This is a column I’ve dreaded having to write for this whole season, especially since the Golden State Warriors went down 3-1 to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
In case you’re just putting yourself together this Monday morning or you’re reading this in the year 2056, the Warriors just became the first team in NBA history to lose the NBA Finals after taking a 3-1 lead in the series. The Cleveland Cavaliers outlasted them, outscoring them 4-0 over the last four and a half minutes to win Game 7, 93-89. The parallels to what happened with this franchise 40 years ago are creepy.
In Cleveland, they’ll use a different word, similar to the Great Lake which is no longer a factory of sadness in Northeastern Ohio: eerie.
Last year, the Golden State Warriors were a feel-good story for a number of reasons, but one of the biggest was that the franchise was 40 years removed from its last NBA title.
This year, the franchise marked the 40th anniversary of a heartbreaking loss in the Western Conference Finals, after a brilliant season that earned the Dubs home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. They had improved their record 11 games over their 1975 championship season, and had three players named to the Western Conference All-Star Team for the first time in franchise history.
The 1976 Warriors dominated the Western Conference. They won 59 games. The next-highest total was Seattle’s 43. You don’t remember that Seattle had a team? It plays in Oklahoma City now. The Warriors played the 36-46 Detroit Pistons in the second round (the best record earned a first-round bye in those days, and yes, Detroit was in the West). They surprisingly lost Game 2 at home, split the two in Detroit, and won Game 5 followed by a very tight Game 6 to move on.
The next opponent was Phoenix, an upset winner over Seattle in the first round. The Suns had the Rookie of the Year in center Alvan Adams, and an emerging star in guard Paul Westphal. The Suns had won 42 games, but finished the season 24-13 after a rough start. I’m not going to go into huge detail about the Warriors’ Game 7 loss to them in the 1976 Western Conference Finals, because I did that a few weeks ago, but I can tell you that the fourth quarter of that game was very reminiscent of the 4th quarter of the NBA Finals Game 7 which unfolded Sunday night.
Last year it was all fun and games, just like 1975. This year, the team faced the expectations of being a defending champion head on, and improved in every way. In 1976 they went from 48 wins to 59, a new franchise record. In 2016 they went from 67 wins to 73, a new NBA record.
Right after their Finals victory in 1975, they traded a key piece — not a star, but a starter — point guard Butch Beard (to the Cleveland Cavaliers, ironically), for a journeyman forward named Dwight Davis. I’ve heard a couple of explanations for why Beard was traded, and none were basketball related. They replaced him by drafting Gus Williams out of USC, who was a key contributor during their great season in 1976, but the chemistry on the team had changed. When the pressure was on in the fourth quarter of Game 7 against Phoenix, a conflict between Warriors star forward Rick Barry and some other players resulted in Barry either taking himself out of the offensive flow or being “frozen out” of it. Either way, the Warriors couldn’t score down the stretch and they lost a game in which they were huge favorites.
Right after their Finals victory in 2015, the Warriors traded a player widely believed to be no longer a key piece, forward David Lee, to the Boston Celtics for players who were immediately waived or traded for players who were waived. It was a salary dump made necessary by Lee’s 2016 cap number, combined with the emergence of Draymond Green as an elite player. Although relegated to the bench for long stretches of both the 2015 season and the playoffs, Lee had made key contributions against both Memphis and Cleveland when Green was in foul trouble. It was in Game 3 against Cleveland that Lee helped the Warriors come back from a 20-point deficit by running a devastating pick-and-roll game with Steph Curry, forcing LeBron James to play the entire second half rather than sit out while his teammates iced an easy win. Game 4 was just two days later, and James looked and played tired. The Warriors stole that game to regain their home-court advantage and win in six.
Lee’s name was mentioned from time to time during the season, mostly because he maintained a very unusual relationship with the Warriors. In this day of players moving constantly from team to team, it’s rare to have a former player who’s almost an honorary team member, but that was Lee with the Warriors. He even got a leave from the Celtics, who had decided he wasn’t a fit for them, to go to the White House when the Warriors had their visit with the President. It was, however, never said that the team would miss him on the court. How could you make that case when they’re busy executing a 73-win season?
Then came Game 5 of the 2016 Finals.
Lee, while never a great defensive player, would have given the Warriors a better option to cover the loss of Draymond Green than anything in Steve Kerr’s current tool belt. They were a weirdly constructed team anyway, with four centers and only one true “4” in Green. Everyone else on that team is a “wing” or a point guard. When Andrew Bogut got hurt in Game 5 (with the score 67-64, by the way, despite the lack of Green in the lineup), the other centers just fell apart on Kerr.
Festus Ezeli, who was injured for most of the second half of the season, had never returned to the form he showed in the 2015 playoffs. He was terrible in Game 7, blowing several opportunities his teammates set up for him on offense, and fouling LeBron James “shooting” a 3-pointer late in the shot clock in the fourth quarter. Anderson Varejao, acquired indirectly from Cleveland at the trade deadline, had short spurts of productive play here and there in the playoffs, but was mostly invisible in the Finals. Marreese Speights, while listed as a center, does not play well in the low post on either end of the floor, and Kerr didn’t trust him with important minutes in the Finals.
Lee would have at least given Kerr another post presence, and a guy who could give Iguodala and Green a few minutes of rest in Games 6 and 7.
This isn’t an “I told you so.” Nobody in their right mind would have ever said that the loss of David Lee would impact the Warriors, especially after the season they had. It just goes to show you that in the NBA playoffs, you never know what player, or lack of a player, will tip the scales one way or another.
It could be Butch Beard. It could be David Lee. It’s impossible to know, and that’s one reason (out of many) it’s so hard to repeat as champions of the NBA.
EPILOGUE: The loss in the 1976 Western Conference Finals started a swift decline in the Warriors’ fortunes. They dropped to 46 wins in 1977, losing in the second round of the playoffs to the Lakers. After that season, both Jamaal Wilkes (Lakers) and Gus Williams (Sonics) signed free-agent contracts elsewhere. They did have a promising rookie, center Robert Parish, but that 1977 playoff appearance would be their last for 10 years.
Warrior fans hope the 40-year parallels end right here.