OAKLAND — Every basketball fan in the country and around the globe saw the potential of the Golden State Warriors last season when Stephen Curry stayed healthy and got hot in the playoffs.
One swish after another, Curry wowed the gold-shirt wearing crowds that packed Oracle Arena and turned games into must-see TV. The performances transformed the franchise from lovable losers with a faithful following to an up-and-coming team that could contend for a Western Conference title — and maybe more.
“I think we understand the position we’re in,” Curry said. “We played well for a year. That’s awesome. But we have to capitalize on that momentum.”
Few expected the Warriors, who had made the playoffs just once since 1994, to make the postseason. Even fewer predicted they’d beat Denver — which won a franchise-record 57 games — in the first round. And almost nobody thought they’d seriously challenge the San Antonio Spurs before losing in six games in the second round.
Winning would surprise nobody now.
Golden State returns all five starters — Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, David Lee and Andrew Bogut — from a team that finished 47-35 to earn the Western Conference’s sixth playoff seed. The Warriors also added All-Star swingman Andre Iguodala, who left Denver to sign a four-year, $48 million deal.
“There’s no secret, we’re a good basketball team. I’m not going to sit here and lie. We’re a good basketball team,” said Warriors coach Mark Jackson, who’s entering his third season. “We’ve come a long way. But now is the next step. It’s about building chemistry and looking forward to what lies ahead. We’re not satisfied with last year. That’s old news. And we’re not going to live on old news. We’re looking to build something right now.”
Here are five things to watch with the Warriors this season:
STAYING HEALTHY: The Warriors showed in the playoffs that, when healthy, they could beat anybody. Health, however, remains a huge concern. Curry avoided any major problems on his twice-surgically repaired right ankle last season, but sprained his left ankle in the first round against Denver and needed anti-inflammatory injections to stay on the court. Bogut missed 50 of 82 games during the regular season, mostly because of soreness in his surgically repaired left ankle, but played his best in the playoffs despite his limitations. David Lee also tore his right hip flexor in the playoff opener and played limited minutes.
CURRY’S STROKE: Curry rose to star status in the playoffs, and he’ll need to be at his best again for the Warriors to be a contender in the deep Western Conference. Curry averaged a career-high 22.9 points and 6.9 assists per game. He made 272 3-pointers — three more than Ray Allen’s record of 269 set with Seattle in 2005-06 — and shot 45 percent from the floor, including from beyond the arc, at times looking unstoppable.
REARRANGED ROTATION: Iguodala gives Golden State an All-Star talent and another ball-handler besides Curry at the end of games. But he also rearranges a proven rotation. Thompson has been coming off the bench for most of the preseason to make room for Iguodala in the starting lineup, though Barnes could still be the one pushed into a reserve role. Neither has much experience in that position. Thompson played 37 games as a reserve during the 2011-12 season, his rookie year. He has started 122 straight games, including the playoffs. Barnes never came off the bench as a rookie last season.
NEW ROLE PLAYERS: Guard Jarrett Jack and forward Carl Landry were major factors off the bench last season. Now both are gone. Jack signed a free agent deal with Cleveland, while Landry landed in Sacramento. The Warriors added forward Marreese Speights, backup center Jermaine O’Neal and guard Toney Douglas to fill the void. They’ll also lean more on do-it-all Draymond Green, who played his best in the playoffs — and in multiple positions — to finish off a solid rookie season.
JACKSON’S JOB: Any time a team enters a season with high expectations, there’s more attention — and often more scrutiny — on things that were once considered minor. And nobody feels that pressure more than the coach. How Jackson juggles the lineup and monitors minutes could prove pivotal. It also could impact his future. Golden State exercised its option on Jackson’s contract for the 2014-15 season this summer but the sides have not reached an agreement on a long-term deal.
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP