The NBA's culture warriors

ByKevin Arnovitz ESPN logo
Wednesday, May 24, 2017

CRISIS IS A RELATIVE TERM when a team is 31-5, but on a Friday night in January, the Warriors are struggling with issues of identity. Having watched their 23-point lead over Memphis dwindle to two in the closing minute of regulation, they simply don't know what kind of basketball they want to play.

From the moment Kevin Durant sizes up Zach Randolph at the top of the floor above the arc, Draymond Green never moves from his plot in the left corner. Hunched over, he clutches the hems of his shorts. And why not? Everyone in the building anticipates what's about to transpire:

Inside of 30 seconds remaining, Durant pounds the ball into the hardwood at Oracle Arena, even though his effective field goal percentage in the clutch this season coming into tonight is 34.1 percent, 56th among the 63 players with more than 20 field goal attempts. Each of the nine other players on the floor locks his gaze upon him, standing still as the shot clock winds down. They're merely the support crew on a SWAT team, now powerless as they surround the operative who will try to defuse a ticking time bomb.

Green has already voiced his objections. After Klay Thompson had wrangled the rebound off a Steph Curry miss and zipped the ball to Green to reset at the top of the floor, Green had passed it off to Curry to initiate a new action. But when Durant called for the rock so he could carve up Randolph, Curry -- ever the accommodator -- obliged. Curry has excelled as the pick man in small-big screens, but Durant had waved him off. Green is apoplectic as he retreats to the corner, wagging his arms in disgust. The essence of the message, delivered with brute force:

"Just move the basketball," Green says now tactfully at practice the day after the Warriors' Game 1 comeback over the Spurs. "At the end of the day, if we have a matchup that we like ... there's a different way to get into it."

As Durant's shot clanks off the front rim, Green remains frozen, still gripping the bottom of his shorts as Memphis guard Troy Daniels secures the rebound. Without a word, Green marches across the floor to the Warriors bench, seething, head shaking, like a writer watching his script gutted on the screen. Mike Conley sends the game to overtime with a step-back jumper over Green, and after the Warriors fall to the Grizzlies in the extra period, Green lets loose at the postgame news conference.

"I'm actually happy we lost today because there are some things that we need to correct in order to win a championship," he says. "That's our goal. Our fourth-quarter offense has been atrocious."

Nothing personal about Durant, whom Green helped to recruit to Oakland, but premeditated hero ball isn't how the Warriors racked up a 140-24 record and a title over the previous two seasons. If the ball finds a hero in the rhythmic flow of a possession, then by all means fire away. But this -- stand-and-watch basketball -- simply isn't why Draymond Green and the rest of the Warriors got into this business.

"I think we're kind of reverting back to that" Green continues at the news conference. "If you look at the fourth quarter, Klay is standing. It's not Klay's fault; it's our fault. It's Steve's fault. It's my fault as a leader on the floor, as a floor general. It's Steph's fault as a floor general, to get us in place, to get everybody moving. So it's not like it's one guy's fault. This is a team effort."

Four months later, the Warriors are fortifying their identity -- just one win away from a third consecutive NBA Finals -- against a Spurs team that has spent the past two decades defining what basketball principles and basketball culture mean. Golden State's depth of talent exceeds anything San Antonio presents, with or without Kawhi Leonard. As the Warriors try to construct a dynasty that both borrows and discounts characteristics of what the Spurs have built, there's one quality the Dubs want to replicate: an ingrained and unapologetic understanding of exactly who they are as a team.

When Green finally arrives at the bench and lashes out over this breach of philosophy, it evokes a familiar portrait of timeout ire -- Gregg Popovich.

WHEN STEVE KERR went into the lab to devise an offense after arriving in Oakland, he drew upon three sources of inspiration: Mike D'Antoni's early high-screen and spread attack, with 3-point shooters everywhere on the floor firing at will; old-school post splits (imagine a love child of Tex Winter and Jerry Sloan that borrows genetic material from Rick Adelman), with skill players at the elbows dropping off passes to zippy cutters or finding shooters with X-ray vision; and the Spurs' motion strong/weak sets that rely on precise actions to produce a menu of options that plays like an elegant basketball decision tree.

Kerr is steeped in all of them, as both a knockdown shooter on championship teams in Chicago and San Antonio with a deep appreciation of his role, and as general manager of the Suns during the latter days of the "Seven Seconds or Less" offense who had a bird's-eye view of an offense that revolutionized the league.

Far more than just an energy guy, Green has proved to be indispensable to the new offense's execution. Consider the fourth quarter of Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, when from the left block Green hit Shaun Livingston in stride with a perfect pocket pass after Livingston back-screened for Durant, the decoy on the play, before diving down the gut of the lane. Now consider the Game 2 blowout, when Green slung a wraparound behind-the-back pass to Zaza Pachulia the instant Green recognized that Pachulia was trailing his defender, Pau Gasol. In a flash, Green can transform utter chaos into point-blank buckets.

Watching the collision of basketball schemes and cultures on display in this Warriors-Spurs series is to consider that Green, oddly enough, is the synthesis between the two. He's both the league's top assist man among bigs (it's not close) and simultaneously one of the best rim protectors and perimeter stoppers in the game. His basketball intelligence tests off the charts, and he can intuitively read the floor and make instantaneous decisions. He's the Spurs-iest cog in the NBA's most lethal machine, a savant who relies on timing, motion and execution.

Imagining Green on the Spurs is an interesting thought experiment, not just because weighing NBA hypotheticals is fun, but because Green sits at the intersection of everything that's similar and different between the two organizations. Although he can be obnoxious or overbearing during games, he also boasts two ingredients fundamental to how the Spurs operate: unselfishness in the course of a possession and a maniacal competitiveness. Whatever perception exists about the Spurs being a docile bunch, nothing gets a player disowned more quickly from the Spurs family than a sense that he's not a killer.

Yet Green is also a guy who needs conflict to thrive, and conflict is antithetical to a Spurs culture that will "tolerate a--h----, but only if they know when to turn it off," in the words of one Spurs veteran. The primary question in player evaluation for the Spurs, in the words of Popovich: "Has this person gotten over himself?" A player can be an irritant, but shouldn't be irritating. He can be a ball-breaker, but not a ball-stopper. He should take pride in the work, but shouldn't be prideful.

"I have a problem with proud," says Popovich.

How would an organization with a severe allergy to the media deal with a player who thrives on using public platforms to hype himself up, inspire (or rankle) teammates, goad opponents and drive a daily narrative? Would he change its culture of reticence or find comfort in the commonalities -- the Spurs' reliance on humor as a bond, the distaste for isolation basketball, the rabid competitiveness?

The scenario prompts a tricky riddle about NBA culture -- does the personnel inform the culture, or does the culture inform the personnel? Had the Spurs drafted LeBron James in 2003 and added Green 10 years later in one of their strokes of late-first/early-second round ingenuity, would Spurs' culture look entirely different?

"You can say, 'This is what I want our culture to look like,' but it's going to change depending on who your main players are," Kerr says on the eve of Game 2. "The Spurs have been the Spurs because all of their main guys going back to David [Robinson] and Tim [Duncan] have been smart, quiet, respectful, hard-working, and Kawhi too -- baller, no agenda, just wants to get better. So it all kind of works."

THE WALLS OF THE WARRIORS' practice gym are mirrors that reflect the team's charisma smiling back at it. A pictorial chronology of the franchise features larger-than-life iconic images -- Baron Davis' monster dunk over Andrei Kirilenko, Steph Curry and Andre Iguodala kissing the Larry O'Brien Trophy after winning the 2015 championship. For the Spurs, such a display would seem gauche ("I have a problem with proud.").

"I don't think you'll see the murals [in the San Antonio practice gym]," Kerr says. "I know you won't on the wall. You won't see the banners. We purposely have these pictures up because we're trying to show competition and joy. We want to compete our asses off, but we want to have fun. We have pictures of guys smiling and fired up and winning a championship, and our history, with Warriors, all of this matters. We're much more open with the media."

The Warriors have made that effort a component of their identity. Curry and Durant don't crave the attention that Green enjoys, but they abide by the organization's official policy that salesmanship is part of the job of professional athletes and the teams that employ them. Kerr encourages this engagement, both as a means of selling the Warriors and as a practical tool.

"Steve to a certain degree was a product of the media," says Mike Brown, the acting head coach in Kerr's absence and a descendent of the Spurs' coaching tree. "I think that helped Steve understand different aspects of [the media's] job and how he can use [them] to help us or to send a message or whatever. Pop may not feel the same way."

The Spurs, on the other hand, are the NBA's monastery, a place where ascetics practice basketball not as an enterprise but as a craft. Around that abbey, they have built walls to protect the integrity of the project -- between the team and the media, between business and basketball. The Spurs' aversion to attention and self-promotion is a defining aspect of their identity, one codified by Tim Duncan, the NBA's most legendary introvert and one of its most unheralded leaders, and carried, after Duncan's retirement, by MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard.

"I always felt like Pop was kind of projecting Tim," Kerr says. "Tim wasn't a huge fan of the media. We've been more open. Draymond loves talking to the press; he's really good with it. The guys who aren't as comfortable, they're kind of shielded by the guys who are because you can get a great quote from Draymond any day of the week. It works naturally based on personality."

If the NBA's popularity is driven by the dynamism of its best players and teams, the Spurs are the anti-Warriors -- and they couldn't care less. From their perspective, there is no shortage of braggarts to fuel the NBA hype machine, and their contributions will manifest in more substantive ways. The Spurs function as one of the league's leading research and development firms, where innovations in sports science (who do you think launched this whole debate on player rest?) and team-building first take hold in the NBA. Popovich has said that his greatest fulfillment comes from seeing an extended family of Spurs alumni prosper around basketball.

The understanding that a player comes to San Antonio not to satisfy some personal aspiration or to sculpt his brand, that playing joyfully is derived from caring about the people you work with and made possible by everyone sublimating your egos -- this is a feature, not a bug of Spurs basketball. For the Spurs, the operation works not in spite of their inattention to the engagement that the Warriors thrive on, but because of it.

STRANGE INCIDENTS BEFELL Mike Brown when he arrived in Oakland to replace Luke Walton as the first assistant to Kerr. First he noticed a lone sock -- maybe his, maybe not -- lying randomly in his otherwise immaculate locker, a famously tidy shrine to order and compulsion. "He's got everything folded perfectly, color-coordinated," Kerr says. A few days later, his hand lotion had mysteriously moved from its proper place. Those shirts organized by palette would be out of sequence, pens relocated, a random piece of trash would surface.

"I'm OCD. They rearrange crap," Brown says. "They mess with my stuff all the time. You could say it's looser here."

Brown's victimhood at the hands of the Warriors' merry pranksters is an analog of the distinct cultural difference between the West's two leading franchises. In San Antonio, there's a well-drawn agenda: At 9:30 a.m. it's bigs and smalls. After that, a 5-on-0 drill. Follow that with a defensive drill.

"In San Antonio, it's boom, boom, boom, boom," Brown says. "Steve has a practice plan in his head. He's put most of his thoughts together the night before, and a lot of times we won't put it on paper before practice nor will we go over it in a staff meeting before practice. It'll manifest itself as the guys are stretching and throughout practice."

Soon after LaMarcus Aldridge joined the Spurs in 2015, he showed up at practice wearing his preferred workout gear -- sweatpants cut off at the knee, a shirt with a single sleeve missing. The next day, Popovich walked in outfitted in the same slovenly getup. Everyone enjoyed a good laugh, but the message was clear: A San Antonio Spurs player doesn't need to adopt a militant Miami Heat-style formality -- Pop and R.C. Buford aren't exactly fashion models -- but could you at least try to clear a basic threshold of professionalism?

"A lot of what goes on the court is kind of a reflection of how things are off the court and vice versa," Lee says. "The Warriors team plays cards on the plane, and listens to music, whereas our team, everyone has their own headphones and we have assigned seats on the plane. There is more structure on the court as well."

Since David Robinson and Duncan held down the frontcourt in San Antonio, the Spurs' offense has gone through several iterations, each accounting for the personnel on the floor. Though it's far more conventional since the arrival of Aldridge, their "motion" offense and its variations (strong, weak, loop) could long be found in just about every playbook in the NBA. Motion is an elegant offense designed to force the opposing defense into a constant state of decision-making -- a game of basketball whack-a-mole. The choreographic sequence is well-defined, with multiple options for shot attempts along the way. If a defender denies a pass, rest assured another mole will be arriving shortly in the form of a cross-screen set by a wing player to free up a big on the block, or that same wing when he loops back to the top of the floor after setting the aforementioned screen.

As is the case with Spurs practice, no time is wasted. Boom, boom, boom, boom -- until the right shot for the right guy materializes. Impatience will compromise the quality of that shot, but so will indecisiveness -- witness Popovich's comments after Game 2 when he called out Aldridge for being timid and turning down shots.

The Warriors operate more improvisationally. They feature more natural shot creators than San Antonio has had historically, and the element of surprise is a lethal weapon for Curry. Throw in intuitive forwards such as Green and Iguodala, a big sharpshooting guard who has learned to operate off the dribble in Thompson, along with Durant and his bottomless tool box, and there's simply too much talent on the floor to confine to a strict system.

And as Green took pains to make clear after that loss to Memphis in January, there's simply too much talent to settle for hero ball, no matter how super the hero.

"Pop has always been more structured," says Brown, who was an assistant in San Antonio between 2000 and 2003 and held the top jobs with Cleveland (twice) and the Lakers before learning the ways of the Warriors as an assistant this season. "We give these guys a lot of ownership of what they do offensively. We'll tell them, 'Hey, if you are on the weak side of the court, just don't stand. You could do a lot of things. You could set a back screen. You can cut. You can set a pin down, and pop.' We give them guidelines depending on where they are on the floor. We just let them play. In San Antonio, even back when I was there compared to now, they are more structured from the standpoint that Pop calls a lot more action for those guys, then they will flow into a certain look."

At its best, Warriors basketball is something beautiful, a carousel of passes and movement, all of it driven by intuition. It's all the grace of vintage Spurs, but with jolt of whimsy.

"Reading situations is important," Green says. "Knowing where we need to go is important. One thing about us is, 'Yeah, Steph may have it going, but we're not going to stop and watch Steph.' We're going to continue to move and continue to move the basketball. The ball will find who it needs to find in certain moments. That's just the rules we go by. We don't go, 'Aw, man, this guy is hot. Let's just all sit here and watch him go to work.' We're not going to stop the entire offense and let everyone key on that one guy."

WITH EACH PASSING YEAR, NBA organizations have come to regard themselves more and more as the creatures of the new economy. They replace old office suites with sleek open floor plans that scream Google campus, and they speak incessantly of culture, as if culture is an elixir that can be brewed in the front office, brought downstairs to the practice court and released into the Gatorade cooler behind the bench. Coaches and executives can serve as luminaries and guides, but NBA cultures almost always come to reflect the sensibilities of their most visible players.

Nowhere is that more true than Golden State and San Antonio. Curry is unassuming, yet playful. Green's wild intensity provides a balance, and that intensityitself is balanced by his dedication to egalitarian play on the court. Now they're incorporating Durant, who himself is trying to balance the command that has made him an MVP with a deference to a culture that precedes him. Leonard has taken Duncan's introverted professionalism and run with it. Like his predecessor, he's doggedly committed to perfecting a system in the confines of a place that's removed from the circus of NBA life.

"Cultures are really built based on personalities and human qualities," Kerr says. "You can't base a culture on philosophy, you know? If I came in and said, 'We're going to do everything just like San Antonio,' the players would've sensed that that was phony because that's not really who I am. I'm much more open. I'm much more inclusive. I don't mind the media kind of knowing what we're doing. It's great for our fans. I think our players enjoy it. If our players didn't enjoy it, then I would adapt, and I would be much more protective of them. But we do what works for us."

Teams have tried to replicate San Antonio's culture, or at least borrow from it. The greatest challenge in doing so is not so much a lack of discipline to the principles, but that the principles themselves take years to manifest. Few spoke about "Spurs culture" 15 years ago even though the organization was building a track record of success. It's longevity that has given the Spurs the license to demand a certain level of conformity from those who play there. Can you imagine a player going to San Antonio in 2017 and trying to do it his way?

"The longevity with Pop is different," says David West, who joined the Warriors last summer after playing the previous season with San Antonio. "The structure has been there for a while, and it's important. There's no hidden deal. When you go there, you know you've got to figure out the way that they do things. You've got to make yourself comfortable with your role. You come [to Golden State], it's like let's find out what your strengths are, and let's figure out where you fit."

Warriors' culture, appealing as it might seem today, won't be fully defined for another several years. Check in during the 2026-27 season after Steph has had to reinvent his game a couple of times and Kerr is enjoying his retirement in San Diego. What happens if, unlike Manu Ginobili, who accepted a lesser role in San Antonio when he still had far more to give, Thompson departs in search of a team where he can land the leading role? Let's see if teammates in another five to 10 years still respond to Green's provocations and his exhortations to keep the ball moving. Or whether the front office sustains its magic touch in the draft. How will a self-aggrandizing owner deal with adversity? Will the organization continue to crank out gifted assistants and operations people who, like the players they coach and evaluate, are able to sublimate their egos?

Johan Huizinga, the Dutch historian, once said that if we want to preserve culture, we must continue to create it. That's what Green was doing when he barked at Durant during the most crucial possession of that nationally televised loss. It's what Popovich was summoning when he implored Aldridge to step up after a woeful Game 2. Culture in the NBA isn't something you draw up on the whiteboard, or a mural on the practice gym wall. It's a living, breathing thing that reveals itself over time and remains relevant because those who live inside it believe it's important enough to be maintained.

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