OAKLAND, Calif. — Before the Golden State Warriors opened their 2018-19 season with a 108-100 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder late Tuesday night, they celebrated winning a third NBA championship in four seasons in June.
It was a ceremony befitting a team bursting at the seams with stars and in the midst of one of the great runs in NBA history. The rings for each player in attendance descended from the ceiling in cloth pouches dangling from neon lights. The crowd boisterously cheered for every member of the organization, from superstar guard Stephen Curry, all the way down to fifth assistant coach Chris DeMarco. Owner Joe Lacob went out of his way to repeatedly gloat about having three obscenely large rings to wear on his hands.
And finally, the 2017-18 NBA championship banner was unveiled from high above the floor at Oracle Arena as fireworks exploded and Queen’s “We Are The Champions” blared from the loudspeakers.
The excitement of Tuesday night, though, was in contrast to the way the Warriors slogged through last season on the way to that title.
Last season, Golden State looked, and sounded, like a team stuck in cement. From the opening day of training camp, the Warriors grumbled about how difficult it would be to become a repeat champion in the NBA. They discussed the obvious fights with boredom they had on a daily basis to drag themselves through a meaningless 82-game regular season to return to the playoffs — to the point that Warriors Coach Steve Kerr allowed his players to coach a game.
Even when Golden State faced a dire situation in the Western Conference finals — trailing at halftime of both Games 6 and 7, with the latter coming on the road, to the Houston Rockets — the Warriors couldn’t seem to get themselves going. It took the Rockets missing an astounding 27 consecutive three-pointers to give the Warriors the opening they needed to come back, win the series and go on to a second straight title.
This year, the Warriors have vowed to do things differently. Rather than talk about the struggle to win a third straight title — something no team has done in nearly 20 years, and something that has only happened five times in NBA history — they have discussed the joy of competing. Rather than focus on an uncertain future, they have embraced this season as the last one this team could spend together in this configuration.
And while last year’s team returned 12 of 15 players from the year before, helping add to the stale energy around it all season, the Warriors went out and added DeMarcus Cousins, who is coming off a torn Achilles’, to give the team all the spice it could possibly handle in its quest to win again.
All of that, Golden State hopes, will allow the Warriors to better navigate what they hope will be another eight months of basketball culminating in a third consecutive title next June.
“I do,” Kerr said before Tuesday night’s game, when asked whether he felt a different energy around his team during the preseason.
“We’ll play tonight, and it will be fun. And then there will be 81 more [regular season games], and then we will probably get that question over and over again.
“You just go out and you play, and you navigate the season and see what happens.”
As the Warriors do so, there will be one topic they will be questioned about even more than their energy level this season: where Kevin Durant will be playing during the 2019-20 campaign.
While Durant is only one of two Golden State all-stars headed for unrestricted free agency next summer — the other being Klay Thompson — he is the one who feels available for other teams to pursue. While Thompson has said, in no uncertain terms, that he wants to remain with the Warriors, Durant has been far more cagey in his thoughts on the future.
But Golden State won’t give Durant up without a fight. The Warriors could very well offer him the chance to win a fourth straight title next season — something no team has done since Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics in the 1960s. And while signing Durant and Thompson to long-term max deals would likely make Golden State the most expensive team in NBA history, Kerr dismissed out of hand the notion that financial decisions would impact how the Warriors proceed next summer.
“No,” he said Monday, followed by a long pause.
“Can’t make it any clearer than that.”
The Warriors certainly can afford it, given the franchise has more than quintupled in value since Lacob and Peter Guber bought it for $450 million in 2010 — and that is before Golden State moves across the bay and into the gleaming, 18,000-seat ATM machine that will be Chase Center, its new home in San Francisco that will open next fall.
But those are all problems for another day — next July, in fact. In between, the Warriors not only have to contend with the wear-and-tear of the past four years but also a rising tide around them. The Rockets will be back with a vengeance, while both the Celtics and Toronto Raptors appear to have the right blend of depth and athleticism to give Golden State a far stiffer test in the NBA Finals than the Cleveland Cavaliers did the past two seasons.
Until they are beaten, though, the Warriors will remain the class of the NBA. The next several months will reveal whether their biggest competition to make it to a fifth consecutive NBA Finals, and to win a fourth title in five years, will be the rest of the league — or, like it was last season, themselves.