Thursday, November 14, 2019

My Top Five Favorite Warriors (of this Dynastic Run)

I’ve wanted to write this for a while. Since at least last season. With Kevin Durant’s imminent departure, with Andre Iguodala (a.k.a. Iggy) and Shaun Livingston (a.k.a. S Dot) nearing retirement, it was clear that some seismic changes were in store for my beloved Warriors. And the present Golden State Warriors hardly resemble the great squads we’ve had in the recent past. Steph Curry—The Pipsqueak Fundamental—is out with a broken hand. Klay, the second Splash Brother, is rehabilitating from a torn ACL. Iggy was traded to Memphis to create salary cap space to add D’Angelo Russell and his max contract, and Livingston retired after managing to play 17 years in the NBA.

Nothing lasts forever. Impermanence is the only constant, but I want to put down my five favorite Warriors from this historic run. This is basically my ode to them (and probably my ultimate act in sports fandom to date).

#5 - Andrew Bogut
First, a couple of things to know about me:
  1. In team sports, my fandom gravitates toward teams who play outstanding defense. For example, when I used to watch football, I loved teams with a physical, hard-nosed, and unreleting defensive identity far more than teams with a flashy, high-scoring offense. I admired teams with punishing defenses that imposed their will on their opponents.
  2. I generally have a weak spot for assholes.
So of course I loved Andrew Bogut.

Last year, long-time Bay Area sports columnist Tim Kawakami wrote a fantastic piece noting all the key moves the Warriors made in order to build their dynasty. Of course, drafting and keeping Steph were the fundamental decisions that got it all started, but this team didn’t make the playoffs until they rid themselves of Monta Ellis and added Bogut. The Warriors won championships because of their elite defenses, and Bogut’s addition was instrumental toward endowing this franchise with such an identity.

Bogues is a crafty, fundamentally sound defensive player. When he was protecting the rim, he was always in the right position, always making the subtle shifts to correctly play the angles against cutters or the ball handler. Unlike other Warriors centers with greater athletic abilities like, say, JaVale McGee or Festus Ezeli (before his knee injury), Bogues was hardly ever out of position in protecting the paint. This was a reflection of his elite focus, on-court awareness, and high basketball IQ.

On the offensive end, I loved Bogue’s bone-crunching picks. He was excellent at setting them. Though they didn’t show up on the stat sheet like all the 3-pointers his teammates made, Bogues’ picks helped to free up our shooters to make their shots. And for a big man, he was a pretty nifty passer as well.

Other than his play, what I loved and appreciated about Bogut was his craftiness and attitude. He was a fucking Jedi master at the subtle dark arts of defense away from the ball, such as using elbows and forearms to an opponent’s back in order to establish better position for a rebound, or to jockey for defensive position in the paint. Or, sometimes he’d just flat out shove a guy to set the tone for his team (and these are the kind of plays that make me howl or titter):

It got him the reputation as a dirty player, but it basically means he was good at his craft. Andrew Bogut was not a guy to fuck with, and just about every championship team needs at least one of these guys on their roster. They call them “enforcers.” (Some other recent examples: the Raptors with Marc Gasol. The Heatles had Udonis Haslem, and the Celtics had Kendrick Perkins.)

And Andrew Bogut is a prickly bloke. A blunt, no nonsense dude with a “great, asshole sense of humor,” per Kevon Looney.

Basically, my kind of guy.

#4 - David West
David West played only two seasons with the Warriors, but he cracks my top five because he’s a player I long admired. He was not a tenacious defensive stalwart like Bogut, but D West was no slouch either; he was definitely in the same enforcer vein. I mean, David West getting all up into Tristan Thompson’s business is my absolute, hands-down favorite highlight of him as a Golden State Warrior:

Like Bogues, D West was not a man to fuck with. Once Bogut was traded so the Warriors could add Durant, D West was the grizzled veteran who provided our team with more requisite championship grit and toughness. Even if he didn’t play a lot of minutes, his spirit and physicality was important to our alchemy. And like many of our best players, his basketball IQ was exceptional.

For me, D West is a notch above Bogues because he was more of a joy to watch on offense. Like Bogut, his big frame allowed him to set some effective (and occasionally nasty) picks, but his passing was even better. When D West was in the game, I loved and thirsted to see our guys give him the ball in the post or at the elbow so he could turn and face the basket and hold the ball out with one hand to dice up the opponent’s defense with incisive passes to wings cutting toward the cup. At times, his nifty passing got me going just as much as a bomb from deep or a block at the rim. It was a joy to watch him patiently allow a play to unfold before he’d thread passes through the defense, or make a hand-off and set a pick for an open shot:

And then there was his mid-range shot. Goddamn, it was a thing of beauty. It seemed as though D West was automatic on wide-open mid-range shots from 15 to 19 feet. Even in the twilight of his career, West hit 50.8% of his mid-range shots, which was one of the best marks in the NBA—and not an easy thing to do (just ask Russell Westbrook!) Now that I’m the forty-year-old guy who occasionally shoots it up at a local blacktop court, I would fucking die with a smile on my face if I could ever consistently knock down about half of my mid-range shots.

#3 - Klay Thompson
Other than Oklahoma City Thunder fans, who doesn’t like Klay Thompson?

Klay’s the chill, dependable, quirky, fun-loving, and deceptively deep friend every good boy should have in life. Through this roster upheaval, he remains the most interesting Golden State Warrior. Having closely followed these players since 2012, I can anticipate what Steph and Draymond’s postgame comments will be once I hear the question, but Klay is still the one Warrior who will surprise the media with an unexpected response. This clip from last year’s first round series with the Clippers epitomizes this:

Its symptomatic of being a super-chill dude, but one thing I love about Klay is that he’s not egotistical—and it’s a personal characteristic that has undoubtedly contributed toward the Warriors dynasty. Unlike other NBA superstars, I don’t think Klay gives a shit about his stats. He literally doesn’t need to hog the ball, and he doesn’t need the spotlight. His attitude and behavior off the court may not be a good indicator, but Klay’s a fierce fucking competitor. When it comes to basketball, all he gives a shit about is winning. He’s a lunch pail kind of guy who shows up night in and night out and just goes about his business. Throughout this run, Klay’s been unbelievably dependable. Until he got injured and missed Game 3 of last season’s NBA Finals, Klay had never missed a playoff game in his career.

On the court, Klay can be an absolute killer. “Game 6 Klay” is a real thing for good reason (although he has had lackluster Game 6 performances). Last season, he was scorching in Game 6 against Toronto and looked like he could lead us to a decisive Game 7. In last season’s closely contested Western Conference semifinal series against the hated Rockets, Klay put up 27 points with 7 of 13 shooting from downtown to vanquish our rival. And, of course, Klay had his legendary 41-point performance with 11 3-pointers in Game 6 at Oklahoma City, which I still consider the greatest Warriors victory during this run.

And who can forget his NBA record 37-point 3rd quarter against the Kings in 2015? I’ve seen highlights of that game a number of times over the years, and it is still jaw-droppingly wild to behold. With a performance like that—as well as his 52 points in only 26 minutes—Klay is in contention as the ultimate heat-check shooter in league history.

Klay will inevitably go down as one of my all-time favorite basketball players because of his spirit. How many ultra competitors can check themselves back into a game to sink two free throws after tearing their ACL and also be so willing to make fun of themselves like #11 in his infamous “China Klay” dunk fail?:

Or seriously partake in a TV interview about scaffolding from a NYC reporter who doesn’t realize who he is:

To boot, Klay seems like a young guy who has the awareness to know how sweet he has it, and the grounded, big-picture perspective to know what’s really important in life.

Klay Thompson fucking rules. (And “Klay all day, baby!” remains one of my favorite lines to shout when I get rowdy at a bar watching a Warriors game—and I can’t wait to shout it again.)

How is he not my second favorite Warrior?

#2 – Andre Iguodala
Over this past decade of Warriors basketball, a number of players who I really liked have either retired (I see you, Jermaine O’Neal), been traded (Bogut), or been let go by management (I see you, Leandro Barbosa and Jarrett Jack). Maybe it’s because it is still fresh, but I’m not over Iggy’s departure.

Golden State’s championship aspirations weren’t legit until the Warriors traded for Iguodala. His veteran experience and steely presence is exactly what the up-and-coming Warriors needed to take the next step. And, in the years to come, Iggy was typically right in the middle of the Warriors playing their finest basketball. A signature example is the last five minutes of their elimination Game 6 in Oklahoma City where Iggy made a tough, game-tying lay-up over Andre Roberson, snatched the ball from Russ with less than two minutes to go and then zipped a perfect pass up court to Klay for the dagger-3 that gave the Warriors the lead for good:

Before he joined the Warriors, I respected Iggy’s versatile game in Philly and Denver. In sports—and in life—I’ve often admired those who are really good at a bunch of things. Although he has never been a natural scorer, Iggy can do just about everything else on the court: play lock-down D, hit the boards, run a fast break, calmly facilitate an offense, knock down big shots, attack the rim, and set his teammates up for buckets. Iguodala has always been a team-first guy bent on making his teammates better. At his best, Iggy was like a poor man’s Scottie Pippen. Like Pippen, I think Iguodala will go down as one of the greatest perimeter defenders the game has seen (and, at the very least, one of the best of his era). Iggy had the speed, agility, strength, and quick hands to harass and lock down the 1-3 positions.

But what really made Iggy a difference maker was his exceptional basketball IQ. Year in and year out Iggy demonstrated uncanny decision-making on both ends of the court. On offense, he rarely ever makes the wrong decision. His handle has never been flashy, but it’s always been fundamentally sound and gotten the job done. For years, the Warriors often played their best when Iggy played point forward with Steph and Klay flying around screens. He always directed the offense with John Stockton-esque efficiency, never seemingly exerting himself more than needed. And his poise when he handled the ball was instrumental towards our championship chemistry—and it’s an element this current iteration of the Warriors sorely misses.

To boot, I’ve been drawn to Iggy’s demeanor off the court. Among media members, Iguodala can be famously cantankerous—a player who has little patience for the typical slog of questions from reporters. At times, he can be sarcastic and snarky with the media. However, if he respects you, and if you catch him on the right night and engage him with a thoughtful question or two, he can wax philosophical and provide some fucking killer print material:

With his high intelligence, Iguodala has always been a guy who can’t stand much bullshit—and he also doesn’t spout much of it. Through his interviews, he’s always struck me as a person who understands what is important in life, and that his playing career is but a finite part of it. And he’s adept at sensing the big picture. When his Nuggets got upset by the upstart Warriors in the first round of the 2013 playoffs, he knew firsthand how special this team could be with its young-gunning backcourt, cagey frontcourt veterans, and the team’s overall excellent chemistry.

Lastly, I’ve had a personal affinity for Andre Iguodala because of his calm, understated yet deeply influential leadership. Iggy’s never been the flashy star, or the vocal leader of a ball club, but his work in supporting and leading his teammates behind the scenes is what I would aspire to if I were ever physically and mentally gifted to play basketball.

#1 – Draymond Green
Through his zeniths and nadirs (like his Game 5 suspension in the 2015-2016 Finals that basically cost the Warriors a title), Draymond’s been my boy, my favorite Warrior.

On the court, I love Draymond because he’s a hellacious defender and a great team player. When he’s engaged, he’s the best all-around defender since The Worm, Dennis Rodman. He’s a rare player with the bulk, rangy limbs (a 7’1 wingspan), surprisingly nimble feet, incredible basketball wits, and competitive will to competently defend any position on the court. It’s not luck or coincidental that he’s been a winner at every level; Draymond is masterful at doing all the small things to help get his team the win: like tapping the ball away off a missed shot for his team to retain possession in a close game; or setting screens to free up his teammates (I must admit that Draymond has gotten away with a lot of moving screens over the years); and all the hustle plays he makes on 50/50 balls. And like Iggy, I admire Draymond’s versatile game (though I sure wish his jump shot was a lot better!)

I also admire Money Green because nothing was handed to him. (Not surprisingly, Draymond grew up admiring Detroit’s Ben Wallace, who entered the NBA as an undrafted, undersized center.) He was born and raised in Saginaw, MI—a tough, working-class town notorious for its high violent crime rates. Even though he was a winner at Michigan State, leading two teams to the Final Four, little was expected of him as the 35th pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. But he worked his ass off, competed hard, learned how to play defense from Bogut, and maximized his strengths and talents to transform himself into one of the most unique players in today’s NBA. Somehow or another, he managed to turn himself from an undersized power forward to one of the most pivotal NBA players of the past five years because there’s no fucking way the Warriors are a championship-winning squad without him. There’s no way the Warriors are able to play Warriors basketball without Draymond’s versatility on the defensive end, which allowed them to play small lineups that ran and shot other teams off the floor. There is no Death Lineup without Draymond Green.

In terms of personal characteristics, I love Draymond because the man is incapable of bullshitting. He rarely beats around the bush. What you see is what you get with him, and I appreciate that about him, even if some of his comments to the media are obnoxious. Yet, if I want to hear how the team feels after a game, whether if it was a win or a loss, Draymond’s postgame comments are my first source because I know he has a profound pulse on the team and will not be dishonest in his assessment of their play. I also appreciate that he’s a dude who is willing to take blame and responsibility when shit goes wrong, like when he allows his emotions to get the better of him, or when his effort was substandard. If there’s one thing I cannot stand in a person, it’s when they refuse to take responsibility when they fuck up. I have no respect for such people.

Good or bad, since his rookie season, I have felt a kinship for Draymond because of his scrappy, fiery, underdog demeanor. During this exceptional five-year run, he has been the yin to Steph’s yang; with his tenacious heart of a lion, Draymond’s been the heartbeat of this team. At times, Draymond has singlehandedly willed the Warriors to win with his dogged, relentless effort. And, of course, I dig that he doesn’t give a shit what others think about him. Between Steph, Klay, and Draymond, he’s always been the one who naturally likes to play the villain, which—I humbly believe—was key toward their historically sharp play on the road. (In 2015-2016 season, the Dubs won an NBA record 34 games on the road. And they have won a road game in 23 consecutive straight playoff series, which is also an NBA record.)

I hope he retires a Warrior with Steph and Klay.

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