How did the Warriors Get So Good?

A quick look back at how Golden State amassed the talent and depth that have fueled them to the NBA Finals. . .

Stephen Curry: Drafted by the Warriors 7th overall in 2009. . . while two of the 6 players drafted ahead of him were Blake Griffin (1st) and James Harden (3rd), Curry was passed for Hasheem Thabeet, Tyreke Evans, Ricky Rubio, and Johnny Flynn. Flynn hasn’t played in the NBA since 2012. Thabeet is playing in the D-League this year.  Evans and Rubio are capable starters, but as the MVP Curry has far outplayed his draft position and is the asset around which the Warrior’s team is built.

Klay Thompson: Drafted by the Warriors 11th overall in 2011. The 2011 draft was bad. Really, really bad. Only 3 All Stars in the whole draft class—Kyrie Irving (1st), Klay Thompson (11th), and Jimmy Butler (30th). While getting Thompson at 11 is a value, his contributions are pretty in line with what you would expect from a lottery pick. (Not the ridiculous feat of finding an All Star at 30 that the Bulls pulled off, but a good selection.) Needless to say the teams who drafted Derrick Williams, Jimmer Fredette, Bismack Biyombo, and Jan Vesely are regretting their selections for sure.

Harrison Barnes: Drafted but the Warriors 7th overall in 2012. Another top 10 pick. Barnes has been largely considered a bust due to his draft spot. He came out one of the starts of Game 5 against the Rockets due to his high level of talent and his commitment to staying ready. While Barnes hasn’t lived up to the hype which had some projecting him even higher in the draft had he not gone back to UNC for a sophomore season, this is the kind of depth that other top teams lack.

Draymond Green: Drafted by the Warriors 35th overall in 2012. Green’s freshman year at Michigan State he averaged 3 points. By his senior year he averaged 16. His rookie year he managed just 3 points and 13 minutes, which he’s increased steadily—earning more time and points ever season so far. More importantly, his defense has improved to the level of all NBA caliber. Nailing second round picks to provide cheap players with high upside. Of course, Green’s 3 year 2.6 million dollar contract is up after this year and the Warriors will have to decide if and how much to pay him, but for this season he’s only counting on the cap for less than a million dollars.

Andrew Bogut: In March of 2012 (just before the draft that landed the Warriors both Barnes and Green) the Warriors shipped out Monta Ellis, the previous star of the team for Andrew Bogut (a few more pieces on each side, but this was the core of the trade). This freed up more playing time for Curry and Thompson (Ellis is a combo guard and the three could not have coexisted and both Curry and Thompson develop into All Stars with him there.) Bogut, a former #1 overall pick was available mostly due to his injury issues which derailed almost all of his time in Milwaukee. Bogut was signed to a huge extension, and has missed time since coming to Golden State. But suddenly, this year he is healthy in the playoffs and providing an anchor against bigger teams. The lesson here is that NBA teams need good luck with injuries, and to succeed on calculated risks and have those risks payoff at the right time.

Shaun Livingston: Signed last year for 3 years 16 million. A former top 4 pick, Livinsgton (from my own stomping grounds of Central, IL) tragically blew out his knee his rookie year with the Clippers. Livingston bounced around the league, eventually coming to prominence with the Nets during their playoff run last year. That Jason Kidd coached Nets team shows the blueprint for using this type of player—Livingston is tall for a point guard, able to switch the one-four or one-three pick and rolls with Green and Barnes and remain a capable defender. He doesn’t need the ball, but can score and assist when needed as in his 18 point outing in Game 1 against Houston. While he’s not asked to play a lot of minutes in the playoffs, he can capably backup both Curry and Thompson. I’d say the take-away here is hitting on veteran signings. Livingston probably could have gotten more than 5 million a year, but chose the Warriors for a chance to compete in the playoffs.

Leandro Barbosa: Another veteran signing. Barbosa’s contract is only for less than a million on the cap hit. While he’s not the player he was during his Phoenix heyday playing in the 7 Seconds or Less offense, Barbosa is still shooting 38% from 3. Minimum salary players who are able to contribute, even with a single skill like defense (or in this case the 3 ball) make good teams into great teams (think James Posey on the 2008 Celtics, or Boris Diaw on last year’s Spurs).

Andre Iguodala: Signed to 4 years 48 million in 2013. The Iguodala signing was seen at the time as a means of going “All In” as well as a giving up on Harrison Barnes. At 31, Iguodala is reduced from the crazy athletic defensive monster he was in Philly. He’s still an above average defender, and having his role readjusted to the bench this year under Steve Kerr. Iggy will be even more important going into the Finals where he will share duties guarding Lebron James. Having the fire power to throw multiple, capable defenders against your opponent’s best player is important so that foul trouble doesn’t spell instant doom for your squad. (The Warriors will likely use a combination of Barnes, Iguodala, Thompson, and Green on Lebron.)

Marreese Speights: Signed 3 years 10 million dollars in 2013. Another low dollar contributor, Speights has been out since midway through the Grizzlies series. With a cap hit in the 3 million dollar range, Speights has a high PER and provides good in limited minutes. He should be back with a long break before the Finals start, and like Barbosa he falls into the category of veteran who a single good game from can swing the Championship.

David Lee: Sign and trade with Knick; 6 years, 79 million dollars. The Lee sign and trade wouldn’t even be legal in today’s NBA.  Lee’s playing only 8 minutes a game in the playoffs, and has scored 15 or more points only 4 times all season (all in the regular season). This is not what you want from your highest paid player, and next year when David Lee becomes “David Lee’s expiring contract” he will most likely be traded—after all the Warriors are going to have to pay Green to keep him and his production and defense outweigh the potential offense Lee provides. But this is still a former All-Star. And he’s still capable of scoring more than 15 points in a game if called on. If the right combination of foul trouble or injuries come up, Lee might be an X Factor going forward for the 4-7 games he has left as a Warrior.

It’s only by nailing the other players on this list in low cost signings and draft choices that the Warriors are able to be this deep with what is one of the worst contracts in the league still on their books.

Festus Ezili: Drafted 30th overall by the Warriors in 2012. 2012 is the draft that keeps on giving for the Warriors.  Golden State actually had 3 second round picks that year (Atlanta, Brooklyn, and San Antonio) and not their own (which was traded as part of the David Lee sign and trade.) Ezili’s spent time on assignment to the D League for the Warriors, but he proved in Game Five tonight that he can come up big when needed. At 6’11” he has been competent in backing up Bogut this year, including against the punishing run of bigs the Warriors have faced (Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol, and Dwight Howard in consecutive rounds). He will likely backup Bogut for any minutes that Mozgov is on the floor in the finals (that Bogut isn’t in for.)  Of course, much of that series may be decided with Tristan Thompson at the five and Lebron at the four for the Cavs, so Ezili may not see much run. Still, this is yet another contributor on a low cost contract (rookie scale).

It seems the answer is clear—get one really good player with a lucky lottery pick/bad teams picking before you (Curry), draft really well in the second round (Green, Ezili), and get at least something out of your first round picks (Thompson, Barnes), while filling in with quality low cost veterans (Livingston, Speights, Barbosa), and splurge on expensive missing pieces when your cap will allow (Bogut, Iguodala)—should be a simple formula to replicate for other GMs out there, right? We’ll leave out the “swing and miss on gigantic contracts for one way players who get hurt a lot (Lee)” since I think most GMs would rather succeed because of their most expensive players, not in spite of them.

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