Making a Splash: Panini America Examines Golden State’s Rise to the Top of the NBA

December 16, 2014

2014 NBA Golden State Warriors Media Day Images

It’s not every season a team is touted as one of the most exciting and historically dominant in NBA history. Just ask Golden State Warriors fans. Arguably one of the most downtrodden franchises for nearly two decades (not just in basketball but in all of sports), the Warriors have gone from hapless to happening in 2014-15.

For a squad making the biggest waves, it’s only appropriate that its dual superstars are nicknamed the “Splash Brothers.” Led by Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, the Warriors have left their opponents all wet while motoring out to a 21-2 start. Shedding its laughing-stock status to become one of the dreamiest teams in the league, Golden State has outscored its opposition by 11 points (107.6 to 96.8) on a nightly basis, including 14 wins by at least 10 points.

The Warriors’ 128-122 overtime win at New Orleans on Sunday night made them just the ninth team in NBA history to start a season with at least 21 wins through its first 23 games. That victory also represented the team’s 16th consecutive, which not only extended the franchise record but stood as the NBA’s longest since the San Antonio Spurs rattled off 19 straight a season ago, which eventually led to a league title. “This winning streak feels great, and we don’t want it to end any time soon,” Thompson said.

But it hasn’t always been a smooth ride for this Bay Area bunch.

The 1994-95 season was supposed to be the year the Warriors put it all together. On paper, the team boasted a roster brimming with talent. The starting five was slated to include All-Stars Tim Hardaway and Chris Mullin, young studs Chris Webber and Latrell Sprewell, and the newly acquired Rony Seikaly from the Miami Heat. Don Nelson was entering his seventh season as the Warriors head coach, having just led the team to its fourth playoff appearance in six years.

But even the best-laid plans of mice and men go awry. Before the season started, Webber exercised an escape clause in his contract, and Golden State traded the 1993 No. 1 overall pick to Washington for Tom Gugliotta. Meanwhile, Mullin and Seikaly combined to play just 61 games due to injuries, and after 40 games Gugliotta was traded once again, this time to Minnesota for rookie Donyell Marshall. Nelson was then relieved of his duties and replaced with Hall of Fame player Bob Lanier after the Warriors started the season 14-31. The damage already done, the team finished the campaign 26-56 — the third-worst record in the Western Conference.

What followed were 11 more seasons of futility. From that 1994-95 season through 2005-06, no team in the NBA lost more games than the Warriors. The concurrent dozen-year playoff drought ranks as the second-longest all time. Rock bottom occurred in 2000-01 when the team compiled a franchise-worst 17-65 record.

So can it be that this franchise — so familiar with suffering and associated with losing — is the same one that looks destined for immortality in 2014-15?

While this hot start was nearly unpredictable, an examination of the pieces in place for the Warriors helps explain where all the wins are coming from. It all starts at the helm, and first-year head coach Steve Kerr is no stranger to success. The former NBA guard suited up for the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls – the very team that set an NBA record by winning 72 contests. He also captured five championships during his career, including in 1997 when he sunk the game-winning jump shot in the closing moments of Game 6 of the NBA Finals as Chicago knocked off the Utah Jazz.

Using the knowledge he picked from the brains of his former head coaches (Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich), Kerr has helped transform Golden State into a nearly unstoppable entity on the court. Offensively, the team boasts top-10 rankings in shooting percentage, points per game, 3-point percentage and offensive rating. Meanwhile, a continued emphasis on defense has carried over from the Mark Jackson regime. Not only are opponents shooting a league-worst 40.9 percent from the field against the Warriors, but the team also leads the NBA in blocks and ranks in the top 10 in steals.

“Really talented players,” Kerr said in an interview with USA Today. “Really, that’s what it comes down to.”

Warriors Quad 2
One of many Golden State gems coming to Panini America’s 2014-15 Immaculate Basketball.

 

Though the stats may suggest the Warriors play an ultra-disciplined, by-the-book style of basketball that produces big results but little fanfare, the reality is there may be no more exciting team in all the land. Ask anyone with an NBA League Pass — they’ll back up the story.

At the forefront of the charge is Curry, who a season ago became the first Golden State All-Star starter since Sprewell did it back in 1995. A two-time league leader in 3-pointers made, Curry actually drilled his first game-winning trey within a game’s final minute of play on Dec. 2 vs. Orlando, burying a deep shot with just 2.2 ticks remaining to hoist Golden State to a thrilling 98-97 win. His stock as a player, as well as his popularity among fans and collectors, continues to grow at an exponential rate.

Fellow backcourt mate Thompson completes the “Splash Brothers” connection. A second-generation athlete just like Curry, Thompson would arguably be the best 3-point shooter in the game if not for his teammate. As part of the Warriors’ home opener on Nov. 1, the fourth-year guard sunk five triples en route to scoring a career-high 41 points in defeating the Los Angeles Lakers.

And what’s a winning team without veteran leadership? Andrew Bogut, the No. 1 overall draft selection in 2005, protects the paint and serves as a key distributor in the “motion offense” playbook. Coming off the bench for the first time in his career, Andre Iguodala has transitioned into the team’s sixth man without skipping a beat. Marreese Speights brings attitude and a sweet elbow jumper that won’t quit. The Warriors also added Shaun Livingston, a 6-foot-7 point guard in his 10th season, to the mix in the offseason, looking to create matchup headaches for the other side.

Yet, those are the known quantities for the Warriors; the players who were expected to perform at such high levels during the season. For a team to make a run at history, it must also receive stellar contributions from some unexpected sources.

Enter Draymond Green, the 2012 second-round pick who has more than admirably filled in for incumbent starting power forward David Lee. Possessing contagious exuberance on the floor, Green is equally comfortable playing on the perimeter as he is defending in the low post, creating mismatch nightmares for opposing coaches.

Joining him in the starting five is fellow third-year pro Harrison Barnes. The North Carolina product has matured from a raw athletic specimen into a slick-defending, calm-under-pressure component who can rock rims just as well as he can light it up from long range.

Extraordinary starts are one thing, but extraordinary finishes are another.

Only time will tell if this team will maintain the momentum necessary to end up among the best ever. And much like in that ill-fated 1994-95 season for Golden State, sometimes you can have all the pieces to the puzzle laid out in front of you, but you never find a way to fit them together to make that pretty final picture. So far, 20 years later, that puzzle is coming together just fine.

Dave Vander Wende is a staff writer at Panini America. Follow him on Twitter at @alphavw

Simply Golden
On the court and in the trading card arena, the Golden State Warriors have been money this season. Here’s a look at some recent impressive eBay sales that offer irrefutable proof . . .

 

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