Following The Warriors’ Plan


I know this a Thunder-based blog but stand by while I gush about the Golden State Warriors.

They might be the best regular season team I’ve ever personally witnessed (and I’m not counting the ‘95-’96 or ’96-’97 Bulls because I wasn’t old enough to truly understand what Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson were accomplishing at the time). They finished first in both offensive and defensive efficiency, a mark that is essentially impossible in today’s NBA. They won 67 games in an absurdly difficult Western Conference. They had the league’s Most Valuable Player in Steph Curry. They had the best defensive player in the association in Draymond Green, DPOY voting be damned. They had human combustion engine Klay Thompson scoring 37 points in a single quarter of a game. They were the undisputed kings of having a different guy, be it Andre Iguodala, Marreese Speights, or Shaun Livingston, go berserk off the bench on any given night.

Simply put, the Warriors had everything.

What makes their excellence even more amazing though is the calculated way in which they achieved their success. A team doesn’t become more memorable than the “Anything is Possible” Boston Celtics or the “Pau Gasol Heist” Lakers by virtue of putting up a lot of threes and sheer dumb luck.

I mean, their roster was stacked, which certainly contributed to their success. Iguodala spent most of the year sitting about seventh in Golden State’s rotation whereas he would be an instant starter and perennial 30-35 minutes a game for any other team in the league (42 minutes under Thibs! ZING!) so yeah, they certainly had the talent to go from first-round playoff fodder into the NBA’s version of Doomsday, utilizing their superhuman strength, speed, agility, leaping, endurance, and overall imperviousness to beat the NBA’s self-proclaimed Superman within an inch of his life.

That being said, the roster really didn’t really change much over the last two years since making the playoffs under Mark Jackson in 2013. Iggy and Livingston were added during the last two summers but the team also lost Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry (who, believe it or not, was once an incredibly capable power forward in this league) over that same span. The teams preceding this one (despite having nearly identical rosters) never won more than 51 games or had a home playoff series. Obviously the change was extra-roster-ticular (I made this word up. I fully expect it to appear on Grantland within a matter of weeks).

And to most basketball fans the change that finally transformed Golden State is glaringly obvious. Despite being a favorite of both fans and players alike, former head coach Mark Jackson was the reason that this roster would languish in the upper-middle half of the NBA, the closest thing to purgatory that an NBA fan base will ever experience. He’s one of those coaches that makes bad teams good, good teams good, and great teams good. While his hand in developing young guys like Thompson and Green into the elite players can’t be overstated, it’s also hard to ignore how his firing and Steve Kerr’s subsequent hiring were the immediate precursors to the Warriors becoming the most exciting AND technically sound basketball machine in the league.

“Okay, Fielder,” says the aggravated Thunder fan, “Enough fanboying. We came here to read about the Thunder, not read 500 words about a team that may have just made our championship window ever smaller. Get to the point already.”

Okay, okay. Simply put, I don’t think the Warriors’ hyperspace jump through the NBA ranks was lost on the Thunder’s ownership. You don’t simply watch Peter Parker become Spiderman and not try to get bitten by a radioactive spider yourself, after all.

If you were one of the Thunder fans secretly (or perhaps not so secretly, judging by my Twitter feed) calling for Scott Brooks to be fired, you had to view Kerr’s instant success as the ultimate good omen. Even for the most ardent of Brooks’ supporters, it’s hard not to acknowledge the Brooks/Jackson parallels, down to even the coach’s incredible popularity and friendships with his star players.

So with that in mind, was hiring Billy Donovan the first step in terms of the Thunder following the vaunted “Golden State plan”? Let’s take a deeper look.

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First, the coaching parallel is obviously there. Both Brooks and Jackson are renowned developmental coaches that aren’t exactly known for their tactical or rotational acumen. Both were able to achieve great success in the NBA due to their players “playing hard for them,” but the questions always lingered if either coach were truly good enough to get over the hump.

It’s a little bit more difficult to contrast Donovan and Kerr. Donovan’s coaching chops are difficult to overstate. When he came to Florida in 1996, the program’s all-time record was 15 games BELOW .500. Upon taking the Thunder job, Donovan left the program 281 games ABOVE .500. Conversely, Kerr was far more of an unknown before coming into Golden State, having spent his preceding years behind the broadcast desk and as the Phoenix Suns’ general manager. However, both have an obvious insight for the game and Donovan’s offense will likely look like a more pick-and-roll oriented version of Kerr’s system (as discussed here).

Furthermore, (and perhaps the biggest evidence of the aforementioned “Golden State Plan”) is Donovan following Kerr’s lead by surrounding himself with capable, experienced assistants. In Kerr’s case, to help ease his transition into the league he hired offensive guru Alvin Gentry and defensive whiz Ron Adams to round out his staff. Both were already established tacticians within the association and any deficiency within Kerr’s basketball knowledge (which, if you listened to his broadcasts, you know there’s not many, if any at all) would be remedied by the two.

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  • In a recent report by Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski, it was stated that Donovan was looking at Maurice Cheeks and Monty Williams as potential assistants. While nothing concrete has surfaced in that regard, the fact that he is already looking at established coaching veterans is a clear concession that the Golden State model is the new “gold” standard (no pun intended) within the NBA.

    Furthermore, both assistants make perfect sense for the Thunder in the same way that Adams and Gentry made perfect sense for the Warriors. The two most pressing needs for the team revolve around finally getting over the metaphorical championship hump and also retaining Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook’s services through their next contracts (which most assume to have a cause and effect upon each other). Monty Williams brings defensive shrewdness, something the Thunder are severely lacking. Mo Cheeks already has a strong relationship with the team’s superstars and a full understanding of Donovan’s spread offense. There’s every reason to suspect that the new staff in Oklahoma City could have every bit as much of an impact as the Warriors’ staff did this past season.

    Furthermore, the Thunder and Warriors have, without a doubt, the two deepest (and most similar) rosters in the entire league. Both teams are led by their impossible-to-defend MVP players (Steph and KD) and veritable powder-keg-waiting-to-ignite sidekicks (Westbrook and Klay). Throw on an elite defensive anchor at the four (Serge Ibaka and Draymond) coupled with hard-nosed enforcers at center (Steven Adams and Andrew Bogut) and the comparison becomes even more apparent. The ancillary pieces are different in form but largely operate in the same function. The Warriors love to utilize Iguodala as a utility piece, allowing Golden State to stream from small to big lineups with relative ease. The Thunder accomplish the same thing with Enes Kanter, sometimes playing Adams at the four when he’s in for a super-tall look. Despite Iggy being a perimeter-oriented player and Kanter doing most of his damage on the low block, their role as lineup cogs and scorers off the bench are fairly similar.

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  • That being said, the Thunder still have a ways to go to replicate Golden State’s near-perfect process. That starts this off-season. Three years ago, Golden State was able to back into the lottery and landed starting lineup-linchpin Harrison Barnes in the process. Thunder management has to look at OKC’s fall into the lottery as a similar scenario. While I already wrote that it will take some nuanced roster-maneuvering to actually make the pick, I think this is a pretty unique opportunity to land a long-term contributor. Whether it’s Devin Booker, Cameron Payne, or some other dark horse candidate, there’s a real chance that the Thunder find a long-term starting solution at pick 14.

    Furthermore, the Warriors have been absolutely impeccable in their free agency finds. Adding guys like Livingston or Speights aren’t exactly the moves that get headline articles but having solid, rotation-worthy guys all the way to your 11th and 12th man is massive in terms of your bench being something with actual utility as opposed to merely being a stop-gap while your superstars get rest. The Thunder are close to that but there’s still work to be done if they’re trying to be the second success story of the “Warriors Plan.”

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  • Simply put, merely drafting a potential starter on the perimeter probably isn’t enough.  As of now, the two-guard depth chart consists of Andre Roberson, Dion Waiters, Anthony Morrow, and Josh Huestis.  Unless Roberson and/or Huestis makes a serious jump under Donovan or Waiters finds a reasonable level of consistency shooting the ball, there’s an argument to be made that Oklahoma City has the single most shallow perimeter rotation in the league.

    Granted, the roster is so much better than the last Thunder playoff team, it’s almost laughable. The 2013-2014 version of the Oklahoma City Thunder was only four capable players deep, relying on a closing lineup of Westbrook, Reggie Jackson, Durant, Ibaka, and 40-friggin’-years-old Derek Fisher to try and beat the San Antonio Spurs.

    This current roster has at least eight guys that I would consider to be quality NBA rotation players so clearly the roster is headed in the right direction. But they’re not done yet. In a year that has guys like Arron Afflalo, Danny Green, Gerald Henderson, and Wes Matthews (among others) all going into unrestricted free agency, there’s no reason to think that the Thunder can’t come out of this summer with their shooting guard situation completely remedied.

    That all being said, I would hesitate to say that the “Warriors Plan” is the only path to success. The Cleveland Cavaliers went about building their team and coaching staff in an entirely different manner and yet they seem to be doing just fine; however, I think the Thunder’s clear focus on a new coaching staff with seasoned vets as assistants is a clear nod to Golden State’s success and an admission that a coaching change is part of what kept OKC from that elusive title.

    As such, there’s going to be a tremendous amount of pressure on Donovan to bring the Larry O’Brian trophy home in his first year. Pressure that, no matter which way you slice it, is probably a little unfair.

    But then again, it looks almost certain that a rookie NBA coach, be it David Blatt or Kerr, will end up bringing the trophy home this year. If the Thunder follow the same plan, is it really that unreasonable to think that it could happen twice?

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