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The Treachery of the Championship Blueprint

The more things change … the more they stay the same.

Of course a jump-shooting team can win a title in today’s NBA.

As observers of basketball, and sports in general, we become obsessed with certain tendencies as symptoms of success.

This function creates a false idea that the NBA is a copycat league. There’s really a major distinction between copying success and composing a roster in line with league trends.

The Golden State Warriors didn’t design a system and draft players according to that system. It was the opposite. The Warriors drafted players, filled specific holes through trades and free agency, and found a coach who could maximize each individual’s skill set.

That foundation isn’t a recent trend, it’s how champions have always been built.

It’s funny, Knicks president Phil Jackson recently told Howard Beck of Bleacher Report that he’s not a huge fan of the modern NBA:

“The game actually has some beauty to it, and we’ve kind of taken some of that out of it to make it individualized. When I watch some of these playoff games, and I look at what’s being run out there, as what people call an offense, it’s really quite remarkable to see how far our game has fallen from a team game. Four guys stand around watching one guy dribble a basketball.”

This is a new trend? I guess The Zen Master doesn’t recall Charles Barkley using the full shot clock to back dudes down on the low block. Pull any generation throughout the history of the NBA and you’ll find teams using advanced, evolved offenses, and you’ll also find teams that are reliant upon one or two stars to carry the entire offensive burden.

Want to know the secret? Individualized teams don’t win titles. Phil knows that better than anybody. Focus on the league and conclusions can be muddled, focus on the champion and the same principles of success still apply. The Warriors didn’t win a title strictly because of Stephen Curry, the Spurs the prior year didn’t win a title just because of Kawhi Leonard, nor did the Heat the year before because of LeBron.

Jackson might be observing the way some teams play, but the offenses, and lack of ingenuity he’s referring to are all characteristics of teams that fell short of the title.

We fall into this same exact pattern every single year. We make grand proclamations about how this year’s champion will revolutionize the game, and yet every year we see champions that share some of the same characteristics year over year.

Scout and draft well. Stay committed to a coach and a philosophy. It’s possible to win in today’s NBA playing the free agency game, and we certainly haven’t seen the best of Daryl Morey’s Rockets, but the Warriors scouted, drafted and developed Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes. The draft is instrumental for success. The problem is, unlike the NFL draft, it’s difficult for players, especially those on championship caliber rosters, to make an immediate impact.

We’re a society that demands quick fixes. The NBA Draft doesn’t. Free agency does.

July of last year, the Warriors were faced with a conundrum. It was an issue that seemed obvious to outside observers. The Warriors, most people claimed, should absolutely unload Thompson, Green and David Lee for Kevin Love. Why would they even consider not pulling the trigger on that deal?

The most important, most influential aspect of success in sports, and particularly in the NBA, is continuity. Change has become an inevitably of failure. The best organizations are the ones who embrace those failures and evaluate them objectively. Desperation is a fatal flaw in roster construction. We observe and learn that lesson every single year, and yet more and more we see massive, wholesale changes in roster construction throughout the NBA. Continuity is king. Champions prove that each and every year.

There’s also one final aspect consistent with championship squads throughout the league’s history: luck. This is always an odd term to fans and observers, because the perception is luck undermines a team’s accomplishment. Success is attainable when experience meets opportunity. In sports syntax, luck is that opportunity. The Warriors were aided by internal health and were able to avoid starting point guards in every round of the playoffs. They missed Jrue Holiday when they faced the Pelicans, then Mike Conley missed time with the Grizzlies in the second round, Patrick Beverley was out for the Rockets in the Western Conference Finals and Kyrie Irving played one game in the Finals before he was lost. Luck should never diminish on-court excellence. It runs in tandem. No team has ever won a championship without absurd skill and luck. It’s all part of the championship concoction.

With all that being said, there’s perhaps one thing championship teams can teach us, and maybe it’s not a lesson so much as it’s the reinforcement of a specific era. Look through every generation of champions in the NBA and you’ll find the same traits listed above, but beyond those broad traits there are specific ones indicative of league trends.

The Bad Boys Pistons, Magic’s Lakers and MJ’s Bulls all won during an era where muscle was valued over speed. In the decades since, rule changes have dictated speed and athleticism over strength and power. In the modern game there’s much more room on the perimeter, which puts a higher premium on fast guards and three-point shooting. The Warriors really shouldn’t have taught you that though, unless you’re Byron Scott. If you needed the Warriors winning to emphasize the importance of the three-point shot, then you’re already behind as an organization. The Spurs did that the previous year, and if you hadn’t noticed, Ray Allen made that abundantly clear the year before.

It’s not a coincidence, based upon league trends, that Cleveland and Golden State were two of the top four teams during the regular season in three-point attempts, and all four of the final teams left represented the top four in three-point attempts throughout the playoffs.

The game of basketball has evolved immensely since James Naismith put up the first peach basket. The importance of adaptation from a schematic and a personnel standpoint shouldn’t be understated. But we haven’t reached a great revolution based on the game’s evolution. The Warriors have a greater resemblance to previous champions than uniqueness. It’s funny. The simplest answer is usually the right one. The blueprint for titles in the NBA is right there in front of our eyes for everyone to see, but we look beyond it.

René Magritte, a Belgian surrealist painter, famously composed a painting of a pipe with the caption “This is just a pipe” written underneath. It was a response to the notion of subtext in art. It was, in some ways, an artistic rendition of a Rorschach test.

Look at the Warriors. What do you see?

The blueprint exists. It’s always existed. The Warriors just proved it.

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