The Warriors are on the brink of their fourth championship of this era and here come the declarations, commemorations, analyzations, epitaphs and NBA Finals soliloquies, all just a little bit premature with Thursday’s Game 6 in Boston still beckoning.
And, if the Celtics summon up the energy and will to prevent a Warriors celebration at TD Garden, maybe there will also be a Game 7 in Chase Center on Sunday. Which would be quite the dramatic way to settle up this nervous and thrumming season, I’d say.
So this is a pretty good time to sort through some of the percolating discourse about the Warriors right now — it could get really crazy in a couple of days, so let’s try to separate the accurate characterizations from the over-caffeinated poppycock to give ourselves a baseline understanding of what’s really going on and what really matters.
Here we go …
Truth: Stephen Curry almost certainly will win his first career finals MVP if the Warriors clinch the title either Thursday or Sunday, and it will be a very proper and deserved pinnacle achievement of his inner-circle Hall of Fame career.
Even after his 3-point aim deserted him in Game 5, Curry was still a plus-15 in a contest the Warriors won by 10 points, a pretty remarkable testament to what Curry means to the Warriors whether he’s putting up an all-time performance like he did in Game 4 or just creating mental havoc for a defense like he does at all times.
Curry has scored 153 points in this series (30.6 per game), which is 37 more than Boston’s Jayson Tatum, who has the next-highest total (and is averaging 23.2 per). Curry is shooting 46.6 percent overall and 41.7 percent from 3-point distance, numbers that are destined to climb if you know how he almost always responds to a poor shooting performance. And he has a series-leading nine steals, which is just part of his outstanding defensive portfolio in this series and the entire postseason. He’s plus-27 through five games in this series, second on the team only to Kevon Looney’s plus-48.
For point of reference: In what probably was Curry’s previous best finals outing, the Warriors’ 2015 victory over Cleveland when many were disappointed that Andre Iguodala won the MVP over Curry and LeBron James, Curry averaged 26 points on 44.3 percent shooting overall and 38.5 percent from long distance. He was plus-52 in that six-game series. He was very good against Cleveland that year. He was the Warriors’ most important player, as he always is. But Iguodala, who defended LeBron and was very efficient on offense, was arguably more valuable in those six games.
In 2017 and 2018, Kevin Durant was untouchable and rightfully won the finals MVPs. In 2019, Curry was incredible as a one-man offense against the Raptors, but he shot at a relatively low percentage (41.4 percent) and the Warriors lost the series. Which was not Curry’s fault at all, but the MVP went to Kawhi Leonard, on the winning team.
So, out of his six finals trips, this is Curry’s most efficient, most effective and, in the wake of his 43-point Game 4 masterpiece in Boston, most historic finals performance. It’s also a culminating moment for a 34-year-old who put the franchise on his back in his 20s and carried it to greatness and then held it together until the Warriors could reset this season for this great run. There might be more of them coming, but this one is special, for the franchise and especially for Curry.
Myth: Curry needs the finals MVP to justify his status as an all-time great.
Again, let’s stipulate: I am sure Curry is going to win the MVP if the Warriors win the title, and he might even win it if they lose. He’ll probably deserve it both ways.
But I’ve never believed he needed to win one to justify anything about his career. The three current banners and maybe a new fourth one soon can do all the justifying anybody needs. Is there any question about what player set the foundation for the Warriors’ eight-season run as title contenders? Is there any debate about the singular individual who created the culture that makes this team such a welcoming place for talented players of all kinds?
I think both sides of the Curry debate are wrong on the finals MVP issue. The Curry critics love nitpicking him because he’s not a dominant physical specimen and that’s what many NBA aesthetes prefer in an all-time player. Whatever. It’s their choice. It’s a weird thing, IMO, since Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were hardly peak athletic marvels and are properly in Hoop Valhalla. But oh well. I think it’s a Michael Jordan thing. Curry breaks the LeBron/Michael/Kobe Bryant MVP mold, but aren’t we supposed to celebrate the mold-breakers?
The Curry obsessives also have it wrong, though. The more they complain that Curry should’ve won a finals MVP and fret that he will be unfairly aced out of this one, the more they’re tacitly signaling that the finals MVP actually means more than winning the dang title. Which it doesn’t. It never has meant more than winning the title.
Titles are the essence of the Curry Age with the Warriors and the NBA. It’s the way he’s led this team. It’s a tremendous way. Individual pursuits are never bigger than the collective goal. Petty thoughts are just distractions. What’s best for the team is what’s best for everybody. You celebrate when you win the title. And keeping it about the collective is what gets you to the title.
This is why other players want to be around him and why they flourish in this culture. Just look at Andrew Wiggins, who was traded from LeBron’s Cavaliers after he was drafted No. 1, struggled in Minnesota and now is a finals star alongside Curry, mostly because of the calm but committed atmosphere set up long ago.
It’s remarkable recall that just eight months ago, Wiggins held a frustrated, emotional presser at the start of training camp saying he didn’t want to take the COVID vaccination shot when it was required by city ruling for a San Francisco-based player to be eligible to play in Chase Center. That could’ve derailed anybody’s tenure, especially a young, not-very-accomplished veteran acquired 19 months earlier who was being counted on to help restore a dynasty.
What happened from there? Led by Curry and Andre Iguodala, Wiggins’ teammates stepped forward to say they supported whatever decision Wiggins made. They offered understanding and no public pressure. But they also quietly nudged him to take the shot so he could play in the home games and because it was the right thing to do. And he did.
That was team chemistry in real-time. That, to me, is more important than Curry not playing quite well enough to win an MVP in five previous finals or playing superbly in this one to get his first MVP trophy. Maybe I’m crazy. But isn’t that better than some of his fans’ obsession with Curry getting every ounce of credit and every individual award?
This is also how the Warriors got Durant in July 2016, by the way. There are not many other superstars who would’ve been part of such a pursuit and certainly no others whom Durant would’ve felt comfortable joining after the Warriors just defeated his team in the playoffs. None. Zero. Just Curry and the Warriors’ unique universe.
Or watch how Curry moved aside to let Jordan Poole close the third quarter in Game 5 with two huge 3-pointers. Or how easily Gary Payton II went from last man on the bench in October to major minutes in crucial finals games. It makes a huge difference when supporting and young players aren’t pushed into the shadow of a superstar who needs all the attention and all the light.
Speaking of which …
LeBron has won finals MVP all four times his team has won the title (once with Cleveland, twice with Miami, once with the Lakers). He has deserved them all. He dominates his teams in every aspect. He eats up the energy. Some good players have fled from this atmosphere. And that’s all part of what LeBron brings. It’s worth it to every team, no doubt. But it’s different than what Curry brings.
And I think Warriors fans should celebrate that instead of gnashing their teeth at how many finals MVP trophies might end up on his shelf.
Steph Curry leads all scorers in these NBA Finals and is on track for his first finals MVP — not that he needs it to prove anything. (Kyle Terada / USA Today)
Truth: The Warriors’ financial superpower has been a crucial part of their climb back to the NBA precipice.
You usually have to spend money to make money, and in the Warriors’ case, that’s a record amount both coming in and going out. Sure, the Warriors’ profligate way of doing business often rubs the middle-to-small-market teams the wrong way. I write often about their immense rivers of revenue, and I am sure those articles sometimes get passed around other teams’ finance departments with some amount of anger and envy. Oh well.
Aren’t teams supposed to make as much money as possible? And if they do, shouldn’t they do everything within their expanding fiscal powers to try to win as many championships as they can? That’s what the Warriors are doing.
“This is the team we paid for,” Joe Lacob told me way back in the middle of the first round.
It doesn’t always work ideally, by the way. Acquiring Kelly Oubre Jr. in November 2020, right after Klay Thompson tore his Achilles, was a hasty $80 million (due to luxury-tax penalties) decision that didn’t lead to anything. But all it cost the Warriors was money (and a second-round pick). They make a lot of it. They will spend it to give themselves options. And more options are better than fewer of them.
Look back at Oklahoma City trading James Harden to stay away from the luxury tax as Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka started to land major deals. Watch how Phoenix is weighing whether to offload Deandre Ayton now that he’s hitting restricted free agency. Analyze what Memphis might do with their young core now these players are about to get very expensive.
The Warriors don’t have an endless amount of money to spend. But they are willing to spend more than anybody else. They kept their valuable veterans when they earned max deals. They added Wiggins to the list of max contracts even though it guaranteed mammoth lux-tax bills for years to come. They’ve turned themselves into the glamor team of the NBA; they make incredible amounts of money by going through these deep playoff runs; they invest a lot of that money in players who can, guess what, help them go on more deep playoff runs. It’s not crazy. It’s a formula that works.
Myth: The Warriors are about to buy a championship.
Financial might is a factor, for sure, in every sport. But the Dodgers don’t win the World Series every year. The Brooklyn Nets have a luxury-tax bill comparable to the Warriors and were out in the first round. The Warriors paid a large tax bill last season when they were ousted during the Play-In tournament.
It’s also about careful planning and successful decisions. It’s about Bob Myers making the most out of the money he’s given to spend and also utilizing the same resources everybody else has and getting better results. The Warriors didn’t gratuitously outspend the Knicks to get Steve Kerr in 2014. They just made more sense to him. The Warriors didn’t buy Poole in 2019, they drafted him 28th overall (the five picks ahead of him were Ty Jerome, Nassir Little, Dylan Windler and Mfiondu Kabengele). And then they developed him.
I mean, if you’re saying that the Warriors’ bench is superior to the Celtics’ group, I’d have to agree. But you’re talking at this point about Kevon Looney ($5.2 million), Poole (rookie deal), Payton (minimum), Nemanja Bjelica (veterans’ minimum) and Andre Iguodala (veterans’ minimum). No, that specifically would not be about over-spending to stock the roster.
Every other team would’ve paid Curry the max the last two times he came up for a deal. But he re-signed with the Warriors both times without even considering another offer. Same with Draymond. Same with Klay. There was no other place Iguodala would’ve signed for the veterans’ minimum this year. That all means something more than pure dollars.
Sure, the Warriors can keep their good players on the payroll longer than most other teams, even when the total outlay verges near $400 million. But putting them all together in the first place is actually the hardest part.
Sure, the Warriors spend on stars. But the bench is a combination of small veteran contracts and homegrown talent like Jordan Poole. (Cary Edmondson / USA Today)
Truth: There will be some tricky payroll decisions to come with Poole eligible for his rookie extension and Looney, Otto Porter Jr. and Payton II hitting unrestricted free agency this summer.
Myth: Two or three important players will have to go.
The Warriors probably won’t re-sign everybody, but they’re not trading Wiggins, Poole or James Wiseman to save money, folks. They just aren’t. That wasn’t how the Warriors built this team to get to six finals in eight years. It’s not how they’ll operate now.
Actually, the payroll probably won’t go up that much next season even if the Warriors keep almost everybody. Poole is signed through July 2023; if he inks an expensive extension by the October deadline, it won’t start until the 2023-24 season. Looney plays a position that just doesn’t get paid much these days.
Also, even though they’re capped out, the Warriors have one way to spend over the vet minimum this offseason: the taxpayer midlevel exception, which is expected to be about $6.3 million this offseason. They didn’t use it this season after getting turned down by Patty Mills and Nic Batum. But they could use some or all of it this offseason to try to re-sign GP2 (they don’t have his Bird rights).
Of course, the long-term deals for Curry, Klay, Draymond and Wiggins all go up about $2 million next season, so that’s about $8 million added to the salary roll, multiplied by about five for tax purposes. That’s about $40 million in extra costs right there.
Which is about the expected net profit the Warriors will take in from their record-breaking gross playoff box-office total of about $120 million (which will go up closer to $140 million if there’s a Game 7) this year. Money coming in, money going out. Championships within reach. See how this works?
(Photo: Kyle Terada / USA Today)