Steve Kerr

Kerr knows Warriors' five-year Finals run ‘highly unlikely' to be repeated

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We’re almost six weeks into the NBA playoffs and it’s abundantly clear that the Warriors making five consecutive voyages to The Finals, of which they won three championships, was remarkable enough in real time but looks downright monumental in retrospect.

It’s entirely plausible that the Warriors might be the last team to accomplish such a feat.

“I think it's highly unlikely,” coach Steve Kerr told NBC Sports Bay Area this week.

The Warriors not only are the last team to win back-to-back NBA Finals but also the last team make back-to-back trips to The Finals.

The entire cast has changed every year since 2019, when Golden State, in its fifth successive trip to The Finals, lost to the Toronto Raptors. With both the reigning champion Denver Nuggets and their 2023 Finals foe Miami Heat both bumped from the playoffs, there will be two entirely different teams facing each other next month.

Ousted from the playoffs last Sunday, the Nuggets were victimized by the same beast that has ravaged every defending champion since 2018. Fatigue. It’s as merciless as it is relentless, and it’s growing larger each year.

“I think the run last season and coming back and the amount of minutes that our starters had to play,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said after the Game 7 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, “I think mentally, emotionally (and) physically, guys are gassed. They're dead tired.”

Of course they were. Denver’s 2022-23 season went almost nine months, from opening training camp on Sept. 27, 2022 through June 12, 2023, when the Nuggets clinched the NBA Finals. That’s what it took to become champs.

They did not have enough to repeat. The same is true of the 2022 champion Warriors, who were eliminated in the Western Conference semifinals the next season. It also applies to the Milwaukee Bucks, who won it all in 2021 but were sent home in the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2022.

The Los Angeles Lakers, 2020 champs, were a first-round exit the following season. After winning the crown in 2019, the Raptors were stopped in the conference finals the next year.

"The first thing you realize is everybody is building their team to beat you,” Kerr said. “They're not just gunning for you. They're literally building their team to beat you. (Denver’s Nikola) Jokic even said it after the loss. He said, ‘That team is built to beat us.’ If (the Timberwolves) don't have all three of those 7-footers, I don't think they win Game 7 or that series.

“Once you win one, everybody's not only gunning for you, emotionally getting charged up, but they're scheming for you, too. It just gets harder and harder.”

Each of the last eight teams to reach The Finals faced various factors, but what they had in common was a season that went beyond eight months. No matter the conditioning, the fatigue factor is real and undoubtedly contributed to Denver being exhausted after one extended season.

Any that team manages to document five consecutive extended seasons is embracing and successfully navigating an element of torture.

“I still marvel at our guys and the energy that they summoned during that stretch,” Kerr said. “To take on all comers and to keep getting back there. Obviously, we had a ton of talent, but it takes more than that. It takes incredible passion and competitive desire. And our guys had that.”

It also takes a willingness to adjust on the fly and to carefully manage practice schedules. Yet there is more to it than that.

The NBA and the Players’ Association are reaching Collective Bargaining Agreements to promote enduring parity. The CBA, with its various financial hurdles, is designed to fight the concept of dynasties and generate roster turnover.

“That's definitely an issue,” Kerr said. “It puts more of a premium on trying to develop young guys. And developing young guys while you're trying to win a championship – I know first-hand – it's not easy. (Malone) talked about it the other night after they lost Game 7. All the forces sort of conspire against you when you're the champs.”

Adroit moves during the offseason and at the trade deadline can alter the balance of power. Winning a title is hard enough, but it’s almost impossible to assemble a championship roster and maintain it – even beyond the NBA Finals.

The 2022 champion Warriors lost a key player in Otto Porter Jr. The 2023 champion Nuggets lost crucial reserves Bruce Brown Jr. and Jeff Green. After leading the Raptors to the 2019 title, Kawhi Leonard signed with his hometown Los Angeles Clippers.

Then there is the natural evolution of the league and its players. The Warriors have done a wonderful job of maintaining a three-man core of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. They’re appreciated now, but their legend is destined to expand with time.

“The league is just way better now than it was 10 years ago when I got here,” Kerr said. “Some of it is the example that Steph and Klay set with the shooting. It really inspired a lot of young players but also a lot of teams. There were a lot of other trends happening, too, like floor spacing and bigs around the league shooting 3s.

“Between pace and skill and the number of shot makers people have, the league is just dramatically better. To go through a gauntlet of four playoff opponents – and most likely all of them could bury you on any given night and make 25 threes – it just makes domination that much more difficult.”

The Los Angeles Lakers went to three consecutive NBA Finals (2008-10), winning two. Miami Heat went to four in a row (2011-14), winning two. The Warriors went to five (2015-19). It was as if each team was passing the torch to the next over a 12-year period.

The torch is extinguished. The run to The Finals is a crowded field that thins out along the way. And the teams that made it the previous year must overcome the biggest beast of all.

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