IT’S 60 MINUTES before the Golden State Warriors‘ second-to-last preseason game of the year, and Staples Center is quiet.
Stephen Curry, who has just finished his pregame shooting routine, gives D’Angelo Russell a pat on the chest and stops to sign a handful of autographs before entering the visitors locker room. Curry makes his way to the far left end, typing some messages on his phone.
Andrew Harrison sits six stalls away with headphones in his ears and stares into his phone. On the other side of the room, jammed together: Kavion Pippen, Marquese Chriss, Jacob Evans and Alen Smailagic. Juan Toscano-Anderson rests his head on a foam roller on the floor.
This is not the Warriors’ famed Death Lineup.
A few minutes later, rookie Jordan Poole enters and takes a portable speaker to the center of the room. With “FlatBed Freestyle” by Playboi Carti pumping, Poole breaks into some pregame dance moves.
A season ago, there was no music in the locker room. Veterans Kevin Durant, Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala dutifully went about their routines as players and staff members filed in and out. Curry, at 31, is not only the oldest player on the roster. He and Green are also the veteran sounding boards for a room full of guys who grew up watching them perform.
“They’ll be watching the news,” Poole says. “I’ll be watching SpongeBob.”
Acclimating new, younger faces to a team fresh off a run that included five straight NBA Finals and three championships won’t be easy. But other issues — lack of depth in the paint, questions on the wings, Thompson’s uncertain return timetable from a torn ACL — leave Golden State in uncharted territory as the franchise moves across the Bay to San Francisco’s Chase Center.
There’s buzz surrounding Curry to deliver an inspired performance this season. The lead Splash Brother, though, is no cure-all for what ails this version of the Warriors.
A SEASON AGO, Golden State’s biggest questions revolved around Durant and his future. Wins were expected; so were championships. Regular-season games were almost an afterthought. Some nights the Warriors showed up, and some nights they didn’t, but there was little urgency because of the talent gap Curry and his superstar teammates enjoyed. Now, that gap is gone, and a group of young players takes its place.
At the head of that new group is 23-year-old D’Angelo Russell.
For as much pressure as Curry and Green will be under this season to produce and lead, there might be no member of the Warriors’ roster under more of a microscope than Russell. He is the player the Warriors moved quickly to acquire after losing Durant to the Brooklyn Nets, and he’s the one who carries a max contract going forward on a team still carrying several future Hall of Famers.
Russell has the offensive ability to help bridge the gap until Thompson returns, but he must take another step in his defensive development. “There’s a lot of things on the defensive end that I want to get better at,” he said.
Russell ranked 44th among 84 qualified point guards last season, with a minus-0.57 defensive real plus-minus. That was an improvement from the 2017-18 season, when Russell finished 69th out of 74 qualified point guards at minus-2.65.
Russell broke out offensively for a career-high 21.1 points per game last season with the Nets, and playing alongside Curry will lessen the pressure to produce. But it will amplify the importance of defensive improvement.
“We don’t expect him to go out there and be Patrick Beverley or Kawhi Leonard. It’s just not who you are. We’re not expecting [Russell] to reinvent the wheel,” Green said, adding that Russell has shown in camp, despite a reputation as a less-than-average defender, that he can contribute on that end of the floor.
“I told him that will be the expectation moving forward,” Green said. “Sorry, buddy, you showed it, but that’s what we expect now.”
Warriors staff members have been impressed by Russell’s maturity in his brief tenure with the team, and they are optimistic about his ability to fit into the system. However, all parties involved understand that if Russell doesn’t find his rhythm with the group, there is a strong chance that he might play elsewhere next season.
GM Bob Myers tried to assuage those concerns after the sign-and-trade became official, saying that the Warriors didn’t sign Russell just to move him, but that remains the prevailing feeling throughout the league. Not only do the Warriors have Russell’s deal, but they also have a trade exception expiring next summer worth more than $17 million, which was created after they sent Iguodala to the Memphis Grizzlies. With Russell on the team, Golden State faces severe hard cap restrictions for this season, limiting how much Myers can try to improve the roster.
For Russell, the chatter is just part of the business of basketball.
“It’s just fun,” Russell said. “Whatever people are talking about, whatever people have an opinion on, it’s fun.”
Russell is one of nine players on the roster age 23 or younger, and head coach Steve Kerr says he isn’t concerned about the 2019 All-Star’s fit.
“I don’t think the transition will be that difficult because he’s such a good player,” Kerr said before training camp began. “And D’Angelo played a style with Brooklyn where the floor was spread, a lot of high pick-and-rolls, lot of dribble handoffs. We’ll do a lot of the same stuff for him.
“The bigger question is how we incorporate everybody else and what the team looks like.”
Those questions don’t have easy answers.
Glenn Robinson III earned a spot as the starting small forward on opening night, but the Warriors are the fourth team he has played on in five seasons. With Kevon Looney (hamstring) and Willie Cauley-Stein (foot strain) out for most of camp, Marquese Chriss has emerged to snag a spot in Kerr’s rotation. He, too, is on his fourth team in four seasons.
Veteran Alec Burks was supposed to provide stability in the rotation but has been plagued by an ankle sprain throughout training camp. Rookies Poole and Eric Paschall have shown flashes, yet it remains unclear how much Golden State will rely on either player early.
The flaws previously hidden by overwhelming talent and steady veterans are much easier to see now.
IT’S RARE THAT an NBA team is outside the top 30 in anything, and Kerr won’t miss a chance to point that out.
“We’ve got to rebound better,” Kerr said of his team’s preseason to date. “There’s been 37 teams that have played exhibition basketball in the NBA so far — the 30 NBA teams plus like seven international teams — [and] we’re 36th in opponent’s offensive rebounds.
“So I told the guys yesterday, ‘I’m confident that if we box out better, we can maybe catch [Maccabi] Haifa and hopefully maybe even get past the Shanghai Sharks if we put it together for a couple games.'”
The Warriors, finishing the first of three straight practice days at UCLA, are preparing for the second of four preseason meetings with the Los Angeles Lakers. Kerr’s concerns manifest themselves on the court hours later.
Dwight Howard, who came to Lakers camp on a non-guaranteed deal, racks up 12 points and 13 boards in 22 minutes, looking like the dominant big man who ruled the league at the beginning of the decade, not the 33-year-old who couldn’t find a job a couple of months ago.
The Lakers outrebound the Warriors for the second straight game, scoring almost half of their 104 points in the paint. What makes it even more frustrating for Kerr is that his team is beaten up and down the floor by a Lakers group that is jet lagged from a recent trip to China and playing without stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
A glimpse into the Warriors’ new future reveals itself late in the first quarter. With Green, Russell, Looney and Cauley-Stein all out, the pressure falls on Curry to pick up the slack. After watching former teammate JaVale McGee throw down a dunk, Curry races down the other end of the floor and misses a 3-pointer.
McGee gets the rebound, eventually bullying his way into the paint for a bucket on a hook shot. On the ensuing Warriors possession, Curry turns the ball over as the Lakers start to build control.
Although Curry’s best weapon against an easy layup remains a 25-footer of his own, there is only so much that the two-time MVP can do.
LeBron James leads the way with 18 points while Anthony Davis adds eight of his own in the Lakers’ win vs. the Warriors.
Two days later, the Warriors get worked even more by the Lakers, who pick-and-roll Kerr’s young group to death. L.A.’s veteran bigs have their way with Chriss — he finishes as a minus-34 on the night — as all the other young Warriors big men try to find their way.
Kerr knew the preseason was going to be challenging, but the mixture of frustration and dejection he wears on his face after a third straight loss to the Lakers is hard to ignore.
“They’re one of the biggest teams in the league, and they’ve kind of overwhelmed us with their size in the frontcourt,” Kerr said. “So for us to play them without Looney and Willie Cauley-Stein, it’s tough.
“There are just times where we’re in the right position, and we just get overwhelmed.”
Throughout their championship reign, the Warriors made a habit of filling the roster with quality veteran bigs. At first it was Andrew Bogut, David Lee and David West. Then came McGee and Zaza Pachulia. Last season it was DeMarcus Cousins and another tour from Bogut to go with Green, who was never afraid to log some minutes amongst the trees. The Warriors ranked eighth league-wide in rebounding rate last season and first in blocks per game with 6.4. Now, the depth that got them there is gone.
“[We are] a team that really has to define itself over the course of the year,” Kerr said, “and that’s especially true at the center position.”
In the midst of the 34-point beatdown by the Lakers, a fan in the left corner of Staples Center stands up to yell at the Warriors bench.
“The Warriors are done,” the man barks. “Your legacy is f—ed!”
As the clock winds down on the game, the same fan continues to verbally pelt the Warriors bench. Finally, a red-coated security staff member escorts the man out of the arena, but not before he turns for one final salvo.
WITH THE TEAM wrapping up at UCLA, Thompson leaves the main practice floor and walks up a flight of stairs to continue his rehab. Kerr stands 20 feet away, discussing with reporters just how difficult it has been to go through training camp without Looney and Cauley-Stein. And the coach can’t help himself.
“Klay, we don’t really need at all,” Kerr says, just loudly enough for his injured shooter to hear.
“Not at all,” Thompson responds, overhearing the exchange as he ambles up the stairs with a member of the Warriors’ training staff. “A red-shirt season.”
Kerr milks the joke for all it’s worth: “Trying to get him bigger and stronger. Get him used to campus life. Academically, he’s got a ways to go to catch up.”
It’s a light moment in an otherwise tenuous preseason for Golden State.
Thompson is around the Warriors just enough to remind everyone that he’s still on the team, but both Kerr and Myers have made it clear not to expect him to magically appear anytime in the near future.
The general consensus within the organization was always that Thompson would return at some point after the All-Star break, but Kerr tamped down those expectations earlier this week by saying in an interview with NBC Sports Bay Area that it was “unlikely” Thompson would play at all, only to backtrack on that statement a couple of days later.
As badly as the Warriors want Thompson on the floor and as badly as Thompson wants to play, they won’t rush the process for a franchise cornerstone who signed a $190 million max contract in the offseason.
“In my head, he’s not playing at all this year. And if he comes back, then that’s a bonus,” Green said. “Now who’s going to step up and try to fill that role? It won’t be one guy to do that, but I think that has to be your mindset as a player if you’re going to have any type of success.”
If there is one player who could do it, it would be Curry. Merely having the Splash Brother on the court historically has been enough to create a scary contender. Dating back to Curry’s first MVP season in 2014-15, the Warriors have posted absurd net ratings, surpassing any other team in the league with Curry on the floor. And they’ve consistently lost the minutes he has spent on the bench.
But even Curry admits how unusual the preseason has been for him, playing without his longtime running mate.
“It’s different, man,” Curry said while talking to reporters in front of Thompson’s locker. “He’s such a unique player and such a huge part of our DNA. You get used to a certain look, but we got to adjust as NBA players and keep it moving until he gets back.”
For the first time since Thompson was drafted in 2011, Curry won’t have his personal security blanket next to him. With Thompson out for an undetermined amount of time, Curry is on his own in a variety of ways that he hasn’t been since he came into the league. Green will be there to provide support and guidance for the group, but he won’t be able to bring the same offensive lift as Thompson or Durant.
The Warriors are confident that Russell can fill some of the gaps, but the overarching point remains the same: Even if Curry goes off on one of his patented runs this season, his talent alone might not be enough to carry the Warriors.
“We all know what Steph’s capable of,” Green said. “But we’re not about to expect him to go out here and give a heroic effort where he’s got to carry everybody. Obviously, he’s going to be the focal point of our offense and for our team, but we’re all going to go out and do our piece and what we got to do to win games.”
Kerr remains optimistic about the possibilities. He and his players are hopeful about this new challenge and are embracing the underdog mantle that they haven’t carried since before their first run to a title in 2015. But all the positivity can’t hide the look on Kerr’s face when the idea of losing Curry crosses his mind.
As he stands in the Staples Center hallway after a final preseason loss to the Lakers in which Curry rested, Kerr is asked if that game underscores the issues the Warriors might face if their leader were to go down with an injury. Kerr interjects before the question is even finished.
“I’m not going to think about that.”