After Detroit’s Chauncey Billups-inspired demolition of the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2004 finals, perhaps the NBA’s greatest postseason upset of the early 2000s came in the first round of the 2007 Western Conference playoffs.
The Dallas Mavericks, owned by billionaire Mark Cuban and led by MVP-in-waiting Dirk Nowitzki, had come off a record-breaking regular season in which they’d won 67 games and lost just 15. The Golden State Warriors had not made the playoffs since 1994; their squad included a number of oddballs and castoffs from other teams such as small forward Stephen Jackson, who was traded by the Indiana Pacers after he fired a gun outside a strip club in Indianapolis. Not surprisingly, the Warriors were heavy underdogs. When eventually they polished off the Mavericks 111-86 at Oakland’s Oracle Arena to seal the series 4-2, the house erupted.
“After the game, fans did everything but storm the floor,” wrote the New York Times. Warriors players crowd surfed across the celebrating horde, carried aloft by their long-suffering supporters. The country applauded. The great underdogs of northern California had pulled off the basketballing heist of the year.
Fast forward to this year and what is the Warriors fan intervention we will most remember this finals series for? That shove from Warriors part-owner Mark Stevens on Toronto point guard Kyle Lowry. Stevens, a venture capitalist worth $2.4 billion, bought a minority stake in the Warriors in 2013, a sign of the direction in which co-executive chairmen Joe Lacob and Peter Guber intended to take the franchise: Toward an ever-deepening alliance with the Silicon Valley universe of tech moguls and VCs in which they themselves made their fortune.
“Mark will prove to be a tremendous asset to our organization,” Guber said at the time that Stevens joined the Warriors ownership group. “We’ve managed to build a strong and well-rounded ownership group in which each individual contributes to our success, and Mark is no exception. He’s an ideal fit.”
In fact Stevens proved to be such an ideal fit, so comfortable in his entitlement to the benefits of ownership, that he felt he could physically assault an opposing player. Punishment, when it came, was swift – Stevens was ejected from Oracle Arena, then handed a $500,000 fine and banned from attending NBA games until the end of next season. But the crassness of the gesture seemed to capture something else about these Warriors, a curdled, brattish quality that reflected the completion of a decade-long journey. From the battlers of 2007, a team that everyone loved, the Warriors have become a franchise that neutrals love to hate. Once underdogs, the Warriors are now the team of tech bros and douchebags, too slick and too confident for their own good – a metamorphosis capped by the imminent move from Oakland’s cramped and shopworn Oracle Arena to the shimmering disc of Chase Center in downtown San Francisco. How did they get from there to here?
The simple answer, of course, is success. The Warriors have won three of the last five championships, falling only to the Cleveland Cavaliers of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving in 2016 and now to Toronto. But teams that dominate their era are not always bound to be disliked, as the Lakers and Chicago Bulls proved in the 1980s and 1990s. And when these “new” Warriors – the pre-Kevin Durant team of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala – won their first championship in 2015, they were seen as a breath of fresh air, mixing lightning-quick ball movement with lethal three-point shooting. That bouncy, boyish quality – the Splash brothers raining down buckets from improbable spaces and distances, Green and Iguodala muscling up in the lane, Curry at the free-throw line, chomping at his mouthguard – has never really left the team in the four years since that breakthrough triumph. With the possible exception of Green, the team’s main players are not actively unlikable; they don’t go out of their way to antagonize their opponents or the fans of opposing teams. Coach Steve Kerr remains a charming, affable presence with an easy, liberal-pleasing line in anti-Trump political commentary. The team does not practice “the dark arts” or revel in its status as the villain the way that other hated sporting dynasties – for instance, the New England Patriots – do.
And yet, something has shifted. There’s a complacency about the team now that did not exist previously, as well as a hint of bitterness – the bitterness that comes with realizing you are not universally adored. The Warriors still want to be loved. They want to be the newcomers, the radicals shaking up the sport. Plainly, the realization that they’re no longer the darling of anyone save their own supporter base bites hard. Ahead of Game 4, Green was asked how the team would cope in the absence of the injured Durant. His answer was revealing.
“Everybody wants to see us lose,” he said.
“So I’m sure people are happy they’re hurt. We just got to continue to battle and win the next game, go back to Toronto, win Game 5, come back to Oracle, win Game 6 and then celebrate. Fun times ahead.”
The answer began with a sulk and ended with a smirk. That mix of peevishness and arrogance, unsurprisingly, did not win Green many friends online. Meanwhile Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard was busy using these finals as a clinic in stoicism; for all his miraculous achievements on the court, the man didn’t so much as smile until the buzzer sounded at the end of Game 6. That contrast – between the brilliantly undemonstrative Leonard and the born-to-rule smugness of the Warriors – said a lot.
But trash-talking and self-promotion are some of the NBA’s proudest traditions, of course, so this can’t explain everything. Handily there are plenty of other reasons to dislike these Warriors. Hate them for the way they turned around after relinquishing their championship in 2016 and supercharged an already exceptional team with the acquisition of Kevin Durant, the equivalent of tilting the NBA-wide playing field on a 45 degree angle and making every other team play running uphill. Hate them for their obsession with perimeter shooting and efficiency over the razzamatazz and artistry of play inside the three-point line. Hate them for their pathological need to dominate games from distance rather than engage in hand-to-hand combat under the rim. Hate them because they’re a team that triumphs by disengaging from play rather than getting stuck in; for the relentless, robotic accuracy of Curry and Thompson, those menaces of the half-court; because they never take you by surprise, because they’re just not fun. Hate them, in short, for the part that’s lost to virtuosity and spontaneity when teams play a game of percentages rather than individual expressions.
Perhaps what rankles the neutral most, though, is the way all of this – the whole data- and analytics-driven shebang of the Warriors’ three-point-heavy playing style – has been allied to a deepening engagement between the franchise and Silicon Valley. The last two teams to dominate the NBA as the Warriors have were also “system” teams: The Bulls of the 1990s and the Lakers of the early 2000s triumphed on the back of Phil Jackson’s fabled triangle offense. These Warriors represent the first time since the 1990s that basketball has taken an epigenetic leap into a truly new way of playing the game. Unlike those earlier revolutionaries, however, the Warriors have also become the plaything of Silicon Valley at a time of mounting hostility toward Big Tech, when many of the very companies that have made Golden State’s owners rich are themselves objects of legitimate public outrage. However much Phil Jackson’s teams were about analytics, process and data, they weren’t hitched to the cause of a tech elite that sees itself as a world apart. If today’s Warriors mirror the ascendancy of tech, the “Showtime” Lakers of the 1980s captured the rise of America’s non-stop entertainment industry. But the celebrities who gave that Lakers team its courtside sprinkle of stardust were rich because they were cool, not because they saw early dealflow on ride-hailing apps or startups unlocking the potential of The Connected Home.
This is the real misfortune of these Warriors, if you can call a team this successful “unfortunate”: They’ve found glory under the ownership of Silicon Valley bigwigs at the peak of the techlash. The things that have made them successful – their shrewdness and efficiency in the market and on the court, both of them attributable to the vision of the VCs and tech bros who run the place – are also a proximate cause of their unpopularity. In the process, the Warriors have lost touch with the working class fan base that made Game 6 in that playoff series against the Mavericks, back in the faraway universe of 2007, such a memorable experience. The median household income in San Francisco’s Mission Bay, where the Warriors’ new home is located, is $134,000; the fan base looks set to become wealthier and wealthier, which probably guarantees a rich future of courtside obnoxiousness to nourish the haters. A franchise once so unpretentious and unexpectant of success that it failed to book its own home court for the 1975 finals series is now the toy of finger-jabbing early stage investors in Uber and Palantir. Hating the Warriors today becomes less about basketball than a political statement: For the little guy and against income inequality, against institutions that run into the arms of the rich, against the techification of everyday life.
In years to come, how will these Warriors be remembered? As a group that changed the way basketball is played; as the home of the sport’s greatest ever shooter; as an ensemble capable of scoring surges unlike anything the sport has seen before. And as a franchise filled with likable players that somehow became the team that no one likes.
* Aaron Timms is a writer for The Sydney Morning Herald, Salon and The Daily Beast. This article was first published in the Guardian.