It’s February 26th, 2015. The Warriors have just lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers 110-99 on the road, in which LeBron dominated with 42 points. The Warriors have been the story of the season, surprising everyone with a 21-2 start and a 16 game win streak, and now currently sitting at a league best 44-11. However, many doubt that an unproven, jump-shooting team is really ready to contend for a title. LeBron seemingly confirmed those doubters’ suspicions tonight as Golden State was simply overpowered by his brute force. My Dad, a devout Cavs fan, predicted that the Warriors had no answer for LeBron and thus they were no threat to the Cavs’ title aspirations. As I watched the game, I wasn’t fully convinced of my Dad’s slant, but I was leaning towards it.
That’s my first true memory of the Warriors. Back then, 8th Grader Daniel loved basketball, spent a lot of time watching old NBA videos and highlight reels, but never really watched too many live NBA games. I wasted most of my time playing video games and watching an absurd amount of Netflix shows. I wish that I had spent more taking in this transcendent Warriors team.
The bandwagon Warriors fans jokes are way overdone. I’ll actually argue that the biggest NBA bandwagon of all time is actually the sect that hates the Warriors. Everyone loved the Warriors in 2015 and 2016, and I mean everybody. All the guys on my basketball team were wearing Curry’s, everyone would talk about how awesome this team is, and memes about Curry’s historic shooting were immensely popular across Instagram. The hate first popped up during the 2016 post season run. Curry had been injured the first two rounds and played hurt, yet some already had gotten the ball rolling by criticizing his toughness and playoff clutch-ness. The ball just about rolled around the world as the Thunder took a 3-1 lead over the Dubs, sparking many “Westbrook is better than Curry,” “Curry is too soft,” and “All these Warriors’ fans are bandwagons,” debates that annoy me to this day. No matter, the Warriors proved just how special they are in coming back to beat the Thunder. Everyone remembers game six of that series for Klay’s heroics (and deservedly so), but no one mentions how Steph also threw up a 31-9-9 stat line in that game and put the icing on the cake with a fall away banker over Ibaka and a steal off a lazy inbound pass by Westbrook, after which Curry holds up seven fingers to the OKC crowd to indicate that there will be one more game.
For those who remember, game seven of that series was almost as epic. The Thunder burst out to a 13 point lead capped by an Andre Roberson lob. The Warriors respond with three straight bombs by Klay Thompson. Steph cuts the halftime deficit to six after he takes the inbound pass coast to coast and makes the most insane left handed layup I’ve ever seen, lobbing it over the outstretched hands of Ibaka and Durant at a perfect angle, as it bounces off the top corner of the backboard and in. The Warriors next unleash their trademark third quarter in which they take a double digit lead behind several threes and Anderson Varejao’s crossover on Enes Kanter. The Thunder make the game scarily close down the stretch, cutting it to four several times as Durant continues to score (it should be noted that Durant was absolutely on fire in this game, yet hardly received the ball till the fourth quarter as Westbrook consistently jacked up wild threes). The Warriors ultimately survived behind a great fourth quarter performance by Steph, highlighted by a stepback three over Durant and a 35 foot bomb with time running down in the game that officially clinched the win.
I was head over heels in love with the Warriors after that series. There was just something about them that drew me in. Was it their unselfish, free flowing style of play? Was it the transcendent shooting of Curry and Thompson that gave me hope as a basketball player? Was it their extravagant spirit, as their bench went into a raucous frenzy any time one of the splash brothers got hot from deep? Whatever it was, they provided me the most fun I have ever had watching basketball.
The 2016 NBA Finals are probably the most well documented sporting event of this decade. 3-1 Warriors’ jokes are an Instagram staple, LeBron’s block is plastered all over NBA intro reels, and countless talking heads reference this series when criticizing Stephen Curry’s career legacy. I’m not going to debate the fact that Steph had a bad series in that Finals. He did. I just don’t appreciate how so many people forget crucial moments, such as Steph’s 38 points in game four that gave the Warriors that Finals’ lead. Or Curry’s 40 point performance in game four of the Blazers’ series, where he had just returned from injury and scored an unbelievable 17 points in overtime to finish the job in Portland. Or even that injury–the fact that Steph took a brutal misstep in Houston and never fully recovered, lacking his previous burst of quickness that enabled him to blow by just about any player in the league.
With the mention of injuries in connection with the Warriors, the annoying joke proprietors of social media are quick to bring up gifs that point out that Steph found out what LeBron felt like during the 2015 Finals, or to show pictures of Kyrie, Kawhi, and Chris Paul being injured and make the uneducated point that the Warriors would have no titles without these occurrences. I’ll try to rant quickly.
Yes, injuries to Kyrie and Kevin Love in 2015, Kawhi Leonard in 2017, and Chris Paul in 2018 all greatly increased the Warriors’ odds of winning the title in each of those years. You know what else is true? Injuries to Curry, Andrew Bogut, and Andre Igoudala in 2016 and to Durant, Klay Thompson, and Kevon Looney in 2019 likely prevented the Dubs from winning what seemed like inevitable championships. That’s just the way things go in the NBA. The team that wins it all has to combine a championship level roster with enough injury fortune to survive the grueling season. In three years, things broke well for the Warriors, and in the other two, just about everything broke the wrong way. Anyone who tries to discount the Warriors’ greatness due to opponents injuries is, plain and simple, a pure hater.
I’ll go further and just give you my honest opinion: I think the Warriors would have won the 2017 and 2018 titles regardless of what happened to Kawhi Leonard and Chris Paul. I feel especially confident in saying that about the 2017 Warriors, who by several measurements may have been the greatest team of all time. Along with only the ’96 Bulls, they were the only team to rank in the top ten all time for both Offensive and Defensive Rating and would have finished the post season undefeated had the 2017 Cavs (the best Cleveland team in my opinion) not lost their minds in game four and hit 24 threes while shooting 53% from behind the line. I think those Warriors could have weathered a 1-0 San Antonio lead and come back to finish off a team in five or six games that started a 36 year-old Pau Gasol and gave significant minutes to David Lee and Jonathan Simmons.
I’ll admit, the 2018 Western Conference Finals are a much tougher proposition, and it’s very likely that Chris Paul could have helped in game six when the Warriors erased the Rockets 16 point lead to blow them out in the fourth quarter, or in game seven when the Rockets missed what seemed like 27,000 consecutive threes. Yet, I still believe the Warriors win the series no matter who the Rockets had available for one overwhelming reason: The Warriors are the most mentally tough team I have ever known.
You need not look any further than what they did in the last month of this year’s playoffs. Many teams would have crumpled after their best player, let alone a top ten all time player, went down while they held a slim lead over their greatest rival. The Warriors remained confident and escaped game with a 3-2 lead behind multiple Steph-Draymond pick and rolls. Everyone thought a Rockets’ win in game six was a foregone conclusion, and it was heading that way before Steph quietly took over the game and hit tough threes that broke Houston’s spirit before the Warriors finished them off with a beautiful sequences of passes that resulted in Klay’s dagger. No team has ever been better at erasing double digit leads almost seamlessly, which the Warriors did in three straight games against the Blazers in the Conference Finals. Even more impressive, at no point did I ever think the Blazers would win any of those games as they held leads. That’s how confident I was that the Warriors had the mental fortitude to battle back.
And even if things didn’t end the way they wanted it to, facing a white hot Raptors team loaded to the brink with talent while their entire core dropped like flies, you have to admit what they did in the Finals was pretty special. The Warriors should have been in a 2-0 hole after Klay pulled his hamstring in game two, yet they played great defense for the remaining six minutes and made just enough plays to survive. They should have crumpled and accepted defeat near the end of game five after Kawhi scored 10 consecutive points in two minutes to give the Raptors a six point lead. The Splash Brothers instead made three high difficulty threes off of complicated, motion plays to keep the series going. Watching Klay tear his ACL in game six was probably the most upsetting moment in my lifetime of watching basketball. It just sucked the life out of what had become a captivating Finals. A loss for the Warriors in that game was inevitable. No matter what strategy Kerr came up with, it couldn’t make up for the fact that no Warrior outside of Curry could hit the broad side of a barn door. Yet somehow, some way, the Warriors got Steph a somewhat open look at a three pointer that would have most likely won the game for them. Do you realize how impossible all of this was? The Warriors lost two Hall of Fame players in their prime during the series yet still almost took the Finals to a game seven. I don’t want to say that it was the crowning achievement of their dynasty, but it wasn’t far from it.
In a way, the Warrior’s performed in the Finals like a legendary rock band that’s just barely holding on, yet pulls together to put on one last great show for its fans. If so, the last month has been the equivalent of the band members all going their separate ways. Durant signed with the Brooklyn Nets as soon as possible. Andre Igoudala was openly critical of the Warriors’ medical staff on television, and not so coincidentally was packaged along with a future first to the Grizzlies as a salary dump for Golden State. Just last week the Dubs mercifully waived whatever was left of Shaun Livingston. The team that captivated our hearts as the shooting wunderkinds in 2016 now only has but three players still wearing their uniform: Steph, Klay, and Dray. It’s quite fitting in a way.
In typical Bob Myers’ fashion, the Warriors’ General Manager pulled off several transactions that seemed impossible to the naked eye but became possible after some advanced level maneuvering. He somehow got another all star level player in D’Angelo Russell by convincing the Nets to work with him in a sign and trade. Myers could have stopped there, but instead went out and signed center Willie Cauley-Stein for a bargain bin deal after he missed out on a big contract due to timing with his free agency. Last but not least, Looney somehow not only re-upped with the Warriors, but for a three year, 15 million dollar deal! Are you kidding me! How is it possible that we live in a world where Frank Kaminsky and Kevon Looney are making the same amount of money annually? Just how?
But let’s get back to the D’Angelo Russell acquisition. Many have questioned the fit of another guard in Golden State, let alone one who isolates on offense and is a liability on defense. I, however, think it’s a great idea to land a young, talented player when the other option was losing you superstar asset for absolutely nothing. Furthermore, I trust that the Warriors can make any player fit as long as the talent is there (which it certainly is with Russell). More importantly, I trust Steve Kerr. I don’t think he’s ever gotten the credit he deserves as a coach. It’s hard to remember now, but before Kerr took over the Warriors were starting David Lee at power forward, didn’t move creatively off the ball, and completely relied on Curry in blah pick and rolls. Kerr had the intuition to see where the league was going. He immediately slotting Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green into the starting lineup. Andrew Bogut was used as an inefficient post up scorer under Mark Jackson. Kerr had the Warriors enter to him in the post then cut ferociously on off ball screens so Bogut could dish to the splash brothers for open threes. Through their five years together, Kerr further proved himself as one of the best out of timeout play callers in the league. He managed a star with as a volatile a demeanor as Draymond, knowing exactly when to hold him back and when to set him loose. Kerr could retire today and he’d be one of the ten best coaches in NBA history.
I could go on for ages about the Warriors’ analytic efficiency, their creative low post splits, how they definitely should have won the 2016 NBA Finals barring several bad breaks, how Durant proved he has passed LeBron in the last two Finals, and so on. But I think the better way to end this is with a paragraph tribute to the three Dubs that are still standing.
Draymond Green: I’ve wavered back and forth with Dray. I was first inspired by him, even imagining myself as him on the court. He overcame a lack of superb height and explosive athleticism with his upper echelon basketball brain and pure determination to become one of the league’s best defenders. It’s indisputable that Draymond is the smartest defender to ever live. I soured on him over the last two years, as he clanked countless jumpers and gummed up what should have the been most aesthetically pleasing offense of all time. I even called for the Warriors to trade him, arguing that the way he ruined their offensive spacing had become so egregious that his elite defense could not justify him as their starting power forward (a brief side note: lost in the history of the 73-9 season is the amazing fluke of Draymond shooting nearly 39% from three that year). But Draymond, as he loves to do, proved doubters like me wrong. In the playoffs, he wrecked opponents with his defensive versatility, and he was able to coexist inside the offense as a tremendous passer in the fast break, and his synergy with Steph in the pick and roll proved invaluable. I hope he continues to prove that a 6’5″ power forward can survive in the NBA. Thank you Draymond.
Klay Thompson: He’s better than Reggie Miller. He’s better than Ray Allen. If you ask my Dad, he’s even better than James Harden. All you need to know that Klay has always been enjoyable in every sense of the word. His shot form is so pure that I tried to model my own after it. He can be anywhere on the court, with any weird foot angle, and even have an outstretched arm of a defender blocking his line of vision–doesn’t matter. When Klay is on, he just can’t miss. He’s the most dangerous player in the league when he’s hot from three. Just look at when he scored 37 in a quarter against the Kings and made 13 straight shots, or when he dropped 60 points on the Pacers in 29 minutes, or when he broke Steph’s record for threes in a game this year with 14 against the lowly Bulls. But no game will ever surpass game six of the 2016 Western Conference Finals. Klay might have had better percentage on other nights and higher volume on some, but those were the most important 41 points of the last decade in the NBA. The difficulty of each shot just continued to grew, perhaps none more impressive than when he corkscrewed in mid air to hit a 30 footer over Westbrook. I remember watching that game, and you could just feel the energy Klay had, as he believed that he could do no wrong that night and was loving every minute of it. As we follow the subsequent events, Klay’s big game eventually led to Kevin Durant becoming a Warrior. He’s the one who saved the dynasty. But being Klay, he probably doesn’t even care. He doesn’t need credit. He just wants to read newspapers, drain impossible threes, shut down the best perimeter scorers in the NBA, and keep living his life. Thank you Klay.
Stephen Curry: Someday I need to write a book about Curry. At the very least I should give him a feature column. He’s the one who revolutionized the NBA. He proved that basketball is more than just the lucky ones blessed with athletic gifts dominating the less fortunate. I know that I recently claimed T.J. McConnell is my favorite basketball player I’ve ever watched, but I can honestly say that Steph is tied with Joel Embiid as a very close second. He has the most enjoyable play style possible, sprinting around the court, pulling defenders away with his gravity to free up teammates, and casually bombing contested 30 footers with a defender in his face that swish through the net like they were dropped in from the sky. I fully admit to completely losing my mind at least five times a season whenever I’m watching Curry. I will argue that he’s the second greatest point guard of all time, at the very least a top 15 player of all time, and still in contention for the best player in the league right now. When he’s not on the court, the Warriors were a good but not great team, and their offense could get by on pure talent, but lost its transcendent movement and destructive ability. When Curry graced the floor with his presence (given that Durant and Klay were still healthy), the Warriors offense transformed into a super nova. You wonder why Durant comes off a pick in roll into a wide open mid range shot? Look no further than Curry on the opposite side of the court, who just sprinted off a screen and drew three players away from the basket. It happened all the time. For those who criticize Steph for lack of clutch ability and defense, allow me to explain. Steph’s defense isn’t perfect being that a guy of his size and limited quickness will always struggle when switched onto bigger players. What he doesn’t get credit for, however, is his team defense. He’s always in the right position, always communicating the correct coverage, and hustling to clog passing lanes and disrupt the offense. How do you think he led the league in steals in 2016. Also of note, Steph is stronger than most would assume. It was reported in 2016 that he could deadlift 400 pounds, only second to 270 pound behemoth Festus Ezeli. As for the clutch ability, people seem to forget several key moments. Does anyone remember his multitude of game winners in the unanimous MVP season? How about how he absolutely dominated the 2015 NBA Finals except for one really bad game two, which cost him a Finals MVP he deserved? Or what about the fact that (as LeBron supporters used to argue) Steph doesn’t have as many standout clutch moments because his team was usually up by double digits in the fourth quarter? If you don’t believe me, just take a look at this stat. Steph had a true shooting percentage of 61.9% in the last three minutes of clutch situations. That’s an elite number, well above league average.
Steph has some of the best analytic numbers of all time. He’s the most efficient scorer in NBA history, and he’s the one who finally solved the geography of the three point line. But he means even more than what the numbers indicate. He represents a free spirited blend of basketball that’s been the attraction of the league for decades. He certainly succeeded in making me love basketball more.
Thank you Wardell Stephen Curry.
Thank you Warriors.