OAKLAND, Calif. — The Golden State Warriors and the casual NBA fan are now one in the same.
Both can’t wait for the playoffs to start.
Take Monday night’s game against the Phoenix Suns, for example. What otherwise would have been an unremarkable 129-83 rout of a horrendous Suns team by the Warriors instead featured a drastic step Kerr took to try to get his team’s attention after several weeks of lagging performances.
“I haven’t been able to reach them the last month,” Kerr said. “They are tired of my voice. I’m tired of my voice.”
So Kerr decided that, for a night, the Warriors wouldn’t hear his voice. Rather than going through his usual work coaching the team, he allowed his players to do the work for him.
While the coaching staff still managed substitution patterns, the players did everything else. From Stephen Curry to Draymond Green to Andre Iguodala to David West, the players took turns running the huddles.
Kerr and his assistants, meanwhile, stood by and watched.
“I don’t know,” Kerr said, when asked what he thought of the job they did. “I wasn’t listening.”
There will undoubtedly be plenty of screaming on sports-talk shows Tuesday about whether it was disrespectful for Kerr to do this — or, in some cases, what level of disrespect that it produced.
In fact, such talk began even before Monday night’s game had finished.
Everyone focusing solely on Kerr’s decision to do this, however, is missing the bigger picture, and what Kerr was trying to accomplish in the first place. This wasn’t about disrespecting an opponent, or mocking the Phoenix Suns, the team for which Kerr served as president and general manager for three years.
This was simply Kerr’s latest attempt to find meaning in a season that increasingly has had none for a team that has now spent 18 months with virtually no one thinking it has a chance of being beaten.
“I think it’s exactly what I expected,” Kerr said of the challenge of keeping his team engaged. “Just having had the experience as a player in Chicago, the three years in a row [in the NBA Finals] … I’ve talked about it a lot. You lose the freshness of the first year or two. It’s emotionally draining for these guys to play night after night, people coming after them.
“It’s just different. It’s different now. You guys can feel it. [From] three years ago to now, it’s different. You have to account for that. We’re trying to guide them; we’re trying to pace them. I think we’re in a good place. I like where our team is. We haven’t played well the last few weeks but we don’t want to be peaking now anyway.
“But we do want to be building good habits, and tonight was a good sign.”
The past three years, the Warriors have had something to motivate them from the jump. Three seasons ago this team exploded into the national consciousness and won its first title. Then came the doubters who said they only won because Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving were hurt — causing Golden State to come back with a vengeance in the second season, winning a record-setting 73 games before losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. That, of course, led to Kevin Durant joining the Warriors for last season, and another 67-win regular season followed by a 16-1 romp through the playoffs to a second title in three seasons.
This year, though? The Warriors haven’t had that thing to keep them locked in on a nightly basis, to give them something to play for during these dog days of the season. That’s why the Warriors — while still leading the league with both a 44-13 record and in outscoring their opponents by 10.3 points per 100 possessions — have already come close to matching last season’s 15 losses with 25 games remaining on the schedule.
“For whatever reason,” Curry said, “we obviously haven’t been great, by any stretch of the imagination, for the last month.”
While the Warriors have been waiting around for the playoffs to start, the rest of the league has spent the past year gearing up to take them down. The Houston Rockets overhauled their roster this summer — trading for Chris Paul and signing P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute — before landing Gerald Green, Joe Johnson and Brandan Wright during the season. The Cavaliers just traded half their team to shake things up after a horrific slide over the past month. The Oklahoma City Thunder traded for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. The Minnesota Timberwolves traded for Jimmy Butler and signed Jeff Teague.
The Warriors, on the other hand, have largely stood pat. They have 12 of the same 15 players as last season. They haven’t seriously pursued any of the buyout candidates yet, and it wouldn’t be surprising if they finish the season without making a roster move.
That lack of fresh blood has, at times, led to them feeling stale this season. But for a team that has spent this much time worrying about its current form, and a general lack of focus, the fact that it has the NBA’s best record and point differential is an indication of how strong of a position the Warriors find themselves in.
If Golden State stays healthy, it is going to enter the postseason as an overwhelming favorite to win a second straight championship, its third in four years. The players know that. The coaches know that. The rest of the league knows that.
This is why Steve Kerr chose to do something drastic Monday, attempting to give his players some reason to care on a random night in February … days before the all-star break … against arguably the worst team in the NBA.
Now he only has to do so 25 more times before Golden State’s games actually matter.