Andre Iguodala, the veteran of NBA playoff battles and Olympic gold medal games, knows the challenges that lie ahead for the Warriors. He also knows his new teammates won't truly be ready until they experience taking opponents' best shots.
"It's something you've got to experience, getting hit in the mouth," Iguodala said.
When the hits come, how will the Warriors respond? Is this group ready for the pressure that comes with being among the NBA's hunted? Can they find the extra toughness and consistency required of a true contender? Aside from health, those are the primary questions for the Warriors, who kick off the season Wednesday against the visiting Los Angeles Lakers.
Fresh from its exciting playoff run, Golden State suddenly finds itself on the flip side of the rags to riches story. Once the team seeking out NBA Goliaths, trying to earn some respect, the Warriors have become the target, a team being touted as a legitimate contender in the loaded Western Conference.
"They've got a bull's-eye on their back now," said Hall of Famer and TNT analyst Reggie Miller, who picked the Warriors to finish fourth in the West. "There's no more sneaking up. There's no more feel-good story ... This team has arrived."
The hype isn't just coming from fans, some of whom are talking Western Conference finals and hoping for a run at a championship. Grantland.com, the website of noted author and sports fan Bill Simmons, pegged the Warriors as the NBA's most watchable team.
ESPN, Yahoo! Sports, Sports Illustrated, USA Today, Hoopsworld and NBC Sports all list the Warriors among the NBA's top 10 teams.
Sports Illustrated, on one of its regional covers, even deemed the Warriors "The New Showtime," linking Golden State with the Magic Johnson-led Lakers dynasty that won three titles.
"I think the Warriors are a legitimate contender to get to the NBA Finals, but I believe there are six teams in the Western Conference that could conceivably get there," said TNT analyst Steve Kerr, a five-time NBA champion as a player who was the G.M. in Phoenix for three years. "I think it gets harder. It's a little bit like Oklahoma City the last couple of years. Once the honeymoon is over, everybody is expecting big things, the pressure comes. I think that's what the Warriors are looking at. But what a great position, having that be your problem instead of just being horrible."
Few doubt the Warriors have the talent. That was evident on the biggest stage last spring, when Golden State upset Denver in the first round and pushed San Antonio to six games. All that happened with point guard Stephen Curry on a sprained right ankle and center Andrew Bogut needing injections just to stand.
Now, both are entering the season healthy. All-Star forward David Lee, who was knocked out of the postseason with a torn hip flexor, is in the best shape of his career.
And though Golden State lost two valuable pieces off the bench in Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry, it added Denver's star in Iguodala. He alone gives the Warriors three elements they desperately need in their starting lineup -- a lockdown defender, a second facilitator after Curry, and an exceptional athlete.
Iguodala bolsters a defense already anchored by Bogut, one of the best defensive centers in the league when healthy. Iguodala adds fluidity and explosiveness to an offense that thrives on 3-point shooting and the transition game.
"Look at that starting lineup -- it's great," one scout said in a breakdown of the Warriors for Sports Illustrated. "You are going to have to pick your poison. Granted, any team that lives or dies by the three could go cold in a series and lose. But they have some great shooters who won't have too many off nights."
But while talent makes you capable, fortitude makes you accomplished. The latter is the uncertainty on the Warriors roster because this group hasn't dealt with the awaiting pressures before.
Lee, entering his ninth season in the league, knows exactly the mentality his team faces this season since it's the one he's had to adopt personally. Lee has spent the last three seasons with Golden State taking down the league's better power forwards -- repeatedly outplaying the likes of Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Love.
Lee went at those big names with a point to prove, so he knows the zeal with which underdogs attack. He knows how motivated opponents seize every opportunity to dethrone.
"In the past," Lee said, "you could see teams almost playing somewhat disrespectful against us, like they didn't think we had a chance to beat them. Now I think they'll come in giving the best effort for different reasons. ... The easy answer is for us to ramp it up some."
The Warriors think their best bet is to keep embracing the hunter's mindset. They claim to be ignoring the hype outside the locker room, just as they ignored the doubters last season.
But the task before Golden State is larger than refusing to believe their own hype.
"I think Golden State is in a great spot," Kerr said. "Their organization has done an amazing job of putting them in this position. But now comes the hard part. Trying to go from really good to championship caliber is probably the hardest thing to do in the NBA."
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