Golden State Warriors 101: Who are they and how'd they get so good?
A crash course on the Toronto Raptors' opponent in the NBA Finals
Here in Canada, we've gotten to know the Toronto Raptors pretty well along their run to the NBA Finals. By now, even casual fans seem to be on a first-name basis with the key players: Kawhi, Kyle, Pascal, Fred… even coach Nick Nurse has risen to celebrity status. You probably know all about the team's rise from a perennial flop to a potential champion.
But can you say the same about their opponents? Best to know your enemy, especially when it's one of the greatest teams of all time. So, here are the Golden State Warriors, explained:
What's with the name?
"The Golden State" is the nickname for California, where the team has played since the 1962-63 season. The San Francisco Warriors moved across the Bay to Oakland for 1971-72 and started calling themselves Golden State. It rhymes with Golden Gate (as in the famous bridge off San Francisco), so that was a pretty smart marketing move to maintain ties with the bigger, richer city the Warriors left.
Next season, they're moving back. A new billion-dollar arena awaits in San Fran. The hardcore fan base in Oakland gets left behind so the franchise can better cater to the rich people in the tech-industry capital who have hopped on the bandwagon since the Warriors took the sports world by storm.
When did the Warriors become The Warriors?
They made the leap from a promising 51-31 team that lost in the first round of the 2014 playoffs to a 67-15 juggernaut that won the NBA title the next year. That was Steve Kerr's first season as head coach. Despite having zero experience in that job, Michael Jordan's old teammate was smart (and new-age) enough to realize the key to unlocking his team's massive offensive potential was letting its super-talented players more or less play the way they wanted.
Kerr's timing was also perfect. He arrived as the Warriors' core players hit their primes. Hard to go wrong when you have a pair of guards like Steph Curry (maybe the best combination of shooting and ball handling basketball has ever seen) and Klay Thompson (one of the greatest three-point snipers ever) and a big man like Draymond Green (a fiery defensive genius nimble enough to lead fast breaks and hit threes).
Add a solid supporting cast, and no one had ever assembled so many players who could whip the ball around and create (and make) shots so far away from the basket. Curry, in particular, is incredible at launching surprise long-range shots off the dribble. It's his signature move. All this opened up oceans of space for everyone on the floor, bringing out the best in everyone. The "Dubs" were suddenly the best (and most exciting) team in basketball.
So everyone knew this was a dynasty in the making, right?
Oh, no. Anytime something new comes along in sports, there are always doubters. Critics of the Warriors called them "soft." They insisted a team based on three-point shooting would get manhandled by bigger, stronger foes when the going got tough (or, to paraphrase a line from Moneyball, the Warriors' s--- wouldn't work in the playoffs).
The naysayers were blind to some things, though. For one, the NBA had tweaked its rules in favour of offensive players. Also, the anti-Warriors crowd looked at the point totals they gave up and saw a weak defensive team. But that was a function of their fast-paced offence. On a per-possession basis, Golden State had the NBA's best defence in 2014-15. Pair that with the second-most efficient offence, and you have the ideal mix for playoff domination. Sure enough, the Warriors beat LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in six games to win their first title with the current group.
Then the Warriors took that formula and put it on steroids. They started the 2015-16 season with an incredible 24 straight wins and finished 73-9 — the best regular-season record in NBA history. Curry won his second straight MVP award. They marched to the Finals again. But it didn't end well.
What brought them down?
A series of fluky events. Golden State led its rematch with the Cavs three games to one (that's one win from another title) when Draymond was suspended for punching LeBron in a spot where you should not punch people. Throw in a less-than-healthy Curry (he missed time earlier in the playoffs with a bad knee) and Cleveland stormed back to win its first-ever title in a dramatic Game 7 that went down to the final seconds.
So what did the Warriors do about it?
They made probably the biggest free-agent signing in NBA history, luring former MVP Kevin Durant away from rival Oklahoma City. With at least four future Hall of Famers now on board (KD, Steph, Klay and Draymond) the Warriors became basically unbeatable. They coasted through the next two seasons before destroying LeBron's Cavs, going 8-1 in the two Finals. Durant won the series MVP award both times. Now, they're going for their third straight championship and fourth in five years.
How many teams have had a run like this?
Very few. The last NBA team to three-peat was the Los Angeles Lakers from 2000-2002. And no one has gone 4-for-5 since the great Boston Celtics teams of the late 1960s.
OK, thanks for the history lesson. Now tell me about the Warriors team the Raptors are playing in the Finals.
The biggest thing is that Durant may not play in the series. He hurt his calf in Game 5 of the second round against Houston and no one knows when (or if) he'll be healthy enough to return. He's definitely out for Game 1 on Thursday night, but he made the trip to Toronto. So it's still possible he plays in Game 2 on Sunday.
Thing is... the Warriors have been just fine without him. In some ways, better. KD is a ruthlessly efficient scorer, and he's taken over from Curry as the go-to guy. But he does most of his damage from two-point range. When he's out, Steph takes control and there are more opportunities for him and Klay to launch threes. Those guys are so good at hitting that more valuable shot that they can make up for Durant's absence. Curry averaged just over 23 points in 11 playoff games with Durant this year. In the five full games KD has missed? Almost 36.
Something spiritual is happening here too. The unintended consequence of acquiring Durant was villainy. The original, Curry-led Warriors were fresh and exciting and revolutionary. They brought joy to basketball fans around the world. With Durant, they became an unstoppable Death Star. When you're that dominant, there's no joy in winning. Only relief.
But now the old Warriors are back. And they're clearly loving it. The worst-kept secret in basketball is that Durant will leave as a free agent this summer. That's created tension — including a blowup between KD and Draymond earlier this season. When Durant went down, the Warriors seemed eager to prove they never really needed him. Sure enough, they've won five straight without him and there's a hop in their step. And get this stat: dating back to March 2017, Golden State is 31-1 with Curry in the lineup and Durant out.
However, the margin for error is thinner now. Durant was the ultimate insurance policy. If Steph, Klay or Draymond ever got hurt or fell into a slump, the Warriors knew they could win the title anyway. If Durant remains out, that safety net is gone.
Any other Warriors worth watching?
We haven't mentioned Andre Iguodala, a big and skilled wing player who won the NBA Finals MVP in '15 for his two-way excellence. Kevon Looney is a useful big man who picks his spots wisely — he's shooting a crazy 72.5 per cent in the playoffs. DeMarcus Cousins averaged 25 points per game with New Orleans last year before tearing an Achilles and taking a one-year deal with the Warriors. He hurt a quad early in the playoffs but may return as early as Game 1.
Wow, how did this team not go undefeated all season?
Well, they tried that in 2015-16, remember? But even though they set the wins record, everyone roasted them for running out of gas in the Finals. Since then, they've coasted through the regular season (and even some playoff games), knowing they can turn on the juice when needed. That's part of the reason why Toronto had a better record (by one game) this season.
That puts an interesting wrinkle in this series: despite being pretty big underdogs, the Raptors have home-court advantage. That means they get to play the first two games at home, plus Game 5 and (most importantly) a deciding Game 7 if necessary. So Golden State could end up regretting its indifference.
Then again, if the peak Warriors show up (and especially if Durant comes back healthy), they may just be too good for anything else to matter.
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