I still remember how it felt when the Spurs, the long suffering Spurs, finally won their first NBA Championship. There was elation, gratification and most of all, relief. After a decade full of fruitless, 50-win seasons where they always got knocked off by somebody who was a little bit deeper and a little bit tougher, the Spurs finally put the right mix of veterans around their twin towers of David Robinson and Tim Duncan and made it to the top of the mountain. No one could call them soft or chokers again. No one could mention "The Admiral" on that list of 90's superstars who never won a ring, the way people inevitably do with Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, John Stockton and Charles Barkley. After a decade of heartbreak, the weight was off our collective shoulders. Whatever happened after 1999 would be gravy. At least they got one, at long last.
That was 16 years ago. The Spurs have won four more Larry O'Brien trophies since. Imagine rooting for a team that hasn't won one in all that time. Heck, imagine rooting for one that didn't even come close.
My relationship with the Warriors has always been a bit peculiar. I'm from the Bay Area and have lived there most of my life, but from the very beginning when I got into basketball, they never did it for me. From the beginning, I was drawn to Robinson, the 7'1" athletic freak out of Navy who could chase down guards from behind and reach to the heavens to slam down alley-oops. He blocked a lot of shots and I liked that, because that was my best skill during the games I'd play at recess with my friends. Robinson gave the Spurs a defensive presence, which was the antithesis of Don Nelson's "Run T-M-C" Warriors teams featuring Tim Hardaway, Chris Mullin and Mitch Richmond.
Nevertheless, in 1991, the seventh-seeded Warriors upset the second-seeded Spurs in the first round and cost me a $50 bet I made with a classmate in the process. Hardaway became the first NBA player I remember distinctly disliking. Everyone around me had Warriors fever. They won four playoff games, total, losing to the Lakers in the second round 4-1.
A couple of seasons later the Warriors suffered some injuries but got lucky in the draft and wound up with the third overall pick. They engineered a trade with Orlando and got Chris Webber. He electrified the Bay Area with his all-around skill set, the way he could go coast-to-coast and make no look passes like Magic or slam on anyone like Jordan. The standout play of his rookie season was when he dribbled behind his back and then posterized Barkley, knocking him into the stanchion after dunking on him. Chuckster got his revenge in the playoffs, with the Suns sweeping the Warriors in the first round, and Barkley scoring 56 in the closeout game in Oakland. Webber won as many playoff games for the Warriors as you or I have.
Stupidly, their general manager at the time gave Webber an opt-out after one year on his rookie contract. Webber didn't get along with Nelson and didn't want to play center --Nelson was ahead of his time with small-ball-- and despite Nelson imploring them otherwise, ownership sided with the coach over the player. The Warriors missed the playoffs for the next 13 YEARS, missing out on chances along the way to draft Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett, to name two franchise-changers. Bill Simmons detailed the complete chronology of all of their bungling here.
When Baron Davis and our very own Stephen Jackson led the "We Believe" Warriors (record that season: 42-40) to an upset over top-seeded Dallas, the Bay Area was gong nuts. Davis had that epic
offensive foul dunk over AK-47 which was probably the only thing you remember about their second round series with the Jazz. It was also the Warriors only win over Utah that series. They won five playoff games total, losing to the Jazz 4-1.
Davis played only one more season for the Warriors and was out of the league not too long after that. The Warriors slid back into the lottery for five more seasons, drifting aimlessly with undersized Monta Ellis as their best player. When Stephen Curry fell to them in the seventh slot of the 2009 draft, the trade rumors of Curry to Phoenix for Amar'e Stoudemire made sense. How could a backcourt of Curry and Ellis possibly work together? How could they guard anyone? And wouldn't it be so Warriors to deal for an all offense/no defense star with a bum knee?
Somehow, the trade fell through. Not only did the Warriors hold on to Curry and watch him develop into a superstar (despite some ankle injury scares his first couple seasons), but they made a shrewd deal midway through the 2012 season, flipping Ellis to Milwaukee for an injured Andrew Bogut, knowing full well that the Australian wouldn't be available until the next season. Not only did Bogut give the Warriors a defensive anchor they'd lacked for two decades, but the absence of Ellis in the short term allowed the team to brazenly tank enough to wind up with the seventh pick, which they used on Harrison Barnes. They also picked Festus Ezeli late in the first round and an undersized tweener out of Michigan State who couldn't dribble or shoot, a fellow named Draymond Green, in the second round. SBNation's Tom Ziller had an excellent breakdown of how the roster was formed, with a bunch of moves that seemed like head-scratchers at the time and mostly remain so in retrospect.
Led by charismatic Mark Jackson, the first Warriors coach in forever who not only emphasized defense but had the personnel to play some, the Warriors made it back to the playoffs in 2013 and upset the Nuggets in the first round. They won Game 2 of their next series at San Antonio and would've won both games there, if not for some heroics from Manu Ginobili. Still, they got the series to 2-2 before succumbing to the Spurs in six games. In San Antonio, winning just six playoff games means the season was a terrible disappointment. For the Warriors, it was a high water mark spanning 35 years.
Fast forward to the present. Jackson was let go in favor of Steve Kerr, who implemented a free-flowing offense emphasizing ball movement. The Warriors won 67 games, running roughshod on the league from wire to wire and putting up a historic scoring differential. For the Spurs or the Thunder to do this, or whichever Eastern team LeBron James feels like suiting up for, it would've drawn some plaudits sure but also a fair share of shrugs. For the Warriors to do it, in a league where the contenders rarely change from year to year, it's simply mind boggling.
The Warriors are the best team in the league and it's not even close. The Warriors. Five years ago you could've said it'd be the Bobcats (who don't even exist anymore as such) and it would've been less surprising. For a league laughingstock to so dramatically change their fortunes, and to do so without a generational big like a Duncan or Shaq or even a stud swingman like a Jordan, LeBron or a Kobe, it's just unheard of in the NBA. Even Steve Nash of the "Seven Seconds or Less" Suns had a 6'10 second banana in Stoudemire. Nobody has ever been this good without a post threat or at least someone to regularly finish off a pick-and-roll. You spend a quarter of a century watching basketball and the Warriors just don't make sense. But just the notion of the Warriors being good, never mind great, doesn't make sense.
When it comes to Bay Area pro sports, Giants fans could relate to that feeling of elation and relief we felt way back when. It took until 2010 to finally win a World Series, but there were a number of close calls --agonizingly so in 2002-- and steady trips to the postseason between 1997 and 2003. Winning it all didn't exactly feel inevitable, it was a completely different squad by 2010, but at least it felt like us fans paid our playoff dues.
Warriors fans though have nothing to relate that to. No matter how many wins they racked up along the season, my best friend was dead serious when he told me, repeatedly, that all he wanted this year was a trip to the conference finals. That would represent a watershed moment for him as a fan.
That moment has come and gone. The Warriors have already doubled their previous best postseason effort, going from six playoff wins to 12. Heck, 67 regular season wins would've been good enough to double their typical output for most of the past 20 years. Despite all they've achieved, all the progress they've made and seemingly a decade of contention ahead of them, reality states that it will be a massive disappointment if they don't finish this off with a title against an undermanned Cavs team.
Am I selling LeBron James short? Probably. I have all postseason, watching dumbfounded as he led the Cavs past a Bulls team that couldn't shoot and a Hawks team that couldn't rebound. James' jumper has completely deserted him, Kyrie Irving is at 75 percent at best and Kevin Love isn't playing at all, and yet none of it seems to matter. The league should borrow a page from the NHL's playbook and rename the East "the James conference," like hockey used to do with the Campbell and the Wales.
As well as Tristan Thompson, Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Matthew Dellavedova have played, for James to pull it off with that motley crew against the Warriors would represent the most stunning Finals upset perhaps ever and certainly in the modern era. It'd be akin to the Allen Iverson 76ers beating the 2001 Lakers. The Warriors can throw wave after wave of bodies on James, from Klay Thompson to Andre Iguodala to Green to Barnes, even mixing Shaun Livingston if need be. They will never need to double, and if James overwhelms somebody in the post, who cares? Just don't leave the shooters open and you've won.
On the other side of the ball, the Cavs have even bigger problems. Whereas they sucked in on Chicago and Atlanta and dared their point guards to shoot, that strategy obviously won't work against the Warriors. Atlanta's most dangerous shooter, Kyle Korver, couldn't create his own shot. Curry can. Korver was the Hawks only consistent shooter from the three, while the Warriors have a roster full of sharpshooters.
You've probably heard the neat little factoid already, about how Stephen Curry has already knocked off three fellow members of the All-NBA First team in Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol and James Harden. Beating James would obviously allow him to topple all four in one postseason, which would be undoubtedly cool for the league MVP.
The significance of that bit of minutiae though is that the Warriors have already faced their share of superstars. The Cavs won't represent a step up in competition from what they've already overcome. As great as James is, he's not in some other universe than Harden, especially the way he's been shooting. The Warriors though, are in a different league from what the Cavs have faced so far.
I wonder when it's not going to feel weird to type, to say or to even think of the Warriors as NBA champions. The very idea of it makes me giggle. I can tell you that people didn't really start thinking of the Spurs as oh no, it's the Spurs until they got their third one, in 2005. Before they start daydreaming of a dynasty, the Warriors would be well served to take advantage of the opportunity at hand. No matter how far they've come, there's no guarantee they'll ever have a chance to do this again. Life comes at you fast, just ask the Thunder.
These Warriors are everything Run T-M-C was hyped up to be and more, an overnight success story 25 years in the making. Maybe they haven't paid their playoff dues, but good luck finding anyone who cares.