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De­fend­ing champ War­riors sail into sea­son with tal­ent, laughs

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - INSIDE - Martin Rogers

There is one ques­tion that mat­ters when it comes to the Golden State War­riors and it isn’t: “Will they win an­other cham­pi­onship?”

The an­swer to likely is “yes,” at least if com­mon con­sen­sus, re­cent prece­dent and the Ve­gas line is to be be­lieved. It’s not com­pli­cated. Just look at the ros­ter.

One thing that might be open to deeper scru­tiny how­ever, is how we are sup­posed to view th­ese War­riors, as the or­ga­ni­za­tion heads into its bid for a fourth ti­tle in five sea­sons.

Are they cocky or are they fun? Or are they both?

We know they’re hav­ing fun, that much is clear from a pre­sea­son cam­paign that pro­duced just one win and pre­cisely zero con­cern about that fact.

For the War­riors, who opened the NBA sea­son this week against the Ok­la­homa City Thunder, there sim­ply has been no rea­son to worry.

No chem­istry is­sues to fret over. No re­work of the sys­tem. No over­haul. Just busi­ness as usual.

The warm-up games head­ing into the cam­paign then have be­come lit­tle more than gen­tle shake­outs and the chance for a bit of levity.

Head coach Steve Kerr got him­self tossed for ar­gu­ing with the ref­er­ees against the Phoenix Suns and seemed to en­joy the ex­pe­ri­ence im­mensely, as did his play­ers.

Kevin Du­rant was re­laxed enough to walk off the court fol­low­ing an of­fen­sive foul against the L.A. Lak­ers be­cause he had to “go pee,” ul­ti­mately foul­ing out af­ter 24 min­utes of ac­tion with a beam­ing smile on his face.

The War­riors are chilled. That’s what hap­pens when you were the best al­ready and just got bet­ter. Golden State was stocked and stacked, then had DeMar­cus Cousins rock up to join the party and take a pay cut for the priv­i­lege.

Steph Curry and his pals give off the aura of a team that has noth­ing to fear, and, in all hon­esty, they might be right. Is that cocky, or is it just the byprod­uct of hav­ing been ut­terly dom­i­nant for long enough that the word

dy­nasty is not out of place? Chances are, your mind al­ready is made up. Some­times teams filled with con­tro­ver­sial bad boys are the most di­vi­sive, but the War­riors split opin­ion just by be­ing them­selves.

They are not hard to like and there are many who en­joy the shtick, the smiles, the hum­ble­brag light­heart­ed­ness and the showy an­tics, rea­son­ing that a sprin­kling of star­dust light­ing up the league is no bad thing.

For some, their crime is sim­ple. They win too much. Fa­mil­iar­ity can breed con­tempt, or an­noy­ance at least. When your team is fight­ing its heart out to avoid a los­ing record it prob­a­bly isn’t much fun to glance across at a group cruis­ing through the sea­son and grin­ning all the while.

Purely in the name of va­ri­ety, there is no shortage of neu­trals who would be more than happy to see new faces in the NBA Fi­nals and a fresh name on the tro­phy.

Just don’t count on it. Un­der Kerr, the War­riors are as strong as ever and, de­spite pre­sea­son look­ing like a ca­sual stroll, might be act­ing now un­der some kind of pre­sumed dead­line. Du­rant might well be in his last sea­son as a War­rior, while Klay Thompson also will be out of con­tract at the end of the sea­son and Dray­mond Green’s deal ex­pires a year af­ter that.

Kerr still is there of course, and he is feel­ing re­ju­ve­nated enough fol­low­ing years of back trou­ble that he ac­cepted a role as­sist­ing Gregg Popovich on Team USA duty the next two sum­mers.

The War­riors are aware of it too. Thompson went so far as to spec­u­late how five War­riors could po­ten­tially start for the na­tional team, which tells you all you need to know about his level of be­lief in him­self and his team­mates.

So where are the cracks? Over­con­fi­dence might be the most re­al­is­tic weak spot, and there were signs of it last sea­son, when games against lowly op­po­si­tion of­ten saw a sleepy re­sponse, an early deficit, be­fore just enough ef­fort to en­sure a “W.”

It made the War­riors look more vul­ner­a­ble than nor­mal head­ing into the post­sea­son, but dif­fer­ent rules ap­ply when you are packed with such abil­ity.

If any­thing, Golden State had kept some­thing in re­serve, enough juice to come back from a 3-2 deficit against the Hous­ton Rock­ets af­ter find­ing them­selves in a hole in the Western Con­fer­ence fi­nals. They smiled then, too.

“Joy isn’t be­ing silly,” Lak­ers coach Luke Wal­ton said, in ex­plain­ing how he has tried to repli­cate Kerr’s fun-filled meth­ods. “Joy is hav­ing fun while you’re do­ing the work so it doesn’t feel like work.”

The War­riors are do­ing work even when it doesn’t look like it, smil­ing while pre­sent­ing an in­fu­ri­at­ing bar­rier to the dreams of many.

It is a dif­fer­ent kind of in­tim­i­da­tion, but it is in­tim­i­da­tion nev­er­the­less.

1. Golden State War­riors: Sur­prised? The back-to-back champs were al­ready his­tor­i­cally good, and they added ar­guably the best big man in the league for next to noth­ing. When DeMar­cus Cousins re­turns from his Achilles in­jury, this might be the most tal­ented start­ing five in NBA history.

2. Bos­ton Celtics: Fi­nally, it’s Bos­ton’s time. Gor­don Hay­ward and Kyrie Irv­ing are healthy. Jayson Ta­tum and Jaylen Brown have an­other sum­mer un­der their belts. LeBron James is out of the East. The Celtics should make it out of the con­fer­ence for the first time since 2010.

3. Hous­ton Rock­ets: The Rock­ets, who were oh-so-close to tak­ing down the War­riors in last year’s Western fi­nals, got worse. Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute were two of Hous­ton’s best de­fend­ers, and their de­par­tures cre­ate a void Carmelo An­thony can’t fill.

4. Toronto Rap­tors: So long, DeMar DeRozan. Wel­come, Kawhi Leonard. Leonard ar­rives with bag­gage, most no­tably be­ing lim­ited to nine games last sea­son by a quad in­jury. If he can be­come a top-5 tal­ent again, the Rap­tors will be a force.

5. Utah Jazz: Com­ing off a sea­son in which they ex­ceeded all ex­pec­ta­tions, the Jazz are poised to take an­other step for­ward. If reign­ing De­fen­sive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert can stay healthy and Dono­van Mitchell con­tin­ues to de­velop into a full-blown star, a top-4 fin­ish in the West is likely.

6. Ok­la­homa City Thunder: A se­cond con­sec­u­tive firstround exit and Paul Ge­orge’s pend­ing free agency left things look­ing bleak in OKC. But Ge­orge pledged his loy­alty in the form of a four-year con­tract and an un­happy Carmelo An­thony was sent pack­ing. The Thunder look like con­tenders again.

7. Philadel­phia 76ers: Years of re­build­ing paid off last sea­son for the Six­ers, who ad­vanced to the East semi­fi­nals be­hind the two-headed mon­ster of Ben Simmons and Joel Em­biid. If Markelle Fultz re­gains the jumper and con­fi­dence that made him the 2017 No. 1 over­all pick, watch out.

8. In­di­ana Pac­ers: This is es­sen­tially the same team that nearly knocked James out in the first round but might be bet­ter. Big men Myles Turner and Do­man­tas Sabo­nis are poised for break­out sea­sons, and reign­ing Most Im­proved Player Vic­tor Oladipo is trending up. 9. Den­ver Nuggets: They missed the play­offs with a loss in the last game, but don’t ex­pect that again. Nikola Jo­kic, Ja­mal Mur­ray, Gary Har­ris, Paul Mill­sap, Will Bar­ton and high­up­side ad­di­tions Isa­iah Thomas and Michael Porter Jr. make them one of the best teams in the West. 10. San An­to­nio Spurs: They don’t ex­actly fit the bill of what the league cov­ets nowa­days, what with DeMar DeRozan and LaMar­cus Aldridge be­ing midrange mar­vels. Still, we’re not about to count out the Spurs.

11. Mil­wau­kee Bucks: Is this the year it all comes to­gether for the Bucks, who have un­der­per­formed the past few sea­sons de­spite the me­te­oric rise of Gian­nis An­te­tok­oun­mpo? Bring­ing in for­mer Coach of the Year Mike Bu­den­holzer was huge, and the hope is that he’ll get this group to tap into the po­ten­tial that Ja­son Kidd couldn’t. The Bucks could fin­ish as a top-4 team in the East. 12. Los An­ge­les Lak­ers: The best bas­ket­ball player on the planet is in town, and every­thing is trending in the right di­rec­tion. The ad­di­tion of LeBron James, Lance Stephen­son, Ra­jon Rondo, JaVale McGee and Michael Beasley, com­bined with the ex­pected as­cen­sion of Bran­don In­gram, Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma, makes this team as in­trigu­ing as any. 13. New Or­leans Pel­i­cans: An­thony Davis says he’s “the best player in the game,” and we don’t blame him. He’s not, of course, but he’s inch­ing closer. Could Davis, Jrue Hol­i­day and Julius Ran­dle be­come one of the best big-3s in the league? 14. Port­land Trail Blazers: The Blazers will be good, bet­ter than their first-round sweep at the hands of New Or­leans in­di­cated, but that’s it. They’ll miss Ed Davis, who left for Brook­lyn in free agency. 15. Min­nesota Tim­ber­wolves: With the Jimmy But­ler drama yet to end in a trade, it’s tough to truly gauge this team. Re­gard­less of where the 4-time All-Star is on open­ing night, this is an un­for­tu­nate sit­u­a­tion for a squad that just ended its 13-sea­son play­off drought. 16. Wash­ing­ton Wiz­ards: Wash­ing­ton needs to get it to­gether, and fast, in year No. 7 for the duo of John Wall and Bradley Beal. With Otto Porter hop­ing to take a step for­ward and Dwight Howard, Austin Rivers and Jeff Green in the fold, Wash­ing­ton has enough tal­ent.

17. Miami Heat: The Heat have no stars. Their ceil­ing, bar­ring some sort of sig­nif­i­cant change? A trip to the post­sea­son and a first-round exit, just like last year. 18. Los An­ge­les Clip­pers: While the Clip­pers might be on the out­side look­ing in for the se­cond con­sec­u­tive year, their sights are set on next sum­mer. They might be­come a Western Con­fer­ence power again sooner rather than later.

19. Detroit Pistons: Aside from Blake Grif­fin and An­dre Drum­mond be­gin­ning their first full sea­son to­gether and the ad­di­tion of reign­ing Coach of the Year Dwane Casey, there’s not a lot to be ex­cited about. 20. Char­lotte Hor­nets: The Hor­nets are stuck in no man’s land, and with lim­ited young play­ers to build around, they could stay there for a while. 21. Cleve­land Cava­liers: Sure, Tris­tan Thompson, the Cavs are tech­ni­cally the reign­ing “four-time Eastern Con­fer­ence cham­pi­ons.” But with­out James, they’re noth­ing more

than lottery-bound.

22. Mem­phis Griz­zlies: The Griz­zlies won’t be good, but they won’t be the train wreck they were last sea­son. Rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. has the high­est ceil­ing of this year’s draft class, and Kyle An­der­son was an un­der­the-radar dif­fer­ence-maker in San An­to­nio. 23. Chicago Bulls: The Bulls have to take a col­lec­tive step for­ward this sea­son, and that be­gins with Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn. If they can stay healthy, the Bulls might have a good thing brew­ing. 24. Dal­las Mav­er­icks: A lineup fea­tur­ing No. 3 over­all pick Luka Don­cic, Den­nis Smith Jr., Har­ri­son Barnes and DeAn­dre Jor­dan should be enough to get the Mavs well past last sea­son’s win to­tal of 24. 25. Brook­lyn Nets: This is the year for D’An­gelo Rus­sell to be­come a star. The 2015 draft’s No. 2 over­all pick is only 22, and he showed a lot of prom­ise dur­ing his in­jury-plagued first sea­son in Brook­lyn. At long last, things are look­ing up for the Nets. 26. New York Knicks: Can new coach David Fiz­dale end the decades of dis­gust for Knicks fans? No. Not this sea­son, at least. But he can steer the team in the right di­rec­tion.

27. Or­lando Magic: The Magic have a hand­ful of young play­ers to build around, mainly for­mer lottery picks Aaron Gor­don, Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba. But they’re still deep in the re­build­ing phase. An­other year of los­ing is on the way.

28. Phoenix Suns: Sure, they’re lottery-bound once again, don’t have a start­ing point guard and saw fran­chise cor­ner­stone Devin Booker have surgery on his shoot­ing hand. But this team has a nice mix­ture of young tal­ent and veter­ans.

29. Sacra­mento Kings: It’s 12 sea­sons and count­ing since the Kings last made the post­sea­son (long­est ac­tive streak in

the league), and you can bet it’ll be 13 by the time April rolls around.

30. At­lanta Hawks: There’s a good chance the Hawks fin­ish the sea­son with the worst record in the East once again, and that’s OK. This sea­son is all about in­ter­nal de­vel­op­ment. It starts with No. 5 over­all pick Trae Young, but don’t sleep on young for­wards John Collins and Tau­rean Prince.

Vot­ers: Jeff Zill­gitt, AJ NeuharthKeusch, Heather Tucker, Matt Ep­pers

KYLE TERADA/ USA TODAY SPORTS

Like the rest of the War­riors in the pre­sea­son, Kevin Du­rant, left, and DeMar­cus Cousins were all smiles de­spite go­ing 1-4 in games.

CHUCK COOK/USA TODAY SPORTS

Pel­i­cans for­ward An­thony Davis, above, says he’s “the best player in the game,” and we don’t blame him. He’s not, of course, but he’s inch­ing closer. With Jrue Hol­i­day and Julius Ran­dle, Davis could be part of one of the best big-3s in the league.

RUSS IS­ABELLA/USA TODAY SPORTS

If reign­ing De­fen­sive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert can stay healthy, the Jazz could be bound for a top-4 fin­ish in the West.

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