It's hard to remember now, but there was a time when Adam Levine wasn't overexposed, Egyptian presidents had tenure and Lamar Odom was considered too stable to join the Kardashian tribe. That was also a time when the Golden State Warriors were a ruptured nuclear reactor; as in, no matter who they acquired, a toxicity seemed to seep up through the floorboards and poison them.
All of that was one year ago. The point: how quickly situations can change. And, in some cases, change back again.
This is not to suggest that the vapor from some subterranean Oracle Arena ooze has returned and the team is destined for another loooong stretch of lottery-bound mediocrity. It's simply a reminder that the franchise is only one season removed from the last loooong stretch of lottery-bound mediocrity and some of the key elements that ended it are gone.
Meaning: If the Warriors are to make good on predictions that they should advance at least as far as last year's surprise march to the second round and possibly beyond, they're going to have to reinvent themselves.
Key Missing Element No. 1: Collective Shoulder Chip
Preseason projections by just about every news outlet for the 2012-13 season had the Warriors as the 10th-ranked team (or worse) in the Western Conference. They used it as their rallying cry, embodied by a simple and oft-repeated slogan: "Just Us."
David Lee being selected an All-Star didn't do much to dent the sense of being overlooked, thanks to coach Mark Jackson telling whomever would listen that Steph Curry not being an All-Star was a travesty.
They were still viewed as decided underdogs in their No. 3 vs. No. 6 matchup against the Denver Nuggets, right up until they won the series. Then they threw a scare in the San Antonio Spurs, pushing them to six games before the bad ankles of Curry and center Andrew Bogut finally took their toll.
This year? Different story. They've been feted from the start, sometimes in ways that smacked of overcorrection or, perhaps, infatuation with the insanely efficient long-range shooting of both Curry and backcourt mate Klay Thompson. Curry has been on the cover of Sports Illustrated twice in the past six months. Charles Barkley has projected Thompson to be a decade-long All-Star. Another ex-player-turned-analyst, Jalen Rose, has tweeted that second-year forward Harrison Barnes also has star potential. The Warriors, collectively, have been discussed as a potential Western Conference finalist and ranked among the league's top 10 by most publications.
They still had the attitude in the opening weeks that they needed to prove the high praise was truly justified and thus ran a half-dozen teams off the court. But that hunger from the jump has been missing for several weeks now. The surest sign that this team doesn't operate at full go unless it has something to prove? Their laser focus resurfaced in a 108-82 win in Memphis on Dec. 7 because the Grizzlies were one of their few early losses and they hadn't won there in 11 straight visits.
"Some people just can't stand a little prosperity," Jackson told his team during one timeout this season. He was referring to the fact that they had frittered away an early lead, but it could apply to their current attitude.
This year's slogan is a little different, too: "We're All We've Got, We're All We Need," is what they collectively chant before they charge onto the floor for their night's work. It conveys the same sense of camaraderie, but not quite the same edge.
Key Missing Element No. 2: Carl Landry's Sunshine, Jarrett Jack's Happy Chatter
I'm probably doing them a disservice by making them sound like Disney XD shows, but the truth is no one with last year's team is missed more than these two. Landry, now in Sacramento recovering from a hip injury, is a completely different presence than his replacement at power forward, Marreese Speights. He not only worked at the same high level regardless of how many minutes, DNPs or shots he received, but he was unfailingly upbeat. Speights is like most big men—needing to feel engaged and effective on offense to give his best on defense—and his natural expression is just this side of the Grinch.
Jack, meanwhile, served as the team's conscience, a loud one. When the team's energy lagged, he could be counted on not only to point it out in a huddle, but also to go out on the floor and change it. Irrepressible confidence, leadership and an innate understanding of how a winning team operates are what he provided—elements that no one else on the Warriors could. No one harped more on how overlooked the team was, either. The Warriors replaced him with Andre Iguodala as a playmaker and Toney Douglas as a backup point guard. Iguodala is a better defender and a willing passer, but he's Kenny G to Jack's Clarence Clemons. Douglas plays with an edge, but he may be quieter than the infamously taciturn Thompson.
Letting Jack head to Cleveland—where apparently even his HazMat powers have met their match—was partly by design. For Curry to fully bloom into a superstar, he needs to fully carry the responsibility that he shared with Jack last season. As a leader and go-to scorer at crunch time, as team conscience—all of it.
Curry is making strides. When the Warriors fell behind by 28 to the Toronto Raptors a few weeks ago, he was the first to tell the team, "This is embarrassing." In that statement performance in Memphis, he made sure to get his teammates going in the first half, dishing nine assists without ever leaving the floor, then pouring in 20 of his 22 points in the second half to bring it home.
In a last-second win over the Mavericks, he hit his first game-winner since high school, patiently manipulating a pick-and-roll that forced Shawn Marion to guard him and then deking Marion for one of Jack's trademark mid-range jumpers.
Curry even knocked the Rockets' Omri Casspi to the floor on a drive to the rim after seeing Barnes shoved out of bounds by James Harden on the opposite baseline with no whistle, prompting the Rockets' fast break.
Curry's growth, more than anything else, is the linchpin to the Warriors making good on the early projections. Blaming the porous defense on Iguodala's absence (hamstring) is too convenient; the fact is, the Warriors played a host of offensively challenged teams to start the season and have staged comebacks as much on stifling defense as white-hot shooting without him.
Blaming Lee doesn't make much sense either, since he was part of both last year's and this year's early-season quality defense. Suggesting the team misses assistant coach Mike Malone's clipboard work—now on display for the Kings as their head coach—is equally hollow, seeing as the team's plays run out of timeouts have been stunningly effective and their defense actually has been better at times this season.
Jackson's mantra last year was, "We're not going to be the same old Warriors." It meant that they were not going to be a team known for a high-flying offense and not much else. They weren't. Now, though, they need to find a way to be all-new Warriors all over again.
How long might that take? Only Curry knows. Because only Curry can make it happen.
• I wrote a couple of weeks ago to ignore any rumors about DeMarcus Cousins being dealt by the Kings, but that doesn't mean he isn't wearing on people in the organization. A league source says that he has exasperated the new coaching staff as much as he occasionally had the previous ones and that the disruptions seen during games are often mirrored in practices. That said, team sources insist the front office is very much committed to sticking with him.
• Don’t look now, but the Brooklyn Nets are slowly turning their season around—not coincidentally, as they happen to be getting healthier—suggesting that rookie coach Jason Kidd’s jettisoning of first assistant coach Lawrence Frank wasn't the death knell some suggested it could be. For those who might not have followed the drama, two league sources attributed Kidd's decision to banish Frank to the same behavior that united them when they were both with the New Jersey Nets. Frank, then an assistant to Byron Scott, was not shy about letting Kidd and other players know when his thinking departed from Scott's. Kidd apparently felt Frank had begun to do the same to him in Brooklyn.
• Entering the weekend, the Rockets' Terrence Jones, Chandler Parsons and Patrick Beverley were the second-most effective plus/minus trio in the league at plus-20.5, but Beverley was quick to point out the reason: Houston’s two stars, James Harden and Dwight Howard. "We do the little things," Beverley said. "Other teams get so caught up in James and Dwight, we just play off of them and take what we can."
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.
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