The Oakland boos rained down like Stephen Curry three pointers — high, heavy, and well-aimed. It was March 2012, and it was supposed to be a celebration for the much-loved Warriors legend Chris Mullin. But as the team prepared to retire Mullin’s jersey, the fans loudly harangued new co-owner Joe Lacob.
Golden State Warriors Hall of Famer Rick Barry stood in the shower of disgust at Oracle Arena’s center court with a microphone in his hand, dumbfounded. “Seriously,” he said. “C’mon people.”
But it wasn’t hard to understand where Warrior fans were coming from: Lacob’s brain trust had just traded explosive guard and leading scorer Monta Ellis and two other players for the injured Andrew Bogut. The fans, however, weren’t seeing the big picture, and obviously didn’t realize that a year later, the new-look Warriors would be vying for their second playoff spot in the past nineteen years.
The old Warriors won — or more often lost — with exciting guard play, outside shooting, and occasional iffy character. The new Warriors, by contrast, have won games this year with depth, defense, rebounding, and — wait for it — character.
The Warriors also are not building a team that hopes to merely win on the road, make the playoffs, and send players to the All-Star Game. With everything from Moneyball-style analytics to a groundbreaking farm system, Golden State is building an organization that’s designed to win championships with guts and hard work.
In fact, the Warriors’ lone All-Star this season — David Lee — isn’t the real face of the franchise. A case can be made that it’s not Curry either, even though he’s the NBA’s second-leading scorer since the All-Star break. Instead, the player who perhaps best exemplifies the team and the changes its made is an undrafted rookie who isn’t known for his production on the floor but for his dramatic productions on the sidelines following Curry buckets.
But so it goes with a team that’s suddenly the most progressive in the National Basketball Association. As of Monday, the Warriors were in a strong position to make the playoffs, ranking sixth among eight teams in the Western Conference that will reach the postseason. But to best see where these Warriors are headed you have to look in less obvious places: not the big win at Miami at the buzzer, or the blowout over the Lakers last week, but the closing minutes of a particularly nasty loss.
A low point in the Warriors 2012-13 season was a hideous March 15 home fail against Chicago that included an informal Bulls dunk contest, a gross Andris Biedrins free throw, and the biggest home deficit of the season (36 points in the fourth). But from that ugly puddle sprang a glimpse of the future.
Late in the game, swingman Kent Bazemore flew from one end of the floor to another, applying pressure that twice made him Colonial Athletic Association defensive player of the year at Old Dominion. He repeatedly beat defensive stopper Luol Deng for buckets as the Warriors slashed their huge deficit in half. Bazemore similarly confounded standout wingman Manu Ginóbili in San Antonio a week later.
A rookie who schools crafty veterans is uncommon. Much rarer: an undrafted rookie doing it to playoff-bound All-Stars late in the season, after only a handful of NBA minutes.
A key reason for Bazemore’s success? He’s been driving up and down I-880 and Highway 17 to and from Santa Cruz, where the newest Warriors play in the NBA Development League.
This winter, the 2,500-seat Kaiser Permanente Stadium shot up as quickly as a six-foot-five Bazemore on a lob, after the Warriors bought the Dakota Wizards and moved them to within an hour-and-a-half drive of the Oracle Arena. Now, younger, inexperienced players can practice with the big leaguers in the morning, and blossoming players like Bazemore in need of reprieve from the big-boys’ bench can get valuable playing time in Surf City at night.
“It’s a huge advantage,” said Joe Lacob’s son Kirk, who is Santa Cruz’s general manager, referring to having a farm team nearby. “Baseball’s been doing it for a hundred years. It’s one thing to learn to play the game, it’s another to learn to play through action and to learn to play the way a particular organization wants you to play.”
Indeed, it’s no coincidence that Santa Cruz Warriors President Jim Weyermann comes from baseball — and not only that, but from an organization that harvested maximum yield from its seedlings. Ten players from the San Jose Giants — the San Francisco Giants’ farm team — later won World Series rings. Under Weyermann’s watch, the San Jose Giants were named the best farm organization in the country.
And not only do Golden State and Santa Cruz share the same mascot name (like the San Francisco and San Jose Giants), but Santa Cruz’s players also run the same plays with the same names as the big league club, allowing players moving up or down a chance to come in and contribute immediately. “The club provides coaching staff tremendous flexibility, and game time for those who need it most,” Weyermann said. “You can’t duplicate the speed of a game in practice.”
Another unique Santa Cruz quality: oceanside views from player suites — a perk not available for players assigned to the Reno Bighorns, Fort Wayne Mad Ants, or Canton Charge. “It’s designed in our strategy,” Weyermann added. “What people don’t understand with players and free agents is that there’s a ripple effect. If they’re talking about Golden State’s D-League players in suites over the ocean, it makes a statement about an organization.”
Currently, only a small fraction of D-League teams are owned by NBA teams. But that will likely change as more teams see the benefits reaped by the Warriors this season — much as other major league baseball teams copied Moneyball after the A’s’ success. “Once everyone catches on to how teams are manipulating their minor-league team to help the big club, every team in the NBA is going to want a development team,” Weyermann said. “It only creates additional opportunities.”
Those additional opportunities appear everywhere. The Warriors gain a major marketing stronghold in a sought-after coastal market. They develop the big club’s next generation of assistant coaches, training staffers, promotional pros, ticket sales executives, and — given the devoutly family-friendly atmosphere — fans. The Oakland franchise shares resources and Santa Cruz provides reinforcements.
Kirk Lacob — a 24-year-old Stanford grad who last year joined LeBron James and Usain Bolt on Forbes‘ “30 under 30 Sports” list — is also trailblazing a sophisticated statistical analysis of the game. He doesn’t want to know how many rebounds David Lee had; he wants to know how many he had versus certain players, how many when he’s paired with other teammates and against other opponents, what types of errant shots end up where, whether they’re coming against the second string or not, and who’s shooting, too. “In basketball we’ve pretended like there was finite amount of information,” he said. “The truth is we’ve barely cracked the surface.”
The formula is working. Santa Cruz (32-15 at press time) leads the D-League in gate receipts, home wins, and win-streak length. And the fans are feeding off the success. Santa Cruz is already considered the fiercest home crowd in the D-League — and the Baby Warriors enjoyed a 19-4 home record as of early this week.
Bazemore loves playing there, too. “You get the same love you receive in Oakland,” he said. “It helps you love to play. I went to a different [D-League] venue, and it wasn’t as crowded, wasn’t as upbeat.”
And Kirk Lacob loves Bazemore. “He’s terrific,” Lacob said. “The right attitude to everything. The most important thing to him is for the team to win. He has an unbelievable energy, and it rubs off, when you see him going crazy, and it’s all real. In the game or on the bench, he’s pumped up every play.”
Golden State Warriors Head Coach Mark Jackson and General Manager Bob Myers agree with Kirk Lacob: The last player on the roster exudes so much that is right with the new, young, smarter Warriors, partly because the environment he’s in has been carefully constructed to bring out his best character.
Few places are more competitive than the NBA’s rugged Western Conference, which is why Denver Nuggets Head Coach George Karl asked the league last week to disregard conference affiliation when deciding playoff seeds: too many strong Western teams get screwed out of playoff spots while weaker teams from the Eastern Conference slide in.
But one place is even more competitive: Silicon Valley. That’s where basketball junkie Joe Lacob, who put himself through college and Stanford business school, made partner at marquee venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. There, he blended, and continues to blend, creativity and cunning to wild success in technology and Internet startups — fields in which conventional thinking doesn’t exactly thrive. In 2010, he joined Peter Gruber in leading a new ownership group through the purchase of the Warriors for $480 million, once he sold his share of the Boston Celtics.
“He comes from a venture world where a 23-year-old has the best idea in the room — or the city — so it’s not a caste system,” Myers said. “Our company embraces new thoughts and ideas, not old-time hierarchy. Joe would say, ‘There’s more than one way to do things.'”
From the beginning, that included Joe Lacob and co-owner Paul Gruber insisting on certain word choices. “They refused to use the word ‘good,'” Kirk Lacob said. “They didn’t want it to be in anyone’s language. They wanted ‘great’ or ‘champion.'”
Every move is made with maximum attention to best practices and minimum attention to status quo, as it was with Joe Lacob’s most crucial hire. He wasn’t aiming to emulate the NBA’s historic GM model. He recruited Myers from the realm of player agents. Myers had zero NBA front-office experience besides a brief apprenticeship with Golden State, and now is one of the three youngest general managers in the league.
“Bob’s background is representative of a new breed of GMs in the NBA,” Joe Lacob said. “We are building an NBA team ownership and management for the next generation.”
But that doesn’t mean Joe Lacob doesn’t appreciate NBA experience. He also had hired Hall of Famer Jerry West, the most successful NBA executive in a generation and the guy in the NBA logo itself. “Go out and look at the people they’ve hired,” West said of Joe Lacob and Gruber. “It’s people at the top of their class. In terms of a business standpoint, that’s very impressive.
“They have a different idea of how to run a team,” he added. “The league is so different than it was years ago, with so many issues to cover far beyond sport. Financial issues are much greater, with a new collective-bargaining agreement, and you have to be much more responsible to the press and the fans.”
Myers, a one-time walk-on who played his way onto UCLA’s 1995 NCAA national championship team (full disclosure: I became acquaintances with Myers at UCLA), steeled his business savvy with thirteen years of intense player contract negotiations and salary-cap and luxury-tax complexities with Arn Tellem and the high-powered Wasserman Group in Los Angeles. He also acquired media chops as a talk radio host doing the UCLA Bruin post-game report, and, with the Warriors, makes himself remarkably available to the press.
He also has vindicated Joe Lacob’s trust in him, orchestrating the continental shifts that have the Warriors at about 25 games better in the standings this year than this time last season The team is on pace to finish second in the Pacific Division for just the second time since 1977 — before any of its current core rotation of players were even born. And the team has done all this despite the season-long loss of wingman Brandon Rush, a premiere shooter and the team’s best perimeter defender, and the frequent absence of Andrew Bogut, an All-Star scoring and shot-blocking center.
Myers engineered the trade for Bogut, clearing the way for should-be second-half MVP Curry to establish himself; landed invaluable super subs Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry in the offseason; and led a draft that harvested a bumper crop of three rookies (not counting Bazemore) who are each playing meaningful minutes — something no other team in the league can claim, this year or in recent memory.
“Myers has dealt with so many players,” noted San Jose Mercury News senior sports writer Tim Kawakami, who has been watching the whole way. “He has an understanding about the ones who want to play hard and the ones who might not.”
Those decisions reflect another skill that Myers imported from life as an agent with Tellem: Don’t make a deal solely based on money. “When we draft or sign a player,” Myers explained, “we’re asking, ‘Do they have room for growth? Are they competitive? Do they care about the craft?’
“Our job is to win, but I think one of the components of winning is hiring and signing players who are quality people and individuals,” he continued. “We ask, ‘When they face adversity, are they willing to look in mirror and see what they can do?'”
Last week, Warriors power forward David Lee, the league leader in 20-point, 10-rebound games, delivered a fierce elbow to Dwight Howard’s lip, provoking Howard into a technical foul and the Warriors’ longtime torturers, the LA Lakers, into a 63-40 halftime deficit from which they would never recover. Lee also had a key — and acrobatic — tip-in on a Steph Curry miss, a range of nifty jumpers, a number of nice dishes to Klay Thompson, and a cool head when the game got heated. But after the game he told reporters, “Rebounding is my most important job.”
Same goes for the Warriors, in more ways than one. When they are rebounding, they are playing their best basketball, as they are at the moment, ranking second in the league at press time in rebounds per game, with 44.9. When they outrebound their opponent, they’re 33-10.
And when they suffer sluggish streaks and embarrassing hiccups — most painfully, of late, the Bulls game in which only Bazemore’s energy prevented a season-worst defeat — they needed to rebound even more. Rebound, as in bounce back.
The day after the Bulls blowout, the Warriors were scheduled to face the Rockets in a dangerous rematch. Golden State had lost to Houston three straight times, including a record-setting thirty-point defeat on the road, and another even more painful loss at home because it was bungled by bad Warriors ball management late in the game.
Before the Rockets rematch, the team had a day off. Players had the choice of doing anything they wanted to clear their minds of basketball, the team’s four straight road losses, or the tenuous half-game edge over Houston in the playoff standings. The entire team showed up to the gym instead. “You can’t teach that,” Head Coach Mark Jackson said. “You certainly don’t want to preach it. You want to have it on the inside of guys, guys who refuse to quit, who refuse to settle — high-character guys that love the game of basketball and love each other.”
That kind of gospel from Jackson can sound hyperbolic. But there’s also truth to what he says. During the offseason, most of the team joined Jackson at his church in Los Angeles for two weeks straight. “I think it united the team,” he said. “This is a together group. You’re gonna have stretches where you can’t get a stop, but we keep our principles and correct habits. In those tough times, who you are really shows.”
The team also showed up at Toyota Center in Houston — and showed the Rockets the business end of a 108-78 beat down. The game may very well have saved the season, and it certainly served as a reminder that, for all the promise the Warriors’ pioneering progressivism holds, hard work comes first.
“I don’t think we think we’re smarter,” Myers said. “The only thing I think in life is hard work pays off. You don’t pretend there’s an easy way to do anything. No magic potion. We as an organization ascribe to hard work and perseverance. It sounds trite, but we’re trying to be smart, hardworking, high-achieving people, with an ownership group that are self-made guys, people who started at bottom. They epitomize what we’re trying to accomplish. It’s gonna take a lotta work and a lotta effort. Things easily attained are of little value.”
Jackson echoed that sentiment. “We have to outwork, out-hustle, be the first in the gym, the last to leave, take out the garbage, wash the dishes,” he said. “The problem is to start to think, ‘Hey, I belong here.’ We have to put work in, still defend. If not, we’ll find ourselves on the outside looking in.”
Jackson credits the players for the resilience, but Myers said Jackson’s resilience is a major part of the team’s success. That quality was most evident after a loss to Utah to start the second half of the season and a total of six losses in a row. After the game, Jackson told reporters: “I am not going to jump off this ship.
“I believe in my guys,” he continued. “One thing that will take place is guys are going to play for their minutes. We have lost six in a row and haven’t played good basketball and I have been extremely patient. I love my guys and I believe in them but we have got to find five guys on the floor that are going to scratch, claw, and compete because history tells me that the only way out of a funk like this is working our way out of it. We aren’t going to cool our way out of this thing.”
They’ve rebounded since — even snapping a sixteen-game slide against mighty San Antonio — and as of Monday, were sporting a 42-32 record that had them in second place in the Pacific Division for the first time this late in the year since Bill Clinton was a first-year president (1993). Still, the overall goal is far grander than a sixth seed in the playoffs. It is excellence — an annual elite status — that buries those boos to where they feel like a long, long time ago.
Correction: The original version of this story misstated the month in which Warriors fans booed team co-owner Joe Lacob. It was March 2012 — not December.