51 Questions: Three things Golden State must do to repeat as champs

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PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:

What do the Warriors need to do to repeat as champs?

Say the Warriors got lucky to win the franchise’s first title in 40 years and they take umbrage. Stephen Curry gets sarcastic, Draymond Green gets testy, and as a team you can see the Warriors have a little chip on their shoulder. Which is a good thing if they are going to repeat as champs — they will need that fire.

Make no mistake, the Warriors certainly can repeat. They should be the favorite.

But if I had to bet on the Warriors or the field in a brutal Western Conference, I’ll take the field. There are just so many things that have to go right in a chase for a title, and in this West there is little margin for error.

What has to go right for the Warriors to win it all again?

1. Stay Healthy.

Sorry Warriors, but you were lucky last season. That’s not a slight — not even Michael Jordan won an NBA title without some luck on the health front — it’s just a fact. The Warriors stayed healthier than any other contender, and that was part of their success.

Now they just have to do it again.

On this front, the Warriors have an advantage over some other contenders (hello San Antonio) in that much of their core is young — Curry is 27, Green and Klay Thompson are 25, Harrison Barnes is 23. But still this team needs to avoid a freak injury to those young players while keeping older guys like Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala rested for the playoffs. The Warriors can survive a regular season injury to anyone and still make the playoffs, but once the postseason arrives they will need all hands on deck to repeat.

2. Keep on sacrificing.

Pat Riley calls it the “disease of more” — where individual players start putting themselves ahead of the team after winning a title — and it tears apart championship teams in every sport. Look at the Seattle Seahawks this season, who had to get their quarterback a new contract, had Kam Chancellor holding out, have had trouble fitting in new pieces, plus the distraction that is Marshawn Lynch’s mother — and they are 2-3 to start the season.

Is Iguodala going to remain happy coming off the bench? Will Barnes’ contract extension talks become a distraction? Will the fact that Curry is the fifth highest paid player on this team become an issue? Does Green try to do too much to live up to his $82 million contract? Will Jason Thompson fit in?

Maybe none of this slows the team down. It is very possible everyone keeps buying in and willingly making sacrifices for the betterment of the whole. Steve Kerr knows how to guide them through these pitfalls. But if the Warriors stumble, they would not be the first team to be undone by the disease of more.

3. Avoid complacency.

So far through the preseason, the Warriors have looked disinterested and a little sloppy. It’s preseason, so nobody should read much into that. The problem is that after the euphoric highs of winning an NBA title the slog of an 82-game regular season can seem even more dreary, and teams get complacent. They lose focus. They stop building good habits during the regular season, thinking they can flip the switch. Then they can’t.

When I asked Curry about staying hungry this coming season, he almost blew the question off.

“That’s going to be easy,” Curry said. “We’re all competitors, we’re all proud of what we did last season, but once you enter a new year, we’ll get our rings on opening night, and that’s the end of the celebrating of what happened and you look forward to the next journey, the next goal, which is to win another one.

“I’m hopefully going to lead that charge, and we have such a great core of guys that are young and hungry and want to relive that intoxicating feeling of winning a championship. You look at the history of the league, you understand how hard it is to win one, but the challenge of winning multiple is something that I’m happy to be gunning for now, that I’ve got one under my belt. But that’s the mission.”

Going from the hunter to the hunted is a transition that trips a lot of teams up.

Maybe the Warriors are the exception ready for every one of these challenges. But it will be harder than they realize. They don’t need just to be as good as last season, they will need to be a little better — because the Spurs, Clippers, Rockets and Thunder are all better than a season ago (at least on paper).

There is no margin for error in the Western Conference. The Warriors need to pick up speed, not just make sure they didn’t lose any.

Russell Westbrook trade to Houston official, Thunder praise him on way out door

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Whatever their long-term intentions, after Paul George was traded the Oklahoma City Thunder changed focus. General Manager Sam Presti sat down with Russell Westbrook and his agent, talked about the future, what the former MVP wanted, then worked on trading him where he wanted to go.

That was Houston.

The Westbrook to the Rockets trade for Chris Paul — with Oklahoma City picking up two first-round picks and two pick swaps — is now official.

In announcing the trade, the Thunder praised the greatest player in their franchise history on his way out the door.

“Russell Westbrook is the most important player in the brief history of the Oklahoma City Thunder. He has left an indelible mark on this team, city and state,” Presti said in a statement. “None of us could have anticipated the player he has become, and we are all deeply proud of what he has contributed to the success of the franchise and to our community. Russell and his wife Nina, their three children, his brother and his parents will always remain part of the Thunder family. We wish them nothing but happiness and success in the future.”

“I have a great deal of respect for Russell and there is no way to adequately describe our appreciation for what he has meant to Oklahomans,” said Thunder Chairman Clayton I. Bennett. “His legacy here is immense, and he will be honored by the team for all he has done. We wish he and Nina and their family all the best. While this era of Thunder basketball now comes to an end, I’m confident our talented team of people will once again position the Thunder for success in the future.”

While Presti and the OKC front office are still working on a CP3 trade, they are entering a rebuilding phase.

The Rockets are banking on Westbrook and James Harden being able to work out any fit issues — and finding a way to defend with both of them on the court — to keep them as title contenders.

Anthony Davis dances around question about re-signing with Lakers

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After the drama around his push to get to Los Angeles, league executives and other sources around the NBA expect Anthony Davis to re-sign with the Lakers on a max contract next summer.

However, Davis has paired up with LeBron James, and rule one of the LeBron contract playbook (and agent Rich Paul’s, too) is to keep the pressure on a franchise. Make the team improve and keep itself in title contention.

So it’s not a surprise that when ESPN’s Rachel Nichols asked Davis about re-signing with the Lakers, he didn’t answer the question directly.

Nichols: You’re only signed through this season. Do you think you will be a pillar of the Lakers for years and years to come?

Davis: Honestly, Rachel, I’m just focused on this season. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I have one year here, so I’m going make the best of this year. And when that time comes around in the summer or, you know, whenever the season’s over — hopefully, around, you know, mid-June, after we just had a parade, and I need a couple days to think — then we can talk about that. But until then, I’m trying to do whatever I can to help this team win this year.”

That a well-handled scripted answer hitting all the talking points.

After the NBA summer we have just gone through (and continue to see with Chris Paul), nobody sane will say Davis would never leave the Lakers after one season. Cut to Kevin Garnett screaming “Anything Is Possible.”

However, he came to the Lakers to win rings (now and in the future), to take over as the face of the franchise when LeBron steps away in a few years, to get the kind of recognition and endorsements he felt were not coming his way in New Orleans, and ultimately to have his jersey up in the rafters with Wilt and Kareem and Shaq. That’s the plan. Which means AD will re-sign with the Lakers next summer.

He’s just not going to say that right now.

Kendrick Perkins: ‘Pelicans better lock Zion in the House’ because of great New Orleans food

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Zion Williamson‘s weight became a discussion point during Summer League.

The general consensus going into the draft was that Williamson would ultimately want to play a little lighter in the NBA than he did in college (but without losing his strength). Since then Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski came out and said the No. 1 pick was not in Summer League shape and should not have played. Some broadcast analysts said he looked heavy. In the hallways and behind-the-basket defacto meeting space of Summer League there was a lot of talk among league watchers about the Pelicans needing to get Zion with their trainers and dietitians to prepare him for the 82 game grind.

Kendrick Perkins warns that’s not going to be all that easy in the Big Easy.

As a wannabe foodie, let me just say that Perkins is spot on about the food in New Orleans. It may be my favorite food city in America, it is home to the ultimate comfort foods, and the portions are not small. From muffulettas to gumbo to po’ boys to fried every-kind-of-protein-you-can-name, New Orleans cuisine is both undeniably delicious and not the foundation of a healthy diet.

It’s going to take some discipline from Williamson, who also can afford his own chef now to keep the meals at home healthy and tasty. Then gumbo can be a splurge-day treat.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni: ‘If the superstars want to play together, then they will make it work’

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James Harden and Chris Paul worked reasonably well together on the court, but they played through a lot of tension.

Now, the Rockets are going to a new star backcourt that invites even more questions.

How will Harden and Russell Westbrook fit?

Houston coach Mike D’Antoni on The Woj Pod:

If the superstars want to play together, then they will make it work.

To be able to win a title now, you have to get superstars together – and whether it’s two or three or how many else you can get. And then it becomes a chemistry. Because everybody’s ball-dominant. When you’re a superstar, you’ve been the main guy for sure. Now, you’ve got to make it work. And sometimes personalities, it doesn’t work. Sometimes, it works for a while. Sometimes, it’s hard to manage, sometimes. Again, if they’re not on the same page totally 100 percent, I think the organization has to look and see what’s best for the organization.

D’Antoni was asked about Harden and Westbrook. (Best I can tell, D’Antoni never named Westbrook on the podcast, which should allow the coach to avoid a fine.) But D’Antoni could have easily been describing Harden and Paul.

It seems Harden and Paul no longer wanted to make it work. Those two played better together than most people realized. The Rockets were one of the NBA’s best teams each of the last two years, and they had an elite offense. But Harden and Paul clearly grated each other.

Now, Harden and Westbrook will get a fresh start together. They sound eager to re-join forces after beginning their careers together with the Thunder.

D’Antoni is correct: Harden’s and Westbrook’s desire to make this work will go a long way.

But Harden and Paul were once enthusiastic about pairing, and that went south. An initial commitment to teaming up is important. It can also wane quickly.

It also can’t overcome every fit issue. Sometimes, stars just don’t match, no matter their intentions.

D’Antoni is also right about super teams generally require ball-dominant stars to sacrifice for the greater good. There are always diminishing returns on grouping stars.

But other situations have included stars with more complementary skills. So much of what Harden and Westbrook provide involves having the ball in their hands. The diminishment of returns will likely be greater in Houston.

Harden’s and Westbrook’s talent give the Rockets a huge leg up. Those two wanting to play together will push each to do his best to make it work.

It’s still far more complicated than that.