Eight years ago, I was a fan of the Golden State Warriors.
Today you know the Warriors for passion and pride. The Dubs have one of the most electrifying home crowds in the NBA, young superstar talent, a coach with a championship pedigree, and a serious shot at the title. However, back in the spring of 2007, the Warriors were something much different.
It had been 12 years since the Warriors last made the playoffs. It was the second such worst streak in NBA history, and saw some really moribund teams pass through town. The penny-pinching ownership of Chris Cohan had sent the once proud Warriors into a tailspin, as stars left for better contracts on more than one occasion. The scouting talent was also historically atrocious, as the Warriors selected busts like Joe Smith (#1), Todd Fuller (#11), Adonal Foyle (#8), and Mike Dunleavy (#3). Some seasons didn't even see the Warriors getting a good pick, as management would routinely sell the farm to try and make low seeded playoff runs. These experiments would usually involve trading for players well past their prime, like Mark Price and Mookie Blaylock. The Warriors would never win more than 30-some games, and always just ended up having to start rebuilding all over again.
But somehow, in 2007, the experiment worked. The Golden State Warriors would finish the season on a 16-5 run, make the playoffs as an 8 seed, and upset the Dallas Mavericks in the first round. The Warriors made some noise in the second round as well, as Baron Davis threw down one of the most ridiculous dunks of all time. For Dubs fans everywhere, it was the most cathartic season imaginable.
How did it happen? It certainly wasn't because of management, who continued to make highly questionable decisions from day to day. The roster didn't have a star, nor a dearth of young talent. Rather, it was the combination of some of the toughest players in the game with an old school coach whom had nothing to lose.
Piece 1: The Ambassador
The story starts with Adonal Foyle, the longest tenured member of that team. In his 10th NBA season, he had been present for almost every year of the Warriors' playoff draught. It wasn't through luck that Foyle managed to stay in town, though. Adonal was an extremely warm an educated presence both inside and outside of the locker room. Amongst players, Foyle was nicknamed "the Senator". Amongst fans, Foyle was known for founding the Kerosene Lamp Foundation, as well as putting in extensive hours for the Warriors community programs.
By the 2007 season, Adonal wasn't much of a presence on the court. He had essentially been gifted a 8 million dollar a year contract by Chris Mullin, despite possessing no offensive game. At 31, most of Foyle's mobility was gone, and it was difficult for him to keep up with modern centers. Foyle's shot blocking had once been renowned, but he was now able to do little more than than clog the lane.
But Foyle's presence provided a level of consistency for the Warriors. He was the living reminder of what fans suffered through, as well as a respected presence in the locker room that would do nothing to generate conflict. Another player might have complained about getting benched for Andris Biedrins that year, but Foyle took his downfall with grace. Adonal continued to be an active presence on the team throughout the run.
Piece 2: The Heart
The next piece of the Warriors' upset puzzle that year had to be Jason Richardson. J-Rich was a rare breed, as he was the lone Warriors draft pick that had actually happened to work out. Selected #5 overall in 2001, Richardson averaged 23 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, and a steal in the 05-06 season. Richardson was never named to an All-Star team, but would have been a borderline candidate on a winning team. Despite this, J-Rich did make his mark on All-Star Weekend by capturing two slam dunk contest titles and a Rookie Challenge game MVP award.
Over the years, Richardson had constantly delighted fans with his electrifying dunks and hard work ethic. Despite the fact that the Warriors were a losing team, it would have been impossible to find a fan that disliked JRich. His tenacious plays during the clutch were something to behold, and he never had negative things to say about his teammates. All of that sounds like standard fare, but a recent story about Richardson's tenure with the Sixers really shows what he's all about:
"I'm not that type of guy who is going to chase a championship," [Richardson] said. "Who knows what's going to happen after this season. If I do go to a team that's a championship contender, a title contender, I want it to mean something, not just [as] a bench player or a practice player.
"I want to be out there getting meaningful minutes and playing."
If he's not getting meaningful minutes, then he might as well remain with the Sixers.
Richardson knows he can make a difference with the franchise.
"I would love to be back here with these young guys, they inspire me every day," Richardson said. "I'm almost like a player-coach, teaching these guys a lot of things, tricks that I know."To see their growth throughout the whole season this is something I hang my hat on and feel better about than just riding a team's bench and winning a championship."
Of course, back in 2007, J-Rich was more than a guy at the end of the bench. Richardson never quite had what it took to lead an NBA offense, but he played with such a championship attitude that he sometimes ended up winning anyway. The Warriors could count on J-Rich to deliver at least something every single night, and that was absolutely crucial to their success that season.
Piece 3: The Terminator
Baron Davis came to the Warriors via a 2005 trade deadline deal. Davis could be considered the Westbrook of his day in many respects. He was a shoot first point guard that loved using his size and athleticism to get into the paint. Davis also loved to have the ball in his hands, and would often jack up threes that he created himself. Furthermore, Davis was adept at rebounding for his position, turned the ball over too much, shot a bit too poorly, got to the line a ton, and trapped for steals.
Initially, Davis' ball-dominating ways were good for the Warriors. Golden State finished the 2004-05 season on a 18-10 run, and seemed to be in position for the playoffs the next year. But various injuries, along with the team's lack of a true post player, doomed the Warriors to the lottery again in 2005-2006. Davis was amongst those injured, only playing in 54 games that year.
But somehow, the 2006-2007 season would see Boom Dizzle healthy for the duration of the spring. Furthermore, the arrival of coach Don Nelson allowed Davis to play in a much more up-tempo system. This allowed Davis' athleticism and crafty footwork to thrive. Appropriately, Davis' field goal percentage went up 5 points that season. Davis also saw his steals go up by half a game.
Nelson wasn't the only reason behind Davis' improvement, though. A mid-season trade that shipped Mike Dunleavy and Troy Murphy to the Indiana Pacers in exchange for Stephen Jackson and Al Harrington really helped Davis as well. While Dunleavy and Murphy had been primarily shooters with little defensive tenacity, Jackson and Harrington were slashers and stoppers. Both of them could mix it up in the paint and on the perimeter, which was much more akin to Davis' style. Jackson and Harrington were also more reliable offensive options from night to night, which went a long way to help the Dubs success.
Piece 4: The Enforcer
I know I just got finished talking about Stephen Jackson, but he's deserving of a section all his own. Captain Jack has been infamous as a tenacious defender over the years. Obviously Jackson's most infamous for taking part in the Pacers-Pistons Malace at the Palace in 2004, but his skill on the floor was good in its' own right. Jackson played an extremely emotional style of ball, frequently racking up technicals or physically manhandling his defensive assignment. It was this signature toughness that allowed Jackson to defend out of position. You see, Jackson was naturally a swingman, but had to take on the power forward role with the We Believe Warriors.
Obviously, Jackson's range at the position was also of great benefit. The NBA had less stretch fours at the time. Furthermore, Jackson was also frequently quicker than his matchup, and created tons of offensive problems. Still, even Anthony Morrow could hit open threes and burn past Dirk Nowitzki. It was Jackson's ability to keep opposing bigs to sub 30% nights that truly made the Warriors special.
Piece 5: The Redeemed
No story of an underdog team is complete without an underdog player. For the Warriors, that player was Matt Barnes. Coming into training camp in 2006, the Dubs had one roster spot available. Matt Barnes was in that camp on an unguaranteed contract, having been cast off from four other franchises in the past three years. Barnes wasn't expected to make the roster, as the Warriors were getting really strong pre-season performances out of another signee, Anthony Roberson. But Barnes was so impressive that the Warriors decided to waive Dajuan Wagner to make room for him.
Barnes didn't have much of a role initially, but had a regular role on the court by the end of November. Come playoff time, Barnes was an essential piece off the bench of that team. Barnes played the quintessential three and d role while averaging the highest steal count of his career. Barnes wasn't super special or anything like that, but his tweener presence allowed Don Nelson to continue playing small throughout the game. In other words, Barnes enabled the Warriors philosophy, and that was absolutely crucial to their success.
Piece 6: The Firecracker
The last big piece of that championship team is Monta Ellis, whom most NBA fans are already familiar with. Back in 2005, Ellis was drafted deep in the second round straight out of high school. Most expected Ellis to be a project, and he wasn't expected to make it far in the NBA. Ellis quickly proved the doubters wrong, though. By the end of his rookie season, Ellis already had a regular role on the Warriors and was using his quickness to score. Ellis couldn't be counted on every single night, but would be prone to bursts that showed how high his true ceiling was.
In other words, by the time the Warriors were running and gunning in late 2007, Ellis was fitting right in. IT wasn't long before Ellis replaced Andris Biedrins in the starting lineup. Ellis presence would wax and wane through the Warriors run, but the Warriors would never hesitate to go to Ellis when he was hot. Ellis' willingness to defer to other players on bad nights was essential as well.
I can't complete this piece without at least a passing mention of Don Nelson. He was the mastermind behind the We Believe Warriors, and an unlikely one at that. Even in 2007, Nelson was considered a dinosaur of the coaching world. At the ripe old age of 66, Nelson's best teams were behind him and his legacy was secure. The Warriors job was done out of nothing more than the love of the game (and perhaps money). I mean, Nelson literally coached every game wearing a T-shirt, after years of wearing suits at previous jobs. Nelson was also very frank with the media, talking with a disarming honesty that relaxed the general atmosphere.
What made Nelson so suited to that team was his willingness to try anything, along with his strong relationship with the front office. Nelson was notorious for experimenting with his lineups and trying new things. Nelson was credited with creating the concept of the point forward and hack-a-shaq, so his lineup changes for Golden State much have seemed comparatively banal. Besides, Nelson's boss was Chris Mullin. Mullin had played for Nelson in the plast, so it's not like Mullin had much critical ground to stand on.
By now, you probably know how bad things are in Oklahoma City. Kevin Durant may not return to the team this season, and Serge Ibaka may not be back until playoff time. OKC is 6-3 since the All-Star break, but faces one of the toughest schedules at the tail end of the season. Without their sheer talent to pull them through, many have already written the Thunder's season off.
That's an absolute shame. Because, the way I see it, these Thunder have a real chance to do something special without Kevin Durant. And they should look to the 2007 Warriors as a blueprint.
Why? The roles are all there. Every single player I described has a clear counterpart on the Thunder.
- The Ambassador: Nick Collison. He's been with the team throughout our time in OKC, he's huge in the community, and he's an egoless presence in the locker room.
- The Heart: Serge Ibaka. "The best teammate I've ever played with is Kevin Garnett, but Serge is right there behind K.G., No. 2," -Kendrick Perkins
- The Terminator: Russell Westbrook. I made the comparison in the article, but Westbrook is basically Baron Davis times two.
- The Enforcer: Steven Adams. We're going to need his defense and tenacity to clog the lane and stop score-first centers, much as the Warriors needed Jackson's presence against bigger power forwards.
- The Redeemed: Dion Waiters. Unlike Barnes, Waiters came into the NBA expected to be a true force. But Waiters poor shooting has turned him into a bit of a pariah. Thus, Waiters is now in the process of re-inventing himself as a three and D player that can catch and shoot, much like Barnes.
- The Firecracker: Enes Kanter. Sometimes he looks like a 20/10 guy, sometimes he takes less than 10 shots. Kanter is still too young to be the consistent #2 option, but he can have big nights under the right circumstances. Ellis was the same way.
- The Coach: Brooks' spiked hair and slick glasses are a far cry from Nelson's t-shirts and blazers. Still Brooks is entrenched in his position, much like Nelson is. No matter how badly the Thunder do, he'll likely have a job next year. Also, Brooks will use wacky tactics like hack-a-shaq and has played two centers together in the past. So really, Brooks is more like Nelson than you think.
At the end of the day, we all know that a deep Thunder playoff run is unlikely. But what the Warriors did in 2007 was near-impossible, and I witnessed it with my own eyes. This Thunder team has twice the talent that Warriors team ever did, and they're already well positioned for a playoff seed. Furthermore, OKC has managed to be competitive and register marquee wins through the face of massive injury. With no true king of the Western Conference and tons of fresh faces on the roster, the time for a surprise Thunder playoff run is ripe right now.
I mean, the Thunder have a player approaching the most untouchable of all records in basketball, the triple double average. It's something I thought I'd never see, and am still continually shocked by. The sheer fact that anybody would write off a team with this player on their active roster is downright sickening.
So rise up, die hard Thunder fans. Our time is now! Championship or bust, 2015.
How crazy am I? Let me know in the comments!