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The Golden State Warriors arguably play basketball better than any team ever has. Coming off their second championship in three years, the Warriors enter the season as the overwhelming favorites to repeat.
With Klay Thompson and Draymond Green still under contract, the team gave Steph Curry a long-overdue raise—a record-setting $201 million contract—and re-signed Kevin Durant, who took a chunky paycut (two years, $51 million) to help the front office bring back Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, then acquire proven wings Omri Casspi and Nick Young.
Former champions tend to get top-heavy, throwing their money at veterans who either age poorly or leave the team. But the Warriors not only have a cast of stars firmly in their prime, they also have a contingency plan for the ravages of time: trading cash for undervalued talents in the second round of the draft like Jordan Bell and Patrick McCaw.
“It’s important to constantly be infusing your roster with young players and energy. It’s one of the best things [GM] Bob [Myers] and his staff have done,” says coach Steve Kerr.
As a player, Kerr got traded from the Chicago Bulls after they completed their second three-peat in 1998. The next season, the team had the worst record in their division after Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen retired and demanded a trade, respectively. So young players provide insurance for the future, but in the present, they’re valuable for their fresh legs, cheaper contracts and hunger to prove themselves.
During this draft, the Warriors snagged Bell, the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, who excels at grabbing rebounds, blocking shots and doing the dirty work that helps the Warriors’ well-oiled machine run smoothly. But the demands for bigs in the NBA expand beyond the paint.
“Probably having to shoot,” says Bell, when asked about the largest adjustment he’ll have to make to the NBA. “I can’t just be on the block where I’m the biggest guy on the floor. Now, I’m pretty sure I’m never going to be the biggest, tallest guy on the floor.”
The Warriors hope Bell can transition to the NBA as successfully as the second-year McCaw, a rangy, defensive-minded guard whom Kerr called a “good player with a chance to be a great player.” Playing with teammates like Durant, Thompson and Iguodala, McCaw found plenty of opportunities to develop last season.
“Being around such great players, only thing I could do was learn,” he says. “I took in all the knowledge I could and just put little bits and habits into my game and lifestyle. Being 21, this is where you start to learn how to handle a lot of things off the court as well as on the court.”
Last season, McCaw worked his way into the rotation and started 20 games during the regular season after Durant injured his knee. That preparation allowed him to show a precocious calm in important post-season moments, putting up 18 points against the San Antonio Spurs, then a quick six points in just 12 minutes of Game 5 of the Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
McCaw called winning the championship in his first season an “unbelievable” feeling he’s still savoring. A rookie that’s already achieved the highest level of success could tend toward complacency, but David West, a veteran who spent 13 seasons seeking the promised land, reinforced the need for taking the victory in stride.
“My whole thing with Pat was just relish the moment,” West says. “Obviously, he’s got a bright future. He’s a super-talented kid, super-humble kid. So [I told him] maintain that humility, always be coachable. The basics.”
West’s advice may be a little cliche, but humility, constant improvement and living in the moment are frequent mantras for athletes whose success results from deliberately instilled habits. Over the next two years, McCaw’s development will be crucial for the Warriors (assuming they can re-sign him after he becomes a restricted free agent next summer). When All-Star guard Klay Thompson’s contract expires in 2019, he will likely be worth more than even the savvy Warriors can afford. Until then, McCaw appears eager to build on what he learned last season.
“I feel like a rookie still,” he says. “I feel like I have a lot of things to prove. I just want to continue getting better, and learn from these guys and take advantage of the opportunity that I’ve been given.”