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OAKLAND

Pity poor Steve Kerr. Sure, as an eight-time NBA champion he’s almost out of eligible fingers for his rings. Most men would trade places with him in a second. Other NBA coaches would kill for his roster. But after guiding the Warriors to their third title in four seasons, he is nearing the end of his motivational rope.

“Next year will be even tougher,” Kerr said Friday night, after Golden State had completed a four-game sweep of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. “I may not show up until All-Star break, because they’re not going to listen to me anyway.”

The line got a generous laugh in the interview room, but Kerr wasn’t necessarily joking.

His primary task in the coming season, beginning in November and continuing through all of next spring, won’t be balancing the scoring of Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry, or finding the right big man to start against each opponent. It will be convincing his players to give a damn.

Most NBA teams have a preseason that comprises five or six games in early October; a challenging 82-game regular season; and, if they’re among the fortunate 53 percent, a postseason of indeterminate length.

The Warriors have a four- or five-game training camp, followed by an 82-game preseason, followed by a six-week regular season (translated in some languages as “the playoffs”). Their postseason is one best-of-seven series commonly known as the NBA Finals.

Kerr’s challenge, then, is to navigate his team through that massive preseason, and get his players to care about it enough to qualify for their regular season.

It was challenging in 2017-18. The Warriors frequently played this season as if they were hooping at a family reunion. They wanted to knock down some nice shots and impress the cousins, but do it without injuring a child or cramping up from the grilled chicken they ate at the picnic lunch. It didn’t always look like Warriors basketball. Hell, it didn’t always look like basketball.

Let’s recall some of the highlights: The Warriors lost to the Grizzlies (final record: 22-60) in the third game of the season. They lost twice to Sacramento (27-55), on Nov. 27 and again on March 16, both times in Oakland. They were dumped at Utah by 30 points on Jan. 30, and at home to Oklahoma City by 20 points just a week later.

Kerr tried. After the Warriors lost 126-106 at Indiana in the 79th game of the season, with the playoffs coming into sight like a foreboding coastline, the coach called his players’ efforts “pathetic.” They looked up from their phones and shrugged. And they responded with a home loss to the Pelicans in their next game, followed three days after that with a remarkable 40-point loss at Utah to close out the regular season.

Kerr didn’t lash out after that final indignity. He was probably attempting a different psychological tack. It’s also possible he had run out of suitable adjectives. “Deplorable” is too politically charged. “Enough to make me lean over at mid-court and vomit” is too graphic.

When that unsightly 82-game preseason mercifully ended, something terrible happened to Kerr. The Warriors flipped the switch. Even with Stephen Curry out for the first six games, they became a different team. They played defense again. They ran again. They passed to one another again.

Sure, there were occasional clunkers in April and May. But Kerr’s team was brilliant when it had to be.

In effect, the Warriors proved that the NBA regular season is meaningless, at least to them. They ceded home-court advantage to the Houston Rockets in 2017-18, and beat them in seven games. Next year they can look up at the scoreboard every once in a while, aim for about 48 wins to ensure a spot in the so-called Western Conference playoffs and cruise against a succession of higher seeds.

What in the world can Kerr do to prevent it? Remind his players how precarious the West finals were against Houston? How the Warriors trailed in Games 6 and 7 before roaring back to win. Good luck. Those players know deep inside they could have turned on the juice at any time against the Rockets.

Kerr will have to get creative next season.

“It’s not possible to have everybody as eager as they were in 2014-15, but it’s possible to make some changes to help us shift our focus a little bit,” Kerr said Monday at the Warriors practice facility.

Here are some things Kerr might consider to keep things fresh for his bored champions:

Going to a starting lineup made up of Jordan Bell, Quinn Cook, Chris Boucher, an as-yet-unknown 2018 draft pick and the lucky fan holding that night’s winning ticket.

Allowing the players to draw up all the plays. Kerr did it for one game against Phoenix last season, and it was a huge success. Give ’em the whiteboard for all 82.

Letting JaVale McGee bring the ball upcourt on offensive possessions, and putting Curry in the post.

Telling Klay Thompson he can shoot only left-handed, and instructing Shaun Livingston, master of the mid-range jumper, to attempt only 3-pointers.

Give up, go trekking in Nepal for five months and return on the eve of Round 1 — the physical equivalent of what his players did mentally in 2017-18.

If professional athletes played as if auditioning for “Hoosiers” every night, none of this would be necessary. But these guys are human. They find it hard to muster motivation game after game, year after year, when most of those seasons are ending with a trophy presentation.

Even Kerr can be susceptible. Someone asked him Monday about the parade schedule for today. “It’s one of the best days of the year,” he said. He caught himself, smiled and lowered his eyes shyly.

“I speak of it like it’s an annual event,” Kerr said.

It is. And the more the Warriors internalize that truth, the harder it will be to get them to play hard for that 82-game NBA preseason.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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