Three championships in the last seven seasons. Five-straight NBA Finals appearances. The greatest regular season in NBA history. Those are the legacies that come to mind when we envision the Golden State Warriors.
More recently, the Warriors have been a team to miss the playoffs the last two seasons. They went 54-83, only notching more wins in the Western Conference than the Minnesota Timberwolves. They have made three lottery selections, seen 17 players start ten or more games and had dozens come and go on their rosters.
The precipitation of their downfall was pretty clear: a Kevin Durant departure and massive injuries. General Manager Bob Myers worked to milk everything he could out of the Durant decision to leave: signing-and-trading for D'Angelo Russell, then flipping him for Andrew Wiggins and the pick that turned into Jonathan Kuminga. In a vacuum, that's as good of a haul as you ever see from a sign-and-trade.
The injuries have been a major wrench in plans, however. Klay Thompson has torn two ACLs and missed the last two years as a whole: the last game he played was in the 2019 NBA Finals against the Toronto Raptors. Injuries to Steph Curry and Draymond Green bottomed them out a year ago. Those injuries pushed the Warriors down the standings, netted some high draft picks, and lead to James Wiseman and Moses Moody selections.
Now, the Warriors are in a strange spot. They still have the collection of championship-caliber talent atop their roster in Curry, Green, Thompson and to some extent Wiggins, all of whom are in or soon-to-be-leaving their primes. They also have young lottery players in Wiseman, Kuminga and Moody who are on separate timelines, requiring reps to reach their potential but unlikely ready to help a championship group.
What does juggling both agendas mean for this season? Golden State may be the hardest team to peg in terms of projecting their outcome. Can the young guys do enough to keep up with making them a good team? Will Steve Kerr be able to balance their development with a win-now core? How healthy and productive is Klay Thompson? Would the Warriors try to move their young guys in favor of a win-now option mid-season?
Entering this season, the Warriors are going to try to thread needle between their ponies and thoroughbred stallions. Of all the paths to walk, this is the one with the highest risk and, ultimately, the highest reward.
Raise your hand if you had the Utah Jazz leading the NBA with a 25-6 record in late-February. They're on pace for what would be 66 wins in an 82-game season. They're top-three in both offensive and defensive rating, and are destroying opponents left and right. They're 21-2 since January 7th, 19 of those wins coming by double-digits and 10 wins by seventeen or more.
Their dominance was relatively unpredictable heading into the season, and really isn't due to having one overwhelmingly impactful offensive player. Their top threat is Donovan Mitchell (24.5 points, 5.2 assists, 43% from the field) but he isn't doing anything mind-boggling on offense to carry the Jazz to such heights. Instead, the Jazz use a team-based approach, filled with ball movement and extra passing, belief in their identity and shooting at four perimeter positions to surround All-Star center Rudy Gobert.
For my money, the Jazz ascent to the top of the West is due to their embrace of a team-first approach on offense. Watching them is eerily reminiscent of one of the most beloved teams in NBA history with how they move the ball, play tough defense and unassumingly dismantle their foes: the 2014 NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs.
Twitter and NBA circles have been buzzing the last week after reputable news broke about the NBA considering expansion to 32 teams as a means of helping to cover the financial losses from 2020 and COVID-19. The fun part of the conversations come up first: which cities will get teams, how will the league re-align itself and what does this do to scheduling?
Less than two years ago while pursuing my Master's Degree in Sports Management at Georgetown, I chose this exact topic for my grad school thesis. The paper touched on four topics:
While jumping into questions 3 and 4 provide the most enjoyable casual banter, I quickly found that answering questions 1 and 2 was relevant and necessary before moving to them. What I will do below is give a condensed, more reader-friendly synopsis of my thesis, which hopefully drives conversation moving forward about the realistic nature of each prospective city.
One caveat to be aware of was a qualifier I quickly conceded while doing my research: Seattle is going to be receiving an expansion city. For nostalgic purposes, demands from fans, frequent conversation and market analysis, Seattle was all but a given. That made the rest of the paper about figuring out which city had the best case to host Franchise 32.
If there's one way the Golden State Warriors made the game of basketball look at their peak, it was easy. The effortless, boyish enthusiasm of Stephen Curry propelled him to back-to-back MVPs while carrying the Warriors to five consecutive NBA Finals appearances. Klay Thompson was a smooth shooter with effortless stroke and mild-mannered personality. The nonchalant, quiet Kevin Durant was a silent assassin -- his start in Brooklyn is a reminder just how loud his game can talk when he's the focal point of an offense.
Around the three cheat code teammates were the perfect role players. Draymond Green was a triple-double waiting to happen, content doing the dirty work, quarterbacking the defense and setting the table for others to eat. Andre Iguodala stepped up when he was needed as a veteran presence, physical defender and timely mismatch. Guys like Shaun Livingston, Kevon Looney, Andrew Bogut and David West all learned their roles within a unique, revolutionary offense.
The result was an innovative yet finely tuned machine. The ball zipped side-to-side in Steve Kerr's masterstroke ecosystem. Perimeter relocations of their elite shooters, zig-zagging through the lane, off misdirection screens and towards each other were brutal actions for opposing defenses, and required a level of nuanced IQ for teammates to spot. Their switch everything defense, aided with off-ball trades to blanket Curry, required five men thinking as one. When they were at their peak and all these cylinders were firing, the Warriors looked unstoppable.
And we took them for granted.
Now, Kevin Durant is gone. Klay Thompson is hurt again, done for the year with an Achilles tear. Many of the elder statesmen from those championships have left, either cashing in to secure their own bag or casualties of the insane luxury tax payments procured just to keep the core together.
The replacements have arrived. While there are many with high ceilings and individual talents, the experience and IQ they lack make it so much more apparent how special the Warriors dynasty really was. Andrew Wiggins is a massively talented player, but hasn't appeared comfortable with how to play second-fiddle to a player like Curry. Rookie James Wiseman has flashed peaks of unfathomable athleticism and upside, but he remains greener than a St. Patty's Day in South Boston. Kelly Oubre Jr. has struggled with shot selection and is a ball stop at the most frustrating times. The list goes on.
It's going to be the most difficult season for Dray, Kerr and Curry to tackle together. Teaching these new guys how to fit in the system on the fly, with shortened offseasons and little room for error, is an ambitious task. Doing so while winning games is even harder.
As I mentioned in my first installment of this series on the Nate Bjorkgren Indiana Pacers, the opening months of an NBA coach's tenure are the most illuminating to watch for me. As they unroll their schemes and offensive principles piece by piece, we get to see what is most important to them and their philosophy - what they put in first.
For Steve Nash, a first-time head coach with zero assistant experience on the bench, its particularly illuminating. Guess work is done more on the origins of his playing days and less from staffs he's been a part of. Nash will ease into his duties, leaning on the sage experience of his mentor Mike D'Antoni, who sits next to him on the bench.
But Nash, a two-time MVP and legendary passer in D'Antoni's "seven seconds or less" offense, has other mentors and experiences to his name. He played for Don Nelson in Dallas, the coach who originally embraced up-tempo movements before D'Antoni. He served as an adviser and player development consultant for the Golden State Warriors, perhaps influenced by their ball-movement emphasis and the relationship-based approach of Steve Kerr. Nash, Kerr and D'Antoni all were in Phoenix at the same time, so those teams were where all eyes went while trying to anticipate this offense.
Anticipate no more. A few postseason games are in the books and the Brooklyn Nets really impressed. Pace, spread-floor and switching defenses were on the docket for them. Their individual talent has shined, and nothing too complex has emerged from Nash. What we can take away, though, are a few key tidbits that could show how the D'Antoni Suns offense has evolved to an even smaller and faster NBA.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).