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A sense of what the Warriors are

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An argument for these Warriors as an evolutionary team in basketball history rather than an aberration

NBA: Playoffs-Portland Trail Blazers at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this summer, I read John McPhee’s book on the time he spent with Bill Bradley while Bradley was a college player at Princeton, A Sense of Where You Are. Originally a feature profile for The New Yorker, McPhee expanded it to be book length. In it, McPhee documented Bradley’s college career at Princeton. McPhee focused on 1964-65 NCAA basketball season which saw Bradley’s Princeton Tigers finish third and Bradley win both the regular season and tournament most outstanding player award.

“When you have played basketball for a while, you don’t need to look at the basket when you are in close like this [...] You develop a sense of where you are.”

The book’s title comes from this quote from Bradley. McPhee emphasizes Bradley’s sense of the game and his heightened awareness on the court. Between this and his unselfish nature on the court, getting his teammates involved even to the detriment of his own statistics, McPhee portrays Bradley as wholly in tune with the game whenever he steps onto the court. As I read McPhee writing about Bradley, my mind frequently turned to the Warriors of these past few seasons because so much of what made Bradley and his teams great is also what makes this current Golden State team great.

As made clear by the book’s title, what put Bradley above was his sense of what was happening on the basketball court. Bradley’s awareness and intellect allowed him to play well within an offense that is free-flowing and not dominated by set plays. It is within this kind of system that Bradley played in college. Here is McPhee, describing Bradley’s coach Butch Van Breda Kolff:

“He is an Abstract Expressionist of basketball [...] he does not believe in a set offense. He likes his offense free-form.”

The Warriors, though running an offense relatively more set-driven, embody those principles of creativity and movement seen on those Princeton teams for which Bradley played. Even thinking about basketball in terms of abstract expressionism could apply to the Warriors. They play a style of basketball that calls to mind Jackson Pollack’s “action painting,”emphasizing the free movement of the brush and capturing the action of painting rather than its careful application of paint.

Steve Kerr’s offense is built around players moving freely across the court with and without the ball like the paint on a Pollack canvas. Other offenses, those more isolation-driven schemes, are like portraiture or more representational forms of painting. The Warriors, like those Bradley-led Princeton teams, are fluid, always moving, not stationary or trapped in one space. And just as that offense works when an intelligent player like Bradley is driving it, the Warriors possess a similarly high basketball IQ at the heart of their abstract expressionist offense with Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and Kevin Durant all taking part in dictating the action.

RAA Previews Major Abstract Expressionism Exhibition
The movement captured in Jackson Pollack’s “action painting” style is mirrored in a basketball sense with the Warriors’ movement heavy offense.
Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images

McPhee’s book focuses on Bradley’s college career at Princeton, but given how Bradley’s game translated so well into the NBA and the Knicks of the 1970s, the pro game never feels far from the picture. What McPhee writes about Bradley in college could certainly apply to him as a pro and the Red Holtzman-coached Knicks that won two titles in 1970 and 1973. Those teams, led by Bradley, Dave DeBusschere, Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, Earl Monroe, played a style of basketball that was an antecedent of sorts for the Warriors of today.

Obviously there are some ways in which this comparison does not perfectly line up, specifically because the three point line didn’t exist in the days of Bill Bradley. But when one thinks about the core principles that Bradley espoused in the championship-winning Knicks, one can see an idea of basketball that would come to manifest itself in this current Warriors team.

The Knicks played basketball predicated on passing and ball movement, sharing of the offensive responsibility with shots distributed more or less evenly. Above all, what that team did was to play as a cohesive unit, a collection of great talent that functioned together as one. This is seen in Golden State as well. Even with all the elite offensive weapons the Warriors have— Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson in the starting lineup alone— they never think twice about making the next pass, moving the ball one more time. They know that they will get their chance to score when it is the right time.

While Curry or Thompson or Durant will be “selfish” when the occasion calls for it (a particular defensive matchup or when one player has a hot shooting hand), their first focus is to play well within the flow of the offense. They are all willing to subsume their individual offensive goals in the name of running a top-flight team offense that runs at the highest and most efficient levels.

Even that tired notion of there “not being enough basketballs” when you bring together multiple elite scorers came up with that Knicks team after they traded for Earl Monroe to be paired with Frazier in the New York backcourt. Monroe, brought in from outside the team, was like Kevin Durant while Curry played Walt Frazier (though less ostentatiously dressed) as the one who had been there from the beginning. Much like how Monroe, who even came from a rival of the Knicks at that time (Baltimore Bullets), fit with the Knicks and became a part of that culture, so too did Durant come to the Warriors and fit in seamlessly alongside Curry.

2017 NBA Finals - Game Five
Much like Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe, it turned out there were more than enough basketballs to make Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

After reading A Sense of Where You Are and noting all these connections between Bill Bradley’s college and pro teams with the current Warriors team, my anger at the ways in which some former players and analysts talk about the Warriors resurfaced. I’m thinking of those salty old-timers who often say that the Warriors and their game is somehow not “real basketball” as they’ve know it. The implication being that Golden State is something new that is not to be trusted or valued, that they are cheating the game because they aren’t playing the “way the game is meant to be played.”

To be certain, the Warriors are something modern and different from much of what professional basketball has been, but they are also an evolution of NBA basketball, bringing qualities of different great teams of the past into the context of the modern NBA. You can see the DNA of Bradley’s Knicks teams in the Warriors, along with the up-tempo offenses of the Showtime Lakers, Nellie’s Run-TMC Warriors and Mike D’Antoni’s “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns. However, those 1970s Knicks provide the most interesting comparison to this current Golden State team and the most complete.

Conclusion

The following connections between the teams and the ways in which the Warriors echo the Knicks come to mind as you look through each roster:

  • The undersized toughness and strength of DeBusschere and Draymond,
  • The prolific backcourts of Frazier/Monroe and Curry/Thompson
  • A bench with overqualified players Jerry Lucas and Dick Barnett taking the Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston spots
  • The unselfishness displayed by Bradley and seen in across the Warriors roster
  • The two-way play of Frazier and Klay Thompson
  • Potent offensive backcourts
  • Smart front courts that can move the ball as well as rebound it
  • Tenacious defense leading to explosive offense
  • A bench with players ready to step in whenever called

When one looks at the Knicks, a franchise profoundly revered by basketball fans but especially those that watched them play, one can see the idea, the very notion that would one day become these Golden State Warriors.

The Warriors are not an outlier, an oddity that has exploited the system. Rather, they are the next step in an evolution, perfecting and refining the ideas about how basketball was to be played in the past and bringing it up to date. One sees much of basketball history in this team, which I truly realized after reading A Sense of Where You Are and learning more about Bill Bradley and his teams. Because of that, one would hope that those custodians of basketball history, the former players and coaches, wake up and recognize how great this team is as they move the game forward.