The most successful path to a championship seems to be when owners hire smart people to run their teams and then let them do their jobs. When leaders, as in the coach and general manager, are able to put aside their individual egos and collaborate. When teams acquire high-quality athletes and astute coaches push them to become better.
The Warriors made a conscious decision a few years ago, before Joe Lacob and Peter Guber bought the team, before head coach Steve Kerr and general manager Bob Myers arrived, before executive Rick Welts and consultant Jerry West came on board. Former general manager and current director of scouting Larry Riley decided to make character a priority. To acquire players you could be proud to have wearing your jersey. After knuckleheads like gun-wielding Stephen Jackson or scooter-crashing Monta Ellis, the Warriors wanted something different.
And they found a high-character guy in Stephen Curry.
That doesn’t always work. The Warriors, after all, drafted a super nice player named Todd Fuller once upon a time. The key is the right talent packaged with high character.
The Warriors’ path is similar to the direction the Giants took after the team’s reputation was tainted by Barry Bonds’ steroid scandal, and its clubhouse had been a divided, unhappy place for years. The Giants wanted a leader, a new face, a “rock-solid guy,” in the words of general manager Brian Sabean. So they drafted Buster Posey. And now everyone has three rings.
A high-character leader sets the tone. As Warriors forward David Lee said this season, if your best player isn’t a jerk, no one else is allowed to be. A high-character guy won’t pout if his coach is replaced, won’t make trouble about his salary, won’t stiff the media or the fans. Won’t stop working to get better on both ends of the floor.
A close relationship between the general manager and the coach is useful. We’ve seen that with the Giants. The Warriors have it as well.
Kerr calls Myers a facilitator.
“He generates a lot of conversation,” Kerr said. “A lot of calm, healthy dialogue in a really productive way. In a business where things can become very emotional, Bob is kind of the soothing hand.”
Ask Kerr, who has five rings and a Ph.D. in championship teams, what such groups have in common and he doesn’t hesitate to answer:
Luke Walton, who won two rings with the Lakers, agrees.
“At the top of the list is defense,” Walton said.
Hard-working defensive teams are, by their nature, unselfish and collaborative.
“It all ties together,” Kerr said. “If you can really count on your defense, it probably means you have guys who are high character. They care about winning and about each other, so they’re going to make the sacrifice. Maybe it’s their points, maybe it’s their shot attempts, maybe it’s their minutes.”
Walton said that having the right leadership is important.
“It’s really hard to win an NBA title,” Walton said. “It’s the coaches’ job to keep everybody calm and level. Character comes into play in the rough times. When guys can count on each other and know their teammates are still going to do the right thing, even if they’re down by 15. You have to be able to trust people.
“Guys on a championship team sacrifice their own personal talents or success for the better of the team. A lot of people in the NBA pout when that happens. But on the top teams, they embrace it.”
Make no mistake: Jerks can win championships. Stupid and selfish players can get rings.
But what we’ve learned in our petri dish of Bay Area sports is that the path to a championship is easier — and arguably more rewarding — when you have talented players but can also add brains, collaboration and quality character into the mix.
That’s the best way to change a team’s history.