By Casey Egan
The Golden State Warriors have become known as the villains of the NBA. They’ve made back-to-back NBA Finals appearances, they have arguably the most stacked starting five in the league, and they lured Kevin Durant to an already championship-ready roster. Not to mention, a considerable chunk of their visible fan base appears to be nearly as new of an acquisition to the organization as KD. I get the disdain from around the league. But there’s another side to this story–one that’s rarely discussed or recognized. This year’s Warriors team is the feel-good comeback story of the season in the NBA.
Bear with me.
Consider what the team has endured—and still accomplished—since blowing a 3-1 lead in last year’s finals.
For starters, one of the defining elements of Golden State’s recent greatness was its depth. After the team walked off the floor at Oracle for the last time last June, they bled talent, losing Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, Marreese Speights, Festus Ezeli, Leandro Barbosa, and Brandon Rush. Combined, these guys poured in over 41 points a game in the 2015-2016 season. But they all served other important roles besides scoring. Barnes was a supplemental scorer for the Warriors, and could also defend exceptionally well. Ezeli was a strong physical presence down low on a team that plays a finesse style. Speights scored in the paint, but could stretch the floor and shoot the three.
Yes, they added Durant and guys like David West (36 years old) and Zaza Pachulia (33 years old), but from a depth perspective, the team is considerably worse off this go around.
Despite it all, the team tried to maintain a low profile (as much as a team can in the modern NBA), grinding out the league’s best record in the league’s toughest conference. They molded their new pieces into roles that worked.
Durant–who isn’t accustomed to being hated–went undefeated against his former team in all four matchups. That included his first game back, where he was reportedly called racial slurs.
They’ve gone undefeated in the playoffs thus far, despite their head coach being sidelined with a reeling back injury. And it’s been a comeback story, too, for Mike Brown—the coach who has overseen the team in Kerr’s absence.
Despite being booted by LeBron in Cleveland, fired by the Lakers after just five games, and fired again in Cleveland just before LeBron returned back, Brown now finds himself with an 8-0 postseason record and facing Gregg Popovich—the coach who gave him his first NBA job—in the Western Conference Finals. And lest we forget, this was an opportunity that only came about because of Luke Walton’s departure.
From an objective perspective, it’s unfathomable to me to see the double standard of hatred applied to the Warriors and not the Cavaliers. To knock the Warriors for building a “super team,” and not LeBron—the guy who literally created the super team culture—is textbook hypocrisy. And for those who will try to point out that LeBron was the villain in Miami for a period of time, that descriptor seems to be shaken now, despite LeBron’s continued insistence of a minimum of two hall of fame pals wherever he plays.
The Warriors are a super team—to a degree—but so are the Cavs. And the Warriors are just playing by the rules that LeBron set for what it takes to be competitive in the modern NBA. The only difference is the Cavs just won the NBA Finals. Usually, the defending champs are hated. Fans hate seeing repeats. Yet, somehow, the Cavs remain the darlings of NBA fandom and media sphere.
And for Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, this year is literally about a comeback. As he lay bed stricken with crippling back pain, he is scrambling for any remedy he can find to get off his back and back on the sidelines to complete this team’s redemption effort.
It’s hard to not root for a guy like Kerr, who is no stranger to overcoming adversity. His most famous triumph occurred while he was playing a college game a few years after his father’s assassination, and he was taunted with chants of the name of the terrorist organization that carried out the murder. How did he respond? He hit all six threes in the first half.
As this wonder tale of absolution plays out, the average fan is unlikely to see it this way. But that’s okay, the Warriors aren’t playing for us, they’re playing to get rid of the pit in their stomach from last year. And I’m hoping they will be able to do so.