Let’s paint a picture: on a back deck, or a front driveway, the game clock runs down. The small kid with the ball knows that their team is down one point, so they dribble around the imaginary screen, get space from the imaginary defender, and pull the trigger on the jumper.
As the imaginary broadcaster counts down the seconds, and the imaginary buzzer rings through the imaginary arena, the ball swishes through the net. Or clanks off the rim, if we’re being completely honest.
I’m describing myself, of course, but chances are I’m describing you as well. Every boy or girl who harbored dreams of being the next Wilt Chamberlain, or the next Michael Jordan, or the next Cynthia Cooper performed those back deck heroics hundreds, if not thousands of times.
Steve Kerr held that same childhood dream. But unlike most people, Kerr’s basketball dream actualized at some level. He won five championships as an NBA player, played for two of the league’s legendary coaches and with some of its greatest players, and hit more than one big shot.
And yet, despite those accomplishments, Kerr knows the reality: no little kid sits on the bench in their back deck basketball theatrics, cheering on their imaginary teammates. No wide-eyed basketball-loving child stands in the corner while their imaginary superstar teammate lights up the defense, then relinquishes the rock when the imaginary double-team comes.
With the season set to start tonight, Kerr reflected to Marc Stein of the New York Times that, “I would trade my career for [Steve] Nash’s in a heartbeat. Would I want to be a role player on championship teams or be a superstar like Steve was and dominate games and seasons?”
Forget the rings. Forget the parades alongside Jordan and Tim Duncan. Kerr just wanted to be the best basketball player possible.
Playing a big role, and maximizing your talents, is the biggest priority for most players, and for good reason. It’s what we all dreamed of.
And yet, as fans, we put an odd, and often illogical emphasis on winning. Kevin Durant got flack for joining the Warriors because he prioritized the “easy” path to winning, as if such a thing exists. Then, a year later, Kyrie Irving was heavily criticized for leaving Cleveland and the wins allocated there, in favor of an opportunity to play a larger role on a lesser team.
It’s here where the Warriors are highlighted as a team that is historically unique. Most teams have one or two stars, and if the number is two, the word “sacrifice” gets thrown around more frequently than Mark Jackson sprouts his own catch phrases.
Golden State has four stars. And apart from their bank accounts, the word “sacrifice” does not belong anywhere near either of them.
Durant and Steph Curry have lowered their scoring averages ever so slightly, though much of that is due to the process of learning to play together. A quick look at any MVP predictions article is a reminder that these two are still considered at the very top in terms of impact and numbers.
Which brings us to Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, the players who perfectly represent the intersection between superstardom, and role player efficacy.
There’s talk that Klay and Dray might be itching for new teams, with larger roles – and paychecks – though both men have refuted this. It could be true, yet this Warriors squad is seemingly the ideal platform for both player to shine as the stars that they are.
Consider Draymond, a player whose biggest impact is on defense. There’s no “go-to scorer” on that side of the floor. Dray won’t accumulate gaudier defensive statistics being on a poor defensive team. He won’t suddenly average 5 blocks per game playing for the Suns; instead, he’ll be forced to cover for his defensively inept teammates, who will put him in positions that no longer maximize all of his talents.
On offense, Dray’s greatest strength is his passing and playmaking. That trait isn’t a product of Curry and Klay 3s; instead, it’s highlighted by them. His brilliant vision wouldn’t take on a larger role playing for the Kings, it would just be rewarded less frequently.
For Klay – the man whose shots increased with Durant in the fold – the same is true. Klay’s true brilliance is found in his movement without the ball, where he is one of the greatest players in league history. His lethal jumper – arguably second only to Curry’s all-time – is automatic when combined with the space he generates.
Would Klay still be able to utilize that skill playing for the Magic? Yes, but it wouldn’t be any more on display than it is in Golden State. The shots gained by being the focal point of the offense would be negated by teammates who are unable to get the ball to Klay in that millisecond where he’s open and the defense is beat.
This isn’t to say that Green and Thompson would struggle as the best players on their teams; they wouldn’t. It’s merely to say that if the goal is to be the best player you’re capable of being, Klay and Dray are in the best situation possible.
If Steve Kerr had talked about Warriors players, instead of about Nash, he likely would have said that he’d trade his career for Curry’s, Durant’s, Thompson’s, or Green’s. And yet, having played his whole career as a role player, whose talents existed to complement the stars around him, Kerr surely understands the parallels between himself and his four best players.
The Warriors are a team of 15 role players. It just so happens that four of them are superstars.