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Four years removed from their last NBA championship and following two seasons in which they didn’t even reach the playoffs, the Golden State Warriors are back on top of the mountain in professional basketball, taking down the Boston Celtics in six games. After falling down two games to one, the Warriors stormed back in the NBA Finals the way they stormed back to relevance, with grit, competitive drive, and, well… a “warrior” mentality.
With the NBA season now behind us, but a quick turnaround to the draft and offseason, it’s a time for reflection, evaluation, and– for some franchises– maybe even some soul-searching. The Warriors, and to a certain extent, the Celtics, have both provided a blueprint that NBA owners and general managers should be taking notice of. In fact, going back to last season’s champion, the Milwaukee Bucks, there are some valuable lessons to glean from which teams have had recent success, especially as it pertains to roster building.
I have used this space and others to be overtly critical of the two “best” basketball players on the planet more than once. My disdain for LeBron James and Kevin Durant, as athletes and just as people in general, will continue unabashed. Their lackluster seasons, despite being the biggest stars in the game, should serve as a cautionary tale that stars alone don’t translate to success, even in the NBA.
The dumpster-fire rosters of the Lakers and Nets, preseason favorites to be in the NBA Finals, are glaring examples of what not to do. But what is it about the teams that outlasted them that works? What are the teams that went deep into the playoffs like the Warriors, Celtics, Bucks and Heat, doing right?
The answer to all of that can be summarized with just two words: culture matters.
Whether it was LeBron’s two titles in Miami (2011 and 2012), and the birth of the “Super Team” as we know it, or Durant’s cowardly trip to Golden State to win two rings (that mean next to nothing) in 2016 and 2017, the NBA began to be infected with a mentality that it was only talent that mattered. The winning formula became to find the most gifted human specimens, maneuver a way around the salary cap, put those guys in the same colored jersey, and win.
For a man such as myself that served as a Marine Corps NCO and now coaches youth sports, this method of team building is unappealing and unacceptable. It’s borderline offensive. The mere notion that concepts like leadership, chemistry, perseverance, and competitive fire are all no longer as important is a travesty.
As a military man, a coach, and, hell- just a fan watching at home, one of my favorite elements of sports is witnessing a team become more than “the sum of its parts.” Watching squads with humble beginnings develop and bud to join the ranks of the championship-caliber, all while achieving that which can’t be easily quantified or defined, is quite simply a rewarding experience. Teams forged this way that evolve and grow together transcend those thrown together with the “brute force” of amassing talent alone.
So, as much as teams like the Lakers and Nets falling flat on their faces this year was entertaining in its own right, there was a lot more to enjoy than the “sports karma” handed down to the likes of LeBron, Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden. That’s because for every one of those insufferable personalities and ill-constructed rosters, higher-quality ones took their place in the later rounds of the playoffs. It was a coach’s dream.
Now, this is not to say that large egos can’t exist on a championship team– quite the contrary. In professional sports, and in the NBA more than any other league I’d argue, managing those egos and making it possible for them to co-exist is one of the most important jobs of the head coach. Warriors coach Steve Kerr was there as a part of the Chicago Bulls’ second three-peat from 1996-1998.
If you know anything about the Bulls of the ‘90s, perhaps after watching the Netflix series “The Last Dance,” you know those teams were bursting at the seams with massive and fragile egos, but coach Phil Jackson, and the man with perhaps the biggest ego in sports history, Michael Jordan, made it work. Steve Kerr was a witness to all of that, and faced a similar challenge with a core group that already had three rings and was the only team to exceed his ‘95-’96 Bulls’ 72-10 regular-season record.
This year’s Warriors team was packed with veteran experience and savvy, but it also had that added benefit of coaching and player leadership that was capable of using those egos for the greater good. The legacies of Stephen Curry, and to a lesser degree, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, were largely considered at stake in their first trip back to the finals since they air-dropped Kevin Durant onto what was already the best team in the NBA. Curry, in so many words, admitted as much.
“For sure. You bookend it,” Curry told Yahoo Sports’ Vincent Goodwill when asked if he wanted to do it without his former teammate. “That’s part of it. But nobody in October thought we’d be here. Now we are. With this group. Not compared to any group before it, so it’s pretty dope.”
Ultimately, this NBA title that “hits different,” as Curry said more than once in post-game interviews, is the result of a team that was built the “right way.” This core group, drafted, developed and raised up in the basketball world as a separate entity from Kevin Durant, extricated the piece that didn’t have the same killer instinct as they did, and went off and won another title without him.
These Warriors weren’t “supposed” to be a “Super Team” if you look at where they were drafted and how this roster was constructed. The Warriors’ unquestioned leader, the “baby-faced assassin” himself, wasn’t drafted until seventh overall in 2009. Thompson didn’t go until 11th overall in 2011. Then Green, quite famously, was a second-rounder in 2012.
Factor in pieces like Kevon Looney (30th overall, 2015) and Jordan Poole (28th overall, 2019), and you have a team that was built entirely through the draft, and none of them from spots where superstars are usually drafted. Sure, Andrew Wiggins was drafted first overall in 2014, but was largely considered a bust in Minnesota and was relegated to a role player in Golden State. That, in itself, is likely something that fuels them to be great– that perpetual chip on their shoulder.
With the exception of Wiggins, the Warriors’ core group having all been drafted by the team they started their career with is unquestionably a piece of their success. This loyalty and sense of playing for each other were evident in their playoff run.
It’s even displayed in a superstar like Giannis Antetokounmpo on the Bucks. The Greek Freak, close with his teammates and grateful to the organization that took a chance on him 15th overall in 2015, didn’t go the normal superstar route and seek out greener pastures or an easier path to the title. He signed his five-year extension to stay in Milwaukee in December of 2020, and immediately rewarded the team and the city with a championship.
These are the types of players you have to find to experience sustained success in the NBA. These are the ways you build a team. If you add a finger-pointing, hired gun like LeBron, or a gutless puke seeking the path of least resistance like Durant, or perennial malcontents like Irving and Harden, well… you get what you deserve.
Unfortunately, in the NBA above all, talent alone will win out in some years. It’s inevitable. However, after a couple of years of seeing teams with better leadership and team characteristics take home the title, general managers and talent evaluators should be reformulating what their championship blueprint looks like, and the mantra they should be following is simple: culture matters.
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Feature image: Sandboxx News composite, images via Wikimedia Commons