On Monday morning, a few hours before the Golden State Warriors’ 11th game of the NBA season, coach Steve Kerr guided his team step by painstaking step through a few defensive concepts. It was more instructional clinic than pregame workout, which by itself was a jarring reminder of how much the landscape of the team had shifted.
“A lot more teaching,” Kerr said.
In the old days, Kerr seldom felt the need to explain the fundamentals of pick-and-roll coverage at game-day shootarounds. In the old days, he never had to brace for the mental anguish of losing streaks. And in the old days, it would have been nearly impossible for fans to imagine the sad spectacle that would befall the team this season, because the old days were only last season.
But just five months removed from their fifth straight trip to the NBA Finals, the Warriors are processing the harsher realities of life in the league. Klay Thompson underwent offseason knee surgery. Stephen Curry broke his left hand. Kevin Durant left for the Brooklyn Nets. And the Warriors have the worst record (2-9) in the Western Conference.
“I don’t want our mindset to just allow failure to sink in,” Kerr said in an interview. “Because we all read stuff, we all hear stuff and we all see stuff. Players have it at their fingertips on their phones, and all the chatter out there is, ‘All right, so the Warriors are going to be in the lottery.’ But we can’t succumb to that. We have to fight and scrap for every win we can get.”
Almost overnight, the Warriors went from being one of the league’s most veteran teams to one of its most inexperienced. In a loss to the Houston Rockets last week, Kerr started three rookies, including one, Ky Bowman, who went undrafted and has a two-way contract with Santa Cruz of the G League. Two usual starters — Draymond Green and Kevon Looney — missed the team’s most recent road trip because of injuries, and Kerr found himself feeling unmoored: Where is everyone?
The oddest part of this odd season is that it is a reset rather than a rebuild. The Warriors could be good again next season. Despite Kerr’s best efforts, the roster is likely to be bolstered next season by the addition of a lottery pick. And in the wake of so many long playoff runs, Curry and Thompson are expected to return at something approximating full strength.
“We’re like some caged animals right now, ready to get unleashed back to what we do,” Curry said in a news conference this week.
In the meantime, the young players who are supplying so many minutes will be better off because of the experience — no matter how much that experience stings. Every day has the vague outlines of training camp, except there are games, too. Against Utah, Golden State trailed by 15 at the half and lost by 14. Green was ejected for arguing with an official.
“It’s a long season,” Kerr said, “and there’s no reason why we can’t get on a run and win some games and start to feel better about things. But we have some work to do.”
At the start of the season, even before Curry was injured, Kerr was wrestling with the team’s identity amid so much turnover.
“The real challenge was figuring out how we were going to play,” he said. “Because on the one hand, we didn’t want to go too far away from what’s been good for us for five years. On the other, we were trying to blend in all these young, new guys into a system that was pretty complex.”
His preferred offensive system is complex in the sense that it is based on reads, with nuanced actions that had become second nature to his championship-ready rotation in recent seasons. But the Warriors have 10 new players on the roster, and it was clear to Kerr that many of them were struggling to grasp the offense in training camp. Once Curry broke his hand against the Phoenix Suns on Oct. 30, Kerr knew he needed to make a change.
“As a coaching staff, we realized we couldn’t stick with these concepts because they were too intricate,” he said. “So let’s simplify our offense and let’s run three or four things over and over again, get these young guys comfortable, teach them how to play NBA defense and see what we can do.”
Kerr has been pleased with their effort, he said, and has seen signs of progress — however incremental. He understands his players will make mistakes.
“We’re just throwing these guys into the fire,” he said.
Curry reflected on his own rookie season, in 2009-10. The Warriors finished 26-56. At times, all that seemed at stake was Don Nelson’s pursuit of the league record for career coaching wins. But in hindsight, Curry said, it was an important season for himself and for the organization.
“It’s the best thing in the world for a rookie to come in, or for a young player to come in, and have this opportunity to just play every night,” Curry said. “It’s the best way to learn. It’s the best way to grow. Again, the hardest thing to do is just to stay positive when things are not going your way. But you learn so much through these types of experiences.”
Curry plans to return later this season — he pointed to “early spring” — and there is an outside chance that Thompson will join him in April. It would be ideal, Curry said, for them to get some court time with the new players before next season. But he also refused to rule out a miracle in the coming months.
“A lot can happen,” Curry said. “The boys might surprise us and go on a crazy run, and we might be talking about something different.”
Something different, as in another postseason appearance. Given the current state of play, that bit of prognostication seemed imaginative bordering on ludicrous. But nobody can fault Curry for being supportive of his teammates. Right now, the Warriors are rummaging for morsels of optimism.
“We have a team full of competitors that want to win,” said Eric Paschall, a first-year forward. “If you put me in a chess game, put me in a Fortnite game, put me in a 2K game, I’m going to win. So, that’s the one thing: If we are playing this game, you might as well go out there and try to win.”
Kerr does not enjoy losing. But he has taken solace in the development of players like Paschall, who recently scored 34 points in a win against the Portland Trail Blazers, and Bowman, who guarded Damian Lillard and James Harden for stretches in back-to-back games last week. The Warriors are learning.
“We’ve had so much good fortune here, especially me,” Kerr said. “Nobody should be allowed to just coach a championship team every single year of their career. It doesn’t work that way. So it’s a new challenge, and I’m enjoying it, and I do get frustrated. But I don’t let that impact what’s important for our young players.”