NBA Basketball - INACTIVE

Golden State Warriors prepare to carry mantle of defending champions

The Warriors’ Stephen Curry, left, and Andre Iguodala kiss the NBA championship trophy last June.
The Warriors’ Stephen Curry, left, and Andre Iguodala kiss the NBA championship trophy last June. Associated Press file

The preseason was hours old and the Golden State Warriors already had a did-you-see-it highlight. There was Stephen Curry, the NBA’s reigning MVP, pushing the ball in transition, making an around-the-back pass to Klay Thompson, who threaded a pass to a cutting Draymond Green, who kicked it back out to Curry alone in the corner. Unleashing his silky shooting stroke, Curry, the ball still in the air, turned to Andre Iguodala on the bench for a high-five, not even waiting for the sound of ball passing through net.

Swish.

As he watched the play unfold in the Warriors’ preseason opener against the Toronto Raptors, general manager Bob Myers said he couldn’t help but laugh. A Bay Area native who joined the Warriors as the assistant GM in 2011 and was promoted a year later, Myers earned the NBA Executive of the Year honor last season after Golden State won its first title in 40 years under a first-year coaching staff assembled by Myers and led by Steve Kerr. In a way, the highlight-reel play against Toronto seemed to epitomize the 2014-15 Warriors, who compiled the league’s best record by running past and over teams – their plus-10.1 point differential led the league – and looking as if they were having fun doing it.

“It was a very selfless, kind of artistic play,” Myers said last week following a practice. “That’s one of the things Steve (emphasized) when he came in as the coach, was sharing the ball, moving the ball. Day in and day out, that was the message coming from him, and it’s nice to see the players actually are listening.”

Last season’s Warriors built a foundation on ball movement, leading the NBA in assists per game (27.4) and, not coincidentally, also posting league-best marks in points per game (110), field-goal percentage (47.8) and three-point percentage (39.8). Coupled with a defense that held opponents to a league-low 42.8 percent shooting and a strong supporting cast behind Curry, the Warriors went 67-15 in the regular season and 16-5 in the playoffs en route to the NBA title.

The result, as this season begins, is a largely new role for most of Golden State’s roster – champion instead of challenger – which usually brings added scrutiny and the knowledge that opposing teams are lining up to take their best shot against the defending champs. The optimism in Warriors camp is that a young and still hungry team is well positioned to fill that role.

“It’s a lot harder when you have that target on your back (and) until we go through it as a group, it’s one of those things that’s got to be learned by experience,” interim coach Luke Walton said. “But the reason I feel like we’re equipped to do that is we have guys that love to compete. You have guys that hate to lose and love the challenge of the game. And I feel like our guys will rise to that challenge more often than not.”

The Warriors are already dealing with the first challenge of the season – preparing to start it without Kerr, who is recovering from a spinal leak caused by offseason back surgery. Since Kerr’s leave of absence was announced Oct. 2, Walton and the rest of the coaching staff have handled practices and team operations with sporadic input from Kerr, whom Myers said will return only “when his body tells him it’s ready to go.”

“Anytime you lose your leader, it’s going to be different,” said Green, the spirited forward who signed a new five-year, $82 million contract in July. “However, I think coach Kerr built a great coaching staff to where one man goes down, another man steps up – just like with this team.”

Still, it’s the kind of absence the Warriors rarely dealt with last season, when they stayed remarkably healthy. That, coupled with their avoiding the defending champion San Antonio Spurs and feisty Los Angeles Clippers in the postseason, led some to posit the Warriors enjoyed a lucky road to the title. Several players last week responded to the idea with varying degrees of derision, while Myers said: “I don’t think about it very much.”

“I think our players did earn it. I think they worked hard,” Myers said. “I don’t feel (like we were lucky). But that’s what makes it fun. Everybody’s entitled to what they believe.”

One thing that is clear is more work lies ahead. Myers said the Warriors cut out two-a-day practices this preseason and planned to rest their regulars a little more to offset the physical effects of a shorter summer. Walton said the Warriors still have “a lot of room” to improve coming off their first season playing under Kerr’s staff and concepts.

“Everything we put in offensively was brand new to these guys,” Walton said. “We feel like with a year under our belt of just getting the foundations down, now we can just keep getting better and better off what we’ve already established.”

It’s a daunting thought for the rest of the league, though for most of the preseason Golden State has hardly looked like an improved team. Last week after a loss to the Denver Nuggets, even Walton implied it was time to start rounding into form: “We’ve got to make that decision,” he said, “that we want to shut people down again like we did last year.”

The next day, though, the atmosphere at an open practice at Oracle Arena still felt tinged with leftover giddiness from June, as fans cheered their team running drills at half-speed. The session ended with a halfcourt shot competition among players and a few fans, and with bricks and airballs raining down, the event’s emcee reminded the crowd: “It’s not an easy shot, folks.”

As if on cue, Curry stepped next to the halfcourt line.

Swish.

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