If Steve Kerr opts for showmanship as a tool in the Golden State Warriors‘ latest title defense, he should start the first day of training camp by gathering his team (preferably in a darkened room with eerie music piped in for effect) and promising to reveal the greatest threat to its burgeoning dynasty.
He should hype it up, ominously warning Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant and Draymond Green that this looming specter is one unconquered by the mighty San Antonio Spurs. He should explain how there’s no established counterscheme to combat it. No personnel adjustments.
He should whisper about how this devious foe hides in plain sight, knows everything about them and can poison mind and body by turns.
And then he should dramatically whip off the shroud covering what appeared to be a standard locker room whiteboard…only to reveal a mirror reflecting their own faces.
He’d get laughed out of the room, of course. Golden State tends to be less serious about preseason motivation, Kerr’s chill demeanor would make that level of theatricality absurd, and, most importantly, the Warriors must already be familiar with the message.
Having tried and failed to repeat as champs once before, the Warriors know they are their own biggest challenge.
Because after all that’s happened this summer to theoretically change the landscape of the NBA—the newly formed superteam in Houston, the purpose-built collection of switchable defensive wings in Oklahoma City and the doubled-up star power in Boston—the chasm separating commoners from royalty remains. Golden State is in its own class.
The Warriors pulverized the sport last season. Then they brought everyone back who mattered. Then they added talent in free agency, replacing Ian Clark and James Michael McAdoo with Nick Young and Omri Casspi. Consider all that alongside the likelihood that another year together could further enhance the chemistry between the key figures on the roster.
This isn’t just information we’re cataloging as outside observers; these are all facts the players on the roster digest, too. They understand what it means when a 67-win team goes 16-1 in the playoffs and then gets better. And they, being human, can’t ignore the knee-jerk thought that follows, which is:
This is going to be easy.
Even if they know repeating is never simple, even if they realize the Spurs haven’t gone back-to-back for a reason, even if they swear up and down to take every second of this season seriously…it’s going to require a monumental effort to avoid the usual post-championship malaise.
Especially for a team that has defined itself with fast-and-loose play in the biggest moments.
The Warriors had their self-confidence verified by what looked like a casual jaunt through the postseason last year. They were focused though, motivated to avenge the historic embarrassment of a blown 3-1 lead in the 2016 Finals and driven to erase the shame of 73 wins and a unanimous MVP ultimately meaning nothing.
Curry built an ad campaign on the idea of making that old, and the rest of the roster played the season with chips on shoulders and wounded pride. And that’s to say nothing of Durant’s personal quest to validate a controversial exit from OKC.
Those motivators are gone now, and the Warriors have to replace them with something else.
Failing to repeat last time they won a ring helps. There’s at least one unmet goal to pursue.
But that may not be enough, so the Warriors’ greatest asset in this upcoming title defense will have to be a capacity for self delusion.
They’ll have no choice but to fabricate doubters and concoct obstacles where none exist. They must trick themselves, lying about threats and naysayers until they see and hear them as if they were actually there.
Fortunately, this is the kind of thing they do all the time anyway.
“People thought I couldn’t be back here on this stage, and I tried to push myself and tried to achieve what could not be achieved,” Curry told reporters after winning his second MVP.
Before falling in the 2016 Finals, Green outlined a personal philosophy to Sports Illustrated‘s Lee Jenkins that cannot have disappeared in a year—even after a championship redemption and a Defensive Player of the Year award:
“I think it’s cool to read that Draymond Green is transcending the NBA,” he says. “I also think it’s cool to read that Draymond Green is terrible.” He sleeps with ESPN on his TV, volume raised, lest he miss a disparaging sound bite. A dig from Doc Rivers? A bold prediction from Jason Terry? A jab from a ’96 Bull? If anyone tries to change the channel he pops up like a jack-in-the-box. “There are still doubters,” he says. “I’ll find them somewhere.”
No rational oddsmakers will tab the Warriors as anything but overwhelming favorites in 2017-18. Every reasonable pundit will pick them to win the title. True doubt will be almost impossible to find.
But then, hasn’t it always been that way?
And haven’t players like Curry and Green excelled by finding the needle of negativity in a haystack of praise?
Sure, Curry has faced questions in his career. He seemed a little thin to be a superstar, too physically vulnerable to dominate. But he was one of the greatest collegiate scorers in years, a top-10 pick and an All-Star at age 25. For a long time, the majority has believed in him.
But he focused on the minority that didn’t.
Same with Green, who was a top-50 high school recruit and the NABC Player of the Year as a senior at Michigan State. Rings, awards and immense success haven’t made him forget the names of all 34 players taken ahead of him in the 2012 draft, though.
All the success has only made it harder for Curry, Green and the rest of the Warriors to find those dissenting voices. But as the rest of the league keeps trying unsuccessfully to measure up, and as the Cleveland Cavaliers, their greatest external obstacle, show signs of fracturing, the Warriors need to hear them.
They’ll need to convince themselves they’re perceived as somehow weak, despite every reason to believe in their own strength.
They’ll have to fool themselves into staying sharp, even if they deserve to take the edge off.
Twenty-nine other teams will technically oppose the Warriors this season, but the only competition that matters will take place in the heads of 15 players suited up in blue and gold.
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