We all know how good the Warriors are. They look like they don’t even need to try some nights – that’s how good they are. Of course, the twelve men in uniform each night receive the vast majority of the plaudits, but the success goes beyond the players.
It has to start from the very top of an organisation, the owner through to the GM and his front office, through to the Head Coach and his staff, and then to the elite athletes who take to the floor.
It’s very difficult to get right – that’s why 29 teams inevitably end up empty handed come June. There’s a lot risk taking and difficult decision making, with no guarantee of working (no matter how much analytics can tell you). And throughout the process, should the team not perform as expected, the stark realisation is that staff are much more easily replaceable than players.
For decades, the Warriors had floundered in mediocrity, sprinkled with momentary flashes of overachievement; the Run-TMC era and the “We Believe” season spring to mind. A once great franchise that was home to Wilt Chamberlain and Rick Barry, the Warriors’ mediocrity was highlighted by a league-worst one playoff appearance in 16 seasons.
Change from the top
You don’t turn a franchise around and become a champion overnight. The first step in this process was the $450 million purchase of the team by Joe Lacob and Peter Gruber in 2010. The new owners were committed and ready to revive the Bay Area and turn the team’s fortunes around.
At the time, ESPN quoted Lacob as saying: “Peter and I intend to do what we do best - innovating and building. It is our passion to return the Warriors to greatness and build nothing short of a championship organisation that will make all of us in the Bay Area proud."
Whilst Lacob and Gruber can’t take credit for drafting Stephen Curry, who was already a rookie when they took ownership - nor would I expect them to claim to have known how special he was going to become - the pair quickly set about reinvigorating the franchise and establishing the right culture to breed success.
You need to be both good and lucky
One of the keys to this was getting the right people at the franchise, and in April 2011 former agent Bob Meyers was appointed as assistant GM. During the off-season, the Dubs picked up Klay Thompson with the 11th pick in the draft – if that year were re-drafted, Thompson would likely go in the top three right alongside Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard.
The pursuit of the right people means that sometimes you have to make unpopular decisions. One, in particular, would upset the Warriors devoted fan base in the short term. On 'The Vertical Podcast with Woj', assistant GM (and son of Joe) Kirk Lacob spoke of the time and effort it took to pull off the acquisition of Andrew Bogut from the Bucks in March 2012.
Private discussions had been ongoing for roughly a year before the trade was finally executed. The decision to acquire the former number one pick, who had underachieved and was perceived as injury prone, at the expense of losing fan favourite Monta Ellis, was widely mocked at the time.
You can bet though that Dubs fans all agree with it now.
As mentioned, this was not about the short term. This was about setting the team up for future success and having the ability to sustain this. Ellis’ departure introduced Curry and then rookie Klay Thompson as the franchises starting back-court. With Bogut anchoring the middle, the championship core was slowly falling into place.
Shortly after Bogut’s arrival, Myers was promoted to GM and it was this appointment which accelerated the Warriors ascension. In the summer of 2012, the Warriors struck gold in the draft taking Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli and Draymond Green with the 7th, 30th and 45th picks, respectively.
Of course, no one expected Green to turn into the monster he has and no one could have guaranteed the picks would have paid the dividends they have.
The blend of calculated risk and incredible luck is now regarded as a masterstroke by Myers and has provided the Warriors with dynastic longevity.
The maturation process
Would the Warriors have won a title sooner if Steve Kerr had been there instead of Marc Jackson? The answer is probably not. A young team needs a disciplinarian coach to guide them and work them until they understand what is required of them to be a champion.
You cannot walk into the finals; MJ didn’t, Kobe didn’t, LeBron didn’t. Players need to experience the despair of defeat in order to create the hunger and will to win. Jackson was the ideal coach to hone the young Warriors and establish a defensive system which would eventually allow the Dub’s incredible offense to flourish. Under Jackson’s stewardship, Golden State’s defence went from 27th to fourth best in the league.
But Jackson was not the right coach to deliver the Warriors their first title in forty years. There comes a point where the disciplinarian approach stops working.
Players know what they need to do and the constant barking from the coach begins to fall on deaf ears. If identified, it’s a natural time for the team and the coach to part ways, or risk disillusioned players and essentially, a shot at a title.
Unleashing a monster
Enter Steve Kerr. Zero coaching experience, but a wealth of championship knowledge and an education in coaching garnered from the tutelage of two of the greatest coaches in NBA history. Kerr’s coaching philosophy is diplomatic and (rather than implementing a specific, inflexible system) is based on playing to his teams strengths.
Kerr’s coaching philosophy is diplomatic and is based on playing to his team's strengths, rather than a rigid system.
Do not be mistaken into thinking that Kerr’s approach to coaching is laissez-faire – he understands the importance of taking care of the details. That’s why, for all their flashiness, one of the first things Kerr did with the squad when he took charge was to strip everything back to the fundamentals of basketball.
A very obvious nod to the legendary Tex Winter who was an assistant with the Bulls during Kerr’s time there.
Kerr also values and trusts the voices of those around him, realising the value of having everyone in the franchise buy into the same goal, irrespective of their rank in the organisation.
That’s why he visited every single player in person before taking the role. That’s why an assistant was able to suggest Draymond Green should be given more minutes at the start of the 2013-14 season.
That’s why he listened a special assistant, responsible for editing video and putting together playlists (yes, music compilations) for practices, before game four of last year’s finals and moved Iguodala into the starting five for the first time all season.
That’s why Luke Walton was able to jump in as coach this season, on an interim basis, and guide the Dubs to an incredible 39-4 record.
Kerr’s former Bulls team-mate, Bill Wennington, said in the 1996-97 Bulls Championship video; “When you feel wanted and needed, it inspires you to play better, thus making you more wanted and needed”.
The Warriors have extended this philosophy beyond the court and embraced it to create a winning culture throughout the entire organisation.
The Warriors have somehow captured lightning in a bottle and turned a faltering franchise into a champion of historical significance, and staying power, in a little over five years. To do it, it took change from the top, upsetting fans, rolling the die and more than a little luck, but the results have been and continue to be incredible.
So the next time you see the Dubs destroying an opponent, breaking a Bulls record, sweeping a series or hoisting the Larry O’Brien, spare a thought for all the people behind the scenes who have helped created this behemoth. To quote a one-time producer of NBA merchandise, it takes a little more to make a champion.