Now that the Golden State Warriors have reached the point where great things are expected — where they are no longer upstarts from an overshadowed, sleeper franchise just trying to attract attention — the real pressure and responsibility begin.
The biggest step for any franchise to take is from good to great, from occasional contender to elite. The Warriors — with their second-year coach, brilliant shooter with the bad ankles, former No. 1 overall pick trying to prove he’s capable of playing a full season, and pair of overlooked ex-college standouts — are poised to become a major factor in the Western Conference.
The Clippers may be the favorites in the Pacific Division but the Warriors are not far from that level, having added Andre Iguodala to an already deep and intriguing team. So as they prepared for a trip to China to make an NBA-sponsored appearance, popularize the franchise brand, and also play two exhibition games with the Lakers, the Warriors acknowledged the challenge of expectations.
“They’re not going to sleep on us,” coach Mark Jackson said of the rest of the teams in the league. “It’s important for us to realize that it’s a process and we want to stay true to the process and put ourselves in position to be a dangerous team when it matters most. We’ve made changes and we feel like we’re better, now it’s a question of going out and actually showing it on the floor.”
The Warriors didn’t stand pat despite reaching the conference semifinals. In addition to adding Iguodala they brought in Marreese Speights, Jermaine O’Neal, and Toney Douglas. Iguodala gives Golden State an athletic swingman and a tenacious defender, and he is likely to replace Klay Thompson or Harrison Barnes in the starting lineup. Depth, as with any good team, is plentiful, but Jackson doesn’t want players sniping over playing time.
“I look at the depth as a positive,” he said. “We’re here to win ballgames and it’s nothing personal. I don’t believe I’ll ever have that problem. If that’s the case, you’re telling on yourself. You’re not all about winning. You are about winning on your own terms and we don’t accept that here.”
Thompson, who experienced a breakthrough year as the starting shooting guard, said selflessness is contagious.
“It’s been a long time since the Warriors had expectations, so we’ve got to embrace it,” said Thompson, who averaged 16.6 points and shot 40 percent from the 3-point line in his second season. “The good thing about this team is we don’t have many big egos. I think you can see that from afar. We all love playing with each other, so I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.”
Returning leading scorer Stephen Curry, who broke Ray Allen’s record of 3-pointers in a season with 272, has assumed the team’s leadership role.
“He’s been a leader all along, he’s been great for us,” Jackson said. “I am very happy with the way he’s allowing his voice to be heard and setting the tone with his actions also. When I got here I tried to give him a voice, make him an extension of me, and he’s been great at it.”
Andrew Bogut has expectations, but they are tempered. The center, finally healthy after dealing with ankle and wrist injuries the past few years, understands potential is an empty word if not fulfilled.
“We had some years [in Milwaukee] where it was very similar to this,” Bogut said. “We had a piece of paper that had 15 players on the roster that was saying the same thing, and we ended up finishing 13th [in the East] that year. We absolutely bombed with the added pressure. I’ve been in that situation before and I respect the process. We’re not there yet. We’ve still got work to do but I like what we have.”
This duo offers insightful view
The season is close and the experts are spending October giving their takes on various topics, including the state of the Celtics, whether anyone can challenge the Heat, and whether the Lakers will be contenders with Kobe Bryant coming off a torn Achilles’ tendon.
Greg Anthony and Chris Webber offered their thoughts on those topics and more, and here is a taste of what they said:
Webber on whether Thunder guard Russell Westbrook can return to form after a torn meniscus in his right knee, which has required two surgeries since last spring, the latest to reduce swelling: “Westbrook is one of the most athletic guys in the league and I think his age is his best asset right now. He didn’t have to go through microfracture [surgery]. We’ve seen people come back from these injuries so I expect him to be the same person or better basically because of his attitude. I really don’t think it will affect him that much.”
Webber said while he believes Westbrook will come back strongly, he doesn’t consider Oklahoma City ready to compete for the NBA title.
“I never viewed them as the favorite last year, even with him,” said Webber. “I think this is a different league and each team is going to have to reevaluate, not live off the past. This is a much different league than it was last year, so I think they need to worry about the other great teams in the Western Conference. It’s a year later but [James] Harden was in the discussion a year ago and they are not better without Harden. Losing Kevin Martin as well, they have to find a new identity.”
Webber on whether Bryant can be the same player: “I trust Kobe’s brand in the NBA as much as I do anyone, so I think he’s going to come back and be a great player. I think Kobe can come back great. Kobe’s going to pass scoring records and all that, so if that’s what this is about — Kobe getting healthy and send him off and make sure he gets the motorcycles and all the good things on the road tour — then that’s going to be great, but for the real Lakers fans, you can always can trust Kobe coming back.
“But the question is their defense and whether they can play well together and is the ball going to stop with Kobe. Kobe is going to be fine but I wonder about whether his team gets better.”
Said Anthony: “The real concern I have is what are you going to get from Steve Nash? He’s a Hall of Famer but at this stage of his career, how much does he have?”
Anthony on whether the Celtics could compete for a playoff spot, and the transition of Brad Stevens to the NBA: “When you have a situation where you need to teach guys how to play basketball, Brad Stevens is going to be a terrific coach. Now, it’s going to be a challenge for this team to win just based on the roster. But what Brad Stevens did on the collegiate level and his coaching ability will translate because of his ability to communicate and relate to players. He did on the collegiate level what I always felt Phil Jackson did on the professional level — he got his guys to max out, to play up to their potential. That’s how much I think of Brad Stevens. You’ll see this Boston team competitive but I don’t necessarily see them making the postseason.”
Webber on Shaquille O’Neal, who once referred to the Sacramento Kings as the “Queens,” taking minority ownership of the franchise: “Shaq is my boy, so as a friend I’m happy he’s an owner. As a King, it’s disgusting.”
Webber on DeMarcus Cousins, who just signed a lucrative extension with Sacramento: “He’s one of the most talented big men I’ve seen and what coach Pete Carril told me, that he’s one of the best big guys he’s ever seen, knowing coach never uses words like that lightly; the kid’s incredible, I just think he needs some consistency, relax and to trust.”
Anthony on Cousins: “From a talent standpoint and ability standpoint, DeMarcus Cousins doesn’t take a backseat to anybody at the center position in the NBA. The question is whether he’s going to mature to the point where he can take advantage of that ability. What separates the good guys from the great guys is their mental makeup. That’s going to be the challenge for DeMarcus, and I would suspect DeMarcus would tell you that himself. That’s where his real growth is going to come. It’s not from his basketball talent; it’s from his mental makeup. If he matures and becomes the pro his talent dictates, Sacramento is going to have an anchor on that frontline for years to come.”
Timberwolves on an upswing
The Minnesota Timberwolves have expectations this season with a loaded roster of young talent and the return of Kevin Love from injury. Owner Glen Taylor also dumped erratic David Kahn as president of basketball operations and replaced him with former Minnesota coach Flip Saunders.
The Timberwolves used their salary cap space to acquire Kevin Martin in a sign-and-trade deal with Oklahoma City, sign Corey Brewer, and re-sign center Nikola Pekovic to improve depth. Love returns from a season in which he broke his right hand twice, and the club also drafted Shabazz Muhammad of UCLA and Louisville defender Gorgui Dieng, and it still has former No. 2 overall pick Derrick Williams.
There is hope for the first time since Kevin McHale traded Kevin Garnett to the Celtics, hoping Boston’s younger pieces would help a rebuild. The Timberwolves have been through four or five additional rebuilding plans that have failed miserably. This one, however, should be more effective.
“We definitely have a great frontline, a great backcourt, guys that bring energy to our lineup,” Love said. “It’s definitely going to make for a fun year. Barring injuries I feel we have the talent in the entire lineup [to make the playoffs]. I know a lot of us who have been here previously are ready to take that next step. All of the players that we have are really going to make for a fun year.”
Martin spent one season in Oklahoma City after stints in Houston and Sacramento and is looking for a place where he can have a definitive role and an opportunity to win. Because he wasn’t the dynamic player that James Harden had been in Oklahoma City, Martin was blamed partly for the Thunder’s lack of playoff success.
“It was special to be part of a No. 3 or No. 4 best defensive team in the league last year,” said Martin, who signed a four-year, $27 million contract. “You saw what kind of success we had. That’s the kind of mentality we have to have every night. I’m excited just to get back to being the off, two-guard that I have been the past 8-9 years before I played with Kevin [Durant] and Russell [Westbrook]. I’m very confident in this team, that’s why I came.”
Saunders, who spent time consulting for the Celtics last season, returns to the place of his greatest success. As a coach, he couldn’t get the Timberwolves to the next level but he is bright and will be given the opportunity to elevate the team as president. Saunders said coach Rick Adelman is making some philosophical changes with how he handles the team. Saunders also put the onus on Love to be more versatile.
“You’ll see some differences,” Saunders said. “There’s a reason [Adelman has] won 1,000 games in this league and he’s still in this league. Kevin Love has to be a facilitator and feeder offensively. I’m not going to say like Kevin Garnett was, but because of what he is offensively, he can attract a lot of attention and with attention comes opportunity for other players. He has to work to be able to find that open person.
“We look like a team that’s been 3-4 weeks in training camp — lean and ready to run. Everyone has to have the same agenda, play entertaining basketball but also winning basketball. That’s why we brought everybody here together.”
Oklahoma City center Kendrick Perkins was involved in a night-club incident in the summer of 2011 that didn’t result in charges. Now, the former Celtic again is trying to fight accusations of wrongdoing in a nightclub. He was accused of assaulting two people in Houston in July. . . . The Cavaliers are awaiting Andrew Bynum to return to action but he still has not been cleared to play in games, so it’s likely he won’t be ready for the start of the regular season. Bynum missed all of last season with pain in both knees . . . The Thunder released former Kentucky big man Daniel Orton after their overseas trip. Orton, who decided to leave Kentucky after averaging 3 points in his freshman season, has potential but his likely landing spot could be with a team that doesn’t need him to develop quickly. The Thunder, who drafted Pittsburgh center Stephen Adams in the first round, need production from that position . . . Rodney Stuckey, who broke his right thumb when he smashed it accidentally in a car door, will have surgery and could miss several weeks. Stuckey was competing with Chauncey Billups for the Pistons’ starting shooting guard slot . . . The Bobcats will lose depth in the frontcourt after veteran Brendan Haywood was diagnosed with a stress fracture in his left foot that could sideline him for three months. Charlotte signed Al Jefferson to a three-year deal to become its starting center, with Bismack Biyombo still in the mix . . . The Celtics have until Oct. 30 to determine whether to sign Avery Bradley to a long-term extension. The club is likely to offer a one-year deal, making him a restricted free agent next summer, but a multiyear deal remains possible.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.