Michael Jordan — a six-time NBA champion and five-time NBA MVP — knows the recipe for basketball success. “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships,” he once said.
In other words, talent alone is not enough to get it done, and neither is intelligence on its own. Therefore, it can be deduced that even talent and intelligence together are not enough for a team to secure the coveted Larry O’Brien trophy. According to Air Jordan, the required ingredient is teamwork.
We all know what teamwork is, but the Merriam-Webster definition adds weight and perspective:
teamwork (noun): work done by several associates with each doing a part but all subordinating personal prominence to the efficiency of the whole
Breaking down the definition, each person in the organization is responsible for “doing a part,” but each person gives up “personal prominence” for the sake of the “efficiency of the whole.”
Can the Golden State Warriors — from front office to locker room — be considered anything other than a teamwork-driven organization? Whether making sacrifices in playing status, money or points on the stat sheet — from owners to players — various members of the Warriors’ organization have forsaken “personal prominence” for the benefit of the team.
All-star bench warmer
In 2014, fans and members of the media got their first inkling that this team was very different from NBA norms when one-time All-Star Andre Iguodala came off the bench — for the first time in his career — in a game against the Lakers.
In a postgame interview, Iguodala was asked his feelings about the possibility of relegating his starter status to Harrison Barnes permanently. “I don’t know,” he said, clearly skeptical. “That’s a good question.”
But, ultimately, he expressed a desire to do the right thing for the team, stating:
“It’s just growing up, being smart about the situation. You could do the opposite and kind of just tank it just to say that it’s wrong. But like I said, our whole focus with this team is to try to continue to improve and make the most out of our unit, and we have so much depth, there are opportunities for us to get where everybody wants to be. ... It’s just playing ball, you know? You try not to make a big deal out of it.”
The whole world knows the outcome of Coach Steve Kerr’s little experiment: two championships and countless NBA records and awards by the team and various players. Now, see if you can name five current players who would never entertain such an experiment, let alone commit to one. A player whose name rhymes with Lussell Lestlook comes to mind — but we’ll get to him in a moment.
New guy gives teamwork testimony
Although Golden State won the NBA Championship in 2015, no player on the squad understands the importance of teamwork more than the new guy: Kevin Durant. Unfortunately for him, he toiled for the first nine years of his career in an environment hampered by a dearth of teamwork, seeing first-hand that “personal prominence” by any player — no matter how good — does not lead to championships.
So, it is no wonder that in a postgame interview following his first NBA Championship win, a champagne-boozy Durant touted teamwork as the core principle of the team. When asked what it means to him to be a Warrior, he said, “We come in and we preach team ... every single day.”
The new guy, apparently, has been a quick learner — not only embracing team values in his first year and playing a major role in Golden State’s ability to secure another title, but taking home the NBA Finals MVP trophy home, to boot.
Other important words that came out in the interview were togetherness, unselfishness and cohesiveness.
In the humble style of someone truly at peace with being one part of a much bigger whole — albeit, an impressive and important part of that whole — Durant listed the ways big scorers like Klay Thompson, Stephen Curry and himself — had to give up points for the benefit of the team. He credited Draymond Green, also, for his past ability to step up and score big when other players were slumping, but noted that Green would probably never have another high-scoring game thanks to the team’s firepower and depth. Team-focused Green is apparently okay with this if fewer points on the stat sheet mean more rings on his fingers.
After crediting Curry for being a “megastar” and Green for being a defensive beast, Durant added, “I just tried to [come here and] add my little flare to the [already superior] group.”
A study in contrast
By now, the feud between Durant and Russell Westbrook is old news. But it is hard not to imagine that Durant, in his last few years with the Oklahoma City Thunder, was craving something better: an actual team, rather than a group of guys coming up short repeatedly because a key player was focused more on “personal prominence” than team success.
Despite the crackpot machinations of Stephen A. Smith and other media “personalities” that fueled the erroneous and laughable theories that Durant fled to Golden State because he wanted, either 1) an easier path to a championship or 2) to escape the Thunder because his ego could not handle sharing the spotlight with Westbrook, evidence shows otherwise.
Since joining the Warriors, Durant has applauded his teammates in the same way they applaud him. He knows that Curry is the guy — the face of the franchise — and he obviously is cool with this because, more than personal accolades, he appears to love winning. Durant could not escape the spotlight if he tried, thanks to his talent. But he seems quite content being one man on a team with other men of different, but equally unbelievable, talent.
What Smith and others get wrong is that nothing came easy to Durant in life, and everything came through hard work. So why would he look for a magic carpet ride now? Additionally, the issues in Oklahoma City had nothing to do with Durant being in an ego battle with Westbrook over who would get the ball in the final seconds, with the game on the line. Westbrook needed to be the guy, however, as his “personal prominence” seemed much more important than “the efficiency of the whole.”
By contrast, Durant has only been keen for the ball to go to the open man who can get the best shot off. The man most likely to hit the game-winning shot in Oklahoma City was Durant. But a player who hits the game-winning shot gets the most media attention and, this, Westbrook’s ego could not handle.
So, instead of making the play that puts the team in the best position to win the game, Westbrook repeatedly frustrated his teammates by dribbling the ball into the earth’s core — hellbent on forcing the game-winning shot from his hands — rather than passing to the guy with a higher-percentage shot opportunity, for a likelier bucket.
Here, Westbrook can be seen on the right side of the basket in full dribble-force mode. Durant is at the top of the key, with nary a player around him, while Serge Ibaka positions himself on the left side of the court — totally alone. Westbrook does not look at either player, let alone try to get the basketball to one of them.
In the end, Durant gives up all hope of getting the ball and places his hands on knees ... just before Westbrook shoots the inevitable air ball and the clock runs out.
Of course, Westbrook’s accomplishments in the 2017 season cannot be denied. He scored his 42nd triple-double in April with 50 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists — to break Oscar Robertson’s long-held record; he capped off this grand achievement by taking home NBA MVP honors. Westbrook gave a tearful acceptance speech and received words of congratulations from the worlds of basketball and entertainment, including a word of praise from his former teammate, Kevin Durant.
Westbrook sought “personal prominence” and he got it. But his reputation for being a selfish player has deterred many elite players from entertaining free-agency possibilities in Oklahoma City. Paul George, after being traded to the Thunder by the Indiana Pacers, apparently sent an S.O.S. to Kevin Durant seeking encouragement. Durant had glowing things to say ... about the personnel, the food and the facilities.
By contrast, Durant wanted a championship even if it meant forsaking individual accolades to get it. After the Warriors’ first extended road trip of the 2016-17 season, Durant — asked about a fourth-quarter pass to Iguodala late in the shot clock, for a corner three — said: “I’m just trying to play basketball and make the right play. If I see a shot open I’m gonna shoot it. If I see a pass, and somebody’s open, I’m gonna pass the ball. It’s that simple.”
No dribbling into the earth’s core for Durant, or any other Warriors’ player.
One of the biggest tests of team commitment is whether individuals are willing to back their talk with bricks. To support team efforts to keep players like Iguodala and Shaun Livingston on the squad, Durant offered to take a $10-million salary cut.
But one player’s sacrifice is not enough to sustain an entire organization. The owners must be willing to surrender surging profits to maintain a championship-level team. Sadly, many owners are not willing to do this, choosing instead to stuff their pockets with the cash of now, rather than investing in long-term cash flow. After all, if a team remains a championship-contender for years to come, any luxury tax bills will pay for themselves down the line.
Thunder owners, for example, are notoriously of the take-the-cash-now mindset. Throughout Durant’s time in Oklahoma City, the owners never ponied up the dough to put more talent around him and Westbrook to make the Thunder a true championship contender. After not having a nine-year investment of his playing career matched by financial investment from the OKC owners to secure better players, smartly, Durant moved on to a team whose owners, Joe Lacob and Peter Guber, are playing the long game.
Stephen Curry, after being drastically underpaid for a few seasons now, scored the biggest NBA contract in NBA history: $201 million, for five years. So, here, the owners made good on his contributions to the team, retroactively. Despite Durant’s salary cut to keep the team intact, Golden State has still entered insane luxury-tax territory, approximated in the double-digit millions. Knowing this tax bill is coming, Lacob and Guber still paid Curry the big bucks he was owed and brought back key guys like Livingston and Iguodala. In other words, they took a hit to the wallet for the sake of the team.
In a recent interview during Summer League, Kerr had this to say about the team’s owners:
It’s unbelievable. The bill that we’re going to have to pay is off the charts. So I give Joe and Peter a ton of credit. They stepped up to the plate just like they said they would. We’re lucky. We have an organization that backs up the talk about being all about winning.
At every level of the organization, individuals are foregoing “personal prominence” — and profit — for the “efficiency of the whole.” For the Warriors, efficiency means keeping together the parts that have been successful, by any means necessary.
Imagine what our society would be like if average citizens put the good of their communities over individual needs, and if elected officials put the needs of the people over “personal prominence” and profit.
Congratulations: A character study
Considering the dissonance in their relationship, it was a bit surprising — but also inspiring — to witness Durant issuing exuberant praise for Westbrook on his MVP win. “Huge congrats to Russell Westbrook on MVP,” Durant stated, “[T]hat boy went out there and was a created player on 2k all year, f***** balled out. Gotta respect it!”
So, out of curiosity, I researched whether Westbrook had congratulated Durant on his first NBA Championship. A Google search of the phrase westbrook congratulates durant produced the following results.
Of course, there is no surprise here — just gratitude for the strong values on display by Kevin Durant: common decency, humility, being the bigger man.