The Golden State Warriors were projected to win 67-plus games for a fourth straight season, yet they own a moderate 5-3 record that belies their four All-Star starters and two-time champion pedigree. The team that added Kevin Durant to a 73-win roster only seemed to find its stride during a 16-1 playoff run this past spring, and that led most prognosticators to figure they could play even better.
But when you’re the Warriors, owners of all the regular-season records a franchise could ever ask for, what’s the point, really? The point is to add rings to a dynasty in progress. Golden State can win on cruise control, perhaps even enough to earn a No. 1 seed, so why risk overtaxing themselves now when that could negatively impact their ability to pay the piper when the real work begins?
Few know this better than Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who participated in a pair of dynastic runs with Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in the 1990s and Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs in the early oughts.
“In  with the Bulls, we started off 8-7 … and we were having all these team meetings,” Kerr told ESPN.com’s Ramona Shelburne. “[This] feels exactly the same. The fatigue, the emotional and spiritual fatigue that sets in when you’ve been going to the Finals.
“I want to snap. I’m competitive. I want to win every game. But I recognize, especially having been in their shoes, literally, with that Bulls team. I recognize that we’re gonna be fine. I know we’re gonna be fine. …
“We have to get there. And I can’t force that. As a coach, it’s my job to recognize that and adapt to that and try to guide us and navigate us. I can tell you this year is gonna be a lot harder than that first year.”
The first step in that evolution was a lesson Kerr learned from Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who famously managed minutes to prolong the careers and sanity of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, among others, during a 16-year run to five titles. That process began for the Warriors last year, and this time around, with rules in place against resting players in the prolonged NBA season, Kerr and company have a more rigid minutes limit in place, via The Mercury News’ Mark Medina:
With the NBA spreading out its schedule to reduce back-to-back games, Kerr does not anticipate resting players as often aside from injuries. The Warriors have, though, what assistant coach Mike Brown called a “projected max” for their star players to log 36 to 38 minutes per game in close contests and 32 to 34 minutes during normal circumstances. Those minutes will shrink during blowouts.
(As an aside, it’s pretty wild that “normal circumstances” for the Warriors are decisive wins, and Golden State builds blowout victories into their season-long plans to allocate minutes to their stars.)
With few exceptions, most of which involve the players’ competitive spirit in the heat of the moment, Golden State’s stars bought into this approach, which was reportedly an easy sell once Kerr and Brown sold them on the value of fewer minutes here and there adding up to fewer games over the course of a season, which translates into fresher playoff legs and the longevity of a dynasty down the line.
Warriors guard Klay Thompson summed up best the balance of how many minutes they could play versus how many they should play with the all-time line, “I’m blessed with great windpipes,” which puts him in good company with the likes of Celine Dion and Kenny G. Via The Mercury News again:
“I could play 48 minutes if I had to, man. I wouldn’t want to, but if I had to, I would. I love playing and I’ve been able to run for a long time my whole life. I’m blessed with great windpipes. But at the same time, I have to stay on top of it because I’m getting older and it’s easier to get out of shape quickly.”
Every player wants to play as much as he can, and some coaches will let them. As Draymond Green told The Mercury News, “You see some guys that play for coaches that run them into the ground.” Tom Thibodeau notoriously ran his Bulls ragged, and he’s doing the same in Minnesota, where Timberwolves wing Jimmy Butler ranks second behind Demarcus Cousins with 37.3 minutes per game.
The Warriors have a luxury few teams can afford, with the ability to rest a couple MVP-caliber players a handful of minutes per half while still fielding two or three All-Stars at a time. They will win more often than not no matter what, so saving bullets now to unleash later only makes sense. These are the things you worry about when you’ve been to three straight Finals and feel like you’ve only just begun.
It is interesting to note the contrast in style the Cleveland Cavaliers are taking during their own early season struggles. In pursuit of great windpipes, the Cavs are concerned about their conditioning, including superstar LeBron James, who has lamented his wind on several occasions after missing most of the preseason with an ankle injury. Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue’s solution? More
“He’s trying to work himself back in shape, but the games are coming so fast and it’s hard to really do that,” Lue told reporters from practice on Tuesday, via ESPN.com’s Dave McMenamin. “The best way to do that is by him playing more minutes and getting in game shape and we just got to go from there.”
(For the record, LeBron is currently fourth in minutes per game after leading the league last season.)
This is not a lesson Kerr has learned on his road to seven rings, and frankly the run James is on is astonishing. “That’s why LeBron going to the Finals seven years in a row, to me,” the Warriors coach told ESPN.com, “is one of the most amazing accomplishments ever for a player in this league.”
Those same projections that pegged the Warriors at 67-plus wins have Golden State and Cleveland meeting in a fourth straight Finals matchup. Time will tell if they’re as tired of it as the rest of us.
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