Hubie Brown is the NBA’s Yoda. When he speaks, we listen. During Game 4 of the Spurs-Warriors series, early in the first half, he remarked on how well San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard has panned out. Leonard was the Spurs’ second-leading rebounder in the series; he was dropping double-figure points and Greg Popovich was using him as a sort of Swiss army knife perimeter defender. It was just like the always-prescient Spurs to trade up in the 2011 draft and snatch him right outside the lottery from Indiana.
That’s what Pop, longtime general manager R.C. Buford and the Spurs do. Of their nine-man rotation, five are Spurs draft picks (Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Tiago Splitter and Leonard). And two other picks (DeJuan Blair and Cory Joseph) have seen sporadic minutes.
Since 2009, though, when Golden State drafted Steph Curry with the seventh pick, there hasn't been another team that has been savvier with its personnel game than the Warriors.
Bringing in Andrew Bogut, Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry via trades were the ill pick-ups and have paid conspicuous dividends in the playoffs. Jack, for one, was a monster in Game 4’s fourth quarter. But, it was third-year Curry who flew out of the gate in the third quarter to bring them back from a first-half deficit. Second-year Klay Thompson hit the game-tying bucket in the waning minutes of the fourth. And rookie Harrison Barnes took over like an OG in overtime. Those three dudes – who lead the Warriors in minutes per game in the playoffs – are all G-State draft picks. Draymond Green and Festus Ezeli (Barnes’ draftmates) haven’t been showing out, but Green plays serious minutes and both ably do what coach mark Jackson asks of them.
This is a squad with five players of three years experience or less threatening to ghostride all the way to Finals. And, unlike, say, Oklahoma City, they didn’t have back-to-back-to-back top-five picks to do so.
That isn’t to throw shade on OKC, which has joined the Spurs as the model for small-market teams, showing the league how to field a contender with smart personnel decisions and drafting. It’s just saying that – although it’s unlikely the Warriors will win three championships in five years, like the Spurs, and, although G-State has a lower ceiling than the Kevin Durant-Russell Westbrook Thunder – Larry Riley (drafted Curry) and especially Bob Myers (took over in 2011) are killing it out here.
Over the past 25 years, the Warriors have been a lottery-bound organization that epitomized inconsequential. Outside of a brief five-year run – anchored by Chris Mullin, that first featured Run TMC (Mullin with Mitch Richmond and Tim Hardaway) and then an iteration with Mullin, Hardaway and young stunnas Latrell Sprewell and Chris Webber – it’s been a bum organization.
They ensured they had a rent-stabilized apartment in the NBA’s cellar because they drafted cats like Clifford Rozier and Adonal Foyle, and eventually traded away picks like Sprewell, Webber and Antawn Jamison – while they let guys like Gilbert Arenas bounce as free agents. You could call it loser’s incompetence.
They had a brief resurgence between 2007 and 2008, when a Don Nelson took a squad led by Baron Davis, Monta Ellis and Stephen Jackson to the 2007 semifinals as an eight-seed. That playoff run featured one of the league’s greatest upsets (the Dallas squad they beat in the first round won 67 games) and this play from B-Deezy.
That next year, Golden State was legit, too. Baron, Jax and Ellis all averaged over 20 ppg (Baron, miraculously, played in all 82 games) and the team averaged 111 points – tops in the league. The squad won 48 games. No one wanted it with those cats in the first round…except, that was the first year, since the NBA’s modern expansion, that a conference fielded eight 50-win teams in the postseason. So GS’s season ended prematurely. That summer, Baron signed with the Clippers, Jax played in only 59 games the next season and, well, it was back to the sewers.
That’s when Riley copped Curry. It was a risky move at the time. Curry was an inexperienced point guard (moved to the position in his senior year), too small for two-guard and the product of Davidson, a mid-major (and that’s generous) in North Carolina. Steph wasn’t a can’t miss. Now, he looks like one of the “elites of the elite” and a franchise anchor on a contender. He was the first of the building blocks, even if his first few years were derailed by ankle injuries, poor coaching and an ill-fitted backcourt mate.
After whiffing on Ekpe Udoh in 2010 – drafted one pick ahead of Greg Monroe – Myers took over for Riley the next year and selected Thompson. Thompson, like Curry, had the pro-pops pedigree (Mychal, who won a title with the ’88 Lakers) but he was a low-key prospect out of Washington State. It was another keen move from the Warriors. And it’s almost unheard of for a team to draft three rookies that end up playing significant minutes on playoff team. Yet, that’s what Myers and the Warriors pulled off last June. Barnes and Green, in particular, are exactly the type of physical, tough wing players the Warriors needed to buttress the Curry-Klay firing squad. None of their 2012 draftmates are playing consequential ball, at this moment, which is telling.
Nailing drafts? That ish ain’t easy. Ask the Toronto Raptors of late. Or look at the Timberwolves. In the same draft that Golden State snagged Curry, Minnesota had three first round picks and bungled that affair in a historic way (drafting Jonny Flynn, giving up Ty Lawson).
The hard part isn’t over. Golden State capitalized on Curry arriving on the All-Word stage a year after his first extension. So, his four-year, $44 million extension is, contextually, on the cheap. In a few offseasons though, they will face the same circumstances that forced OKC into a panic trade with Houston, sending James Harden to the Rockets. Warriors owner Joe Lacob is one of the richest owners in the league and the Bay area is one of the most moneyed regions in the country, but keeping this crew together won’t happen without some ultra-deft decision-making, cap-manipulating and personnel-maneuvering.
Let’s stay in the moment, though. We can appreciate – even marvel, in a way – what we’re watching. A Similac-squad, full of players that rocked a Warriors cap on draft night, marching through the playoffs. Show ‘em how to do it, Oaktown.