It’s really amazing to see a great team perform at a high level. As exciting as a hard fought series (or single game in the case of football) between two evenly matched teams is great and all, but something about seeing a team that has figured it out on a level above any competition is beautiful in it’s way, too. Think of the 2014 San Antonio Spurs. Think of the way they moved the ball, creating a high tempo brand of basketball with their crisp passing game that didn’t rely on young legs (and Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili were anything but young). They had achieved a higher level of basketball than the Miami Heat. It was amazing.
In 2015, the Golden State Warriors, coached by former Spur Steve Kerr, created something new, reaching a level of basketball greatness that no other team could equal. Just like in 2014, the 2015 NBA Finals ended with superior team basketball overcoming the greatness of LeBron James. And then the Warriors, instead of spending their summer reading articles and hearing sports talk pundits pontificating about how great they were, they had to read and listen to take after take about how they got lucky. No respect.
Sure, for Golden State it was the first championship in 40 years, not the fifth in fifteen years like the Spurs had won the year before. Sure, they made it through what was supposed to be a formidable Western Conference playoff bracket without having to face the Spurs (who were eliminated in a thrilling seven game first round series with the Los Angeles Clippers) or the Clippers (who choked away their second round series with a Houston Rockets team that this season seems to have fundamental character flaws and fired head coach Kevin McHale after 11 games). They don’t have a dominant big man, and in fact the turning point in the Finals was when they took Andrew Bogut out of the starting lineup and made Draymond Green the center of a smaller, quicker rotation. When they got to the Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers were depleted. LeBron needed to win without Kevin Love or Kyrie Irving. Their road may not have been as rough, and their style may be unconventional, but the 2014-15 Warriors were an all time great team, and they’re proving it this year.
The Warriors now find themselves with an NBA record 17-0 to start the season. You think they heard all the talk of how lucky they were, both with playoff schedule and with health? Their biggest injury in the last two seasons has been to head coach Steve Kerr, who needed two back surgeries during the offseason, and while still involved with the team, has yet to coach a game this season. That hasn’t mattered to this point. This is a team that is efficient on both ends of the court, and feels more disrespected (and justifiably so) than any other champion I can remember, and they are on a mission to prove just how good they are. The train has kept rolling with Luke Walton coaching the team so far.
Steph Curry, who won the MVP in 2015, is firmly establishing himself as the NBA’s best player, and doing so in a very unconventional way. Usually the NBA’s dominant player is an athletic freak of nature, like a LeBron or a Jordan or a Shaq or a Kobe, or at least plays a highly sophisticated brand of basketball from either a big or wing position like Larry Bird. Rarely does the NBA’s best player discussion revolve around a point guard, and if it does, it’s a bigger stronger playmaker who it really isn’t fair to list as a point guard to anyone else like the 6’9” Magic Johnson. As far as Curry’s place among the NBA’s best go, the best comparison is Steve Nash, but even that is becoming a less and less fair comparison by the day. Sure, Nash was a two time MVP in the mid-200s, but his prime was dominated by Shaq, Kobe, Tim Duncan, and eventually LeBron James. Nash was the innovator, the guy making his teammates better in a critically acclaimed offense, but also never played in The Finals. Steph Curry is Steve Nash on steroids, if steroids could somehow make someone the greatest outside shooter the game of basketball has ever seen. In the era of pace and space, where more three point shots are being taken than ever before, Curry is the prototypical point guard for the modern NBA.
This Golden State team has the fingerprints of every important NBA coach of the last 30 years, with the exceptions of Pat Riley and Jerry Sloan. The team is coached by Steve Kerr, who won championships as a player playing for Phil Jackson in Chicago and Gregg Popovich in San Antonio. Last year, his top assistant was Alvin Gentry, who was one of the architects of Mike D’Antoni’s high paced Steve Nash-led offense in Phoenix, and was an assistant under Larry Brown along with Popovich, (Spurs general manager) R.C. Buford, and (current Kansas head coach) Bill Self at the University of Kansas in the mid-80s, and is now the head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans. This year’s top assistant (and current interim head coach), Luke Walton, is the son of Hall of Fame player Bill Walton, and won two championships as a player playing for Phil Jackson in Los Angeles. Don Nelson, the NBA’s all time leader in wins as a head coach, was the coach of the Warriors for Stephen Curry’s rookie year before going into a well deserved retirement. Before Kerr took over in the summer of 2014, the Warriors were coached by Mark Jackson, who helped them develop their defensive identity, and who played under Larry Bird, Rick Carlisle, and Jeff Van Gundy. There are a lot of people who can take some share of credit for the identity of this great team. A lot of styles, and a lot of motivational techniques that defined other iconic teams since the 1980s are just a part of the culture in Golden State.
It will be interesting to see how long this streak can last, and how well the team’s health can hold up, but in the meantime, it is a joy to watch. It reminds me of the 2008-09 Boston Celtics, who stormed out of the gate after their championship celebration summer, and were by far the NBA’s best team before Kevin Garnett’s knee injury. The history books also tell us of the 1977-78 Portland Trail Blazers, who went on a similar scorched earth title defense after their dominant 1977 playoff run, only to be derailed by Bill Walton breaking his foot. At the same time, the 1997 Chicago Bulls provide an example of a team that can win 70+ games and cruise to a second straight title. Steve Kerr was on that team, so here is an opportunity to demonstrate the lessons he may have learned from that time. While the Philadelphia 76ers are setting records for losses, and showing the world just how bad a basketball team can be even if the players are actually getting paid, the Golden State Warriors are showing us how great, and how beautiful basketball can be. Enjoy the ride!