We believe...maybe: The troubled history of the Golden State Warriors
The average NBA franchise goes through highs and lows, one often following the other. Their fans, if truly loyal, learn to take the loses in their stride and wait for the next high. There are a few exceptions to this common trajectory, though each of these exceptions has had some measure of good luck. The Los Angeles Clippers have a famously awful owner and a bumbling front office that has got nothing right till a couple of years back. The Knicks have suffered for a decade before its current success. Even the Cavaliers, despite the tortured history of sports in Cleveland, lucked out and had LeBron for seven whole seasons.
To this general trend there is an exception that is so perplexing that it defies logic. There is a franchise that has messed up so calamitously, so unfailingly season after season that it has featured in 16 of the 17 previous NBA Draft lotteries and hasn’t had a single All-Star selection from its team in 15 years. But ironically enough, the Golden State Warriors have one of the best, if not the best, home fan-base in the NBA.
The Warriors (HOF-er Wilt Chamberlain’s first NBA team) have been around the NBA for a while, first as the Philadelphia Warriors, then as the San Francisco Warriors before eventually landing up at Oakland. After fielding perennial contenders in the 60s and early 70s, the Warriors eventually made the 1975 NBA Finals and swept a heavily favoured Washington Bullets team that had finished the regular season 60-22 and beat the reigning champions Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals. The Bullets had former 12 time All-Star Elvin Hayes and the dynamic Wes Unseld (only player to ever win MVP during his rookie season). They called it the greatest upset in NBA history.
And that was the last real high for a Warriors fan. A whole 36 years back. The Warriors eventually traded their championship core (including All-Stars Jamaal Wilkes and Phil Smith) and lost superstar Rick Barry to free agency. That was the beginning of the worst extended low in the life of any NBA franchise.
The first gigantic misstep: the Warriors traded Robert Parish and the no.3 pick in the 1980 draft (Kevin McHale) to the Boston Celtics for the no. 1 pick, Joe Barry Carroll. The Warriors followed it up by being the epicenter of the drug wave in the NBA, and featured cocaine addicts John Lucas, Michael Ray Richardson and Bernard King (two of whom were former NBA All-Stars who hit their coke highs when with Golden State). Gross mismanagement and awful lottery selections resulted in the Warriors not making the playoffs till 1987 (the only bright star in this period was the 1984 drafting of eventual HOF-er Chris Mullin). The ’87 team featured Sleepy Floyd (famous for his destruction of the Magic-led Lakers in Game 4 of the first round in the ’87 playoffs) and Carrolls with George Karl coaching them.
The last truly good Warriors team was in 1991-2, when Chris Mullin, Tim Hardaway and Mitch Richmond combined to lead an early precursor to the run-and-gun Suns. They called it ‘Run TMC’ (after the hip-hop group Run DMC) and averaged in excess of 110 ppg. In the next decade and a half, the Warriors found a way to break up this core (with Hardaway and Richmond making multiple All-Star games after leaving Golden State), trade an irate Chris Webber (5 time All-Star, two-time All-NBA second team) after one season, pick Joe Smith no. 1 in the ’95 draft (next four selections: Antonio McDyess, Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace and Kevin Garnett), allow a young, talented Gilbert Arenas to leave because they had clogged up their space in huge contracts to Antawn Jamison and Erick Dampier. And oh, they also traded away what would turn into the no.2 pick (Gary Payton) in 1990 Draft. Every superstar that God sent their way, the Warriors wryly sent back with a “No, thanks!”
In the 2000s, their only good season came in 2006-07, when they somehow won 42 games after a in-season trade that brought Stephen Jackson and Al Harrington to the Warriors. By some sliver of luck, Golden State had managed to acquire mercurial point guard Baron Davis from the Hornets and had drafted Monta Ellis in the second round in 2005. The foundation for the most improbable playoff run of the last decade was set. After years of disappointing their devoted fans, the Warriors made the playoffs as the eighth-seed in an ultra competitive Western Conference. Thing was, they were matched up against a historically great Dallas Mavericks team coming off a 67-win regular season.
Channeling the magic from 1975, Baron Davis and co. upset the top-seeded Mavericks in six games, becoming only the second eighth seed in NBA history to beat a top-seeded team (after the ’99 Knicks). The crowd at Golden State was famously electric during this series, which spawned a ‘We Believe’ campaign among its fans as the series wore on. In the second round, the Warriors came within an inch of upsetting the Utah Jazz as well. The series threw up the quintessential moment of the Warriors’ season – a vicious Davis jam over Andrei Kirilenko. The Warriors followed this up with a 48-win season (and somehow managed to be the highest win team to not make the playoffs in the NBA history) for the 9th seed. As was the fate of the franchise, Baron Davis left in free agency, the Dubs signed the egregious Corey Maggette to a $10 mil/year contract and just like that, ‘We Believe’ was over.
In the past few years, the Warriors drafted Anthony Randolph in the lottery (over Roy Hibbert and Javale McGee), Ekpe Udoh (over Greg Monroe and Paul George), this on the heels of picking Ike Diogu with the no. 9 pick in 2005 (over Andrew Bynum at #10 and Danny Granger) and Brandan Wright at #8 in 2007. To top it all off, the closest thing they had to a superstar since Davis’ flight (Monta Ellis) was traded away at the end of last season for oft-injured Andrew Bogut and a 26-win season. The sum total of these moves has meant that the Warriors remained a bottom-third NBA team for the past five seasons, a prolonged horror that culminated in its highly-revered fan base booing the team’s owner at the jersey retirement of Chris Mullin in Oracle Arena. Consider it the accretion of fury over decades of management blunders.
In this bleak and near-apocalyptic moment, there is finally hope for the Warriors fan. Their only three good draft picks in last eight odd years (Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes) have finally come through for the team. The Warriors proudly sport a 15-8 record (good for 5th in the West) with quality road wins over Miami, Brooklyn and the Clippers. Their power forward, David Lee, has come back strong from an injury plagued season and is averaging 19ppg/11rpg on 52% shooting from the field. Klay and Steph Curry, a combination coach Mark Jackson calls the best shooting back-court ever, are averaging a combined 13.4 3-pt attempts a game, converting them at an incredible 39% clip. For the first time since God knows when, the Warriors are in the top half of the league defensively (12th in Defensive Efficiency) and have emerged as one of the early surprises of this season.
Given their balanced production on both ends of the floor, and the possible return of defensive stalwart Andrew Bogut, the upstart Warriors might finally have a team capable of playoff contention for the next half-decade. That is, if they don’t blow up their team again.