In 1985, I went to my first NBA game. It might have been 1986; I'm not exactly sure. It was that season though... A youth pastor named Russ took a group of us kids down to the Oakland Coliseum for an afternoon game. Russ changed my life that day, though probably not the way he'd intended. He's always hoped that I would adopt his considerable faith, and I haven't. Instead, Russ, a lifelong Lakers fan, had introduced me to basketball, the NBA, and the Golden State Warriors.
I remember a few details about the game. I remember Sleepy Floyd, because his name was just the sort of thing a young boy who'd never watched a game before would remember. I remember one of the players being called Mr. Mean (Larry Smith).
I remember Terry Teagle having a big game. "You're a seagull, Teagle!", my friend Tim would bellow every time he scored.
And I remember Stacey, Greg, Tim, Russ, and I all going completely bananas from the upper deck when a guy named Georgi Glouchkov hit a 60 foot shot that didn't count.
I hadn't watched a game before. I grew up mostly in L.A. in a barrio. My mom was single and an addict, so my sister and I were just street kids. Eventually, my grandparents (RIP) adopted me and moved me into an affluent Bay Area neighborhood. A lot of the things that you might have picked up from your dad were foreign to me... including sports. I mean, I remember when the Harlem Globetrotters were on Scoobie Doo. And I remember when Dr. J became Dr. Chapstick:
That was about it for my previous basketball experience. It didn't matter. I was hooked, and I watched all the time. I still didn't really understand the game, but I watched. I saw Purvis and Mullin and JBC toil away that first year, and every other Warriors star from that night on, always scoring about a million points, yet always somehow giving up a million and one.
And so it went. The Johnny Bach era gave way to the George Karl era, which in turn became the first Nellie era... followed by Adleman, Carlesimo, Cowens, Musselman, Montgomery, Nellie's return, Smart, and the beginning of Mark Jackson's tenure (with a sprinkling of Lanier, Winters, Gregory and St. Jean). It didn't really matter who held the clipboard, the story was always the same: at best, the Warriors were a team of perimeter scorers that couldn't defend, especially in the paint.
They were 21st (of 23 teams) in defensive rating the first year I saw them, and the next year, too... and pretty much every year. Seriously. Webber's rookie year the team finished 13th (of 27 teams) in defensive rating. That was a really exciting time to be a Warriors fan, a crest that we clung to as the franchise would soon fall into an abyss of futility. And then in 1999 (a lockout shortened season), P.J. Carlesimo coached the team to a #10 defensive ranking. For only the second time in my fandom, the Warriors were an above average defensive team for a 50 game stretch. I watched that team in person. They were wretched. John Starks (13.8 ppg) was the leading scorer, followed by Chris Mills and Donyell Marshall.
The team's defense tumbled to 27th the following year, and remained in the high 20's for several years before Musselman managed to coax an almost respectable #18 ranking during his last season. Montgomery oversaw a slight improvement (16th and 17th of 30), and then Nellie came back and the team slowly dropped back, eventually bottoming out at 29th. Keith Smart wasn't really any better (26th), and neither was Jackson (27th).
I'd been following the team for nearly 30 years, and they had managed to put up a slightly above average defense exactly two times.
The team (sort of) tried to remedy the problem several times. They brought in "defensive minded" coaches like Dave Cowens. They drafted defensive centers like Foyle and Biedrins. They brought in players with good defensive reputations like Mookie Blaylock, Jerome Kersey, Dom McGuire, and Byron Houston.
It didn't matter. The team seemed to sign ten MarShon Brooks' for every Dale Davis that occasionally littered the roster. The only coaches that had made the playoffs with the Warriors were Don Nelson and George Karl. Those two have a combined record of about 2,500 wins and 1,900 losses, all of which came from defensive shortcomings and opponents dominating the paint.
March 13, 2012
Remember that day, Warriors fans, for that was the day that our identity changed.
That was the day that Joe Lacob, Jerry West, and Bob Myers (and Larry Riley, in theory) traded fan favorite Monta Ellis, a diminutive scorer and sub-par defender (basically the prototypical Warriors player) for Andrew Bogut, an injured Aussie-Croat defender with a chip on his shoulder and a penchant for defense.
and he said,
"I come from a land down under
Where beer does flow and men chunder
Can't you hear, can't you hear the thunder?
You better run, you better take cover."
Was there ever a more fitting lyric for a player? I don't even know what a "chunder" is (note: according to my comprehensive internet research, "chunder" is Aussie slang for the verb "vomit"), but I still think it's perfect for Bogut.
While fans at the Oracle were busy chundering over losing their hero, the organization made a commitment to defense that night that has stayed with the team ever since. The Warriors finished the season at a relatively familiar 27th in defensive rating in 2012.
Bogut started the 2012-13 season for the Warriors, missed the middle, and returned for the playoff push. The big Aussie quarterbacked the defense, sometimes pushing Harrison Barnes or Jarrett Jack into the right position, always barking out switches and cleaning up the regular shortcomings of an interior defense featuring Carl Landry and David Lee. Despite Bogut missing 50 games, the team improved to 14th in defensive rating, and made the playoffs for the first time since "We Believe". The former #1 overall pick managed to play in the playoffs, averaging over 27 minutes and helping to lead the team to a first round upset over the 57 win Denver Nuggets. For the third time in my life as a fan, the team played above average defense!
2014 saw further improvement, with the addition of defensive savant Andre Iguodala and 67 games played for Bogut. Suddenly, the "jump shooting" Warriors were the #4 defense in the league. Still, Bogut and head coach Mark Jackson feuded privately and publicly, and never seemed to get along. Jackson even questioned Bogut's injuries, publicly implying that the big man was either malingering or just plain fragile.
Bogut was soon lost for the postseason after breaking a rib playing nearly 32 minutes in a meaningless, late season loss to the Portland Trailblazers.
Of course, Jackson also told the players that injured teammate Festus Ezeli wanted the Warriors to fail, thinking that it would galvanize the squad. Wisely, the front office decided that Jackson's divisive motivational techniques just weren't the coaching strategy that the team needed, and they cut Jackson loose after a Bogut-less first round loss to the Clippers.
Enter Steve Kerr and possibly the best coaching staff in the business. Ron Adams and Alvin Gentry found more ways to involve Bogut in the offense besides just scoring, and often used him as the facilitator from the elbow and possibly the best pick-man in the business. The defense, with Draymond Green finally playing big minutes, continued to improve, this time all the way to #1. Coupled with the #2 ORtg, the Warriors were en route to the greatest accomplishment of all: the NBA Championship trophy.
February 10, 2016
And here we are today, following one of the greatest seasons in NBA history with an even better record so far. The defense is ranked 4th (just a smidgen out of 2nd), but the offense is #1 and the team remains undefeated against top teams. According to Jeremias Engelmann, Bogut mans the middle for three of the league's top 32 lineups, as well as ranking 3rd overall in DRPM.
That's three seasons in a row as a top five defense, and the team has been in the top half of the league defensively for all four of Bogut's seasons, after achieving that modest accomplishment only twice since 1986.
Bogut looks good. I just watched him play 28 minutes against Houston's all star center, and Bogut ran the floor really well, grabbed 11 boards and swatted six shots. His lone assist was an incredible bounce pass through the defense, and he managed to steal the ball three times en route to a +13 night and another record-setting win. For the game, Bogut put up a DRtg of 90 for the game, over 20 points better than any starter on either team. Still, the bright spot for me was just how well the big man moved.
He followed that with a 23 minute, nine rebound, three block performance against the Suns, good for yet another +13 night and yet another win... the 48th in just 52 tries. And while the team has all stars scattered throughout the roster, it was Andrew Bogut that changed the culture of the team from "small team full of shooters" to "lockdown defenders that will embarrass you and get your coach fired."
Not only that, but his little contributions might be his best. Never mind the blocked shots and defensive quarterbacking; his screens, court vision, and the crafty little jersey tugs and arm locks are reminiscent of a giant John Stockton. Yeah, I just compared Drew to the Pasty Gangsta. And I meant it. The man is a defensive mastermind. Furthermore, he's got just enough of a mean streak to keep opponents honest if they decide to "play physical" against Curry, and that mean streak has been the secret ingredient for the team's rise to the top of the league.
The defending champs are 48-4. The only people chundering now are the experts and opponents that think this is the same old Warriors team, too small and too soft to win real games against real teams. And that's not beer they're chundering.