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OAKLAND – The Warriors have spent this season, to use one of their pet phrases, “enjoying the journey.” If only the lot of them knew.
They have a foot in the door to history, and they’ve earned the right to be where they are, regardless of what has been said by the likes of Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen and Doc Rivers or even former Warrior Stephen Jackson.
Those guys, you see, can’t begin to grasp that the Warriors – the Warriors, for crying out loud – have taken over the NBA. Best season ever? Get out of here.
The Warriors are that team opponents looked forward to playing to only because it was an easy victory in a popular region. The Warriors were, more often than they’d care to admit, the “opponent” in their own arena, their fans drowned out by those of the Lakers and Bulls and Celtics.
For an entire generation of NBA fans, the Warriors were a bunch of guys that played in some indistinct region of California known for losing games and botching trades and blowing draft picks.
And look at them now. Not only are they defending champions, but they’re in position to lay down the greatest record in NBA history. Yes, exceeding any regular season posted by Michael’s Bulls, Larry’s Celtics or Magic’s Showtime Lakers.
Or even Russell’s dynastic Celtics of three generations ago.
Only Stephen Curry among these current Warriors can appreciate how far they have come. He experienced the tail end of The Deplorable Years, when 38-44 was a holy sign of progress.
“Rookie year sucked,” recalls Curry, who was drafted in 2009. “It was probably at the All-Star break that we were almost eliminated from the playoffs.”
The Warriors in 2009-10 were 14-37 at the break. If they had finished the season on a 31-game win streak, they still would have fallen short of the playoffs. Their place in the standings was measured not by games out but by months needed to catch up.
The “stars” of that team were Monta Ellis and Corey Maggette. Jackson, having scammed team president Bobby Rowell into giving him a lucrative new deal, cashed a few checks, complained about the decayed state of the team and forced a trade.
The Warriors used to make a habit of being what the 2015-16 Lakers are, a team living on the outskirts of the league and always on the edge of turmoil. Players choked coaches. Don Nelson abandoned the job in 1995. Todd Fuller was drafted in 1996. Latrell Sprewell choked coach P.J. Carlesimo in 1997 and was traded in 1998.
This is the sordid history here, and players perceived the organization to be the toxic waste site that it was. Barkley remembers. Pippen does too.
There was the briefest glimpse of sunlight when Baron Davis arrived at the trade deadline in 2005, coming to a team that had averaged 26.4 wins the previous five seasons. The We Believe team soon followed, delivering in 2007 the first postseason appearance in 13 years. There was joy in the Bay.
The “We Believe” Warriors, so beloved and revered, were 42-40. They needed to end the season on a five-game win streak to make the playoffs, yet fans watching that team thought they had been given free trip to basketball heaven.
Two years later, the Warriors were 29-53. One year after that, Curry arrived. He started 72 games and the team finished 26-56. The Warriors, sniffing .500 only twice and the postseason but once in the previous 15 seasons, were firmly back in familiar terrain.
“It was about just trying to just establish myself as a player and figure out how I could get to that next level, get better,” Curry says. “Success at that point was just finishing the year strong.
“Now I still have that mindset. But we’re trying to literally win every game. We’re trying to elevate ourselves to another championship level. It’s fun.”
Well, yes, it’s fun now. Winning is fun. Winning championships is even more fun. Winning a championship in June and having a chance 10 months later to own the best regular season in NBA history, well, that’s fun on a divine level.
“My first three years, we didn’t make the playoffs,” Curry says. “So your perspective is different come April. You’re wanting to be one of those teams that are fighting for something meaningful and playing games in April and May and June that matter.
“So to be in this position is special. It makes you appreciate all the work that’s gone into it and the sacrifice and good decisions from upstairs and all that stuff. You want to enjoy the moment, enjoying what every day as a Warrior means.”
The Warriors over the past 10 months have slain the ghosts and dragons of the past. They have taken so many years of scorn and disgrace and buried them so deep that none of the current characters can see or feel them.
Draymond Green can’t know, and neither can Harrison Barnes or Festus Ezeli; they’ve never missed the playoffs. Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and Andrew Bogut may have sepia memories from being opponents but never experienced the despair that once defined the Warriors. Steve Kerr wasn’t here, nor was Bob Myers.
Curry remembers, which gives him perspective. And because his arrival opened the door to a transformation fostered by new ownership, he appreciates.
He also knows this is real, even if a few of the old heads around the league still visualize the Warriors as the team desperate enough to put a Vonteego Cummings or a Bill Curley in the starting lineup.