How to emulate the Warriors

Jealousy will get you nowhere

The Warriors have set a phenomenally high standard while winning three of the NBA’s last four championships. Along the way they’ve created jealousy among many of their opponents.

The truth is that the Warriors have benefited from many opportunities that were available to their rivals. With the NBA Draft coming Thursday, now is a good time to review seven moves that were crucial to the Golden State dynasty – and why other teams can learn from the Warriors’ example. Strong management, wisdom and a bit of luck can produce championships for anyone.

1. They didn’t trade Curry. This is where luck comes in, because the Warriors – along with the rest of the NBA – could not have envisioned Curry’s potential midway through his third season. In March 2012, while Curry was sidelined by injury, they acquired defensive-minded center Andrew Bogut from Milwaukee in exchange for Monta Ellis, Epke Udoh and Kwame Brown. The key return for the Bucks was Ellis, who had averaged 19.6 points over his first seven seasons with Golden State.  

What would have happened if the Bucks had pushed for Curry instead of Ellis? They would have been ridiculed, for starters, because at that time Curry’s future was endangered by chronic ankle injuries. During that 2011-12 season Curry would play only 26 games, suffer five ankle sprains and undergo two surgeries on his weakened right ankle. 

Now imagine what might have happened if the Bucks had pushed for Curry instead of Ellis anyway. The Warriors might very well have made that deal, based on Curry’s uncertain future combined with the extreme popularity of Ellis in the Bay Area. Remember how Warriors fans responded to the departure of Ellis? They booed the team’s new owner Joe Lacob into silence for trading their beloved star: 

With the help of shrewd athletic trainers, Curry saved his career – and exceeded all expectations – by changing his running style and strengthening his core. It was an unanticipated result that leaves you wondering what would have happened If Curry had been sent to Milwaukee. Here’s one guess: Golden State would have been applauded for acquiring Bogut without giving up Ellis, Warriors fans would have had little to complain about, and the dynasty never would have happened. 

2. They drafted Curry. Perhaps good fortune entered into their decision to keep Curry and trade Ellis. But the real bottom line is that the Warriors were the ones to invest in Curry in the first place.

They were a miserable franchise at the time: From 1995 to 2012 the Warriors had made the playoffs once, due in large part to the dysfunctional leadership of owner Chris Cohan. In the buildup to the 2009 draft, however, coach Don Nelson and GM Larry Riley fell in love with Curry. Many of their rivals didn’t see Curry’s potential. A common complaint was that Curry lacked the first-step explosiveness to create his own shot: He was too small and lacking in explosive athleticism to be as vital in the NBA as he had been in college.

But Nelson had always been iconoclastic. He had envisioned the dawn of big men shooting 3-pointers when he drafted Dirk Nowitzki for Dallas in 1998, and one decade later he recognized that the NBA’s new defensive rules would reward Curry’s quickness and deep shooting. 

The Warriors had a vision for what could be, and all of their success has resulted from their 2009 commitment to Curry. 

3. They emphasized defense. Mark Jackson has long been a controversial figure in the NBA, but his contribution to the Warriors as their head coach for three seasons should not be forgotten. He was the one who insisted that they defend. They subsequently traded for Bogut, who helped instill Golden State’s defensive identity and became a role model for Draymond Green.

Jackson began coaching the Warriors in 2011-12, a lockout year that provided him with little time to institute defensive changes. They ranked number 26 in defense that season, but the following year they moved up to number 13 – and in 2013-14 they ranked number 4 overall at the defensive end around Bogut, Green and Klay Thompson. 

Jackson was replaced in 2014 by Steve Kerr, who put in an offensive style meant to exploit Curry’s unique approach. But the emphasis on defense made it possible for Kerr’s Warriors to attack offensively from a position of strength. Instead of asking an offensive-minded team to learn how to play defense as an afterthought, the Warriors did it the other way around. They committed to defense via Jackson, and then upgraded their offense with Kerr.

4. The Warriors didn’t tank. They were a bad team, but they weren’t losing on purpose. Cohan was incapable of instituting a coherent policy of tanking in order to win. Among their four stars, only Kevin Durant – their finishing free agent – was a high lottery pick. 

And so there should be no cynicism regarding the development of the Warriors. They were bad because they didn’t know better. And then one good thing led to another: Riley and Nelson discovered some foundational players, the bad owner was replaced by a better owner, and the front office and coaching staff were stabilized. Every team could undergo the same kind of transformation. But few do.

5. They didn’t compound their mistakes. The Warriors didn’t have to be perfect while building their roster. In 2010 they misspent their number 6 pick on Epke Udoh, when they could have had Gordon Hayward (who went number 9 to Utah) or Paul George (10 to Indiana). Midway into Udoh’s second season, Golden State was separating from its mistake by packaging him into the trade for Bogut. 

6. They found a surprise star. How many championship teams do this? The Spurs won four titles by discovering Tony Parker at the end of the first round and Manu Ginobili at the back of the second. The Celtics won their 2007-08 championship with point guard Rajon Rondo, the number 21 pick two years earlier. J.J. Barea, the undrafted point guard of the Mavericks, changed the 2011 NBA Finals for Dallas. Udonis Haslem, an undrafted forward, was crucial to the Heat’s 2006 championship. Derek Fisher, a number 24 pick, made big shots while helping the Lakers win five titles.

How can the rest of the league complain about the Warriors’ dominance after every team in the 2012 Draft had its chance at Draymond Green and passed on him? The Warriors clearly didn’t know what they had either – otherwise they never would have spent the number 30 pick on Festus Ezeli. Green went to the Warriors at number 35, and by Jackson’s final coaching year Green was establishing himself defensively in the rotation. When Kerr took over, he became a secondary playmaker offensively. His leadership and passion have become indispensable.

7. They overcame a 3-1 deficit to Oklahoma City in the 2016 Western finals. If the Thunder had prevailed in that series, would Durant have abandoned them the following summer? Probably not.

He moved to the Warriors because of all that they had built, step by step. The discovery of Curry, and then Kerr’s commitment to reinventing the offense around him. The dedication to defense. The shrewd drafting of Thompson and Green. The competitive hunger that emerged in 2015-16, when they won an NBA-record 73 games after earning their breakthrough championship. 

Durant was drawn to Golden state not only by its talent but also by the emphasis on defense and dedication to teamwork that knocked him out of the 2016 playoffs when he was one win away from reaching the NBA Finals. Weeks later, when free agency opened, the Warriors had the same access to new cap space as all of their rivals. They spent that money on Durant, and rival NBA owners weren’t happy about it. 

"That owners meeting, the July after we got Kevin, was a difficult one," Lacob told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. "I felt really personally persecuted by the other owners."

Their anger was misplaced. The Warriors had shown them that a bad team could be transformed into the best, and it all begins with smart picks in the draft. On Thursday, when they have their next chance at developing a new generation of potential stars, how many teams will choose so wisely?

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