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BY KERRY EGGERS/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Coach Steve Kerr maintains patience in trying season for perennial Western Conference championship contenders

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - This NBA season has been a challenging one for Golden State coach Steve Kerr, whose team lost to the Blazers on Dec. 18 at Moda CenterSteve Kerr met with the media following the Golden State Warriors' 122-112 loss to the Trail Blazers Wednesday night at Moda Center, the message along similar lines to what he has delivered often after games this season.

"I can't fault the effort," Kerr said after his Warriors fell to 5-24, the NBA's worst record this season. "We played together, played hard. There were a lot of really good signs. But we didn't do enough to get the win."

That's been the case on too many nights to count this season, a radical departure to what Kerr has been used to over one of the great five-year runs in NBA history.

The Warriors have made five straight NBA Finals appearances, including last season, when they were eliminated in six games by the Toronto Raptors. They've won three championships and averaged more than 64 regular-season wins.

But the worm turned quickly for the Warriors, who this season hardly resemble the Warriors of even a year ago. Only three players who participated in the playoffs last season are active now — forward Draymond Green and reserves Kevon Looney and Jacob Evans.

Kevin Durant left for Brooklyn through free agency. Andre Iguodala was not re-signed. Shaun Livingston retired. Klay Thompson tore his ACL in the final game against Toronto and likely will be lost for the season. Stephen Curry broke his left hand on Nov. 1 and won't be back until about the All-Star break.

In their wake, the Warriors have gotten worked, over and over again, this season.

"Payback," Kerr said with a smile after the Warriors' morning shootaround. "The gods weren't going to shine on us forever."

When I suggested that a perfect storm of events had conspired to make such bad things happen for the Warriors, the still cherubic-faced coach shrugged.

"But the previous five years felt like a perfect storm of good things," said Kerr, 54. "Life has a way of balancing things out. You have to take it in stride and do your best."

That's what Kerr always did in his 15 years in the NBA as a role player on five championship teams — three in Chicago, two in San Antonio — but also as the most accurate 3-point shooter in league history at .454 for his career.

When you get used to winning, the alternative can be like a needle to an eyeball, but Kerr is coping.

"It's been hard, but the last five years, my eyes were wide open," he said. "I knew that was not reality. I knew this day was coming. Maybe I didn't know we'd be (5-23), but we're without Livingston and Iguodala, two vets who were so important to our foundation. And Durant, one of the very best players in the league. And Klay and Steph go down. This league is all about talent. We've lost just a huge chunk of our roster."

Kerr is left with the 6-6 Green, a great defender and all-around player who is better when he doesn't have to be a team's best player. And D'Angelo Russell, a gifted scorer who is not worth the $120 million he is to be paid over the next four years. And a group of no-names whom you won't hear Kerr said a bad word about.

"I'm really proud of our players and their effort and the way they've conducted themselves," he said. "It's important to handle yourselves with dignity, win or lose. They're giving full effort in practice every day. They're competing every day, giving their best and doing it with grace. It's no fun losing, but it's just the reality right now."

Those around Kerr appreciate the man in charge and the way he operates.

"We were a fantastic team for five years, but we're not at this moment," said assistant coach Ron Adams, who is in his 27th year in the NBA, including a couple of years scouting for the Blazers in the late '90s. "Some very unusual circumstances have put us in this current state that we're in. It's not been easy on any of us.

"But I think Steve has really enjoyed this group. We have really good young guys. They get along well. It doesn't always show up on the win-loss column, but they're improving. Steve has kept a very positive attitude. We have a positive environment. That is what allows us to stay together and for the players to grow in a difficult year."

This season, it is all about player development and bringing the young talent along.

"The hope is that, when we do get healthy with Steph and Klay — whenever that is — we will have helped a couple of young guys develop into rotational pieces for us," Kerr said. "And also, to help them in their own careers individually, to advance and put themselves in better position moving forward."

Kerr developed a winning culture in his first five years with the Warriors. But now they are losing, and losing big. So when Curry and Thompson return next season, could all the gains be lost? Might the Warriors have to start over again?

"You have to maintain the detail of what that culture is about," Kerr said. "You can't control the results on the scoreboard, but you can control your effort, your principles, what's important to you, the way you go about your business every day, what your players feel when they walk into the practice facility.

"We've done that. We have a great group of players who come in and work. We have a great staff that helps those players. We have unbelievable support from management."

Kerr has been appreciative that the fans in the brand-new Chase Center, though accustomed to greatness at Oracle Arena, have supported the Warriors through thick and thin.

"This year has been a reminder of how great our fans are," Kerr said. "As long as we're competing — and the fans can feel our effort — the energy in Chase Center is fantastic.

"It's our job to give them something to cheer about. What they want more than anything is the effort. For the most part, our players have given that. It's been fun to be a part of that."

The Warriors are destined to get a lottery pick in next year's draft — perhaps the No. 1 pick. Their payroll is outrageous, with Curry, Thompson, Green and Russell set to command a combined $130 million next season. That figure is well above a projected salary cap of $116 million, so there is little wiggle room there. They'll have a mid-level exception with which to work, but perhaps not much else.

"We can return to a level of play that Steph and Klay will allow us to," Kerr said. "Our offensive game should improve dramatically, but nobody should expect that their return mean we'll be back to where we were last year. We lost Kevin, Andre and Shaun — our entire wing corps — which is why we have to draft and develop wings. We need to get more athletic. We're not a very athletic team right now.

"It's not like all of a sudden, the Warriors are a championship contender. We'll still have holes. We'll have to continue to fill them and develop and do everything we can to build our team. We didn't have to do that the last five years because of a confluence of events that were really a perfect storm on the positive side. Now the boomerang is hitting us in the face."

Even so, Kerr has shown patience. The guy has eight championship rings, but he's not full of himself. At 54, he's still learning and evolving. And he has found pleasure out of a dismal start to a season.

"I'm enjoying the year," he said. "It's fun working with young players. Losing stinks, but there are a lot of battles you can win as a coach that are really gratifying, especially when you see individual players have success.

"This year is all about opportunity for a lot of these players. The ultimate idea is to win the championship, but that and development goes hand in hand."

NOTES: Damian Lillard scored 31 points and matched his season high with 13 assists in the victory for Portland (12-16). Hassan Whiteside scored 16 points to go with a season-high 23 rebounds and CJ McCollum tallied 30 points for the the injury-riddled Blazers, who suited only nine players. Russell scored 26 points for Golden State, which lost its fifth in a row. ... Kerr, before the game when asked what Carmelo Anthony is doing for the Blazers: "Same thing he's been doing his whole career: great triple-threat player, catching, facing up, the ability to put it on the floor, pull up and shoot the jumper, get to the rim. A great offensive player. He's given them a different dimension to go along with their backcourt scoring. It also looks to me like he's given them a boost emotionally, that his teammates enjoy playing with him. His arrival gave them a jolt of energy."

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