The success story of the 2014-15 Golden State Warriors is one that almost anyone can get behind. The Dubs are worthy champions, and they're likable winners too - they're a balanced, deep group of players who made sacrifices and worked hard to earn every bit of the glory in which they now bask. They've got a charismatic superstar (Stephen Curry), an exciting young supporting cast (Klay Thompson, Draymond Green), a couple of veteran redemption stories (Shaun Livingston, Finals MVP Andre Iguodala) and a fantastic rookie coach (Steve Kerr). There's very little not to like.
Except, of course, that it's difficult to see that perspective from here in Portland, where the Trail Blazers just endured a painful final two months of the regular season followed by a swift five-game elimination in the first round of the playoffs. A year ago, the Blazers were in the same boat with Golden State; now, they're watching on TV as the Dubs win it all. Portland's offseason began seven weeks ago.
Think about it. Last year, the Warriors won 51 games and were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the L.A. Clippers. The Blazers won 54 - in a tougher division, mind you - and advanced to round two, losing only to the eventual champion Spurs. The Blazers were a No. 4 seed; the Dubs were a six. Both teams returned for the 2014-15 season relatively unchanged, at least in terms of major core players. And yet now, it's Golden State hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy and Portland on the outside looking in. A little bit of envy is to be expected. The "Why not us?" question has to be asked.
So what happened? Why are the Warriors champs and the Blazers still such a long way off? What led us from where we were a year ago, with two young teams sharing basically the same upward trajectory, to where we are now? And what, if anything, can Portland learn from Golden State's success? How much potential do the Blazers have to be "the next Dubs," so to speak?
Answering this question requires delving into a bunch of different areas. Let's break down the components of the Warriors' breakout season. Without further ado...
Three years ago, the Blazers and Warriors were still in the same boat, more or less. They were lottery teams. They each had a couple of promising pieces, but they were a long way off from being successful. Part of the reason was their defense. Then, over the three-season run between 2012 and '15, both teams showed steady improvement on that end.
|2012||109.1 (27th of 30)|
|2013||105.5 (14th of 30)|
|2014||102.6 (4th of 30)|
|2015||101.4 (1st of 30)|
||106.4 (23rd of 30)
||109.2 (26th of 30)
||107.4 (16th of 30)
||103.7 (10th of 30)
Obviously, the Warriors' growth was more significant, and it's the biggest reason they're where they are today. How did they pull it off? Well, for the complete answer, set aside two hours and read the entire 11-part feature that ESPN's Ethan Strauss wrote on the subject back in February. But here's the condensed version: They did a lot. They added two important veterans in Andrew Bogut and Iguodala, they drafted Green and they built an excellent coaching staff that was committed to the defensive end. And as assistant coach Ron Adams put it, per Strauss, a collective effort snowballed from there:
"You have to look at it from this standpoint. Things are going well. People want to participate. They're tuned in."
I ask if winning is perpetuating. Adams responds in his typically deliberate cadence: "That's what winning does. It fine-tunes people. It opens possibilities for them. They feed off of that momentum."
Do the Blazers have it in them to find that same momentum? There's certainly a good deal of defensive talent there. Robin Lopez is a very good, energetic big man. Wesley Matthews is tough as nails. Nicolas Batum has impressive versatility guarding the perimeter. The question is whether Portland has enough to reform the culture and make improvement on D a team-wide priority. That question, more than any other, might be the key to the next couple of years of Blazer basketball.
The Splash Brothers
Yeah, yeah. We know. Steph and Klay are the best shooting backcourt of all time. We've been told this time and time and time again.
But how much worse are Damian Lillard and (a healthy) Matthews than that duo, anyway? Is it impossible that those two guys could improve their shooting to the point where they're in the same ballpark next season?
Let's take a quick look at the four guards' per-36-minute numbers from long distance last season.
The gap is big, but it's not necessarily insurmountable. Shooting can be a fluky thing. Remember, Dame shot 42.9 percent in November last year before suddenly falling into the toughest slump of his career. What if he comes back strong? Matthews has been steadily between 38 and 41 percent his whole career, but he's about to have a couple of months to do nothing but practice his jumper before he's cleared for contact again post-injury. The Warriors have the game's most talented backcourt, but Portland can make a strong case for No. 2, and there's a chance that the Blazers' guards aren't even done improving yet - especially Lillard, who's still only 24.
The breakout youngsters
Curry and Thompson had been steadily improving for a few years, but it wasn't until the Warriors fully integrated two other key pieces - Green and Harrison Barnes - that they really flourished. Green became a defensive jack of all trades for the Warriors this season, guarding several different positions and shutting down pick-and-rolls with his uncanny ability to switch, and Barnes was quietly the Warriors' second-best offensive player after Curry (no joke - 116 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor).
Do the Blazers have two rising stars of their own waiting in the wings? They might not be the same types of players, but it's not implausible that C.J. McCollum and Meyers Leonard could blossom into solid rotation players in the near future. McCollum showed signs of life during the last couple months of the regular season - he's growing into a versatile wing scorer that can slash to the basket and also hit a decent step-back jumper. Leonard, meanwhile, isn't a defensive juggernaut like Draymond, but he's valuable in his own right as a floor-spacing shooter. With major improvement from the two youngsters next year, the Blazers could be in business.
The supporting cast
As Doris Burke noted in her sideline interview with Iguodala after the Warriors won it all, "strength in numbers" is more than just a motto for the current Dubs. They win with depth. They have a lot of guys, and it's not just random pieces off the scrap heap, either - they have bench players that legitimately fit and help them win. Shaun Livingston is a reserve guard with the size and toughness to guard a variety of players. Leandro Barbosa and Marreese Speights are "instant offense" guys for a team that sorely needs them in the second unit when Curry's off the floor. David Lee was left for dead over much the season, but he stepped up in the Finals and gave the Warriors a post scoring threat from out of nowhere. In Golden State, all the pieces matter.
The Blazers, on the other hand, have an eclectic group of players who are all competent but of questionable fit with the rest of the roster. What role did Steve Blake play last season? What did Joel Freeland bring to the table that Portland's other bigs couldn't offer already? Freeland, Leonard, Chris Kaman - were all those bigs overkill?
It takes a few years of success before you can build an elite class of role players. The really good bench guys - the Shaun Livingstons over the world - like to sign with teams that have proven track records. Over the next couple of summers, it will be interesting to see whether Neil Olshey's luck improves when it comes to recruiting a strong second unit. Depth matters, and the Warriors proved it.
...and of course, a little luck
First and foremost, no one can win a championship without staying healthy. For all the hysteria in Northern California these last few years about Curry's ankles and Bogut's knees, both held up relatively well over the course of this past season, playoffs included. Curry set a new career high by starting 80 out of 82 games. Meanwhile, virtually every single other team in the West playoff picture was bothered by one injury or another - Chris Paul, Mike Conley, Patrick Beverley, Matthews obviously, and the list goes on.
Is that good conditioning, or is it luck? Probably some combination of the two. Either way, it was fortunate that health was on the Warriors' side this year.
It's not just injuries, though. Think about playoff matchups. The Warriors won a championship by getting past New Orleans (no depth or experience), Memphis (Conley was hurt), Houston (lacked discipline down the stretch, was a little streaky shooting the ball too) and Cleveland (two All-Stars and a third starter in Anderson Varejao all injured). Not to detract from the Dubs' accomplishment too much, because any title is great, but their road certainly could have been tougher. Imagine if they'd run into San Antonio, or the Clippers, or a fully healthy Cavs team.
Luck is always part of the game. Some teams start the season 41-19 before losing one of their best players to a devastating injury; others experience virtually no adversity the entire season and cruise to a championship. But the beauty is that luck can change, and no matter what happens in one season, the next might be totally different.
None of this is to say the Trail Blazers are an NBA champion waiting to happen, necessarily. We're still a long ways off from making any bold proclamations like that. But it's heartening to think that the foundation might, just maybe, be there already. A little team-building, a little development, a little luck, and you never know what the future might bring.