With super teams and player empowerment now in vogue, the importance of a team’s culture in the NBA is often overlooked.
Culture cannot be traded for or signed in free agency. There is no way to import or instantly acquire it on the market. It takes time and, most importantly, the right personnel to allow it to develop flourish. A great culture can amplify strengths, cloak weaknesses, and bring out the best in everyone.
The great dynasties littered throughout the league’s history have often been built on the foundation of a first class team culture that often lingers even after the title-winning stops. This spillover allows these historic teams to remain competitive even in the tail end of their runs, with this year’s Golden State Warriors providing further proof of this.
Over three years since they won the 2018 NBA title, which was their third over a four-year stretch, the Golden State Warriors once again find themselves on top of the league’s standings.
More than a month into the ‘21-’22 season, they sport the top record in the league at 16-2, and are winning by an NBA-best average of 13.5 points per game. What makes their early run even more spectacular is that their current roster still has many of the same players as last year’s team, which was failed to progress in the play-in tournament.
Five-time NBA All-Star Klay Thompson has yet to return from his long injury lay-off and this past offseason was not a repeat of 2016, where they signed a 27-year-old Kevin Durant.
None of their additions are even starting for them this season, which begs the question: How did the Warriors get here?
The simplest answer here is also the most accurate one: Their culture.
While none of their free agent signings are going to join Stephen Curry and give Golden State a second All-Star this season, the return of 2015 NBA Finals MVP Andre Iguoadala brought back one of the league’s best mentors and basketball minds to their locker room.
Fresh off a two season detour with the Miami Heat, the 38-year-old is an established leader and well-respected veteran who embodies the Warriors’ culture. He was a key member in their championship-winning seasons and his influence has been a boon for the development of their younger players. He has also proven that he still has a lot left in the tank when given playing time which will only help him gain the respect of his younger teammates.
The vocal pairing of Iguodala and Draymond Green are the perfect complements to Curry, who tends to lead more by example. Their influence has paved the way for the development of their prospects and it has been most evident with third-year shooting guard Jordan Poole.
The 28th overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, Poole previously spent time in the NBA G-League to help build his confidence, with his last stint coming as recently as February of this year. Now, he is averaging a career-best 18.3 points and 3.3 assists per game as their starting shooting guard and is playing with an air of confidence that has become a trademark of the recent mainstays of this franchise.
Beyond Poole, Kevon Looney, whom they plucked 30th overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, and the undrafted pair of Damion Lee and Juan Toscano-Anderson, who also spent time with the team’s G-League affiliate, have blended in seamlessly. They embody the Warriors’ unselfish brand of basketball and play hard-nosed defense. Despite their status as role players, they set themselves apart with their willingness to step up when their number is called and even tend to perform better when put in the spotlight.
Their latest reclamation project is the 29-year-old defensive specialist Gary Payton II. The second-generation NBA player has bounced around the league since making his debut in 2017 and has never truly been given the opportunity to shine with a winning team. Somehow, Golden State unearthed yet another gem and he is now thriving as their spark plug off the bench.
Payton’s lack of a three-point shot is negated by all of the shooters around him and he has already changed the tone of several games with his high-energy plays and defensive acumen – the latter of which isn’t surprising considering what who his dad is. Payton is even earning himself the nickname of ‘Young Glove’, which is a far cry from the ‘Mitten’ moniker that was imposed on him in his younger days.
The success of their culture in maximizing talent is not limited to just their late picks and undrafted finds. Former first overall pick Andrew Wiggins has carved out a niche for himself on the Warriors following a frustrating five and a half years with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Though not the transcendent superstar or “Maple Jordan” that he was hyped as coming out of college, Wiggins has used his spectacular athletic abilities and wiry frame to become a useful secondary scorer and above-average defender.
The jury is still out on their own lottery picks from the past two drafts–James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga, and Moses Moody–but if they can remain patient and appreciate the wonders that this franchise’s culture has done with less talented players, there is no telling what the ceiling of this time over the next decade will be.
The Warriors’ mix of current results and future possibilities is, without question, the envy of the league. It seems quite unbelievable that they are already playing at this level even without Thompson, who could possibly return to the team around Christmas.
Adding him to their current mix, even if he is only at 75% of what he was prior to his injury, will be devastating to the rest of the league. Thompson is a 46% career three-point shooter and averaged over 20 points per game in each of the five seasons before he tore his ACL in the 2019 NBA Finals. He is still relatively young at 31 years old and should be fresh, albeit rusty, following two years on the sidelines. His perceived snub from the league’s list of Top 75 Players of All Time will also serve as extra motivation for him to prove the voters wrong.
Unlike other superstars, Thompson does not have an extremely heavy usage rate and his impact to the rest of the team will most likely be positive. His usage rate was 25.6% the year he got hurt, and 23.7% the prior campaign. Curry, on the other hand, had a 34.8% usage rate last season and currently sits at 32%.
Thompson’s abilities allow him to draw the same level of attention as Curry, which will open up the playmaking channels for Green, Iguodala, and Nemanja Bjelica and leave the rest of their team with even easier opportunities to score.
It has been just two years since Golden State was a serious contender for the title, but here they are once again. Their team’s culture allowed them to endure the struggles of the past two years and they even came out of it with a fresh batch of hungry role players who will help offset the advanced ages of their stars.
The Warriors have a deep roster that is already racking up the wins and with the looming return of Thompson and James Wiseman, this team looks like they’re once again ready to make a “Splash”. The Warriors of old are getting on in years, but that doesn’t seem to bother them and their upcoming youngsters at all.
Seriously, though. If Klay comes back strong, the rest of the NBA will be feeling like this: