Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Worst Thing We Had to Live Through to Get to the Best Team Ever

The best part of any vacation is when you have already started to have fun, but the majority of the vacation is still ahead of you. If fortune smiles on us, that is the position we are in right now with the Golden State Warriors.

While I would hesitate to claim that the joy is only made sweeter by the suffering that came before it... well no I wouldn't. That's exactly how I feel. Four decades of mediocrity and disappointment killed most of the hope that another championship would ever come, and certainly made dreams of a dynasty feel completely foolish. People often say they knew something would happen in retrospect when they were right... I'll admit I knew it would never happen and I'm glad to be wrong.

The worst part was not just the losing. Most teams lose. The worst part was seeing former and almost-Warriors have their best years on other teams. No one cares that their superstar used to be yours. If anything, they're glad their GM was smarter than yours. No one cares that at virtually any time, you could construct a championship team from ex-Warriors. You just get bitter.

For those of you who experienced this with me, let's commiserate. Those of you have been on board since "We Believe" or later do not understand. The only player the Warriors might regret losing since then is Jeremy Lin, and even that makes you shrug rather than wince. You folks are invited to join me on a ride that will hopefully deepen your appreciation of where we stand today.

My first season as a Warriors fan was 1973-74. I was 11. After that season, we lost (or traded) beloved players like Nate Thurmond, Cazzie Russell, and Jim Barnett. But that didn't hurt so much because the next year WE BE CHAMPIONSHIP! Those were the guys on the outside. I still feel badly for Jim that he just missed that ring, after being one of the very few Celtics of the 1960's who never got a ring. Hopefully the current run evens the scales as far as he is concerned.

After the 1976-77 season, Jamaal (Keith) Wilkes left us in free agency for the Los Angeles Lakers. I know what you're thinking: "A future Hall of Famer plays in the Finals for the team that drafted him and a few years later he leaves for the team that just beat them in the playoffs? The outrage across the NBA community must have been deafening! Retired players must have been screaming that they would never have done such a thing." Nope. Crickets. Maybe the sound of laughing in the distance. Nobody cared but us.

But really, how mad could we be when after all he became a key forward in a dynasty known for their spectacular team passing and a transcendent point guard playing with unprecedented skills and conspicuous joy? I was comforted by the knowledge that if the same thing ever happened again, the media would immediately shame anyone who claimed that no one ever did that before and make sure everyone knew the first team to get screwed by this exact scenario was the Golden State Warriors. That's how karma works. So I got that going for me.

Silk Wilkes wasn't the only player to leave the Warriors in that inaugural year of free agency. Gus Williams was playing 23 minutes per game for us at PG and left for Seattle, becoming an All-Star twice, All-NBA First team once (1982) and All-NBA Second Team once (1980). He led the Sonics to the 1979 championship while averaging a team high 28.6 points per game in the Finals.

The Warriors used the comp pick they got for Wilkes in 1978 to pick Purvis Short, who was pretty good. But not as good as the guy who went right after him: Larry Bird. I skimmed a book on the Celtics in a bookstore once and remember reading something else about how the Warriors made it possible for the Celtics to get Bird. I forgot what it was though, and I hope someone reminds me.

Rick Barry left as a free agent in 1978 and the league compensated us with John Lucas (they did that then), who didn't really bloom until he left us too and was the starting PG for Houston when they went to the finals in 1986. In 1979 the three-point line was introduced and Lucas hit 12 for us while Barry hit 73 of them for Houston.

The Warriors felt they hadn't done enough to build the Celtics dynasty though, so they gave their 1979 #1 pick to them for Jo Jo White, then as we all know, gave them Robert Parish and the pick that became Kevin McHale in 1980 in order to get the overall #1 pick and take Joe Barry Carroll, a man so lackadaisical and focused only on getting his 20 points every night that the nickname "Joe Barely Cares" immediately stuck. So the Celtics and the Lakers met repeatedly in the Finals on the backs of ex-Warriors and that's how I remember the golden age of the 80s.

Despite all that, the 1980-81 Warriors are perhaps my favorite "Might have been" team because besides the potential of JBC, they also had Bernard King, Larry Smith, World Free, Purvis Short, and John Lucas. Pursuant to my theme, though, World Free has his best year after leaving the Warriors. In 1979-80 he averaged 30.2 points, 4.2 assists, and 3.5 rebounds per game while making the All-Star team. While Bernard King won Comeback Player of the Year and made the All-Star team and All-NBA second team as a Warrior, he really polished his Hall of Fame credentials when he went to the Knicks and scored 50 in back to back games and 60 in another one. He kept on scoring big for Washington, but it's not like he got more national coverage playing for those East Coast teams or was eventually the center of a 30-for-30 or something. Everyone thinks of him as a Warrior, right?

Following the 1984 season the Warriors had fully tanked and were in position to take Patrick Ewing as the #1 pick of the draft. But losing Wilkes and Williams to the inaugural year of free agency wasn't enough to torture us... this seemed like a really good time to institute the draft lottery and send Ewing to New York instead of us. But that's OK... what are the chances a guy that big will last 17 years and make 11 All-Star teams? What kind of attention will he get languishing in New York, anyway?

Leaving the Warriors isn't a blessing limited to players. George Karl quit as head coach after the 1987-88 season and it may well have had to do with the arrival of Don Nelson as GM, who then also took over as coach. George went on to win Coach of the Year with Denver and get to coach the All-Star team four times. He also led subsequent teams to the playoffs 20 more times. (He probably enjoyed the fabulous parting gift when the Warriors sent the pick that became Gary Payton to Seattle for Alton Lister right before Seattle gave him his next head coaching job.) Actually, my favorite memory of Karl as the Warriors HC was when Rick Barry was a TV reporter "interviewing" him remotely, but really offering his unsolicited advice that the Warriors needed to play better defense. George laughed and said, "Well I'm kind of surprised to hear you say that, Rick, but you're absolutely right."

The Warriors gave Rick Adelman a chance to suck as head coach, setting assistant Gregg Popovich free to see if he could handle the job in San Antonio. Whatever happened to that guy? After two crap ass years, they fired Rick Adelman after 1997 and he only coached 10 teams to the playoffs after that. Don Nelson, builder and destroyer of worlds, took Dallas to the playoffs four times (including the WC Finals once) between his Warrior stints.

Most people have heard tell of the Run TMC era in halcyon tones, as the precursor of today's small ball and fueled by three (borderline) HOF talents under 28. Guess how many years Tim, Mitch, and Chris actually played together. One. Right after they made and won a playoff series at last, the Don traded Mitch Richmond away for Billy Owens because Mr. Innovator felt that they had to get bigger. Billy was crap, and Mitch became the Kings' first star in Sacramento, logging these accolades mostly with them and finally getting a ring with the Lakers.
6× NBA All-Star (1993-1998)
NBA All-Star Game MVP (1995)
3× All-NBA Second Team (1994, 1995, 1997)
2× All-NBA Third Team (1996, 1998)
The Warriors cut UDFA John Starks from the team once they had Mitch. Starks played SG for the Knicks from 1990-98 and they made the playoffs every one of those years. So if you watched Jordan and the Bulls win their six rings over those exact same years, you got to watch an ex-Warrior mix it up with Michael regularly on the Eastern Conference center stage. Tim Hardaway lasted until the Warriors blew up the other team in the four-decade span with great potential, 1993-94's Chris Webber, Chris Mullin, Tim Hardaway, Billy Owens, and Latrell Sprewell. Webber also only lasted a year with the Warriors before going on to notch his belt accordingly:
5× NBA All-Star (1997, 2000-2003)
All-NBA First Team (2001)
3× All-NBA Second Team (1999, 2002, 2003)
All-NBA Third Team (2000)
NBA rebounding leader (1999)
Hardaway got to play in the playoffs seven more times while also making the All-Star team two more times, the All-NBA first team once, and the All-NBA second team twice. Webber played in the playoffs for 9 years after leaving the Warriors. Of those combined 16 postseasons, the Warriors watched them all on TV except for the one "We Believe" year. Everything the Warriors got for Hardaway and Webber turned into (or was already) bupkis, as tradition dictated.

In 1995, the Warriors blew another #1 overall pick, this time on Joe Smith, who played 2.5 mediocre playoff-free seasons for the Warriors before going on to play 10 postseasons for other teams. In 1996 the Warriors used their first round pick to pass up Kobe Bryant and take Todd Fuller, whose picture appears in the dictionary next to "plodding." In fairness, I believed Kobe when he said he'd rather sit out the season than report to anyone other than the Lakers, but in retrospect, that would have been a better use of the pick.

I'm just gonna straight out lift this paragraph from the all-time classic "How to Annoy a Fan Base in 60 Steps" by Bill Simmons (2012). Thanks Bill, for not only writing an excellent piece, but showing that someone outside of the Bay Area noticed how badly we fans were getting screwed.
That concluded a 20-year run with the following lowlights: five playoff appearances; 13 playoff victories total; three no. 1 overall picks and two other picks in the top three; eight players traded who ended up starting for a championship team or making a first- or second-team All-NBA (McHale, Parish, Webber, Hardaway, Richmond, Williams, Wilkes, King … and that doesn’t include Payton), three future Hall of Fame coaches who passed through on their way to a better place (Popovich, Karl, Adelman), two valuable bench guys buried in Golden State who thrived elsewhere (Mario Elie and John Starks), an All-Rehab Starting Five (King, Richardson, Mullin, Washburn, Lucas) and a Hall of Fame Absolutely-Coulda-Drafted-Him Starting Five (Bird, Garnett, Kobe, T-Mac and Payton, with McHale coming off the bench).
In 1997, a Warrior finally made the cover of Sports Illustrated for the first time since 1980. Unfortunately, it was for Latrell Sprewell choking his head coach, which eventually got him traded to the Knicks (because they needed more help from the Warriors besides Ewing and Starks, who was getting old) where he made one Finals among his remaining four trips to the playoffs.

By 1998, the Warriors decided to raise the bar and see if they could dump players before their best years on both sides of a trade. They drafted Vince Carter and missed his entire Hall of Fame career by trading him immediately for Antawn Jamison, who wasn't as good, but managed to win Sixth Man of the Year and be an All-Star twice while going to the playoffs seven times as the Warriors sat at home (again, except for 2007).

Now the Warriors had a rhythm. You didn't have to become a star after serving your Warriors apprenticeship. But having a long career and making the playoffs after but never before wearing the blue and gold is a pretty big club. Say hello to Larry Hughes, Donyell Marshall, Gilbert Arenas (Agent 00 made three All-Star and three All-NBA teams for Washington), Jamal Crawford (0 for 8 to make the playoffs before one partial year as a Warrior, 7 for 8 after), Marco Bellinelli, Troy Murphy, Mike Dunleavy, Brandan Wright, and Matt Barnes. Guys, thanks for making sure there would be players on postseason TV that we would recognize.

Oddly, a lot of this weirdness stopped with the "We Believe" team. We got guys like Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson, and Al Harrington whose Warrior contributions were pretty much in line with what they did before and after. Our homegrown guys like Jason Richardson and Monta Ellis played fine with other teams later, but they didn't make the Warriors look stupid for letting them go for garbage. Andris Biedrins had the courtesy to go into the tank and stay there. The Dubs stopped hitting their players with the All-Star wand as they walked out the door.

That's why I have to laugh when I hear someone say they've been a Warriors fan since "We Believe," as if those five playoff-free years gives them the credibility of having their loyalty tested before enjoying this opulent gift. In retrospect, 2007 was the dawn of normalcy, a feeling that sometimes things go well and sometimes they don't, but good times actually might be right around the corner.

If that's you, you don't have to apologize for joining Dub Nation when you did. Time dances with each of us in its own way. All are welcome, and all will have prizes.

But don't let us catch you saying something like "One more championship and the rest is gravy."


(Steph, Steve, Bob, Joe... we can't thank you enough!)