It was the NBA Finals, the pinnacle of the sport for anyone who competes in basketball. Yet for Warriors coach Steve Kerr, it also managed to be a low point in his time with the franchise. That’s because it was Golden State’s fifth straight trip to the big stage, and the entire team was worn down.
It has been that way the whole 2018-19 season, which was the third for star forward Kevin Durant with the Warriors. Durant by that time had experienced some struggles with the organization and was preparing to bolt as soon as he hit free agency that summer. The whole season was colored by that looming reality, but according to Kerr, it was more than just Durant’s unhappiness.
“I think the fifth year was so difficult — physically, spiritually, emotionally — but mainly because it’s just hard,” Kerr told The Athletic recently. “And you can ask anybody from the Lakers and the Celtics in the 80s. You know, (ask) Phil Jackson or Gregg Popovich. When you do something year after year after year, it just gets to be (hard).”
Kerr Felt Warriors Were ‘Exhausted Organizationally’
After winning the previous two championships, the Warriors had gone 57-25 that season, and had some early playoff challenges—the Clippers and Rockets each pushed Golden State to six games before the Warriors swept Portland in the conference finals.
But the Warriors faced a team touched with some serendipity when they faced Toronto in the Finals that year, in Kawhi Leonard’s only season North of the border. Durant would tear his Achilles tendon and Klay Thompson would tear his ACL in the series, further exhausting an already beaten-down squad.
“There’s a different sense of energy from, say, the first year to the fifth that was going to be there regardless of our personnel,” Kerr said. “I think we were exhausted organizationally. I think the players were exhausted. We lost two guys to devastating injuries in the (2019) Finals (Thompson and Durant). You almost can’t write a script like that, you know? And it was so brutal.
“But like I said, when you do something for that long, such a competitive emotional level — five years, and teams trying to knock you off and building their team to beat you, it’s exhausting. And I think we were all just exhausted.”
Last Two Seasons Primed Warriors for Surge
Of course, the team’s reward for all that exhaustion was, basically, a year off, as Thompson and star Stephen Curry were injured for most of 2019-20. Curry returned last year and the team began to rebuild itself, with new wing Andrew Wiggins in place and three Top 10 picks—used on James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody—in hand.
The Warriors restructured their bench this offseason, have prepped for the return of Thompson and have gotten back to the old “energy” the Warriors first had back in 2015. They’re 19-4 this season, and Kerr feels some redemption because of it.
“To know that we’re still who we are,” Kerr said. “We’re still going to come in here and work and feel the joy of playing basketball and enjoy each other’s company and keep perspective on life. And I think all of that is helpful in terms of trying to relight the flame this year, right? We have that continuity and that foundation that’s a decade old now with players that we have, and that’s very satisfying to me.”