These Golden State Warriors are a weird bunch: they've been accused of flipping the NBA world on its head because of jump shooting (didn't some short guy already invent that back in the 1930s?), even though their hoops-DNA is remarkably familiar. And even though they played without a traditional center at times to smartly exploit extreme match-up advantages (if your opponent has no depth, isn't running more kind of common sense?), their roster composition is rather time-tested.
If we look back through NBA history, it's actually kind of surprising how fast we come to another team with a Warriors-ish profile. That would be the "Bad Boy" Detroit Pistons of 1987-1991. Below, we take a look at how incredibly similar these two Champions are.
The Point God
Basketball is a game of physical freaks, and your list of NBA Champions reflects that. LeBron James, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Shaquille O'Neal -- there's not a lot of room for normal-sized basketball savants. Keep going: Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, Moses Malone, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson. So then why are Isaiah Thomas and Stephen Curry so special?
Isaiah "Zeke" Thomas stood six-feet-nothin', but pound-for-pound, he may be the game's greatest competitor. Back in '88 against a favored Lakers squad, Thomas had his definitive performance. He scored 25 points in the third period of a must-win game, much of which was played on a badly sprained ankle (if I said "25 points on a sprained ankle in the third quarter of a playoff game, wouldn't you insist that we're talking about Stephen Curry?). This is possibly the greatest Finals performance of all time, although NBA.com fails to do it justice.
Thomas was a gamer: a smiling, soft-spoken killer of men and basketball spirit. His weapons were different, but he used what he had (a variety of '80s-approved floaters, runners, mid-range jumpers and lay-ins) to put you and your team to sleep. Sound like someone you know? He lacked Curry's signature three, but so did everyone else at the time.
Advanced stats may not look quite so favorably on Thomas, or many in past generations. But he was a 12-time all-star, three-time All NBA first team member, and one of the great point guards of his generation. And without question, he made the Pistons work. He was their alpha dog and their closer. He was the first one to join the team (like Curry!), and the Bad Boys could never happen without him.
Not enough similarity for you? Go to Isaiah Thomas' basketball-reference page and look at his known nickname. Un. Real.
The Bad Boys earned their moniker and then some. From the mid-1980s until the early 1990s, Pistons bigs like Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn made sure of that: the two enforcers patrolled the painted area like middle linebackers, looking to lay a wallop on anyone who dared to approach the rim. Unlike the modern game, wherein the proliferation of three-point specialists, "spread" offenses and stretch forwards have created larger driving lanes, the NBA in the 1980s was very much a contest to get good, close looks at the basket. And with Mahorn, Laimbeer, and later Mark Aguirre and Dennis Rodman, the Pistons dominated opponents physically, and mentally. They hammered players on their way to the rim to prevent easy shots, and their continued punishment, and their reputation, deterred teams from attacking the paint -- a huge win for the Pistons defense.
The Golden State Warriors aren't quite the Detroit Raiders, but they've come as close as a 2015 team can reasonably come. Yes, hand-checking is gone and the key has a three-second violation, but teams can still be physical, bordering on dirty. And no tandem has perfected the art of chicken-wing'ing screens and elbowing offensive rebounders quite like Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green.
Just about every fan base in the Association has complained of the cheap shots and dirty tricks that Bogut and Green regularly get away with, and that's okay. As with every other advantage in sports, it's only a problem if your team isn't good at it. Right now, Green and Bogut are a problem for teams looking to score close to the hoop, and that powers a defense that has consistently scored as elite for three seasons running, now.
In the summer of 1985, the Detroit Pistons drafted a slick-shooting, but relatively unheralded shooting guard from a lower-tier school to pair with their all-world point guard. And at that moment, the league's best backcourt tandem was born. Fast forward nearly thirty years, and the Golden State Warriors turned the same trick in finding Klay Thompson at Pullman, Washington.
Joe Dumars, a six-time all star, gave Isaiah Thomas and the Pistons a steady, 20-point contributor with a terrific work ethic. The two guards helped to push each other through practice, and wound up giving Detroit all of the offense it needed to repeat as back-to-back league champions. Although Detroit's offense would never compare to Golden State's triangle-motion-triple-post-splash attack, they consistently ranked in the top-10 offensively.
What's more, Dumars gave the Pistons a willing defender on the perimeter, which was an absolute necessity for teams hoping to beat Clyde Drexler's Trailblazers, or Michael Jordan's Bulls (the latter of whom called Joe Dumars the best defender he ever faced -- talk about praise from Caesar).
Klay Thompson may never be as good as Joe D on that end, but he's certainly a willing defender with above average length for the position, more than capable of helping the Warriors on both ends. Like Dumars in 1985, Klay Thompson appears to be the perfect running mate for Stephen Curry and these Warriors.
Okay, now I'm cheating: I've already used Draymond Green. But he just makes too much sense.
Offensively, they couldn't be more different. But defensively, and strategically, Draymond Green may be Dennis Rodman reincarnated (and we certainly hope he is!). Undersized, unorthodox and scrappy as hell: Rodman was a weird, convention-defying defensive trump card. He could guard anyone in the post, size advantage be dammed, and he simply lived to rebound the basketball--shutting down possessions like clockwork. Though he would later grow to become the best rebounder ever, he was merely 'great' in his early Pistons days.
Rodman, a second round power forward who wasn't considered a strong NBA prospect, was a defensive Swiss army knife who really had no comparison at the time. He was an anomaly that really didn't make sense: size wins in the NBA, and scrappy, undersized second round players aren't supposed to physically dominate bigger, more highly touted stars.
Not enough for you? Well, there's also this: Rodman's arrival pretty much pushed the Pistons from also-rans to legitimate contenders. But it came at a price: Rodman ate into star forward Adrian Dantley's minutes, and this quickly caused a rift in the locker room. When the Pistons traded Dantley for Mark Aguirre in 1989, they essentially bet on Rodman for the future, and the team took off.
The Warriors' situation wasn't as contentious, but it was eerily similar. Draymond's arrival helped to push the Warriors defense from good to great, but it was David Lee who had to sacrifice major minutes to give him the room to grow. Draymond's offense makes him a bigger part of the Warriors than Rodman was for the Pistons, but defensively, they're both unique multi-position savants who relish a defensive challenge.
Back in the 1980s, the game was simply different. Teams didn't play super-small, and the three point shot wasn't a consideration for forwards unless his name was Larry Bird. But to a very large extent, Dennis Rodman and Draymond Green are essentially interchangeable parts. Their presence gave their championship squads a leg up on the field.
The team is greater than the sum of its parts
Like our Golden State Warriors, legendary Pistons General Manager Jack McCloskey showed similar foresight in evaluating the league, assembling a roster to win in a league that was still evolving. In order to beat the Showtime Lakers, Bird's Celtics and Jordan's Bulls, the Pistons had to play a physical, hard-nosed brand of basketball in order to strip opponents of their superior athletic and offensive abilities.
The answer wasn't necessarily to load up on even-better-players to out shoot Bird, out pass Magic and out-Jordan Jordan. As McCloskey conceded when he downgraded Hall of Fame scoring wing Adrian Dantley for Mark Aguirre, the real answer was to put together a team of players to beat the Celtics, Lakers and Bulls. Aguirre was much bigger, willing to accept a deferential role to Isaiah Thomas, and a more willing defender (as evidenced by Aguirre's superior defensive rating statistics, per basketball-reference.com). In one stroke, McCloskey's controversial mid-season deal solved a growing locker room headache and made the Pistons greater than the sum of their parts.
The Warriors took a very different path here, but the theme remains. Golden State was widely expected to trade at least two key contributors (Klay Thompson, David Lee) for all star scorer Kevin Love. It was a no-brainer trade that they had to make. He had bigger averages, and a better reputation as an elite player. But as the Pistons concluded with Dantley, he wasn't the right player for that team, talent be damned. Championship teams aren't a fantasy roster: they're a collection of people and personalities. Their skills don't exist in a vacuum -- they're interdependent on the rest of the team's players. Winning a Championship is about more than upgrading a single player. You've got to build the team to do it. And both of these teams nailed it in their own time.
One last word...
I took an impromptu trip to Orange County the other weekend, and returned Sunday morning. I sat in an aisle seat on the plane, directly in front of a middle-aged man. Next to him sat a teen-aged girl, perhaps 19 years old. I doubt they knew each other, as their conversation developed awkward-slowly over the course of the flight.
I buried my head in a thick book. My friend sat directly across the aisle from me, dotting through a newspaper. The 19 year old was apparently new to the San Francisco bay area, and had many questions. Or perhaps more accurately, the middle-aged man had many answers, and he offered them to questions, whether she had any or not.
I hummed through a chapter pretty quickly as I overheard assorted tidbits about Napa and Sonoma. Pretty common conversation points for a bay area first-timer -- though usually not for someone under the age of twenty-one. Napa is all big box chains: get-ya-in, get-ya-out. Try this place -- it's awesome. Whatever.
A new chapter. San Francisco platitudes. It's beautiful, it's surprisingly cool, North Beach has great food. A look out the window: still 20,000 feet up with nothing but clouds in sight. Back to my book.
At some point the fasten seat-belt sign dings on, and a garbled pilot informs us that we've begun our initial descent. I buckle up and go back to reading. But something stops me. My ears twitch -- I just heard someone mention Oakland.
I'm an Oakland native. I live in San Francisco now, but I spent all of my formative years in Oakland. I always pay attention when someone mentions that place. It was the man behind me, giving the girl instructions on Oakland. Paraphrasing:
Yeah there's some cool places downtown, but it's not worth getting shot.
I realize I had been blindly running my eyes through words on the page, not reading a thing. I was too focused on their conversation, and unable to do both things at once. I mentally shake my head loose of cobwebs and search for the last words I read. Back to the book.
Black guys see you and just want to hassle you.
I saw a guy get shot through the neck! You don't ever want to go to Oakland, ever. Richmond, too! They're just horrible.
I closed my book, and looked over at my friend. She was wide-eyed, looking over her shoulder.
"Did he not see you when he got on the plane?" she asked.
"Did he not realize that there were people with ears on this plane?" I responded.
You see, I get a bit defensive when people dump on Oakland -- especially if they have never been there. I could go on, but that's not the purpose of this article. The point is that some cities get beat up a bit more than others. Oakland is such a city: an ethnically diverse, historical powder keg of a town that has served as a battleground for so many of America's cultural battles. It's history is a bit too rich to sum up in several minutes worth of news room ticker feeds.
Detroit is also such a town. And whether fans know it or not, the Pistons and Warriors fan bases each share a spirit that can't be reproduced. It's simply a byproduct of the place these fans call home. And regardless of whether they play in Auburn Hills or San Francisco, some piece of that spirit can never die. So with respect to the Showtime Lakers and indomitable Bulls, it was easy to determine which NBA dynasty the Warriors most closely resembled. Honestly, it couldn't have happened any other way.
So what does this mean for the Warriors? It means they can play on Neptune for all I care, and they'll still be ours. They won, they did it their way even though everyone said they couldn't, and we're damn proud to have seen them do it, at last.
Just like Detroit's Bad Boys Pistons.
So the next time you see a Pistons fan, keep it in mind.
*Stats from basketball-reference.com