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Venkataraman: The Warriors are back at last

I started watching the Warriors nearly nine years ago, mainly because there was nothing else on TV to watch. Those were the good old days, with superstars like Troy Murphy, Adonal Foyle and Mike Dunleavy putting up great numbers and managing to lose nearly all of their games.

Under the wise and able guidance of renowned owner Chris Cohan (sense the sarcasm?), the Warriors put up spectacular bottom lines (profits, not box scores), alienated one of the greatest fan bases in existence today, sold a ton of t-shirts, butchered draft picks, sold more t-shirts, hiked up season ticket prices to hitherto-unforeseen heights and sold even more t-shirts.

In short, they were like the Oakland Raiders, only without Al Davis running the show. Although many would argue that is a good thing, at least Al Davis cared about winning; his catchphrase was “Just Win, Baby.” With Chris Cohan, about the only thing you were guaranteed was the cheapest roster possible. His catchphrase might have been “Kaching.”

Why watch this team then, you might ask. Why put yourself through the pain of a team destined for nothing more than mediocrity? Why suffer the whims of a multimillionaire owner pinching pennies in order to expand his ever-growing coffers?

I guess first it was the throwback jerseys. The classic retro, blue-and-gold embossed unis with “The City” proudly emblazoned on their fronts were (and still are) some of the greatest uniforms that can be had. (Please this excuse this small interruption as your author rushes to Ebay.com to get a dirt-cheap Patrick O’Bryant jersey. You can even take this time to look up Patrick O’Bryant on Google and find out exactly how badly the Dubs screwed him.)

But more than that, there was always something about how much people cared about the Warriors. Casual fans and diehard nuts alike would always be talking about how this was the year, about how the latest coaching hire (hello, Mike Montgomery) or the latest draft pick (hello, Brandan Wright and Anthony Randolph) or the latest D-League discovery (hello, Kelenna Azubuike) would bring the team to the cusp of the playoffs, a height last reached in the classic “Run TMC” days starring Mitch Richmond, Chris Mullin and Tim Hardaway.

But invariably, the opposite would occur. Mike Montgomery went down in flames, taking the fate of Stanford basketball with him for a few years, and then had the temerity to go coach at that other school across the Bay. Brandan Wright couldn’t sniff the starting lineup; Anthony Randolph combined incredible athleticism with incredibly boneheaded basketball mistakes (a la Javale McGee today). Kelenna Azubuike, for a time, remained my favorite Warriors player, an impossibly sculpted, soft-spoken, tenacious basketball player who eventually succumbed to a torn ACL.

The Warriors couldn’t seem to catch a break, much less run a fast break. And it broke the hearts of fans everywhere.

The one glowing bright spot was during the 2006-07 season, when Celtics great (seriously, look it up) and coaching legend Don Nelson returned to the helm of the team he once captained to perfection (except for running Chris Webber out of town, but I digress).

Like a riverboat gambler who knows he has pocket aces up his sleeve, the mad genius in Nelson shipped a pu pu platter of expiring contracts to pry Stephen Jackson, Al Harrington and Baron Davis from their respective teams, pairing these established head cases with consummate professional Jason Richardson and developing star Monta Ellis.

What ensued was one of the greatest stretch runs in the long, storied history of the NBA: the Warriors rattled off huge, clutch wins in must-win games for weeks on end, finally sneaking into the playoffs and drawing (as the eighth seed) the top-ranked Dallas Mavericks.

With all sorts of noise records broken as a delirious Oracle Arena embraced the moment they had waited for over so many terrible years, the Warriors, swaggering around with a swagger that swaggered its way into their very being, knocked the Mavericks from the playoffs, leading to one of the all-time most awkward MVP trophy presentations when Dirk Nowitzki accepted a regular season MVP award after having been bounced from the postseason.

Then came “the posterization:” Baron Davis over Andrei Kirilenko in a move that nearly caused Oakland to explode. But when the Dubs finally lost to the superior Utah Jazz, another cold spell was born and the team began to implode.

First, Baron Davis made it his goal to eat his weight in cheeseburgers in the offseason; after a short time, he fled Oakland like a murderer fleeing the scene of a crime, beginning a quest to play for every team in the NBA for just a few weeks at a time.

Then Monta Ellis crashed his scooter, destroying his ankle and causing the Warriors ownership to threaten him with voiding his contract.

Then the Dubs front office decided to reward Andris Biedrins with a luxurious contract and watched in horror as he proceeded to forget how to dribble, shoot, rebound or make more than one out of every 100 free throws. All the while, Chris Cohan fattened his purse and waited for the perfect time to sell.

And then came the turning point. When Joe Lacob and his ownership group purchased the Warriors, they not only swept out the third-most hated owner in all of sports, they also ushered in an era of hope. Despite some hiccups along the way (i.e. trading Monta Ellis, a fan favorite, which I maintain was the smartest move that could have been made at the time), the team has been thoroughly reconstructed, with a specific identity: no more Nellieball, no more small ball, no more gimmicks.

Now, the team is built around a transcendental point guard with unlimited range (Steph Curry, whose only flaw might be ankles made of glass); a big, hulking, sweet-passing, shot-blocking center (Andrew Bogut, whose beard makes him look like a giant from the Lord of the Rings), an All-Star power forward (apologies to David Lee, who was shockingly left out of this column much as he was left off All-Star teams in the past), and an array of capable scorers, defenders and supporting cast members (Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Jarret Jack, Carl Landry … the list goes on and on).

Finally, a team, in the truest sense of the word.

As I watch this current Warriors team thrive in the face of adversity, I can’t help but consider the preceding history and think of the unlikelihood of it all. We haven’t even talked about the immortal PJ Carlesimo and his wringable neck or Don Nelson’s quest to get fired by shamelessly tanking left, right and center. What are the odds that, in year two of new ownership, the Warriors finally find an identity and run with it?

The old Warriors fit a perfect archetype: undersized, flashy, all offense, no defense, the lovable losers of the NBA, a team that just could not catch a break. They lost because they were constructed to entertain, not to win. They were built to satisfy fans, sell t-shirts and put up huge numbers in lieu of actually winning games. They, in short, existed as Chris Cohan’s personal cash cow, which he milked for all it was worth. All that changed with the Lacob Liquidation, a polar reversal of outlooks and desires. The Warriors no longer needed to be the cheapest roster around or the most offensively constructed. They no longer had to pander to the casual crowd or chase meaningless numbers in the absence of victories.

These Warriors have one goal and one goal only: win. These Warriors are made of sterner stuff: they shoot threes, play good D, hustle around, jump around and otherwise live in the moment. The breaks they get are of their own making. The NBA should be on high alert: the Dubs are back.

Vignesh Venkataraman must have forgotten that the Warriors are only good when Steph Curry is healthy. He must have also forgotten that David Lee was the first Warriors All-Star since Latrell Sprewell. Email him at viggy@stanford.edu to let him know why there’s a better chance of hell freezing over than the Warriors winning the NBA title this year.

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