SAN FRANCISCO — It was late April and the Golden State Warriors were floundering in the first round of the playoffs against the Los Angeles Clippers. Following disappointing losses that pushed the series to a sixth game, the Warriors looked disconnected and uninterested. Kevin Durant was still healthy, but his possible departure from Golden State was palpable. Amid the first feeling of uncertainty in a non-Finals playoff game in years, questions arose about the team's identity.
"What's our identity? Back-to-back champions," head coach Steve Kerr said. "I don't know; we're really good. I mean we're hanging banners."
Fast-forward six months, and his message is far less clear.
"We have to work harder than we have in the past to forge a [defensive] identity and figure out what that identity is, because to be perfectly honest, I don't know what it is," Kerr said before the preseason finale last Friday against the Los Angeles Lakers.
The masthead of Bob Myers, Kerr, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson is still intact. Keeping this core together through at least 2022 is an attempt to replicate the success of previous versions of the team—maintaining the culture but reframing the group around its original stars.
The Bulls accomplished that during each of their threepeats, where Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were surrounded by a different cast. The same can be said for each of the Spurs teams that retooled around Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. It can be done, and having been part of a variation of each of those title squads as a player, Kerr should have a better sense than most of how to take the good from one championship club and carry it to a new iteration.
"I think the Spurs, later on, years later as Tim Duncan aged, and Parker and Ginobili emerged, they changed their style, but I don't think their identity changed or their personality changed," Kerr said. "So in that case, I think they are two different things."
If play style is not inherently connected to identity, the trio of Curry, Green and Thompson (when he returns from his torn ACL, possibly in 2020-21) has as good a shot as any at being successful in this kind of transition.
But it's not just the team that's different; the league itself is in a new place, one born out of Golden State's near-invincibility. Now, the Warriors have to figure out both who they are and where they fit into this new landscape.
When the Golden State dynasty began, the NBA was in a far different place. The Warriors, even before acquiring Durant, played a Spursian style behind their unselfish superstar, Curry, that helped open up the game-breaking three-point spectacle and led to basketball nirvana.
The Rockets led the charge in the data revolution, reconfiguring the floor, rewriting shot-selection ideals and perfecting a calculus to unseat the Warriors. They needed to go beyond Golden State's incredible three-point volume and built their system around threes, layups, free throws and switching across the perimeter. It may not have worked in a playoff series, but the rest of the league followed, and it changed the NBA. You know the story.
While the rest of the teams slowly adapted, all of a sudden, the Warriors weren't shooting that many threes—they finished fifth, 17th and eighth in each of the last three seasons, respectively. They maintained their beautiful motion offense, which worked because of eager, intelligent passing throughout the roster.
Almost every team conformed to these new standards. Except the Warriors. They stayed true to their philosophy and won because of their overwhelming talent.
Now that the Warriors don't have quite the same level of talent, they are vulnerable. They'll have to play the math game like everyone else.
But forget trying to get all the new, younger players up to speed or the loss of Durant's scoring and consider the pure basketball IQ the Warriors lost. Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, even Andrew Bogut and Zaza Pachulia will be missed.
The Warriors could have leaned on the Curry-Green pick-and-roll, but they only went to it when they had to. It wasn't their preferred offense, but they knew how effective it was. Now, they'll have no choice but to go to it often.
"If you don't have that kind of passing," Kerr said at media day on September 30, "then you tend to rely on more specific sets, and so that's what I would look for with this team as we go. We'll figure out what we have. We know D'Angelo [Russell] is really good in pick-and-roll, so we're going to put him in pick-and-roll.
They incorporated Durant by mixing his one-on-one offense into the team context. As significantly as Durant changed the offense from what it was during the 2015-16 season, he still bought into the game plan as much as the Warriors adjusted to him. Their star talent was so much better than everyone else's that they didn't have to maximize threes in a spread pick-and-roll every time.
But accommodating Durant's penchant for isolation scoring is not the same as accommodating Russell's penchant for floaters out of a pick-and-roll.
Their personnel is different, so they can't play that game anymore and have to figure out how it all works together.
To an extent, every team grapples with this to start the year. Most clubs use training camp to establish a style of play, and by proxy, who they are. But this is uncharted territory for the Warriors, who spent the last five years as the most identity-secure team in the rapidly evolving NBA.
"That's an existential question. I took a nap this afternoon," Kerr said. "I think every team is unique to itself based on the people on the roster and the way you play. That said, I think the core of this group has been together over the last five years, and they established an identity. I think this year is pretty unique in that we're trying to carry forward an identity, because it has been a very strong culture, pretty successful identity.
"We're trying to carry some of that forward with a brand-new crop of young players complementing what remains of the core. It's tricky; it's different. But the plan is always to forge an identity and develop a personality as a team."
The Warriors know they have a lot to figure out.
"Obviously we have a lot of new guys," Curry said at media day in late September, "a lot of young guys, myself, Klay whenever he comes back, Draymond, Kevon [Looney] able to help set the tone for what our DNA is here, how we do things, our championship kind of mentality."
Curry is still the team's lifeblood, and its style will continue to follow his. He will still absorb defenses' attention and generate offense just by existing. Russell is a good player who serves a purpose as a secondary shot creator, something the Warriors desperately could have used while Curry was getting quadruple-teamed and box-and-one'd during the Finals.
"The hope is that your best players really reflect who you are and establish who you are, and so that means we want to be who Steph and Klay and Draymond have been," Kerr said. "And we want D'Angelo to be a part of that. And then we want to raise these young players to understand what that means because it's not easy."
But the small things will add up. Just look how long it takes for Curry to get the ball on one of the Warriors' pet plays, the relocation three:
Watch Green in the short roll lob it up to...no one:
These are plays the veteran Warriors have ingrained in their DNA. They're operating through muscle memory, but they have phantom limb syndrome. Those minor details will probably get ironed out in the coming weeks, but the larger issue remains. It's not just that the Warriors have to learn how to play with new players—though that is a big deal—they also have to learn a new way of playing.
It may be the most underappreciated part of this dynasty that it featured a revolutionary, historically elite defense. The discovery of the death lineup didn't just add space and put ball-movers all over the floor, it also allowed the Warriors to defend all five positions with length and three-steps-ahead thinkers.
"We don't have as good a defenders as we had," Green said at media day. "I don't think that's any surprise. But at the same time, we've just got to find our identity. You know, before our identity was switching. That may not be our identity anymore."
Without the passing, intelligence, synergy, depth, length and defensive versatility, are they still that same team? Even if they do acquiesce to the style created to beat them, are they good enough at playing everyone else's game?
Making matters more difficult, they may not even have Thompson, whose shooting and point-of-attack defense provide the perfect balance to Curry and Green. He will still be around the team to help serve as a mentor for some of the newer players, but his absence makes the challenge of creating an identity that much harder.
None of this should undersell how special Curry, Green and Thompson are. Together, they complement one another and become far more than the sum of their already incredible parts. They perfectly balance each other out, masking their weaknesses and improving their strenghts. Having the three of them together will always give the team a sense of identity, but, at some point, the Warriors' style of play made them who they were.
People say the Warriors ruined the game. Curry flipped that on its head and used it as motivation. But they were still one of the last teams playing the old way. That's what made them one of the best squads of all time. If that changes, the Warriors are playing everyone else's game. The one created to take them down.
Follow Will Gottlieb on Twitter @wontgottlieb.