One of my favorite reoccurring topics is championship team construction, especially champions that have repeated success.
Building dynasties in the NBA is extremely hard because it’s a superstar driven league and nothing creates superstars like championships. Even if a team can assemble a title-winner, Pat Riley’s “the disease of me” regularly creeps in and wipes out those teams. That often even shows up in legitimate concerns for secondary players like “now I could go make more money somewhere else” or “maybe now it’s time to strike out on my own to see what I can do,” or even “hey, I’d like to see my role increased here.” For the individual those are all often valid, but it gets tricky to maintain a championship formula without the motivation of a championship to maintain a tight order in the ranks.
Usually dynasties occur thanks to the presence of one superstar in particular who’s easy to build around or else a pairing or trio of stars who are happy (enough) together and who’s skill sets complement each other.
The Warriors are kinda unique. They have five true star players on their roster that comprise the “Hampton 5” or the “lineup of death” but have had one and then two superstars in their run. Everyone loves to complain about their acquisition of Kevin Durant to fill out the five in a way unlike any we’ve seen since maybe the 80s Celtics or Lakers, but they won 73 games before they added him to the formula and had the Cavaliers down 3-1 before Draymond was suspended and they started to run out of gas.
What was remarkable about Golden State’s run was how they were able to add Kevin Durant to put them safely over the top and totally beyond what anyone else can match. But he’s really just a turbo boost to a pre-existing and totally dominant formula.
Golden State’s dynasty is unmistakably built upon Stephen Curry. There’s some debate now over whether Curry or Durant is the best player on the team and KD has a strong case but the greatness of the Warriors flows from Curry’s abilities.
In particular, his ability to pull up and get a shot off pretty much from the moment he passes the logo at midcourt. Curry averages 8.2 three point attempts per game on his career and that number has been about 10 or more for the last four years. His career shooting percentage from three is 43.6% and his percentage over the last four years when he’s really been bombing away was 41%.
He’ll go down as the best shooter in the league’s history until someone takes the throne, no one in the past can assail his record.
The thing is though, Curry is a point guard and so he is regularly bringing the ball up the court and creating immediate stress for the defense. He also averages 6.6 assists per game and that number would be higher but for reasons we’ll get into in a moment. Defending Curry is one of the most difficult things in NBA history because of his handles and range and it’s common for teams to aim to take the ball out of his hands as quickly as possible, leading to openings for his teammates.
A less well known quality of Curry though is his team leadership. He’s a more selfless star in the mold of Tim Duncan, happy for his skills to create opportunities for others and to set them up for success. He has all the signs of being a “charismatic connector” who maintains effective team communication to keep the different stars on the team happy and securely in the roles they need to perform to make the team great. Since Durant has come, Curry has regularly talked him up and the franchise has taken on a “this guy (KD) is the best player in the world” mantra even though their own success is not contingent on Durant’s talent.
Another key dimension to the Warriors’ insane team building was the fact that they were paying him in peanuts (relatively speaking) for an absurdly long early portion of his career. Ankle injuries were a recurring problem early on and limited his third season to 26 games. He’d more or less resolve that issue but also signed a contract after that season (summer of 2012) paying him $44 million over the next four years that started after a 2012-13 campaign in which he was paid about $4 million. The year in which Kevin Durant was a free agent, the Warriors were entering the last year of Curry’s second deal and only on the books to pay him $12.1 million that season.
A cord of three strands is not easily broken
As great a player as Curry is and as easy as it is to build off a point guard who doubles as the most lethal shooter in NBA history (especially if he’s making well under the max), the next two most essential components to the Warrior dynasty fit with Curry in an unbelievably effective fashion.
Draymond Green is the next most valuable piece. He has a variety of impressive skills, not least of which his capacity for innocuously landing cheap shots on opposing stars. His greatest skill is probably his ability to hold up as a small ball center, withstanding opposing big men in the post and then abusing them on the other side of the court by running pick’n’rolls with Curry that draw the opposing big man far away from the rim where they can be effective.
Draymond’s skill as a passer makes him a perfect partner for Curry. Team’s regularly choose to trap Curry when the Warriors bring Draymond or someone else to set a screen, then taking their chances against Green in a 4-on-3 setting. But Draymond is too good a passer for that to be a great solution, he’s averaged seven assists per game since becoming a starter.
That approach was fully realized during their first championship run when the Cavaliers were repeatedly trapping Curry high up the court. Max player and power forward David Lee, whom Steve Kerr had removed from the starting lineup in favor of Draymond, came in for a spell and was dicing up the Cav defense with passing out of the pick’n’roll. Green picked up on the method and that was that for those finals.
The 4-on-3 off the Draymond-Curry pick’n’roll is particularly difficult on defenses because of part three of the triumvirate, Klay Thompson. One of the main reasons that Thompson won’t be remembered as the greatest shooter of his time is that he played with Curry. The second “splash brother” has averaged seven three point attempts per game for his career and hit them at a 41.9% clip. He doesn’t particularly care about dribbling or running the offense but has contented himself with scoring 20 per game every season and playing great defense.
Another factor making him the ideal partner for Curry is that Thompson is 6-7/215, tough as nails, and one of the best defenders in the league. Teams are always looking to attack Curry on defense where they can to wear down the Warrior’s engine but this complicated by the fact that Thompson can guard any team’s best wing and is a nightmare to cover on the other side of the court because of his constant movement.
Then there’s also that other fellow, Andre Iguodala, who’s probably one of the more underrated players of his era. Iggy is a great playmaker who was a 15-6-6 guy for a long while in Philadelphia as well as an excellent defender who won the Finals MVP in the Warriors’ first title run for his defense on LeBron James. When the ball finds him in the Warriors’ movement-heavy offense he tends to make a smart play.
There was a winning sequence in game six of the 2019 Western Conference Semi-finals that was the perfect picture of how the Warrior machine works.
Classic sequence. Curry, who is often criticized for not doing more in big games is trapped after passing the logo by an aggressive defense and makes the pass to get the ball out to Draymond to initiate the 4-on-3. Draymond had actually been stuffed by Clint Capela at the rim just a possession or two earlier, this time he distributes the ball out to the corner where the Rockets are still sagging off Iggy despite the aging vet having improbably shot 5-8 from three in this game. Iggy, also more inclined to make the right pass than to be the hero, zips it to Klay who needs only the slightest window to stick in the kill shot. Game over.
Contracts and futures
Here’s what the Warriors had on the books the summer that Kevin Durant became a free agent:
Klay Thompson (26): $16.6 milion (they’d signed him for four years and $69 million) for his second contract after the 2014-15 season).
Draymond Green (26): $15.3 million (they’d signed him for five years and $82 million for his second contract after the 2014-15 season when they’d won the first finals)
Steph Curry (28): $12.1 million (discussed earlier)
Andre Iguodala (33): $11.1 million (sign and traded for him as a 30-year old, under appreciated vet)
The Iguodala acquisition was a smart one, as was a decision influenced by Jerry West (now turning the Clippers into the strongest franchise in LA) not to deal a splash bro for Kevin Love and break up the backcourt. However, the Warriors also got insanely lucky on a number of occasions.
Curry slipped to seventh in the 2009 NBA draft behind Blake Griffin, Hasheem Thabeet, James Harden, Tyreke Evans, Ricky Rubio, and Johnny Flynn. Thompson was the 11th pick in the 2011 draft, Draymond was a second rounder in the 2012 draft. They locked up Curry for cheap when his career seemed it could either be a fantastic one or a disaster because of injuries, then they happened to have max space available when one of the greatest scorers in NBA history happened to want to play in a different environment.
Here’s the situation for everyone’s least favorite NBA team heading into the 2019 free agency season:
Stephen Curry (30): $40.2 million and signed through 2022.
Draymond Green (28): $18.5 million and entering the last year on his contract.
Andre Iguodala (35): $17.2 million and entering the last year on his contract.
Klay Thompson (28): Free agent and eligible for a max.
Kevin Durant (30): Player option worth $31.5 million and rumored to be halfway packed for New York.
The Warriors have made it a franchise priority to try and appeal to Durant, if he goes it doesn’t leave them with a ton of options. They’ll have to max out Klay Thompson and they won’t have much room to sign anyone else since they’ll be over the cap, the rules will only allow them to go over to retain Durant if he chooses to stay. Perhaps they could pull off a sign and trade with Durant or some such maneuver.
The right answer is obvious though. The Warriors need to maintain their triumvirate and ride things out with them, perhaps even emphasizing bench depth over the acquisition of another superstar. Their main guys are all approaching the twilight of their primes but their chemistry and synergy as a team is so high that they would be exceptionally competitive with any number of solid scoring forwards operating in the space afforded by Curry’s shooting and with the opportunities created by Draymond and Iggy’s passing.
Golden State somewhat fell into one of the most amazing dynasty foundations in NBA history. They’re in a position much like the Spurs found themselves in with a team-first superstar foundation in Tim Duncan and then a pair of amazing sidekicks in Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. Duncan was able and willing to adjust his game over time to allow the Spurs to emphasize his two younger co-stars and then later on to become a super-role player on a deep team who went to back-to-back finals when their best player was probably a young Kawhi Leonard.
If the Warriors prioritize keeping Curry, Klay, and Green together like the Spurs did with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili then they could keep this thing going for many years yet even if they don’t quite maintain the current pace of winning the Finals every single year. When you keep a team with great chemistry together for a long time, good things can happen, perhaps even finding a second window for more titles further down the line than expected if they were to find some new young stars in the coming years.
It’ll be interesting to see if Durant leaves and whether they might follow that up with yet another title, shoving it in the faces of their numerous haters. As long as the triumvirate is together you don’t want to count them out.