Eleven months after he replaced a coach who led Golden State to 51 victories last season, Steve Kerr now says he had no expectations for his Warriors in a post-Mark Jackson era, except that they would be better.
He just didn’t expect this much better.
He didn’t expect 67-15 — a regular-season record surpassed by only five other teams in NBA history — better.
“I did think this team would be better,” Kerr said. “I didn’t know what that would mean in wins and losses because winning 51 games, as the team did last year, is not easy in this league and then there are so many variables, with health being at the top of the list. I didn’t really try to put a number on what we’d do.
“The win total exceeds all expectations. I was looking for improvement and that’s what has been very gratifying: What already was a really, really good team has gotten better and that’s the whole idea.”
No other 50-plus victory team in NBA history ever improved by 16 victories the next season, not until the Warriors did so in a season when Kerr set records for achievements reached by a rookie coach.
Now with a first-round series against New Orleans starting Saturday, a question still looms: Are the Warriors built as well for the playoffs as they were for a dominating regular season when they won 45 of those 67 games by double digits?
TNT analyst Charles Barkley considers them a “legitimate” contender but thinks they’re susceptible inside to bigger, stronger teams and questions a team so reliant on the outside shooting of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
“I don’t think you can make enough jumpers to win four series,” he said, “and I’ve said that for 25 years.”
They made 883 three-pointers — third most in NBA history, but most accurate — this season, but these aren’t your granddaddy’s running-and-gunning Warriors: Yes, they play at the league’s fastest pace and lead the NBA in scoring, but they’re also statistically considered its most efficient defensive team.
“No one has played as open as they have, but there’s a misconception to them,” Wolves coach Flip Saunders said. “If you look at the teams that have won championships the last three, four years — San Antonio, all those teams — they’ve all been very good three-point shooting teams. Golden State, they score a lot and they’re known as the Splash Brothers and all that, but they’re one of the best defensive teams in the league. They’re not a one-trick pony.
“They can play both ends of the floor and, because of that, I think they’ll have an opportunity to have success.”
They are also the league’s best team at home, with a 39-2 record at Oracle Arena entering a postseason when home-court advantage sometimes makes all the difference.
“They don’t lose at home,” Saunders said. “That’s big.”
Kerr has them in this position because of several moves that took what Jackson built before he was fired and Kerr was hired last May.
A former NBA general manager, television-network analyst and player who won five championships with Chicago and San Antonio, Kerr accepted his first coaching job at age 48 and transformed an already successful team.
He did so first by insisting the team keep Thompson beside Curry in its Splash Brothers backcourt rather than include him in a trade with the Timberwolves for Kevin Love. Then he refined the Warriors’ offense.
He boosted young, underachieving Harrison Barnes’ play by making him a starter alongside Curry and Thompson. He moved former All-Star Andre Iguodala and his defense to a bench role on a team that’s deep with long, athletic defenders and anchored by underrated center Andrew Bogut, whom Kerr calls one of the league’s “most impactful players, it’s just not displayed in a traditional, statistical fashion.”
And maybe Kerr got a bit lucky when David Lee’s early-season injury created more playing time and a starter’s spot for Draymond Green, whose breakthrough season has made him a favorite for league Defensive Player of the Year.
Kerr hasn’t coached an NBA playoff game yet, just like he hadn’t coached a regular-season game when October arrived.
But he has played in a lot of them, 128 playoff games to be exact.
“Don’t forget my players have been in the playoffs the last couple years,” Kerr said of a team that reached the second round in 2013 after upsetting Denver in the first round before losing a first-round series in seven games to the Los Angeles Clippers last year. “We’re not the Spurs with 20 years of Tim Duncan going through the playoffs and all that, but we have our share of experience and a good combination of young legs to go with it. It’s a good mix.”