The defending-champion Golden State Warriors vastly underperformed expectations this season while the Miami Heat continue defying them. After watching the underdog Heat roar back to beat the Denver Nuggets in Game 2 of the NBA Finals, Steve Kerr hinted at the overarching reason behind his team's wholly disappointing title defense.
Appearing on The Draymond Green Show Sunday night following Miami's 111-108 victory over Denver, Kerr lauded the likes of Duncan Robinson and Kevin Love for staying ready when their number wasn't being called—sending an implicit message to Golden State's frustrated young players in the process.
“None of those guys on Miami are sitting there saying, ‘Well, I didn't play' or ‘Man, they put in so and so.' They're just all about winning,” Kerr said of the Heat. “And you know this from our groups that we've had. When you have that championship mentality, every guy is bought in, every guy is just trying to win, nobody cares about any of that stuff. You don't go into the locker room saying ‘Well, I should've played more.' You just wanna win. And that's the beauty of finding that magic when you have a championship team is that everybody's bought in and it makes the decision for the coach really simple. You just go with your gut and go with whoever's playing well.”
After going 1-of-6 in the Finals opener and having fallen out of Erik Spoelstra's rotation during the regular season, Robinson exploded for 10 points in the first three minutes of the fourth quarter to spearhead Miami's comeback. Kevin Love was a DNP-CD in each of the last three games before Sunday, but played an integral role for the Heat in Game 2 after being dusted off to start alongside Bam Adebayo up front.
Those pivotal contributions from Robinson and Love speak to the major difference between Miami and Golden State to which Kerr was alluding.
“Heat culture” prioritizes the common goal of team success above all else, helping their whole become far greater than the sum of the roster's talents. The Warriors found that alchemy en route to a title last year, but it was mostly absent throughout a tumultuous regular season and nowhere to be found when they needed that all-for-one approach most.
Palpable frustration of Jordan Poole and Jonathan Kuminga about diminished postseason roles almost boiled over as Golden State fought tooth and nail with the Sacramento Kings in the first round of the playoffs. Steph Curry's already-iconic speech to his teammates before his Game 7 masterpiece speaks to that reality as much as any reporting on the matter. Poole's listless two-way performance throughout the Dubs' brief playoff run does, too.
Following another DNP-CD in Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals, Kuminga even admitted it was tough for him to “lock in” and “smile” while sitting on the bench. Kerr's frank assessment of the Warriors “not [being] a championship team” upon their elimination by the Los Angeles Lakers suggests he always knew concerns of chemistry and connectedness were bound to doom them.
How can the Dubs muster the championship DNA going forward that continues propelling the Heat closer and closer to the Larry O'Brien Trophy? Trading Poole—whose relationship with Green seems irreparable in wake of the latter's preseason punch—might be their best bet. Kuminga reportedly wants out unless he's guaranteed a significant nightly role in 2023-24.
Every season and roster is different. Maybe a couple tweaks around the edges and some pointed offseason efforts to engender camaraderie could help Golden State get back to the basketball mountaintop without moving on from Poole or Kuminga. They're still young, after all, striving to find their niche in the league while playing in the shadows of a legendary, proud and aging Big Three that's not quite done competing for titles.
The more Kerr and the Warriors' in-flux front office watch the Heat embody that “winning” ethos on the NBA Finals stage, though, the more likely it seems bigger changes await before next season—and rightfully so.