Going into this season, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr preached patience, and understandably so.
The Warriors hadn’t played in nine months, Stephen Curry played in just five games in little more than a year because of a broken hand and Klay Thompson suffered a devastating Achilles tear sidelining him for the second straight season. Plus, GM Bob Myers was handing Kerr a turned-over roster whose core had been rebuilt since the dynasty days. New cornerstone Andrew Wiggins had played only one game with Curry and zero minutes alongside Draymond Green, and the team had to balance developing No. 2 overall pick James Wiseman and winning games.
So when Golden State opened the season with two blowout losses to the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks by a combined 65 points, those results could have been written off as something expected. Instead, after failing to score 100 points in either of the first two games, Kerr made a dramatic change. He stripped down the offense to its simplest principles.
“We’re learning and growing,” Curry said. “You have to be honest with yourself. First two games were terrible and disjointed. Even if shots went in, I think it was necessary to (change) from the other day to now, in terms of cutting it down.”
Instead of a whirring series of ball screens, handoffs and timely cuts, Kerr installed an offense predicated on high pick-and-rolls, with a ball-handler using a big-man screen to get downhill and create shots for himself or shooters spread around the arc.
The result: A 129-128 win over the Chicago Bulls, Curry beginning to snap out of a shooting slump and Wiggins — whom this team will rely on so much — finding his rhythm as a pick-and-roll playmaker. In the win, Wiggins recorded four assists after having just one in his first two games combined.
“Something I’m familiar with,” Wiggins said before Tuesday’s game in Detroit, the last of the team’s four-game trip to open the season. “It feels good and I’m comfortable in those situations.”
While this distilled offense is easier for players like Wiggins, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Wiseman to grasp, it’s far from the sophistication Kerr was used to when coaching basketball savants Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and Green, who has yet to play this season with foot and conditioning issues.
Kerr had spent an extended offseason preparing to rebound from last season’s 15-50 ordeal. But even that doesn’t compare to the learning curve he faces coaching a still-rebuilding team in fan-less arenas, and fresh off the organization losing $50 million in revenue due to the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season. After more than three decades as a player, executive and coach, this is new ground.
“It’s by far the biggest challenge that I’ve had,” he admitted.
Though he may not be able to implement his motion-heavy system this season, the next challenge for Kerr will be adding wrinkles to the offense to stay unpredictable.
What made the Warriors dominate during their run of five straight Finals was that element of unpredictability: Green, Iguodala and Livingston thinking several moves ahead while Curry and Thompson scamper to find openings and make 3-pointers with surgical precision.
But Wiggins and Oubre don’t have that ability or experience to create, and thrive more as isolation scorers getting downhill and finishing at the basket; Wiseman does not have the playmaking chops of past centers Andrew Bogut, David West and Zaza Pachulia; and Curry is without his long-time backcourt partner in Thompson.
Over the next few weeks, Kerr will be careful to add more movement elements and prevent the Warriors from becoming stagnant. Green’s return, which will add a playmaker and organizer to the court, will help.
“I think we have to figure out what we have to do different,” Green said. “Figuring out what those changes are, while trying to stay true to who we are, who we know ourselves to be, is the challenge.
“I have no doubt we’ll figure it out. It just may take some time.”
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