OAKLAND — Any time a team fires a coach after a 51-win season and back-to-back playoff appearances the message from ownership is clear: good is not good enough.
That's the situation the Golden State Warriors are in now.
Mark Jackson is gone, Steve Kerr has taken over and the Warriors are hoping the coaching change is the final ingredient to put them in the NBA championship mix.
“These guys are already really good,” said Kerr, who left the TNT broadcast table to sign a five-year deal worth about $25 million with the Warriors in May. “We're not trying to change everything. All we're trying to do is help them get even better. Basketball is all about how the pieces fit, and the pieces already fit pretty well here.”
Two seasons ago, the Warriors made a surprising run to the second round of the playoffs under Jackson. Last spring, they took the Pacific Division champion Los Angeles Clippers to a decisive Game 7 in the first round despite center and defensive leader Andrew Bogut sitting out with a fractured rib.
Golden State returns all five starters â€” Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, David Lee and Bogut â€” from that team, which finished 51-31 to earn the Western Conference's sixth seed. The Warriors also signed free agent guard Shaun Livingston to bolster a bench that includes blossoming young forwards Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes.
Players believe there's enough talent in place to win a title.
“We're all excited about taking advantage of the window we have as a team,” Curry said. “Coaches change, but when you have a unit and a core that's sticking together, it's our job to take advantage of it, regardless of the situation. That's kind of our motivation. We've tasted a little bit of success in the playoffs the last two years, and we want more.”
Here are some things to watch with the Warriors this season:
STAYING HEALTHY: Avoiding major injuries is the key for every team. For the Warriors, who rely so heavily on their starters, it's paramount. Golden State was 30-13 when Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Lee and Bogut started last season, the best winning percentage of any team in the league.
Bogut said his rib has healed, though his injury history has some fans uneasy. Several players had offseason procedures, including Iguodala (platelet-rich plasma injection in right knee), Lee (muscle in his midsection) and Livingston (right big toe), the only player who has yet to play in the preseason. Backup center Festus Ezeli, who missed all of last season recovering from right knee surgery, also has dealt with soreness in his shin.
SUPERSTAR CURRY: Curry made his first All-Star team as a starter last season and will need to continue to evolve as one of the NBA's best players if the Warriors want to contend in the West. Curry averaged career-highs of 24 points and 8.5 assists but also 3.8 turnovers last season as defenses game planned around him.
BENCH PRODUCTION: The biggest problem for the Warriors â€” other than injuries â€” last season was their bench, which constantly wasted leads and forced Jackson to play his starters heavy minutes. The Warriors signed Livingston and Leandro Barbosa to shore up the backcourt depth. They're hoping Ezeli can stay healthy and, along with Marresse Speights and reserve center Ognjen Kuzmic, provide more frontcourt options. Green and Barnes also will play both forward positions as Kerr tries to stretch the floor more.
BALL MOVEMENT: Kerr is trying to inject some energy into the offense this season with more ball movement, breaking away from the isolation-heavy style Jackson used. Kerr said his style has flavors of the triangle offense from his days playing for Phil Jackson in Chicago, the pace-and-space attack of Gregg Popovich in San Antonio and the up-tempo schemes assistant coach Alvin Gentry employed in Phoenix. How the Warriors deal with the change â€” and how the new philosophy impacts the defense, which ranked fourth in overall defensive rating last season â€” will go a long way in deciding how the season turns out.
THOMPSON'S TIME: The Warriors refused to include Thompson in any trade talks with Minnesota for Kevin Love in the offseason, believing all along that Thompson and Curry could carry them to a title on their streaky shooting strokes. Thompson began to validate the decision this summer, dazzling during the FIBA World Cup in Spain to help the U.S. win gold. There will be more expected out of him now, especially with fans still split about losing Love to Cleveland.