It looks like your mother’s jewel box, this vintage building where the Warriors will claim their rings tonight. But to the NBA champions, Oracle Arena must feel like a bunker, missiles converging from all angles.
Their ailing coach and whisperer, Steve Kerr, will watch the season opener from the locker room — assuming his headaches don’t force him back to bed. Rivals around the NBA are bulked up and mouthing off, showing little respect. Charles Barkley, in town to dish out and absorb abuse at A LIVE TNT PREGAME SHOW TODAY AT PIER 43, favors Oklahoma City to win the West this time. And did Steph Curry hear the one where Alvin Gentry, formerly his trusted assistant coach and now providing the evening’s opposition as head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans, joined an ever-expanding list of Steph-dissers (Mark Jackson, James Harden, Ty Lawson) when extolling the megatalent of his newly inherited sensation, Anthony Davis?
“We’ve got,” proclaimed Gentry, “the best player in the NBA not named LeBron James.”
To which an insult-weary Curry said, “I didn’t even hear that.”
Given the adversity already heaped upon the Warriors, it’s tempting to rule out a repeat championship before the first tip. Not even the storied Spurs have gone back-to-back in winning five titles, with only the Lakers managing that feat so far this millennium. As exquisitely as the rose pedals fell during a destiny-touched joyride, there is reason to think the dues and obstacles will bite back and prevent the beginnings of a Dub Dynasty. I mean, who loses their head coach because a surgeon nicks the dura of his spine during what was to be a routine summer back surgery? And what team that produces 83 victories in a wire-to-wire masterpiece — a total trumped in NBA history only by two Chicago titlists of the Jordan Era — has to hear so much exhaust from Doc Rivers and others about being lucky?
“I’m surprised at some of their comments, yeah,” said interim head coach Luke Walton, who, at 35, isn’t much older than some of his players. “I’ve been around the NBA long enough to know that the best team wins the championship, and that’s just the way it is. To go that far and win all the series, you’re the best. Last year we were — and we’re going to try and be again this year.”
So the onus, immediately, falls upon the league’s Most Valuable Player to somehow be even better this season. Many times over the last 12 months, we stared bug-eyed at Wardell Stephen Curry II, tried to assimilate something he did on a basketball court and had a hard time processing it. He seemed a revelation from the gods, a nightly delight for all demographics, pixie dust in a sport tired of LeBron James as a business brand and wide-load specimen. Curry was Allen Iverson with all his brain cells and a heightened social conscience admired by his golf buddy, Barack Obama. The wonders he performed with a basketball recalled the best of Michael and Kobe and Pistol Pete Maravich but few others, from his voodoo handle to his lasers-and-radar shooting spectaculars to his wicked no-looks and penchant for late-game drama.
As the Warriors were changing the sport, he was revolutionizing it as a 6-3 (maybe), 185-pound (maybe) wisp who could dominate from the perimeter. It’s almost unfathomable to suggest he could improve. But Curry says he will. He wants to be a better leader. He wants to be a more physical player in the post. He wants to continue his progress defensively. He wants to be more careful with the ball, fix a 2.49 assist-to-turnover ratio that ranked 22nd among point guards.
He doesn’t want to be a one-hit wonder and fade into afterthoughtdom, while Davis and Harden take over the league and a thirtysomething James tries to stay healthy enough to finally win in Cleveland. He doesn’t want to return props to the Spurs, the team he finally overcame, or the Thunder, which is running out of time in what could be Kevin Durant’s final season in Small Market USA. Lord knows, he doesn’t want to cede a crumb to Rivers and the reviled Clippers.
“What I was able to do last year, I want to do those things even better,” Curry said. “I’m going to be smarter. I’m going to be a better leader.”
And his team? “If we play our A-plus game, we feel like we’re going to win every game we play,” Curry said. “But we expect that whoever is suiting up against us is going to have their A-plus night. They’re going to be hyped up and ready. We even saw that in the preseason.”
If he has more in store for an encore, I should see the dentist for preemptive work. My jaw dropped and locked too often last season. His teammates insist Curry has more to offer, with Draymond Green saying, “I definitely see another level. I still think he’s just scratching the surface on how good he can be and how good he’s going to be. And it’s exciting to watch.”
Without Kerr, Curry will have to be a coach on the floor. “Everybody is going to give us their best shot, especially in the West. So with coach Kerr or without him, it was going to be a challenge. If we’re not at our best, it’s going to be tough,” he said. “This is definitely a hiccup we didn’t see coming. We want him to come back healthy and have as full a squad as we can.”
Until then? “I think we’re mentally refreshed and focused on getting the season started on a good foot. We have to kind of build our own mojo,” Curry said. “Obviously, it’s temporary, but you’re used to a certain flow in games and you’re used to hearing his voice. He provides a lot for the coaching staff with adjustments — which buttons to press, plays to call. All the way through, it’s different. But it doesn’t affect our effort on the court, our competitiveness, our execution. We just have to take that to another level and be mature about the process.”
Maturity is the operative word. For a team with so many young cornerstones, there is the advantage of having overcome postseason hardship. Remember, the Warriors would have been on the embarrassing end of history had they lost to James in the Finals when he didn’t have Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. They came back and won … but that was more about the will and experience of Kerr and the guile and toughness of Andre Iguodala than Curry, who struggled early in the Finals and ceded the MVP award to Iguodala. No doubt Iguodala’s leadership will be vital again, too, now that he has completely overcome any hard feelings about coming off the bench. Gaining nationwide acclaim for selflessness — and being ready when summoned as a starter in the Finals — helps soothe the pain of not being introduced before tipoff.
“Oh, you learn how to embrace it, and when you embrace things, things tend to work out in your favor,” Iguodala said. “So I’ve been through it for a year, and I understand it a trillion times more. I’m definitely more comfortable. I’m actually looking forward to it. The approach now is, being the sixth man — I was taking it out on the starters in practice last year, where now you take the approach to the other team because it’s a lot more comfortable.”
Consider it another way that the Warriors are more bonded than a year ago this time. They’ve been united by the doubts of others. “I think our guys will use it,” Walton said. “Our guys like a little trash talk. They play better on edge.”
“We love having the bullet on our back,” Klay Thompson said.
“If you’re always the one hunting,” Green said of their resolve to remain champs, “that ain’t good.”
And together, when their coach isn’t around or a game looks unwinnable or a losing streak actually stretches to three or four, they will look to Stephen Curry for a bailout. Until he misses the shot, you’d be a fool to doubt him.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.