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The Golden State Warriors' Best Trade Ever: Trading Years Of Misery For Baron Davis

As mentioned on Monday, SB Nation - NBA is continuing its weekly theme days today with a look around the league at the best trades ever. The results of our GSoM poll showed the 2005 trade for Baron Davis as the overwhelming favorite and I don't disagree. But after a comment from DaymanCometh, I started sort of writing disjointed thoughts about why this trade was any better than others giving how short a time period Davis and the We Believe trade made an impact.

It ended up sort of becoming a foray into my experience as a basketball fan and how the Davis trade fits. I initially wasn't going to post it because it's so long, but then just decided to put the parts together and see what happened.

The first time I saw Baron Davis play in person was at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion during Christmas vacation in 1998.

My roommate and I, sophomores like Davis, had a campus sports radio show at visiting American University in Washington, D.C. and as California natives we managed to get media access to broadcast the game.

We came in expecting a loss so we certainly weren't surprised that our Eagles were down double digits at halftime. But AU made a comeback and managed to close the game to within 6 points before losing by 10.

It was a great showing for the small CAA school, but that was never really the biggest attraction to attending the game anyway: my roommate was a L.A. native and long-time UCLA fan and I was eager to go strictly to see Baron Davis in what could be his last season before entering the NBA Draft.

Although then-UCLA coach Steve Lavin later called the game the worst of their season, Davis didn't disappoint at all. The game is something of a blur now, but Davis' three point play near the end left an impression, perhaps both in the good and bad ways that defined that UCLA team and Davis' later basketball career: UCLA was good enough to toy with AU in the second half and put the game away at the end but they seemed to lack the focus they needed to just blow this team out.

Jon Wilner - then writing for the L.A. Daily News - later described the game as a "pre-Christmas snoozer", but Davis obviously had brighter days ahead.

The Calm Before the Nightmare

I wasn't always a hater of the Los Angeles Lakers or all things L.A.

My parents met in Boston and my father held similar views about the city as Celtic legend Bill Russell and made sure I was aware of them whenever commentary favored Larry Bird or the Celtics. The racial dynamic of that rivalry that some try to wish away was very real in my childhood and, as such, I grew up rooting for the Showtime Lakers.

For whatever reason, Byron Scott quickly became one of my favorite players, maybe because he was one of the younger guys, maybe because he wasn't a giant on my television screen, maybe because it just seemed like he always came up with a big shot while everyone was focused on the big stars.

I don't even remember attending my first Golden State Warriors game until the year Don Nelson took over as coach, but even then - pre-Run TMC - the Lakers remained my favorite Western Conference team though I quickly allowed myself a favorite Eastern Conference team once the Bay Boy Detroit Pistons took their turn at the top of the league. Things pretty much remained that way until the point when the Lakers traded two of my then-favorite players: Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel.

Van Exel was probably the first college point guard whose game I fell in love with during his senior year at Cincinnati. And really, it wasn't so much his style of play as the attitude he brought to the floor. He had already gained a reputation as a bit of a loose cannon even in college, but that was exactly why I loved watching him play: he played without fear and although he took his share of risks, the reward could be spectacular when things broke his way. This was a time when the internet wasn't full of statistics and thousands of words for every game to tell us what we saw – for me and many of my friends, all we had after games were done was whatever our perceptions were.

I can't even remember if mock drafts existed at that time - and if they did they certainly weren't as widespread as they are today - but I figured the Warriors wouldn't have much shot Van Exel though I would certainly root for whoever did get him.

- - -

Nightmare begins in T minus three seasons

I never really could understand why the Warriors chose to break up Run TMC.

I do remember watching something about the '91 draft and can't quite remember whether it was live or some post-draft analysis, but everybody seemed enamored with this Billy Owens guy that the Warriors eventually received in return for breaking up a team that seemed destined for one another.

They weren't Showtime by any stretch of the imagination, but dad took my brother and I to games when he could and I really began to enjoy it. In contrast to the rugged Pistons or Showtime Lakers who made winning a business, I can barely remember the outcomes of those Run TMC games - that was the team that sold me on basketball as something that could be really fun, both to play and watch.

Owens, I figured, might be an interesting fit if he really was the do-everything player that everyone assumes him to be. Of course, things didn't work out so well and I won't bother rehashing that, but suffice it say that it was my first hint that Warriors fandom was more like a sugar high than substantive meal: fleeting and possibly bad for you if digested in large quantities.

Nightmare begins in T minus one season

Chris Webber was the star of Fab Five, who again captured my imagination in part for reasons mentioned in ESPN's 30-for-30 documentary and like Run TMC, they made basketball fun.

We happened to be on a family vacation at Disney World on the day of the 1993 NBA Draft, but I begged my dad to interrupt the vacation to go to some restaurant to watch this draft unfold. It was the first time I actually anticipated a draft and was legitimately excited for it unfold.

I can't remember now how much information we had pre-draft at that time, but the prospect of getting a guy like Penny Hardaway, Bay Area native J.R. Rider, or even 7-foot-6 shot-blocking machine Shawn Bradley was certainly going to get this team back on track (even I laugh at the thought of Nellie having Bradley in hindsight). Something good was going to happen and the Warriors had a shot to get back to the fun of Run TMC.

That Webber was headed to the Warriors was magical enough. As I was watching the rest of the first round unfold, something else that I never imagined became apparent: Van Exel wasn't getting selected for some reason.

This had to be the first time that I not only attentively watched a draft, but that I realized that I had no idea what these people doing the drafting were thinking. How on earth could guys from Jackson State or New Orleans be drafted ahead of Van Exel? How is it that Corie Blount could be drafted before his star teammate?

Who in the world is Darnell Mee?

I have absolutely no recollection of Darnell Mee. The Warriors would later trade Webber due to a conflict with Nelson, which I never fully forgave Nelson for though I suppose in retrospect that the structure of Webber's contract was as much to blame for that.

Naturally, Van Exel went to the Lakers, had 23 points and 8 assists in the first game of his career, 35 points on 6-for-9 3-point shooting to start his second year, and then became an All-Star in 1998.

For me, the outcome of that draft was probably my first major disappointment as a Warriors fan.

- - -

Five seasons after the nightmare began

When the Lakers traded Van Exel, I began to lose interest in rooting for them and it ended altogether when Eddie Jones in March 10, 1999.

On March 11, 1999 Baron Davis' Bruins were upset in the first round of the NCAA tournament by Detroit, his last game in a UCLA uniform before entering the 1999 NBA Draft.

Davis was selected third overall by the Charlotte Hornets. The Warriors, meanwhile, left the draft with Vonteego Cummings, which was just the latest in a long line of bad moves for the Warriors.

The four drafts after the Webber deal had produced first round picks Clifford Rozier, Joe Smith, Todd Fuller, Adonal Foyle, and a grand total of 84 wins over four years. Sprewell choked out a coach. There were some ridiculous billboards of Carlesimo in shades.

Of the 12 seasons in between playoff berths, those were probably the worst - the losses kept coming and there wasn't really any end in sight, which is what made the 1998 draft such a massive disappointment.

Drafting Vince Carter and then trading him for Antawn Jamison almost made it seem like the front office was just trolling us or at least me - Carter was the guy I wanted that year. When we got back to school - my junior year in college - Carter was my preseason pick for rookie of the year.

Seeing him put on that Warriors hat, even just getting to imagine that for a few minutes, was easily the most exciting few moments as a fan since drafting Webber. Of course, we know what was going on in retrospect but I never really came to terms with the idea of Jamison - it felt like a representation of all the times the Warriors had lost out on a star though at least this time there was no real chance to grow attached.

We know what Jamison ended up doing for the Warriors - he was The Talent on a few bad teams as the Warriors continued to inexplicably pass up on potential for guys with low ceilings. He had back-to-back 51 point games against the Lakers, who I had grown to detest. And he led the team in scoring with 22.2 points per game in a 2002-03 season, which was a high-water mark for the team after years of misery.

Things finally seemed to be to falling into place with a pair of promising drafts in 2001 and 2002, even if the Warriors never drafted the guys I wanted - I would've preferred Richard Jefferson, Brendan Haywood, and Caron Butler over Jason Richardson, Troy Murphy, and Mike Dunleavy, but picking up Arenas in the second round made up for that in a way and this was clearly the most talented unit the team had since the last playoff berth. Yet I felt pretty strongly that Jamison probably needed to be traded in order for the team to get better - it looked like he had hit his ceiling and I was more interested in letting the young guys grow together. The Warriors needed a true small forward at that time who could defend and make plays - I don't know, someone like Caron Butler or Vince Carter would've sufficed – and Jamison was the clear tweener of the group who wasn't going to work defensively with Murphy and Richardson around him.

So I can't lie: I was elated when the Warriors traded Jamison for Van Exel.

- - -

9 seasons after the nightmare began

I was under no illusion that Van Exel was the same All-Star that he was in L.A. Or even that he would bring the same magic from Dallas that earned him a mention in a Jay-Z song. But I never stopped liking his bravado, his flair for the big play, and just the attitude that he brought to the court - he wasn't like the parade of nice guys that the Warriors tried to pass off to us as a basketball team. He was a star I'd followed since he was in college, albeit a fading star, and that was briefly exciting. The baggage he brought with him, which included expressing displeasure about the trade, sort of put a damper on things but not so much that I wasn't glad to finally get a guy I liked as a teenager.

Most importantly, he had an opt-out clause in his contract after one year meaning that in one fell swoop, the Warriors were free of both Jamison and Danny Fortson's hefty contracts and in position to build an actually coherent team.

Of course, by this point, there really was no reason to believe that the franchise could ever turn things around; at the same time, after investing all this mental energy in the team there really was no reason to stop.

Van Exel's stint with the Warriors was yet another season of mediocrity, just bad enough to miss the playoffs (by 6 games) and just good enough to play their way out of a top draft pick. It's probably not unreasonable to wonder whether the Warriors could have made the playoffs that season had Van Exel played more than 39 games or Murphy more than 28, but the coulda, woulda, shoulda had gotten old years ago.

I don't even have any particularly strong recollection of the 2003-04 season, though it wasn't as bad as the late-90's; by this point, the fun that rooting for the Warriors was during childhood was gone - it was almost a chore to watch them. And I mean that literally, after college I went to grad school and later started working in Baltimore - watching these games sometimes meant staying up until almost 1 a.m. And then going to work the next day. There's a point at which it was not even worth turning on the television to watch, even though my housemates and I had bought NBA League Pass so I could watch the Warriors and they could watch that team from L.A.

But the trade for Van Exel, the guy I had wanted the Warriors to draft a decade earlier, ended up resulting in one of the best trades in Warrior history: Van Exel netted the Warriors Dale Davis and the combination of Davis and Speedy Claxton turned into Baron Davis.

- - -

11 seasons after the nightmare began

The NBA trade deadline hadn't been a whole lot more kind than the NBA draft for the Warriors over the years, but the buzz on February 24, 2005 was that the Warriors were on the verge of getting Baron Davis, who ended up changing the team's fortunes.

We don't even have to talk about the terms of the deal or the circumstances that led to the Hornets deciding that moving Davis was the best move.

Davis made me excited to stay up past midnight again.

- - -

Waking up

The second to last time I saw Baron Davis play basketball in person was on March 17, 2007 as a member of the Golden State Warriors against the Seattle Supersonics at KeyArena.

The Warriors had already made their trade for Al Harrington and Stephen Jackson and had won five of their previous six games, slowly creeping up on that playoff spot that had eluded the franchise for so long.

The game itself was amazing; the fact that I finally had reason to believe this team was going somewhere was even better.

What transpired after that point was not only fun for us as long-suffering Warriors fans, but also a part of NBA history that most fans will never forget.

Just prior to the playoffs, I told friends that I really didn't care whether the Warriors won a game in the playoffs that year. I mean, one would be nice, but just getting over the hump and having a rooting interest in the post-season was enough.

Trading for Baron Davis after more than a decade of misfortune was best trade in Warriors history primarily because of the context - after years of poor decision-making as well as some random misfortune, something finally went the Warriors' way.

The Warriors were finally relevant again.

18 seasons, 1 playoff berth

Looking back now, we know that We Believe wasn't sustainable - it was a moment made of a perfect storm of misfit players and Don Nelson, who may not have entirely redeemed himself in the eyes of everyone for being involved with the break-up of Run TMC and a promising 1994 team but at least brought us a brief reprieve from years of nonsense.

However, had the Warriors had anything sustainable in the previous decade or so prior to this deal - or in the previous 25 years, as Bill Simmons suggests -€“ perhaps the fact that this trade generated less than 2 years of success might be a reason to pass on it as the best ever. And perhaps there is a bit of presentism at work in saying it is the best.

But the fact is, for a franchise that really only has had episodic success in the last two decades, there simply aren't many events that compete with the emotional high this provided. We Believe wouldn't have mattered half as much - now or as it was happening - had we not hit rock bottom for nearly two decades.

Baron left to get paid and perhaps the Warriors ultimately just paid the price for getting themselves to playoffs on the backs of misfits. But it's hard to measure the value of actually making the experience of being a Warriors fan fun again rather than something of an inertia-driven chore.

Thank you for helping us believe again, Baron.

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