If you believe in sports karma, then the Warriors’ season was doomed as soon as their majority owner, Joe Lacob, gave his now memorable quote to the New York Times.
“We’re light years ahead of… every other team in structure,” Lacob said, “in planning, in how we’re going about things.”
There’s something else to give credence to the idea Lacob doomed the Warriors with his arrogance. The Warriors were 68-7 before the interview. They went 20-11 afterward. Since that Lacob feature, Steph Curry tweaked his ankle then slipped on a wet spot and sprained his MCL, Draymond Green couldn’t stop hitting (and kicking) opponents below the belt, and the Warriors became the first team in history to blow a 3-1 NBA Finals lead.
Of course that nightmare few weeks looks like it’ll be a footnote in basketball history as the Warriors have landed Kevin Durant and are seemingly headed to a dynasty of two or three championships in the next few years. It would be easy to point to the Warriors’ ability to land Durant as another sign of them being “light years ahead,” but it would ignore the fact that the Warriors are the beneficiaries of a series of once-in-a-lifetime serendipitous events that have all landed in their favor.
Don’t be mistaken, the Warriors have one of the smartest front offices in all of sports. They’ve made some of the best draft picks of the last decade, landing Curry and Klay Thompson outside the top five. Even Harrison Barnes — despite his abysmal performance in the last three games of the Finals — was a decent lottery pick. They also grabbed Green and Festus Ezeli late in that same draft.
The Warriors were also unafraid to make moves that were initially criticized. The move to trade Monta Ellis for Andrew Bogut was controversial because people didn’t believe trading away a scorer for a hobbled big guy was a good move for the future. The Warriors also fired Mark Jackson even though he got the team into the playoffs, opting for rookie coach, Steve Kerr. The move took guts and was ultimately better off for the team in both the short and long runs.
Then the Warriors opted against trading for Kevin Love in a deal centered around Thompson because Jerry West and others figured the two best shooters ever in the same backcourt would be better than one shooter and a big man. These are all brilliant moves by an organization built on ingenuity and forward-thinking.
But the Warriors have also been blessed with undeniable luck. Of course, every great NBA franchise has been lucky at some point. The Bulls drafted Michael Jordan after the Blazers whiffed on a Sam Bowie pick at No. 2. The Thunder have Kevin Durant because that same Blazer franchise picked another injury-prone big man in Greg Oden. If the Cavs don’t win the lottery and take Andrew Wiggins, then they don’t have a tradable asset to send to Minnesota, and LeBron maybe doesn’t go back and win them a championship. The entire history of the NBA has swung on the slightest slivers of luck.
As brilliant as owners and general managers claim to be, luck and chance are vastly important to their successes. Despite what Lacob would have you believe, the Warriors are no different.
Golden State’s luck revolved around two things: Curry’s left and right ankles. Curry’s rookie contract expired at the end of a 2011-2012 season. It was a year where he played career-low 26 games, averaged 15 points, and there was a total uncertainty about his future in the NBA. Curry’s ankle surgeries put him on the precipice of being the next Brandon Roy — a potentially great player who was never able to reach his full potential in the league due to injuries.
The word “bust” was being thrown around pretty liberally, usually in relation to those creaky ankles. The fact Steph has a slight frame didn’t help matters. The market wasn’t great for Curry when it came time for his contract, either. He could play the market and hope franchises had faith in his ankles or re-sign with Golden State. Curry played it safe, signing a four-year, $44 million rookie scale extension. Some felt it was an overpay at the time, and it certainly took some courage for Golden State to offer him that deal. But nobody, not even the Warriors themselves, could have predicted the player he’d become.
Golden State has an MVP who is the team’s fifth-highest paid player. When the Warriors put Thompson, Draymond, Bogut, and Andre Igoudala on the court with Curry, their best player is the lowest-paid guy on the floor. This is never going to happen again. Because of Curry’s injury, rehabilitation and ascent to arguably the best player in the league, the Warriors were able to build a team around his bargain of a contract. Luck also has fallen on their side because by the time Curry is up for his next contract, the salary cap will be so high that they can sign him for the maximum amount allowable and maintain a semblance of financial flexibility (They’ll re-sign him regardless because they have his Bird rights and he’s the two-time MVP – Ed.)
It could be argued that Golden State wouldn’t even be in the title picture if they got the offseason move they wanted at the end of the 2013 season. The Warriors were in the running for Dwight Howard, and they wanted him badly. The guy who’s basically torpedoed every team he’s been on for the last four years could have been in Golden State, clogging up the lane and destroying any hope of the small-ball dominance from the Warriors that we see now.
Howard opted to go to Houston, and the Warriors felt let down. They “settled” for another free agent as a result, and Iguodala was signed shortly thereafter. Iggy went on to became a central cog to the team’s bench, a cornerstone of the infamous Death Lineup, and the NBA Finals MVP in 2015 for his ability to hamper LeBron James and facilitate the offense as the secondary ball handler on the other end.
The Warriors didn’t get Igoudala because they were “light years ahead of every other team.” They got Igoudala because they swung and missed on Howard and the do-it-all wing had a close relationship with Curry and an affinity for the Bay Area.
All that brings us to Durant. The Warriors, despite their ingenuity and forward-thinking, found themselves in the exact same positions as every other NBA team this offseason: they wanted to add a top-three player in the NBA to their roster. It doesn’t take brilliance for a desire to sign one of the three best players in the world. The path to Durant landing in Golden State is paved with moments that, if they go a split-second in a different direction, change everything. If Klay Thompson doesn’t nail 12 three-pointers in Game 6 and the Thunder end up in the Finals and win the championship, Durant never leaves Oklahoma City. If Draymond Green’s arm flails up .04 seconds later and misses LeBron’s junk, he probably doesn’t get suspended and the Warriors win the championship, making it unlikely that Durant joins a championship team for the fear that he’s doing too much front-running.
The same goes for if LeBron James is .00001 seconds late down the court and goal tends on Igoudala’s layup. And regardless of what Durant wants, there’s zero chance of him landing in Golden State if the National Basketball Player’s Association (NBPA) doesn’t decide to dump the windfall from the TV contracts into two offseason’s instead of spreading them out (aka “cap smoothing”), creating enough cap space for the Warriors to land Durant at the exact moment his contract is up in Oklahoma City. And now the Warriors are able to fill out their roster with players willing to take minimums to win championships. There isn’t any amount of analytics or soothsaying that can make up for any of these moments of happenstance.
Now the Warriors are primed for is a multi-year run as the best team in sports history with Lacob sounding the trumpet for his team’s success. But what Lacob — and far too many successful people — refuse to acknowledge is how factors beyond their own creation can contribute to and often, ultimately, determine their greatness. Lacob has every right to celebrate what the Warriors have accomplished. But maybe he should be a bit more forthright and realistic about how he got to where he is.
Lady luck, after all, is known to bounce both ways.