Friday, July 31, 2015

Fiery Festus and the potential to be Draymond Green 2.0

You know the story by now…undersized power forward drafted 35th overall by the Golden State Warriors. This gritty guy with no true strengths aside from his competitive spirit finds himself playing big minutes in the injury-absence of a former All-Star. Those sparse minutes turn into starter minutes and that turns into an NBA All-Defense nod and the reputation as one of the most versatile defenders in the league.

Draymond Green’s value skyrocketed in a matter of months, and he earned himself a hefty six-figure contract like I expected he would. The timing, situation, and chemistry worked well under Steve Kerr’s watch and David Lee’s encouragement. Festus Ezeli is poised to make a similar leap himself.

The inevitable jump in the salary cap will wreak havoc on player salaries, but with  four six-figure players on the roster and Harrison Barnes likely to join that crew, there may not be enough money to go around the Warriors roster and still be able to remain under the salary cap. Joe Lacob and the management team have proven to embrace paying their championship-level talent, but they did dump the David Lee contract this off-season. Can Lee produce? Absolutely. But is he relevant in the Warriors’ system? Not really.

Striking comparisons can be made to Andrew Bogut. I am on record as a staunch advocate for Bogues’ value (see the above-linked Draymond article where I ranked him the Warriors’ second most important player in November 2014). The Australian big man was a top-tier rim protector and elite passer at the center position. To underestimate his impact on the Warriors’ championship run would be a mistake.

Within two high-pressure playoff series, though, Festus Ezeli made his presence known. He had a meaningful impact on both the Western Conference Finals and the NBA Finals off the bench. Although (like Bogut), Ezeli’s numbers were hardly eye-popping, he did post three double-digit scoring games and solid rebounding numbers when given minutes. He also (usually) limited the fouls that he doled out. Bogut, by contrast, scored 10 points in the entire NBA Finals.

This isn’t to suggest that the Warriors high-powered offense requires much scoring from the center position. However, it was nice to see signs of a serviceable baby hook that Festus developed. It was eerily reminiscent of Draymond Green shooting threes his first year or so in the league. A lot of “no, no, no…YES!” exclamations and stress turned into relief.

Ezeli’s hands were notoriously awful in his rookie year and certainly improved since coming back from the knee surgery that sidelined him for the entire 2013-14 NBA season. Also like Draymond, Festus seems prepared to put in the work to fix that and also has that innate grit to fire up his team. That passion has turned counter-productive at times, as it did in February after his altercation with Tyler Hansbrough. With the opportunity to play big minutes in an inevitable blowout against the Raptors, his temper got the best of him. Sounds like something that could have happened to that Draymond guy…

The supply of good centers is small and the demand is high which could mean Festus commands a salary larger than what one might consider his true value. However, he, along with Harrison Barnes, are restricted free agents in 2016 which plays in the Warriors favor. If Bogut’s offers creep up toward $20 million a year, the Warriors may be wise in pursuing Festus as their main traditional center.

The Warriors would lose great passing if they lost Bogut, but Festus’ mobility, potential, and tenacity could prove to be a great replacement. The ultra-small ball with Draymond at the five worked wonders in the Finals and there was a reason that some guy named Nick U’Ren made a name for himself on the NBA’s grandest stage. 

Now if only Stan Van Gundy and Mark Jackson would stop preaching about how solid Festus is on national TV…

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Why this 2015 Golden State Warriors team is special, the account of a diehard fan

You know that moment when you’re witnessing something you know is going to be special? Remember the finale to the first half of the final season of Breaking Bad? Hank’s face when he is in the restroom as the scene fades to black sets the stage for the epic finish of one of the greatest TV series. That face prepared you... you knew that, even though you hadn't seen them, the final sequence of episodes were going to be some of the most captivating television in history. That scene was the moment when you knew you needed to sit down, block out all other distractions, and enjoy greatness.

That’s how I felt at the beginning of the season about these Warriors. 

Watching the evolution of this team over the past few years has been like watching a great TV show or movie. It’s almost so perfect you might think it was scripted. Sure, I might have been the only one with enough conviction to say this squad was winning it all before the season even began. But it was not fandom but rather logic. As ESPN's Amin Elhassan said of a Bay Area writer a few weeks back, it's not homerism when you're right.

I just felt that after picking the Heat each of the previous three years that this team was on the brink. They had the pieces to bring the Bay Area it’s first basketball championship since 1975. “The squad that the Warriors will put on the floor is as good as any teams,” I wrote. “Superstar? Check. Shooting? The best. Perimeter and interior defense? Third-best defense in the league last year. Bright, young coach surrounded by a great staff? Finally.” 

I don’t think anybody foresaw this team being one of the five best teams of all time back then, but after 67 wins during the regular season, the evolution turned to evidence of greatness. Steph Curry has become the face of the league. As the popular play on the recent Drake mixtape goes, if you’re reading this, Steph Curry is the MVP.

Only ignorance can defend a position that fails to acknowledge how great this team has been.

~ ~ ~ ~

Over this season, I have amassed quite the wealth of newspapers, shoes, and Warriors apparel.  I’ve even managed to get some signed memorabilia before a game or at a meet-and-greet with a player. One of my (not-so-sports-savvy) friends, looking at all of this, quipped that he was “glad he wasn’t as much of a Warriors fan as I was.” Another said just shakes her head when she sees that I buy multiple copies of the Sports Illustrated issues that don the marketing paragon that is Stephen Curry. Some people just won't get it.

Ex-ESPN writer Bill Simmons wrote a lengthy piece about his daughter and The Consequence of Caring about a team. Sports have the ability to capture the hearts of a city—or in this case, an Area. I think it was Mark Cuban who said that owning an NBA team is unlike owning anything else. There is no other industry where you have fans actually rooting for the thing in which you own.

And as we are constantly reminded by ESPN, it hasn't always been like this for Warriors fans. I will never forget the cloud that hovered over me after the Warriors lost Game 1 to the Spurs in 2013. After turning off the TV in my college apartment with two Laker friends in the other rooms, it really hit me. I was depressed, distraught from blowing a lead that we had in the bag. (But in the pre-Kerr era, no Warriors lead was safe. I should have known.) After all, the Warriors were up by 16 points with under five minutes in regulation. As I perused online Warriors fan forums, I came across a Kid Cudi song, "We Aite." I listened to it on repeat. I couldn’t believe just how much my heartstrings were being pulled by this team's successes and failures. 

So when the 2015 Warriors erased a 20-point fourth quarter deficit in Round 1 against the New Orleans Pelicans, I couldn’t help but chuckle. Do I fondly recall the despair? Nah. But it was, to use a very Kobe Bryant phrase, “part of the process.”

~ ~ ~ ~

Curry gets it. Even though he didn’t want to be a Warrior at the time he was drafted, he has embraced the Bay as his platform and canvas. His handles enrapture an arena that holds their breath at the release of his every shot. “Promise to all the Warriors fans…we will figure this thing out,” he said in 2009. “If it’s the last thing we do.”

I wrote in 2012 about another Bay Area team, the San Francisco Giants, who were another team connected by chemistry of some wild characters (Tim “The Freak” Lincecum, Hunter Pence, Pablo Sandoval, and Sergio Romo) surrounded the quiet league MVP, Buster Posey. Posey, like Curry, was a mild-mannered, consummate professional. But you knew who was the leader of the team.

The personalities are what makes this game so beautiful. And it’s why I’ve been drawn so tightly to this squad. I feel both parts of who I am and who I want to be in this cast of characters.

Draymond Green, in particular, struck a chord with me. As a high school basketball player, I never did much scoring. But I had (and have) that same ferocious competitive spirit. As someone who went through his growth spurt in middle school, I was stuck with a “big man’s game” in high school despite being barely six foot with shoes on. Much like Draymond does, I would battle for rebounds against towering man-children who had up to six inches and 50 pounds on me. 

You could not compete with that if you didn’t put every ounce of your being into the game.

One day in class about 10 years ago, after one of those basketball games the night before, my teacher gave me that do-I-even-know-you look. “Wow. You are such a different person when you play basketball—you looked so angry out there.” And when one of my good friends, Daniel, said a couple years ago that I was “the most competitive person [he] knew,” I couldn't help but smile.  

From game 1 of his rookie year, I knew that Draymond was that guy. Even before his offensive game developed into what it is today, I loved the “it” factor that he brought. Now he’s the heartbeat of the NBA’s best team.

Draymond may be the soul of this team, but Steve Kerr has controlled the team's focus. Music blasts in their laid-back practices, film sessions can be comical, but come game-time, we see that this team is like a cobra ready to pounce. There’s no mercy. Whereas the old Warriors would watch a 20-point lead wilt away, this team strangles you—20-point leads have been known to become 40. The laser-like focus does not dissipate even as the lead hits double-digits.

And as I work on rehabilitating my own ACL reconstruction, I have a particular affinity for backup point guard Shaun Livingston. S.Dot sustained one of the most gruesome injuries in sports in 2007 against the then-Charlotte Bobcats. Knee dislocation, ACL tear, PCL tear, lateral meniscus tear, and MCL sprain. How he has been able to not only get back on the basketball court, but effectively reinvent himself is inspiring. If you haven’t seen his injury…well, you probably don’t want to change that. Draymond is to the competitive spirit as Shaun is to perseverance.

You can go down this list. Curry’s grit despite being constantly counted out, Barnes’ relentless spirit coming back from a poor 2013-14 season, Bogut’s willingness to do the dirty work, Andre Iguodala and David Lee’s willingness to take lesser roles despite have All-Star appearances on their resume. Maybe it's "just a game"... but that's only if you don't know this team like Warriors fans do.

Once upon a time, this team was a huge underdog. They started off the season at a lowly 25:1 chance to win the title. 20 games in, this team looked like a juggernaut. And now look where they are.

2015 NBA champions.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

2015 NBA Finals: Four Keys for the Golden State Warriors

Although I refrained from my usual pre-season two-part predictions column, I did make time for predicting an NBA champion this year, and to my knowledge, was the only person to put in writing that I had the Golden State Warriors before the season began. While they’re still four wins away from fulfilling that prediction, it’s worth pointing out that (as you can see in the comments), I was told at the time that I was “out of [my] mind.”

Now here we are, with what could be one of the most entertaining Finals in a good while. When you have LeBron James, Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving, and Klay Thompson on the court at the same time…well, as Jalen Rose would say, you are giving the people what they want. And as someone that clearly has a vested interest in crowning the Warriors champions, here are my four keys to the Golden State Warriors winning the 2015 NBA Finals.

Throw different players on LeBron

The Warriors started off the Western Conference Finals with Klay Thompson as the primary defender on James Harden. Klay has proven to be an extremely capable defender this season. His length and sneaky athleticism messes with many two-guards in the league. However, MVP runners up James Harden and LeBron James are not “many two-guards.” Even though the Warriors have the NBA’s stingiest defense, they are not precluded from allowing scoring outbursts from the league’s best players.

Harden did have a 3-for-16 Game 2 and a 2-for-11 Game 5 to contrast with a 45-9-5 show in Game 4. Sometimes you have nothing you can do besides let great players be great…as LeBron said of Curry in a recent interview.

The goal is to limit greatness, and the Warriors have found success in doing so by switching their perimeter core onto the opponents best players. Put 2015 All-Defense First Team player Draymond Green on LeBron, and allow Harrison Barnes, Klay Thompson, and Andre Iguodala to close his airspace as much as possible. If one of those four has particularly good luck slowing the four-time NBA MVP, then you have your matchup. If not, different looks is the next best thing.

Let Draymond Green be a playmaker on offense

One of the more interesting individual matchups will be Tristan Thompson vs. Draymond Green. In an old school vs. new school-esque battle, Draymond has proven he has the size and will to battle anybody. He gave Dwight Howard and Terrence Jones a run for their money in the Western Conference Finals and is clearly one of the league’s most versatile defenders.

Offensively, his game has grown tremendously as well. His outside shot has been a weapon when teams close-in on Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, but his ability to run the fast-break is a secretly dangerous tool that allows Curry and Thompson to spot-up. Leandro Barbosa is a stealthily creative finisher in transition and those four do the most damage off of defensive rebounds. Draymond is so unique because he can do rim-runs…as a ball handler. Eliminating the outlet and allowing guards to get a head-start is almost unfair.

This advantage needs to be exploited in the NBA Finals in particular because Tristan Thompson simply can’t keep up with Draymond on a fastbreak. 4-on-3 or 3-on-2 situations will lead to lay-ups…whether that comes in the form of two points or (often for the Warriors) three points.

Stick to the Steve Kerr’s script - don’t try to get too fancy

Steve Kerr has been reinforcing with this team that it’s just a basketball game. Just because it is in the NBA Finals doesn’t mean there are different rules. Steph Curry is still the best shooter in the game. Klay Thompson can still heat up at any moment (assuming his concussion does not have lingering effects). Draymond’s energy fires up Oracle Arena like nothing else. Bogut and Ezeli are valuable rim protectors. Shaun Livingston and Leandro Barbosa are critical veteran playmakers off the bench. 67 regular season wins and 12 post-season wins later, that is still all true. So rather than re-hash all of the obvious keys, it comes down to sticking to the script. Steve Kerr and the Golden State Warriors know what works. The question is can they stick to it for one more series.

Convince Lil B to curse LeBron James

It’s a thing. And whether it works or not, you’ll take all the mojo you can get. If Lil B cursed Harden and it worked, then if he decides to follow through on his threat…well then why even play the games, right?