The Golden State Warriors have yet to face their toughest battle: for their identity
Much has been documented and admitted about how Golden State has largely modeled their team culture and plays on that of the Spurs. Indeed, ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz recently did a deep dive into how the two teams are both alike and different. The Popovich coaching tree and influence run wide and deep: Kerr won two championship rings as a player on the 1999 and 2003 Spurs squads. Head assistant coach and acting head coach Mike Brown also served as an assistant under Pop, and hung out with the Spurs while figuring out his next professional move after being fired by the Los Angeles Lakers in 2012.
While it is almost second nature to notice how similar the two teams are, culture-wise, a larger discussion is looming: how much longer will “The Spurs Way” continue to have an influence in the Bay Area?
Golden State Warriors majority owner Joe Lacob is a partner in a venture capital firm based in Silicon Valley, which is the technology haven of the country. In the computer world, it’s all about being the best–or at least better–as fast as possible. “Soft skills” and “emotional IQs” are ignored; it’s all about producing (or funding) The Next Best Thing before your competitors do. Either way, the end result is the same: pass GO before anyone else, collect way more than $200, and become the standard instead of the upgrade.
This cutthroat, gotta-get-mine, eff-you-pay-me mentality, has permeated the Warriors since Lacob and his partner, entertainment owner Peter Guber, led the group that purchased the team in 2010. The team will leave its longtime home venue, Oracle Arena, in Oakland and relocate to the trendy (and more expensive) Mission Bay neighborhood in San Francisco. The new Chase Center arena will probably boast gadgetry and technological advances the likes of which the NBA has never seen and which would appeal to the tech-happy Bay Area. It could be seen as a one-upsmanship of the Golden1 Arena that opened last season, which was built by Sacramento Kings owner and fellow techie Vivek Ranadivé (Ranadivé was a minority owner of the Warriors before he sold that interest in order to purchase the Kings.)
Likewise, Lacob has made it a point to rub the other 29 NBA teams’ noses in the technological superiority (and spending power) of the Warriors, proclaiming the team to be “light years ahead” of the rest of the league, despite only winning one championship in the last forty years and choking a 3-1 lead in the 2016 NBA Finals to fall to the Cleveland Cavaliers in game 7. He has recently said, prior to the Warriors’ sweep of the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, that he preferred that his team play the Cavaliers in the Finals, as they have “unfinished business”. He also asserted that, despite last year’s choke job, that Golden State was the better team.
Arnovitz’s article talks about the emphasis on marketing and publicity that is imparted to all Golden State players; the organization has won the league’s top team PR award for three years straight. This is a direct contrast with the humbler, team-before-individual ethos of the five-time champion Spurs, which takes team privacy to an art form.
This dichotomy is obvious in the current Golden State team. On one hand you have the beautiful ball-passing, selfless play, discipline, and organization that is derived from a Popovich-run team, and which has directly contributed to their ever-increasing success. On the other hand you have the arrogance, disrespect, sense of invincibility, and dependence upon social media and technology that is hallmark of the Silicon Valley and Bay Area cultures. Which is going to win out?
With each record-breaking season, the Golden State Warriors creep closer to becoming products of their geography–and their team owner. Think back to the Warriors of two years ago, and you had a team that was just happy to break free of forty years of being one of the league’s long-term laughingstocks. The squeaky-clean public image of Stephen Curry, in addition to both his and fellow Splash Brother Klay Thompson’s NBA pedigrees (both have fathers who had long careers playing in the NBA) gave the more conservative fans role models to uphold. The redemption of Curry from undersized, injury-prone also-ran to key franchise player, and Draymond Green from late draft pick to indispensable member of the team, also made for good press and added to the team’s endearment by die-hard fans, casual fans, and bandwagoners alike.
Now, you have a team that equates success with flash, with rubbing noses in their stellar accomplishments (sound familiar?), and an attempt to embrace what they perceive as “most hated” status. The irony is that for a team that postures like they are trying to become the second coming of the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons (especially since Durant infamously joined their ranks last summer), there hasn’t been an NBA team–in my recollection–that needs so desperately to be liked.
Then there was the hotly debated and derided play by Warriors player Zaza Pachulia, which put Spurs franchise player Kawhi Leonard on the injured list for most of the Western Conference Finals, during a game where the Spurs were stomping Golden State by 25 points. The Spurs went on to lose the Western Conference Finals in a 4-0 sweep.
For all intents and purposes, the Warriors are becoming the Anti-Spurs. And that may be just what Lacob et al wants.
Any team owner wants to put his personal stamp on the team he purchased, and wants his or her team to have a unique identity. When you think of the Boston Celtics, the Pistons, the Spurs, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Memphis Grizzlies, and the Miami HEAT, certain indelible images and perceptions come to mind with just the mention of a name or keyword. These teams have distinct, historic personalities, despite what their records are each season.
Yet is “the Spurs Way” that is often mentioned, in some shape or form, when discussing the Warriors. Even their sweep of the Spurs in this year’s Western Conference Finals will have an asterisk next to their achievement, because they played 3.25 of those four games without an injured Leonard and, given the whipping that the Spurs were delivering prior to Leonard’s injury, Golden State’s 2017 Western Conference title will always be clouded by “What if…?”. This has to rub Lacob the wrong way: for all of his financial investments in the team, and keeping the courtside seats studded with celebrities, no one can mention the Warriors without mentioning the Spurs. In Silicon Valley, imitation is not the goal; innovation is.
The core of the Warriors are in their mid- to late twenties. They are young, gifted, and Black (and extremely wealthy), and play for a team that regularly attracts both Silicon Valley luminaries such as Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, and popular entertainers such as Beyoncé, Jay-Z (who, incidentally, is the owner of the sports agency that represents Kevin Durant), and rapper Kendrick Lamar (whose songs “DNA” and “Be Humble” have been featured in 2017 NBA Playoffs advertisements). Even the late singer Prince was once spotted courtside at a Warriors game.
The players are at an interesting point in their lives where they have not yet gained the full maturity that tends to set in around the early thirties. They are still somewhat impressionable, still susceptible to the bright lights and big city (and Instagram models). Still open to complete subsuming by a culture that prides itself on bright stars burning out quickly, as long as they are successful before they do. Still open to being sold on the seeming lack of boundaries to their individual and collective greatness. And who can say no to such seduction, especially when one believes one’s own hype?
Durant, the newest member of the Warriors, seems to be the most eager to embrace Lacob’s ways. He has gone from trying to defend and cultivate his nice-guy persona–especially in the wake of his controversial decision to join Golden State–to openly embracing the combative nature of the hoops gangster he so longs to be. Remember his “KD Is Not Nice” Nike campaign? He’s taken it to heart now that he resides on the West Coast, to the point that he is openly courting controversy even as he insists that he’s not a monster for leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder in search of more championship-assured pastures.
Being on the same team as Green–who seeks media attention as much as Lacob–just increased the inevitability that Durant would shed all of what made him likeable in Oklahoma to become yet another cog in the media-hungry Lacob machine.
There is a saying that when you raise a god instead of a child, you will worship him until the end of your days. Likewise, the meteoric rise and subsequent anointment of the Golden State Warriors as the poster child for the NBA by both the league and Lacob can only lead to a not-so-great place. Despite Kerr’s efforts, he may not be able to keep his team in a positive, even-keeled head space. As the salary cap continues to rise and their successes continue to multiply, the members of the Warriors will probably not resemble that happy-go-lucky, fun-playing team of 2014 and 2015–and not just due to trades and free agent signings. The pursuit of more and greater–egged on by Lacob–may take them on a path they never intended to walk.
A path that allows for complete co-optation…by someone else.
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