LOS ANGELES — It’s no secret some people believe it’s in the Warriors’ best interests to take a step back this season. Heck, I’m one of those people. I thought Steph Curry was going to be in the MVP conversation. But once he broke his hand, I argued the Warriors should slow play him and Klay Thompson, because a lottery season could help Golden State in the long-term, especially after five straight grueling trips to the Finals.
There is one problem with that, however. The Warriors can’t simulate straight to the draft like a season of MyLeague in NBA 2K. They still have to play the games. That means enduring losses like Wednesday’s 120–94 shellacking at the hands of the Lakers. It also means the players actually on the floor have to endure the talk of the benefits of them losing.
“Oh, I know the players are aware of that talk. They hear all this stuff, they read all this stuff,” head coach Steve Kerr said before Wednesday’s game, adding that he’s addressed the issue with his roster. “Part of coaching is messaging and letting your team know where you are, where you stand, what the goals are. The goal is to win every game. The reality is we’re not good enough to do so right now. The other stuff, you can’t control. Whatever happens, happens, but our goal is to go out there and try to perform our best every night.”
The players themselves admitted they can’t exactly avoid the conversation about why the Warriors should head for the lottery. Rookie Eric Paschall, Golden State’s brightest spot in an otherwise dark start to the season, told SI if “you’re on social media,” you’ll hear the tanking talk.
“But we’re coming in the game to win. We’re all competitors. I don’t think anybody’s playing to tank or go for the lottery.”
Glenn Robinson III, a 25-year-old who is practically a gray-bearded wizard on this iteration of the Warriors, echoed Paschall’s sentiment about seeing the long-term conversation on social media. But he insisted there’s still some satisfaction to be had in Golden State’s current predicament.
“[The injuries] make it a little bit more fun for us to compete with who we have, going out there with eight or nine guys and playing with a chip on our shoulder,” Robinson told SI. “Now we just have to start executing better so we can start winning a couple of these games. I’ve been an underdog my whole career...we go out with a chip on our shoulder and try to prove everyone wrong.”
At 2–10, the Dubs haven’t quite been proving people wrong just yet. But it’s also fair to say that a gap year isn’t the same as a lost season. While the lottery may ultimately prove to be the best bet for the Warriors, this is obviously far from a Process-level takedown.
Like every team that’s ever tanked, the Warriors aren’t playing with the intent to lose every night. What separates their predicament from other rebuilds around the league is it has kind of been forced by natural causes. Golden State obviously wanted to be better this year. Its hand was forced by injuries. Kerr, being as pragmatic as he is, has adjusted the team’s goals accordingly.
Paschall, Robinson, and undrafted rookie Ky Bowman all said Kerr’s benchmarks for them include competing hard every night and making progress throughout the season. There’s certainly no championship talk here. Kerr, while assuring he wants to win, also has a sense of the big picture under this season’s unique circumstances.
“I’ve enjoyed coaching the young guys, it’s fun to see them have success for the first time ever,” Kerr said. “If they have a good game, you can see the joy in their faces, you can see what it means to them, what it means to their families. It’s not easy losing, but there are other things that we can do in the meantime, individual improvement guys can make, that can be very satisfying as a coach to watch.”
With Curry and Thompson out, and Draymond Green also battling his own maladies, the remaining Warriors know they likely won’t be able to carry the Finals torch of the previous five seasons. The vets are still staying positive, asking the younger players to continue bringing energy in their absence. Golden State may know deep down it's not a playoff team, but that doesn’t mean the team doesn’t have something to gain from this season, even if it’s only developing players who can be a critical part of the next run.
Amid the losing, a player like Bowman—who went from unheralded prospect to two-way contract to starting in Curry’s place on Nov. 2—can keep the situation in perspective.
“Not a lot of people from my hometown get this far,” Bowman told SI. “It’s a blessing just to be here.”