Jim Brighters - NBA Editor Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
It seems an appropriate time to laud the Golden State Warriors, considering all we have is time until the NBA Finals begin.
By virtue of their appearance in the championship round, the Warriors are pretty darn good, but it's been this man's contention that they have been overlooked in a historical perspective.
Only five teams won more regular-season games than this Warriors team. Two of those five had Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. One team featured Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West. Another squad featured Chamberlain and Hal Greer and the final group, the 1972-73 Boston Celtics, had three Hall of Famers.
That's pretty lofty company. Four of those teams went on to win NBA titles. The Celtics didn't, but they did just fine in the championship department so no tears.
The Warriors became the fifth team with 67 wins. Three of the previous four won the championship. The 67-win club consists of the Larry Bird Celtics, Jordan's Bulls and the Shaq/Kobe Lakers. The lone championship-less team in the group was the 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks, who were stunned in the first round by ... the Golden State Warriors.
The fact the Warriors were this good was unexpected. Last summer, after battles with the front office, head coach Mark Jackson was dismissed. Jackson was adored by his players so the next guy had a tough paper route ahead.
Steve Kerr publicly spurned one of his mentors, Phil Jackson, and headed west instead of east, leaving the New York Knicks at the altar. That decision paid off, wouldn't you agree?
How Kerr didn't win the NBA Coach of the Year award still baffles me with all due respect to Atlanta's Mike Budenholzer. Kerr immediately made changes that paid hugely. He benched Andre Iguodala and David Lee in favor of young, versatile athletes named Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes.
That decision, in which Kerr convinced two former All-Stars, who combined to make $27.2 million this season, was at the heart of Golden State's success. The Warriors finished atop the league in opponents' field-goal percentage and with Green and Barnes, they could switch almost every single pick-and-roll. That versatility guided the defense, which guided Golden State to the NBA Finals.
It was a tricky spot for Kerr, but he handled it perfectly. Lee was hurt to start the season and eventually became a DNP-CD. Everything Kerr did worked to perfection, emphasizing Jackson's defensive principles, but holding everyone accountable.
Another problem Jackson had was offensive flow. It was non-existent. The Warriors relied on Steph Curry to do things in isolation and, occasionally, open players could make a jump shot. It's not exactly revolutionary stuff.
"I assessed it as kind of two separate decisions. I didn't agree with the first one, but you've got to make the right hire, and I think they did that. Obviously, they did that," Curry said. "We hit the ground running in training camp with his philosophy of ball movement, player movement, obviously keeping the defense that we've established the last two years the same and taking it to another level.
"He's a humble guy that understands he took over a talented team, and he's very fortunate that we've had some experiences under our belt and we can -- we're not rebuilding or anything, so we're poised to have a great season, and I think we've exceeded a lot of people's expectations."
Curry was one of the biggest reasons for the exceeded expectations. He was great under Jackson, but he is now elite under Kerr. Curry can make any shot on the floor, no matter the circumstances. I've seen him bury 3-pointers off one foot with his body going away from the basket. Curry's ball-handling is Globetrotter-esque.
And Kerr didn't make it easy on his MVP. Curry was not a good defender, but had plenty of help under Jackson. Kerr wouldn't allow Curry the same kind of assistance and Curry became a respectable defensive player.
With the defense in place, the Warriors were still an elite team offensively, although Klay Thompson's emergence into an All-Star and All-NBA third-teamer was noteworthy. It's not like Thompson's improvement was the only one.
Under Kerr, Green finished second in both the Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved Player voting. He was first-team All-Defensive and Andrew Bogut was on the second team.
While Barnes used to be lost when Jackson brought him off the bench in favor of Iguodala, what Kerr has done for Barnes' confidence by making him a starter has paid dividends. On Wednesday night, Barnes scored 13 of his 24 points in the fourth quarter.
"I've had a lot of ups and downs in terms of consistency, playing time, starting, coming off the bench all that type of stuff, so I think I've been exposed to a lot," Barnes said. "With the help of coach Kerr I was able to grow a lot this year. I felt like I've gotten better with consistency and not necessarily worrying about points, rebounds, statistics, stuff like that, but just impact on the game and growing every day."
Festus Ezeli played the entire fourth quarter in the Game 5 closeout of the Houston Rockets. Again, Bogut made second-team All-Defensive, but it was Ezeli who stayed out there against Dwight Howard.
Kerr employs feel fantastically. It's why Lee has played so sparingly this season. He's just not athletic enough to fit into the defensive scheme. It's a tough call to do that to a veteran, but Lee bought in.
It was Barnes, Ezeli and Iguodala, who was smothering in his defense of James Harden, who guided the Warriors to victory in Game 5. Curry is the MVP. Thompson had 20 points early then got kneed in the head and came back looking like Evander Holyfield against Mike Tyson. It was role players who dominated the Rockets in the fourth quarter.
Contributions from grunts like those men is the essence of being a great team.
It's also a wonderful contrast for this NBA Finals, which starts sometime around Labor Day, I believe. The Cleveland Cavaliers aren't completely a one- man show like Billy Crystal on Broadway, but they're close.
LeBron James is once again playing at an obscene level. Without Kevin Love and with Kyrie Irving hobbling around, James is carrying Tristan Thompson, Matthew Dellavedova, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov to a Finals appearance.
The Warriors will have plenty of options to defend him, including Iguodala, Barnes and Green. Considering Golden State is so versatile, it can switch on him at will.
If the Warriors can trump James in the Finals, it'll add to the historic significance. Not that Golden State needs anything else padding its resume. A championship victory would solidify this Warriors team as one of the best ever.
If you don't want to believe that, live your life. If you want to look at numbers and facts, know that in about a month or so, whenever the Finals end, the Warriors will cement their legacy as an all-time great.