Warriors end 40-year wait with NBA title — and more excellence ahead


CLEVELAND — This journey took 40 years. That’s how long it had been since the Warriors, as a franchise, had won a championship. In that sense, and in the sense that the Warriors had only recently, from 1995 through 2012, endured a 17-year stretch in which they made but one playoff appearance, it has been a long and torturous road for Golden State.

But in another way, this has been remarkably quick. Five years ago, the Warriors were a joke of a franchise, pried from the bumbling clutches of Peter Cohan and sold to forward-thinking owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber, for what now seems to be a sparse sum, $450 million. Lacob and Guber had bought a dud, through and through, a franchise imbued with losing.

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It got bad pretty quickly under Lacob and Guber, too. The dismissal of coach Don Nelson was messy, and the firing of Keith Smart wasn’t smooth, either. When Lacob famously took the court in 2011 during a Chris Mullin jersey retirement ceremony and was booed so relentlessly—fans were upset about the trade of guard Monta Ellis—that Warriors Hall of Famer Rick Barry had to rise and shush the crowd in his defense

Now? They had a 67-win season, best in franchise history by a full eight games. They had the league’s MVP for the first time in 55 years. They went 16-5 in the postseason. And with their 105-97 Game 6 victory here at Quicken Loans Arena, the Warriors are NBA champions.

And they are poised for more. NBA MVP Stephen Curry, is 27. Burgeoning young All-Star Klay Thompson is 25, as is another burgeoning youngster, Draymond Green. Versatile and developing forward Harrison Barnes is 23. The fifth starter with that core — 30-year-old center Andrew Bogut throughout the season, 31-year-old guard Andre Iguodala during the Finals and won Finals MVP — is probably replaceable going forward, possibly by another 25-year-old, Festus Ezeli, whose Game 6 impact included 10 points and four rebounds.

The Warriors are young, and perhaps their biggest obstacle in this postseason — or, at least, second-biggest, behind Cavs star LeBron James — has been their own inexperience. But this was an especially intelligent crew, a mix of youthful starters and veterans like Iguodala, Bogut, Shaun Livingston and Leandro Barbosa, that learned on the fly.

The win over the Cavaliers was, like much of their postseason, the culmination of lessons learned. Throughout these playoffs, the Warriors have gotten better as each individual series has gone on, gleaning some lesson from an important moment, the kind of moments that have, in the past two playoffs, caused this team to unravel. This time, they showed remarkable adaptability and resilience.

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It seems like long ago now that the Warriors were set back on their heels after Game 3 when their offense was adrift and the Cavaliers were completely dictating the pace of the series, slowing the games down and getting the ball to LeBron James, allowing him to dominate.  

But the Warriors—having also been down in the second round against the Grizzlies—kept their cool and adjusted, putting Iguodala into the starting five. They didn’t lose a game from there, dominating Cleveland in Game 4, making a huge late push in Game 5 and holding off a late run in Game 6.

“That’s been important for us not just in this series but in all of the playoffs,” Livingston said. “I think as we have gone on in each of the games we played and all the series, we learned a little bit and improved. When you have a lot of guys who are just figuring it out, that is important.”

Now that they’ve figured out this much, they will have a leg up on the rest of the league. There’s no danger, either, of this team coming together this year and being subsequently pulled apart by contract demands and luxury tax concerns. Remember the 2012 Thunder, so full of youth and promise after their Finals appearance? They couldn’t pay James Harden, traded him away to the Rockets and haven’t sniffed the Finals again since.

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Or the 2011 Mavericks? That team tried to outsmart the rest of the league by looking ahead to the next collective-bargaining agreement, figuring cap flexibility was the key — and losing key player Tyson Chandler to free agency after that year. The Mavs have not seen the second round of the playoffs since.

Lacob has promised that won’t be his team. Back in October 2013, I sat in Lacob’s office with my tape recorder running, and he said to me, “I don’t want to pay the luxury tax, nobody wants to. That’s why it is a luxury tax, it is very punitive. But if it means winning vs. not winning, I choose winning. So that’s not an issue. At the end of the day, all the things we are talking about are important, but the fans care about one thing: Are you winning? Not the luxury tax. If I am not here to win, then I shouldn’t be here. We need to win.”

That’s right: If it means winning vs. not winning, Lacob unequivocally said he chooses winning, he chooses the tax. That has not changed. He will have to fork over a hefty number to keep Green, a restricted free agent. He is already set to see Thompson’s extension kick in next season. Barnes and Ezeli are eligible for extensions, too. Two guys with uncertain futures in the rotation — Bogut and David Lee — are scheduled to make a combined $27.5 million next season.

Lacob and Guber will have to write some checks to keep this team together. But this team has already rewarded them with what once seemed impossible—a five-year turnaround. The Warriors will do what is required to keep this run going. The Warriors are champions, for the first time in 40 years. They’ve earned whatever now comes their way.