This blogger is a self-admitted contrarian. In the short interval until Super Bowl L (for Losers) will be played, this blog features an essay about Steph Curry, the magical guard with the NBA Golden State Warriors. Curry is a one-man highlight reel most nights, but the Warriors are not a one-man band. See Curry in action here. If this is (fair & balanced) sport at its best, so be it.
[x New Yorker]
The Golden State Warriors’ Beautiful Game
By Nicholas Dawidoff
Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing
Even warm Januaries are winter, and for people who enjoy basketball, nothing in recent memory has brightened the long season like the rise of the irresistible Golden State Warriors. This is partly due to their diminutive [6'3"] long-range shooting guard, Stephen Curry, a human trebuchet who leads the NBA in both scoring and charisma. But the defending NBA champions are the sport’s best and most entertaining team not because of a single player but because they have an intricate approach to basketball that’s as pleasing to old-school coaching purists as it is to people fitted out in new blue-and-gold Curry shirts—he’s first in the league in jersey sales, too—who simply can’t get enough of watching the little guy throw the rock over a mountain and into the cup.
Too often, in past years, the NBA game has succumbed to a dull form of pick-and-roll basketball, featuring players with a matrix of individual skills sufficient to overwhelm defenders, but little observable sense (or concern) at any given moment for where the rest of their teammates are. If you wanted deeper tactical innovation, traditionally the better bet has been the college game—from Bobby Knight’s motion offense, at Indiana, to Pete Carril’s Princeton offense and Tex Winter’s triangle offense, which Winter developed at Kansas State in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, and which Tara VanDerveer used, until recently, with the Stanford women’s team. The Warriors, and the 2014 champion San Antonio Spurs, have been professional exceptions in that they emphasize crisp off-the-ball movement and dynamic sequences of passes, treating each possession as an opportunity to subdue the opponent with collective imagination. When the Warriors are working in five-part harmony, you can hear it: the squeak of their sneakers is constant as they cut and swerve. And such is their spacing that whatever half of the court they are attacking seems larger than the one they’ve just left behind.
The team’s coach, Steve Kerr, is the son of an academic, and his offensive system has footnotes. Last season, he sourced it for me, explaining that it contains primary elements borrowed from four coaches that he studied as a player: the “big-time flow” used by Mike D’Antoni’s full-sprint Phoenix Suns teams; the many actions off low-post screens that Jerry Sloan brought to the Utah Jazz; the way Gregg Popovich placed a big man at either side of the free-throw line and ran the Spurs attack through these “horns”; and the read-and-respond triangle offense that Phil Jackson and his offensive coordinator, [Fred] "Tex" Winter, used to win eleven championships with the (Jordan) Bulls and (Bryant) Lakers. Kerr played for Jackson’s Bulls, thriving in the triangle as an accurate spot-up shooter who could see his opportunities coming several passes ahead of time. Golden State practices begin with drills that Winter used with the Bulls, a catechism emphasizing basic footwork and ball handling. Kerr’s coaching system has no name. He simply calls it “a faster, more freelance version of triangle.”
Jackson is now in his second season as the Knicks’ president. He spent much of last year implementing the triangle via the team’s coach, his former Lakers guard Derek Fisher—and being denounced for deconstructing the Knicks in the name of abstract theory. Few could really say what the triangle was; some questioned its existence altogether. The team won only seventeen games.
In the June draft, with the fourth over-all pick, Jackson chose a spike-lean seven-feet-three Latvian power forward named Kristaps Porzingis. The choice brought more contumely from fans, who had never heard of him, or feared another Andrea Bargnani, a fragile product of European ball. Then the season began, and it was rapidly clear that Porzingis, who speaks three languages, also possesses, at the age of twenty, remarkable basketball fluency. “They have one big piece of the puzzle to make it work better—Porzingis,” Carril, now retired after his Hall-of-Fame coaching career at Princeton and as an NBA assistant, said. “What he adds is another passer. You throw him the ball it doesn’t stop. He continues the flow of that offense adding to the easier shots they get and, if he’s open, he’s as accurate a shooter for a guy that tall as I’ve ever seen. I watch the Knicks a lot now—I didn’t used to,” Carril continued. “They were so selfish it wasn’t fun. Now they move it around better. Got to give Phil Jackson credit. Took a lot of clout to pick that guy, and be able to see what he’d be.”
The Knicks best player, Carmelo Anthony, has seemed grateful to have the rookie around. Anthony spent much of his career as the ball-dominating scoring impresario of bad teams. But alongside Porzingis, and a rugged cast of role players, he has been more frequently swinging passes along. By Sunday, the team had won twenty-three games, with about half of the season still to play.
All of this lent additional interest to the Warriors’ annual visit to Madison Square Garden, this past Sunday [January 31, 2016]. The champs had begun the week with a game against the NBA’s second-best team, with the league’s foremost defense—the Spurs. I watched with my friends Dave, a political scientist who was once a high-school captain in Michigan, and Mike, whose sociology dissertation at UCLA was grounded in an ethnographic study of playground basketball. But the game required no scholarly insights. As Golden State shredded the Spurs defense, Dave threw up his hands: “It’s like the Warriors are playing a different sport.” Cuts were timed in relation to other cuts around clever screens, promising shots were passed up for even easier opportunities, and for long stretches of play the five Warriors achieved movement that was so fast and yet cohesive that it became limpid and, counterintuitively, a viewer could see their intent with explicit clarity.
We focussed on Curry. At just six feet three inches, he is a sunflower in a stand of pines. But Curry is so quick and elusive that he escapes trouble with abrupt changes of speed and direction. He has many gears, and many gaits, from herky-jerks, to prances, to diagonal streaks as he emerges from thickets into space. If I haven’t watched him in a while, I start to worry that he’ll get hurt, but the sudden spins and blurs of moth motion and the ability to stop on a dropped coin keep him in the clear. Like the hockey player Wayne Gretzky, who changed the NHL from a contact sport dominated by burly stick-handlers into a true ensemble activity that valued spacing and movement, Curry is a slight figure who has mastered the rhythms and landscape of his game. Stanford’s VanDerveer, another Hall-of-Famer, and a big Warriors fan—the Warriors sometimes practice at Stanford—pointed out, when speaking of Curry, that “John Wooden said quickness is the key, not size, not speed.” Wooden was addressing movement and finesse, but Curry, again like Gretzky, has studied his sport with sufficient care that he seems able to envision future events before they unfold. He never appears hurried, especially when he’s catching the ball and almost instantly redirecting it toward the net with the quickest release in the game.
Against the Spurs, Curry scored thirty-seven points while playing only twenty-eight minutes, as his team won 120-90. Carril was watching, too. “The only difference between San Antonio and Golden State is that Golden State is younger and faster,” he said later.
Outside of Madison Square Garden, on Sunday evening, scalpers were having difficulty securing tickets, and were asking six hundred dollars for those they landed. Dave and I attended the game, sitting down in time to watch the teams’ layup and shooting drills, which Curry accomplished while languidly chewing his mouth guard, bestowing ample dap to bystanders, and managing not to be blinded by Anthony’s new agent-orange high-tops across the way. Then Curry joined his teammates for some pre-tip dancing and hugging—no high-school softball team displays more happiness than the Warriors.
Once the game began, Curry shot poorly and sustained a vivid scratch on his forehead courtesy of a helicoptering Anthony fingernail. But these adversities opened up the evening for the Warriors’ other lethal All-Star shooting guard, Klay Thompson. He scored thirty-four points, on fourteen-of-eighteen shooting, in a 116-95 Warriors rout. Thompson has a baby face, the posture and uniform drape of a fifty-year old man, and the ability to receive passes while moving hard to one side; he can cantilever his momentum by squaring mid-air into launching position and score from Sausalito.
Many of Thompson’s opportunities were, in turn, facilitated with the ball vectoring through the hands of Draymond Green, the Warriors agile six-feet-seven-inch All-Star forward, who played college ball at Michigan State. The night before, after a narrow Warriors victory over the Philadelphia 76ers, Green had chastised himself for being “selfishly unselfish”—trying for assists to pad his stat sheet in (a failed) pursuit of his league-best ninth triple double. Here, he got it, shooting nine out of nine, for twenty points, to go with ten rebounds and ten assists. When the Warriors take their center, Andrew Bogut, out of the lineup, and bring on the former All-Star Andre Iguodala, Green becomes their biggest player on the court (Harrison Barnes, another forward, is taller, but he lacks Green’s bulk). The Warriors then spread the floor with five long-distance shooters, and Green’s vision for teammates weaving free, his ability to dribble—he bestowed a Michigan State post-doc tutorial upon the suddenly callow Porzingis—and willingness to guard larger opponents make him unique. Dave had seen Green play frequently during his college days, and wondered how Green had become so much more versatile in the NBA than he’d been in college. What seems true for the Warriors also holds for the New England Patriots in football: players improve in their system.
The Knicks, by contrast, have far less experience with the sophisticated triangle offense, and the effect of the relative unfamiliarity is that it slows them down. The advantage of the triangle is the array of responsive options it offers an offense in reaction to what any defense presents, but until the Knicks master those actions—and find themselves a guard who can score with consistency—their offensive limits will be exploited by a team that plays the kind of harrying defense that the Spurs and Warriors feature. With Bogut out of the game, the Warriors small lineup grew increasingly active in the second half, clogging up passing lanes and swarming the paint, and the Knicks offense often stagnated. One could easily imagine the gist of the after-action memo Jackson sends to all his coaches following every game: still too basic; need more means of adjustment; but we’re playing the long game; stay the course. Give Porzingis a year or two of experience, and some ample helpings of kotletes and rasols, and he’ll be a load for defenses.
Watching from New Jersey, Carril said that he thought both teams “were affected early by the hype.” After that, he noticed, the Knicks were bothered by the Warriors’ skill and experience. “But the Knicks represent a team on the rise,” he added. “If I were the Knicks, I’d be encouraged by that.”
As for VanDerveer, earlier in the day, her sixteenth-ranked Stanford team had defeated Washington State. Now, out in California, she sounded weary, but pleased with her Sunday sweep—and likewise optimistic for New York. She keeps a film library of games that Jackson coached in the triangle, as she now also does with Kerr. She acknowledged that the learning curve for the triangle’s many variables means it will be a while yet before the Knicks can hope to match the Warriors’ ball movement but, like Carril, she’s enjoying their process. “The more the Knicks run it, the better they’ll be. It’s a matter of time as they add personnel and embrace it. There’s got to be more pace. The Warriors have pieces of a puzzle that fit, and that’s what the Knicks are working on.” Then she brought up another old coach she admired, Fred Taylor, who led Ohio State in the nineteen-sixties and seventies. “He once said, ‘I’d rather have a dead rat in my mouth than watch pro basketball,’ ” she told me. “But Kerr and Popovich and Jackson have made it fun to watch.” Ω
[After receiving a BA (history magna cum laude) from Harvard University, Boris Dawidoff joined Sports Illustrated as a staff writer covering baseball and the environment. After resigning from SI in 1991, he began writing articles, on a variety of topics, for periodicals like Rolling Stone, The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. Dawidoff has also been a Guggenheim Fellow and a Civitella Ranieri Fellow, as well as a Berlin Prize Fellow of the American Academy in Berlin. His first book was The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg (1994) and most recently he has written Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football (2013). See his other books here.]
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