The Warriors likely aren’t on the precipice of their first championship in more than 40 years if it wasn’t for the presence of board member Jerry West. The long-time Laker came aboard in the spring of 2011 when new majority owner Joe Lacob gave him a partial ownership stake and the chance to help organize a rebuild.
That rebuild is nearing completion with a closeout game coming in Cleveland on Wednesday night. Golden State’s vaunted Splash Brothers backcourt would have been ripped asunder if it weren’t for West’s unflinching ultimatum to keep them together with the specter of Kevin Love circling.
The ‘Wolves wanted to move Love, and they were looking at Golden State before accepting Cleveland’s offer of Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and a first-round pick.
According to Chris Ballard’s feature on West for Sports Illustrated, the former Lakers point guard, NBA champion and two-time Executive of the Year was the biggest obstacle in front of the trade — one that looked all but done at one point.
Perhaps West’s biggest contribution came last summer, though, when, along with Kerr, he adamantly opposed a trade centered around Thompson and Love. West argued that trading Thompson would be an enormous mistake. The Warriors were built on defense and Love, while a skilled offensive player, was a subpar defender. What’s more, West was certain Thompson would continue to improve, giving the Warriors a potential Hall of Fame backcourt for the next decade.
West felt so strongly that, according to one person close to the negotiations, he threatened to resign if the team made the trade. Chances are, West wouldn’t have actually done it—that’s just the way he talks—but when the most successful talent evaluator in league history feels that adamantly about something, it’s probably worth listening.
Speak to the principals today and everyone says it was a group decision, none more forcefully than West. As is his nature, he takes great pains to deflect any credit, praising the work of Myers and Lacob and the rest. Myers points out that, “It’s a lot easier to make suggestions than decisions.” As for Lacob, he dismisses the topic. “There was never, ever a time when we were going to consider trading Klay in that deal,” he says. “Jerry was strong on that, but so was everybody else.”
This may be true. Then again, a source with knowledge of the negotiations counters that, “The deal was done. And Jerry put his foot down.”
I don’t think people appreciate how much foresight was involved in making that ultimatum, even if West was bluffing.
Last summer, Kevin Love was coming off a season where he averaged 26.1 PPG (fourth in the NBA) and 12.5 RPG (third in the NBA). Most considered him one of the top 10 players in the whole Association. Meanwhile, Klay Thompson had seen his scoring average rise in each of his first three years in the league, as well as his true shooting percentage and his PER. But Love’s PER of 26.9 was third in the league behind the 2014 MVP Kevin Durant and LeBron James. Meanwhile, Klay put up a career-high 14.9 PER, which is considered below the NBA mean of 15.0.
Knowing all of that, most writers/analysts/fans — ourselves included — thought Golden State’s hesitancy to pull the trigger on Love cost them a chance to be a real title contender. Love was a true star, and while Klay showed promise as a 3&D two-guard who was big enough to guard small forwards, he wasn’t in the same class as Love.
But West knew better than all of us. He knew Klay was a dangerous perimeter defender, capable of locking up All-Stars on the other side of the ball. Love, for all the floor spacing his shooting creates, his full-court outlets and intuitive smarts for ricochet rebounds, isn’t a very good defender and would have been a below-average hole at his position if he joined the Dubs last summer.
Fast forward to now, and Love is injured after a subpar — for him — 2014-15 season where he struggled to fit alongside LeBron James until right before Love dislocated his shoulder in the first round against Boston. Meanwhile, Klay Thompson set an NBA record with 37 points in a quarter, made his first All-Star team, made the All-NBA Third Team, and combined with the 2015 MVP in the Warriors backcourt to form the best guard combo in the NBA today, and perhaps the finest in NBA history.
Oh yeah, and they’re pretty close to popping bubbly and etching their name on the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Jerry West is Tiresias, but he can actually see, too.