OAKLAND – Though there is no reason whatsoever for panic, and only moderate cause for alarm, it’s entirely reasonable after one very public beating to downsize expectations for the Warriors.
Assuming, that is, those expectations were 70-plus wins, homecourt advantage throughout the postseason and a sweep in the NBA Finals.
The Warriors are not a perfect team, not even close, certainly not now, and on opening night the Spurs were smart enough and good enough to seize upon their flaws. The rotations are unsettled. They lack a big presence in the paint, are without instant offense off the bench and can’t begin to approach their peak without a fully engaged, mentally and emotionally tough Draymond Green.
The Spurs owned the paint, won the bench battle and Green sandwiched a decent game around a momentum-killing technical foul.
Yet talent almost always is the ticket to success in the NBA. Talent combined with chemistry generally ensures a ride to the top.
Rarely, though, is a dramatically rebooted team an instant champion. There are rare exceptions, most recently the 2007-08 Celtics, who won a title immediately after adding Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to a core of Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo.
Generally, the process of growing a champion requires trial and error, which create moments of distress and disappointment.
When LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade in South Beach in 2010, the Miami Heat spent the first month losing about as often as they won, prompting speculation about coach Erik Spoelstra being overmatched with his new toys.
It took 18 games of experimentation and practice and defeat before they began matching the talent with court chemistry – and, still, the Heat did not win it all until the following season.
Before Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant won three consecutive championships with the Lakers, they went through a procession of coaches who presided over three straight postseason flameouts.
Not until their fourth season as teammates, and following the hiring of Phil Jackson as coach, did Shaq and Kobe spray championship champagne.
So it’s unrealistic to expect even a team with Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson and Green to come out in October and dominate the league. Not while three of the team’s top eight players – Zaza Pachulia, David West and Durant – are still trying to grasp the basics at both ends.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is the best in the league, and he made sure of two things. For one, anytime the Warriors flashed the slightest spark, he signaled for a timeout to avoid a run that could energize the Warriors and the Oracle Arena crowd. Two, he leaned heavily on those familiar with his system.
The damage was done by the likes of Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge – who in his second season with the Spurs looks much more comfortable – Patty Mills and Jonathan Simmons.
Popovich’s big-name offseason signing, Pau Gasol, played 18 ineffective minutes.
“That’s probably the worst team to play on an opening night when you’re trying to figure out who you are,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “The continuity that they have is really impressive. Even though we’ve got a lot of guys returning, KD is a huge cog in what we’re doing. And so are Zaza and David.
“It just felt foreign. It felt like this is different. We know it’s going to be different. We’ve got to react accordingly.”
The Warriors have plenty of talent, too much to be anything less than the favorite to win it all. They have enough to overcome most, of not all, of their imperfections.
Regardless of the materials, chemistry doesn’t come from a microwave. It requires lab work to develop. It requires failure, and the Warriors had an epic fail in their season debut.
“We need this time to come together and grow. History shows that,” Kerr said. “Teams every year that come together have to grow, have to figure some things out and try to get better.
“Last year, we were probably at our best the first month of the season. We were better the first month of the season than we were the last. We’ll flip that this year.”
The potential of the Warriors, win or lose, will be debated on an almost nightly basis. The one thing that can’t be debated is that they’ll never be worse than they are at the start. And right now, that’s exactly where they are.