Drenched in the champagne and sweat that saturated the Golden State Warriors’ locker room, head coach Steve Kerr — a man once paid to deliver the gospel on live television — described the state of his team in the immediate aftermath of winning the 2015 NBA Championship as only a man of his experience could.
“It was chaos. Pure joy. I almost forgot just how grueling the stretch is. I mean, two straight months of emotional and physical stress,” Kerr said, recalling his own championship runs as a player with the Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs. “Just the roller coaster ride that you’re on. There are days when you think, ‘boy, I don’t know if this is going to happen.’ Then there are days that go better.”
From the top to the bottom of the Warriors organization, there will be few days in their professional careers better than the 105-97 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers to clinch the franchise’s first championship in 40 years.
But just because the Warriors seemingly tore through this season with ease, meeting relatively little resistance along the way, does not mean this wasn’t a team tempered in the flames of adversity.
“They told me I can’t play in this league!”
Somewhere amidst the pandemonium on the court after Game 6, Draymond Green was overhead shouting down every word of doubt levied against his prospects in the NBA despite considerable collegiate success. On this night, perhaps the only thing louder than Green’s yells of defiance and celebration was his triple-double (16 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists) screaming off the stat sheet.
“Too slow, too small, can’t shoot well enough, can’t defend nobody. What does he do well? He doesn’t have a skill,” Green said at the postgame podium, echoing the critics now drowned out by the Warriors’ celebration. “I’ve got heart, and that’s what stands out. It was just one of those moments where it’s like I’ve always been doubted my entire life.”
Seated next to Green during the media session was backup point guard Shaun Livingston (10 points, three rebounds), who had to answer to doctors — not critics — telling him he couldn’t play in the league after a gruesome knee injury nearly cost him his leg early in his career.
“Everybody knows my journey. Similar to Draymond,” Livingston said. “People count you out, no belief, going through the D-League, trying to make it on 10-day contracts, being out of the NBA…”
“Cut,” Green added, interjecting.
“Now to be here as a world champion with my brothers, man, it’s a loss for words,” Livingston said. “I’m just grateful. Grateful to God, grateful to Coach, my teammates, and I’m just thankful to be here. It’s been such a long journey.”
The same could be said for teammate Andre Iguodala, albeit for different reasons. Selected ninth in the same 2004 NBA draft as Livingston, Iguodala’s tribulations differed from his teammates in that the criticisms came not from what people said he couldn’t do, but rather what he should be doing.
Blessed with prototypical wing size and supernatural athleticism, a high basketball IQ, and creativity off the bounce, Iguodala was once pegged as the heir apparent to Allen Iverson in Philadelphia. Iguodala was talented enough to step into that role, leading gritty but flawed 76ers teams to playoff appearances; but it was one he wasn’t comfortable in.
The 76ers wanted Iguodala to be their Michael Jordan and the city of Philadelphia did little to hide their disappointment in the fact he saw in himself more Scottie Pippen, tying everything together in the background.
“I think all those years and going through everything I went through, the good and the bad, can prepare you for this moment,” Iguodala said. “That’s helped me a lot here with just telling the guys, ‘listen, I’ve been on teams that we’ve been close knit and it helped us just getting to the playoffs. We weren’t the most talented, but we got there because we played so hard together.’
“I said, ‘you just imaging our talent and our cohesiveness in putting it together, the results that can come from that.’”
The first to imagine it was Kerr, and so much of the 2014-15 Warriors came from (and exceeded) his vision. He inherited a deep and talented roster, but not one without flaws and serious questions when seen through the lens of traditional NBA conventions.
Jump shooting teams don’t win championships. Fast paced teams struggle when the tempo inevitably slows in the playoffs. Premium size is a requirement to anchor championship defenses and grind out tough playoff points. Depth ultimately falls short of multiple superstars in the playoffs as rotations shorten. Experience trumps all.
It’s not that the Warriors completely discarded these tropes; they simply approached them with a new perspective and opened them up to new interpretations. This is, after all, a franchise with close ties to Silicon Valley. And like so many successful startup or rebranded companies, it was the culture of acquiring talented minds, investing infrastructure, and letting ideas flow freely that rebuilt these Warriors, as owner Joe Lacob told the San Francisco Chronicle:
“That’s what any great company does. Think out of the box, and do the unexpected. If you’re doing what everyone thinks is the way to go, usually that’s the wrong way to go.”
The first test Kerr and the Warriors front office faced together was whether or not to pursue Kevin Love in a trade that would sacrifice Klay Thompson, among other pieces.
Last summer, Love was widely considered a top-10 player in a league hell bent on the idea of acquiring multiple stars of that caliber in order to contend. Thompson, though well-regarded, was mostly a “three-and-D” specialist the year prior. But Kerr saw something more, and not just within Thompson, but within the overall roster construction and how he fit within schemes still being worked out in his own mind.
The general train of thought is if you have an opportunity to obtain a superstar, you take it. Instead, the Warriors’ think tank deconstructed what made such players so valuable, namely some combination of gravity (the ability to tilt defenses in one direction or another), efficiency, and a plethora of high-level resources from one position.
In Stephen Curry, the Warriors already had a player capable of bending defenses in ways that no other NBA player can — drawing multiple defenders out 30-35 feet from the basket with the threat of his shot, collapsing defenses with the craftiness of his dribble, and then sending it all scrambling with elite court vision.
Love could have helped pushed the offense to even greater heights than the Warriors reached this year, but at what cost? The trade would have cost them depth, whether it was Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green or draft picks. Those malleable lineups Kerr deployed to great effect would have been far less effective, given Love’s defensive liabilities almost necessitating he be paired with Bogut and Iguodala at all times.
The Warriors weighed the risks and benefits as a group, as they do most big decisions. It is in this approach, with open debate and minds, which empowered a young assistant coach to suggest the lineup change that would swing the NBA Finals; an adjustment that would not have been possible had the Warriors not bucked conventional wisdom.
Kerr showed faith in his roster, wagering he could recreate most of Love’s strengths without compromising an elite defense or sacrificing depth. This wasn’t a matter of simply acquiring versatile players, but crafting lineups that would mimic the effect another star might have on the overall offense. This would require Kerr to take another significant gamble, and the second big test of his early tenure.
Previous coach Mark Jackson instilled great confidence and a defensive mindset in these Warriors with an “us against the world” culture, playing up all the slights, criticisms, and insecurities of his players; manipulating them into closing ranks around him.
In the summer, Kerr reached out to each player, communicating his vision for the team and how he saw each individual benefiting the collective. None of those conversations were more important than the one he’d have with Iguodala.
In his time with the Spurs, Kerr had a firsthand view of how Gregg Popovich manufactured deep, adaptable lineups by calling on one of his best players to sacrifice a starting role for the greater good.
Iguodala is a better player than Barnes, but his strengths were largely redundant within the rest of the starting lineup. The Warriors already had playmakers with scoring punch in Curry and Green (or even David Lee, as originally envisioned) and a primary wing defender on the floor in Thompson. There were also duplicate weaknesses, as Bogut (no spacing ability) and Green (good, not great) are rotation points defenses could live with sagging off of.
It perhaps wasn’t the most welcome message, but the vision was clear enough to accept. Starting Barnes put him in a position to be less burdened with creating his own offense and added another shooter to starting lineup, which cleared lanes for Thompson to do more than shoot and Green enough space to terrorize opponents with his playmaking abilities in the four-on-three opportunities provided by the attention Curry demanded.
In the second unit, Iguodala’s playmaking ability could provide structure for more limited bench players while anchoring the defense. Iguodala needed to take a step back in order for the team to make a giant leap forward, his sacrifice ultimately rewarded with the Finals MVP.
“For us, it’s really fitting that the award went to Andre because he sacrificed his starting role from the first game of the season. He had never come off the bench once in his entire career, and he sacrificed that job to make Harrison better, to make our bench better, and that set the tone for our whole season,” Kerr said. “An All-Star, an Olympian, saying, ‘okay, I’ll come off the bench. I’ll set the tone for everything we were able to accomplish.’ So it feels like full circle to me that Andre received the award. Couldn’t happen to a better person.
If the players needed a reason to buy in completely, nothing offered a stronger statement than Iguodala’s acceptance of his role. It set the stage for Lee not publicly complaining when injury cost him his starting job, and breakout seasons from Green and Maurice Speights cost him his spot in the rotation.
“Why did I trust [Kerr]? You look around, we have the chemistry. Guys on our team were supporting one another,” Lee said. “At one time or another, every single guy sacrificed this year. So everybody has had their time to shine this year and that kind of sacrifice is how you win championships, and we were able to bring it home.”
Green’s emergence as a playmaking big man capable of knocking down threes and locking down all five positions pushed the boundaries of what a team could accomplish with smaller lineups. At 6’7″, Green defended the likes of Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol, Dwight Howard and the Timofey Mozgov/Tristan Thompson combination.
The Warriors had a traditional, elite rim protecting center in Bogut, but they also displayed a new way of looking at size in the NBA. Instead of loading it all up front, the Warriors ran out lineups with three or four long-armed, athletic defenders all roughly Green’s height.
Instead of taking away the airspace around the rim, the Warriors cut off access to entire areas of the court by switching screens, extending their arms and swarming across the court. The overall team speed and lack of obvious mismatches to exploit stymied the Cavaliers larger lineups, with neither Mozgov nor Tristan Thompson capable of making decisions quick enough to take advantage of their smaller defenders.
“Everyone wanted to talk about how many threes we took,” Kerr said. “We’re the number one defensive team in the league, and that’s what wins. You have to be able to score points somehow, but you have to be good defensively. You have to be great defensively to win a title.”
And while rotations did indeed shorten as the playoffs wore on, the Warriors drew on the wider range of skills sets amongst a few amount of players.
“That’s the ultimate thing. You look at how games came together, different guys won games in different ways,” Iguodala said. “You just have somebody stepping up every single night in a small way that helps the bigger picture.”
Looking back at the Warriors’ season, it’s amazing at how many things came together to make it all look so easy.
From Curry being too small and unathletic to consistently get his shot off in the NBA, Green falling to the Warriors in the second round due to his size and perceived limitations, Thompson being too limited in skill set to make a significant leap and Iguodala being too selfless to star, to Bogut and Livingston rehabilitating career-altering injuries; there were days leading up to this season in which every player on the roster had an opportunity to wonder if this was going to happen.
“We found a recipe for success, and that’s the most important thing for us,” Curry said. “Now that we have this under our belt, I think we can actually appreciate what we were able to do this year from start to finish. It’s hard in the moment to really understand what 67 wins means in the grand scheme of the history of the NBA, how hard that is.”
Now, simply by changing the way in which we view these pieces, only better days appear to be on the horizon.