season history at Oracle Arena with a bang.
The Warriors then finish with two games on the road, including a season-ending trip to Memphis, once again returning to the city where they could’ve been shut down before winning a single championship four years ago.
Regardless of what happens over these final six games, Kerr remains confident in his team’s ability to play championship-level basketball deep into June.
“When I think of our team I don’t worry because I’ve watched them do it year after year and I know they’re going to bring it,” he said. “And I know they’re going to be ready when it counts.”
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