The more things change, the more they stay the same. The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers will meet in the NBA Finals for the third straight year. After a ho-hum postseason, the series many anticipated will have its rubber match.
The Brooklyn Nets are on the opposite end of the spectrum of this year’s Finals teams. The last hometown player that led the Nets to glory, a la LeBron James, was Julius Erving ... 41 years ago, in the ABA.
The Warriors’ talent, of course, towers over the Nets’ ragtag roster of reclamation projects. But Golden State’s roster wasn’t built on splashy moves (aside from Durant). If you strip away the rosters of the Warriors and Nets and just look at the foundations of the teams, some similarities arise.
Am I crazy? Maybe.
Stylistically, coaches Kenny Atkinson and Steve Kerr draw inspiration from the same sources. Kerr’s offense is Gregg Popovich’s precise motion injected with Mike D’Antoni speed. Atkinson’s offense, when run correctly, is Mike Budenholzer (a longtime Pop disciple) basketball turned up to 11 with D’Antoni pace and space. The teams ranked in the top five in the league in pace, and also shot plenty of three pointers. Obviously, the two teams differed greatly in talent.
The current Golden State Warriors are nearly a decade in the making. A combination of front office moves, development and luck converted Golden State from cellar dweller to potential dynasty. The team, led by Larry Riley initially and Bob Myers currently, set the vision for the team. While Myers is the current general manager of the Warriors, Riley took the initial steps – remaining with the team as director of scouting today.
So the Golden State Warriors are a model franchise for the future of basketball. Some would say they’re “light-years ahead.” But with Sean Marks, Kenny Atkinson and the Nets staff essentially building a franchise from the ground up, there’s much to learn.
It’s Not San Antonio
When Sean Marks agreed to join the Nets as general manager in the February 2016, many expected the Nets to follow the San Antonio model to a tee. That was a tall task, especially for a team seemingly devoid of hope. In the Bay Area, Steve Kerr praised San Antonio’s culture, citing its influence on his team-building approach. (The first time I’ve mentioned everyone’s favorite word ... Drink!)
In Kevin Arnovitz’s monumental piece on the Spurs and Warriors cultures, Kerr said, “Cultures are really built based on personalities and human qualities. If I came in and said, ‘we’re going to do everything just like San Antonio,’ the players would’ve sensed that was phony because that’s not really who I am. We do what works for us.”
San Antonio’s culture was built over nearly two decades. Tim Duncan, one of the greatest players ever, spearheaded the ideals of Popovich and RC Buford. He was the model for the ego-less basketball that so many teams have tried to replicate. In small ways, the Nets have shown a different view of team building. Rather than leaving the practice facility walls bare like San Antonio, the HSS Training Center walls are lined with gallery-sized photos of moments where teamwork succeeded. A small detail, but it sheds light on how the Nets would want to set the tone.
In building a lasting culture, Steve Kerr (and Sean Marks) can’t be San Antonio 2.0. Culture takes time.
Teamwork and Humor
Yes, the Warriors have big personalities – but they gel as a team too. The biggest Spurs influence on the Warriors is in the team-first ideology. That manifests itself on court (the Warriors ranked first in assists and their defense is a team wide effort) and off. Kevin Durant had to buy into that as well in his transition from Oklahoma City. Draymond Green has led that charge, constantly looking for the best interests of the team – rather than striving for individual success.
Arnovitz also wrote about the Warriors team environment – referencing how the team played jokes on assistant coach Mike Brown and the jovial atmosphere on flights. One example is JaVale McGee gifting blankets with Draymond Green’s face to all of his teammates. Nightmarish.
Sean Marks, seemingly, has tried to bring in some humor to the Nets. In that interview with Adrian Wojnarowski last year, Marks joked that he offered the Nets’ then vacant coaching job to Popovich. Unfortunately, Pop declined. Seemingly, that sense of humor stems from Popovich himself. Here’s what Pop said on having a sense of humor, from ESPN’s Baxter Holmes…
Despite Brooklyn’s lowly record, the players seemed to have built some chemistry. At the end of the season, Sean Kilpatrick said “I’ve never felt more at home than I do on this team.” Joe Harris “felt more of a bond with this team” than in his first two seasons in Cleveland.
The team gathering in Colorado for a week in May – five months before 2017-2018 tipoff – also showed the team finding comfort in a team dynamic. The future of many of the 2016-2017 Nets is up in the air, but the commitment to team has been established.
Warriors GM Bob Myers cut his teeth as a player agent prior to joining the Warriors organization. That background granted Myers an understanding of the diverse needs of pro basketball players, on court and off. Myers has been praised for his attention to detail as GM. In a profile on Myers for AP News, Stephen Curry said, “he finds a way to be personable, to be connected to every single person in our organization. And it’s very genuine.”
Myers’ authenticity and his goal of creating a holistic understanding of his team’s personnel has gone a long way. He doesn’t lead with authoritarianism – Steve Kerr praised Myers’ intelligence and modesty. Not only do the Warriors have a dominant team, they have a front office figure that understands the minutiae of building a team of egos, attitudes, offensive schemes and one ball.
So far, Sean Marks has passed the “complete care” test. His dedication to improving the seemingly minor details of family accommodations, whether it be encouraging family members to fly with players on long road trips or building a million dollar family room, has not gone unnoticed. Things like oversized custom lounge chairs shouldn’t be dismissed. They send a message to players and players talk to other players. Marks also traveled with the team on several road trips and has watched innumerable D-League contests.
Recently, he’s been seen overseas in various European gyms, leaving no stone unturned. The sheer attention to detail seen both in the news and behind the scenes should be lauded, especially compared to prior regimes. Basketball decisions may be important, but building a team and establishing a culture may require more than that.
A little bit (or a lot) of Luck
Let’s face it. The Golden State Warriors’ construction is dependent on several things breaking right for them. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson were drafted outside of the top five – and are two of the best players in the NBA. Draymond Green was a second round pick – of course, acquired from a Brooklyn Nets pick. In the Finals, he’s likely the defensive x-factor.
The signing of Kevin Durant required the perfect storm of seemingly uncontrollable events. If Steph Curry remained healthy early in his career, Durant’s huge deal may not have fit within the Warriors’ payroll. Durant was signed in a year where the salary cap jumped $24 million – an event unlikely to ever repeat. If the Thunder won Game 6 of last year’s Western Conference Finals, Durant very well would still be in Oklahoma. If the Warriors had won the Finals after making regular season history, KD may not even have considered a westward move. The sheer luck of the Warriors may not be replicated, even with the very best planning and due diligence.
But as Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey once said, “luck is the residue of design.” Sure, the Nets may draft or sign an unexpected gem in the future. But preparation, research and grit (of the Brooklyn variety) will increase the Nets’ chances of getting lucky.
The Golden State Warriors and Brooklyn Nets were on opposite ends of the NBA spectrum. But slowly, the Nets are trying to establish a foundation for success. That could be said for many teams. Prior to their success, Golden State made the playoffs twice in 20 years. The Brooklyn Nets’ drought may be dreadful, but a path to relevancy is seemingly in place.