In the afterglow of the Golden State Warriors making the playoffs for the first time since the 2006-07 season (and just the second time since 1993-94), I reminded Stephen Curry of when he told me during his rookie year that he was having trouble handling the heavy amount of losing during that season having come from high school and college programs. It took until Curry’s fourth season to be able to make the follow up question of how the rough stretches changed the feeling of their first playoff run.
Curry responded that “it makes this moment that much more special” and recounted how his teams at Davidson did well in-conference (and eventually in the NCAA Tournament) and how he hoped and expected to continue that success in the NBA relatively quickly. Interestingly, he ended up also talking about the distinct situation in the NBA where more than half of the league makes the playoffs but “not every player in the league gets to experience this,” which is an interesting point that can carry some additional weight.
Making the playoffs, especially in the Western Conference in today’s NBA, marks an accomplishment that should not be discounted or underappreciated. While professional basketball’s structure does not echo the unpredictability of the NCAA Tournament or MLB Playoffs, many different elements have to go well in order for it to happen. In the case of this year’s Warriors team, most of those happened off the court.
The Warriors’ path to this point from a personnel perspective has been somewhat strange because the 'We Believe' team in 2007 had some of the hallmarks of a squad that could stick together and improve. The only player in his thirties on that team was Adonal Foyle who started a whopping six games. The core of Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson and Jason Richardson were in their prime athletically, while the team carried high ceiling young players in Monta Ellis and Andris Biedrins who looked to improve and thrive with more experience and playing time.
Unfortunately, it took a little more than a season for that promise to unravel. After missing the playoffs with an astonishing 48-34 record the following season after trading away Richardson, Baron Davis opted out and signed with the Clippers while the team responded by flailing- trying to overpay for both Elton Brand and Gilbert Arenas (fortunately, each took other offers) and then making the terrible trade for Marcus Williams when the team could not find a point guard. On November 16, 2009, the Warriors traded Stephen Jackson to the Bobcats and officially ended that era with Jackson, Davis and Al Harrington gone less than two and a half years after the Warriors shocked Dallas in the first round.
Management at the time made the road back even longer through a series of bad decisions from the ill-advised Marcus Williams trade to extending Stephen Jackson unnecessarily to taking Ekpe Udoh over Greg Monroe and Paul George in the 2010 NBA Draft. Despite having some quality pieces, the biggest correction that led Golden State to this point has to be the addition of meaningful depth last summer. While top-level talent plays a larger role in the NBA than any other major sport, having a sufficient number of rotation-quality players makes a huge difference because injuries and ineffectiveness are part of the landscape. By adding quality players like Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry this offseason and a surprisingly potent rookie class, Bob Myers and his staff gave Stephen Curry, David Lee, Klay Thompson and Andrew Bogut enough support to allow the team to thrive even in times that would have ruined shallower Warriors teams.
The inspired addition of Jack in particular helped keep the team afloat. After years of subpar point guard play off the bench (including Keith Smart’s inexplicable love for Acie Law), Jack gave the team strong stewardship while also possessing the ability to play next to Curry, thus allowing him to spend more time per game as the NBA’s best spot up shooter without many of the ill effects of having someone inferior handling the ball.
In a strange parallel to the 'We Believe' team, this Warriors squad has the pedigree of a group that should get better in future seasons. In terms of analyzing a team’s outlook compared to the present day, I look at two major factors: where are the players on the team on their development/age curve and whether the salary structure of the roster helps or hurts them moving forward.
In Golden State’s case, both yield both potential positives and pitfalls. Depending on how Bogut recovers from injury, it can be argued that every current member of the Warriors who matters should be the same or better two years from now than they are today. The team has five rotation players on their rookie deals at the moment (Curry, Thompson, Barnes, Green and Ezeli) while none of the others are over the age of thirty, though David Lee, Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry all hit the dreaded 3-0 before the start of next season. As such, the overall effect of time should help the squad though it could be muted by the start of downgrading of the older guys.
As far as salary is concerned, the organization stands in reasonable shape as long as they learned the right lessons from the 'We Believe' team. The summer of 2014 looms large here because it marks Bogut becoming an unrestricted free agent and Klay Thompson being eligible for an extension. Those decisions coupled with both Biedrins and Richard Jefferson coming off the books makes it the time when the team can make the biggest changes in terms of personnel. Regardless, having bad contracts that expire soon and lots of talent on cheap deals for a few seasons means that the team will not be priced out of keeping their own players any time soon.
Warriors fans know better than just about any fanbase that a good future outlook does not guarantee future success. Furthermore, this offseason will have different pitfalls because of the new luxury tax restrictions which could end up weakening the depth that played such a large role in 2012-13. That said, Bob Myers and the front office group that made the decisions necessary to make this first big positive step retain the ability to make more good moves and hopefully make reaching the playoffs something closer to an annual occurrence. After all, Warriors fans deserve at least that much after all this time.