"There's no formula. Because it's never been done before." — Draymond Green on what the Warriors are trying to do
Maybe the notion of adding the previous Most Valuable Player to the current MVP on a team that won 73 games is new, but that doesn't mean there isn't a template for superstar success, lessons to be learned from what has transpired in the past. It's all right there in Boston, where the Warriors play tonight (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET), where nine years ago the Celtics set the standard for quickly assembled star-filled teams by winning the championship in Year 1.
And the secret to their winning? Losing.
Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce each averaged more than 20 points per game the season before they joined forces in Boston. All of them missed the playoffs that year, though.
"We were tired of losing," Pierce recalled. "We'd all put up big numbers the year before … but we didn't make the playoffs."
That's why Garnett and Pierce were willing to see their scoring averages dip by about five points each, while Allen's plummeted nine points. They had tasted individual success — most notably Garnett's 2004 Most Valuable Player award — but none of them had savored so much as a trip to the NBA Finals. So they adapted, learned how to get more from less, sacrificed for the sake of the team.
"We learned how to feed off each other, whoever had it going," Pierce said. "We just kind of took turns. It wasn't like we said going into the game, 'OK this is your night.' It was like once the game started, you saw it, you got a feel for it."
Golden State's Splash Bros. come to town Friday, and Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley are keen to join them on the list of the NBA's top guard duos.
Pierce was the leading scorer in the game 22 times that season, Garnett 15 times and Allen 10 times. While the Celtics rotated, the 2016-17 Warriors have been alternating, taking turns between Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. Each has been the game-high scorer four times this season. No other Warrior has had the honor.
Durant's arrival has meant more open looks for all four of their main offensive players. Only he and Curry are benefiting. Curry's field goal percentage of .508 and 3-point percentage of .564 are both on track to be career highs. Durant, averaging one less shot per game than he took last season, is making a career-high 55.8 percent of his shots, bolstered by 61.8 percent of his two-point shots, a ridiculously high number for a perimeter player.
In theory it should be Klay Thompson getting the boost. According to player tracking data on NBA.com, he gets 4.2 shots per game without a defender within six feet, the sixth-most "wide-open" shots in the league.
But as Warriors coach Steve Kerr has pointed out, open looks aren't the same as shots in rhythm. Sliding down a spot from second to third option can mean the shots come later in the 24-second clock and might be rushed. Or they're taken under the duress that comes from uncertainty of when the next chance will arise. That could be why Thompson's field goal percentage is down to .441, (from .470 last season) and his 3-point percentage is below .400 for the first time in his career, at .313.
Green's shooting numbers are down as well, even though 28 percent of his attempts are classified as wide open. But his defensive averages of 1.7 blocked shots and 2.3 steals per game are both career highs.
"I care nothing about offense," Green said.
His defense has won games for the Warriors. At times it's as if he is the only one putting in the work at that end of the court. The Warriors' defensive drop-off over the past two-plus seasons has outpaced their offensive surge. While their points scored have gone from 110 points per game in 2014-15 to 115 last season and 117 this season, their points allowed have gone from 99 to 104 to 109.
They lost their defensive anchor in Andrew Bogut, a salary cap casualty to create the space to sign Durant, and they have lost the collective buy-in on the defensive end. The scoring firepower of Curry and Durant is carrying the Warriors to victories, but they are not defending at a championship level. It might take more losing, even deep into the playoffs, to bring it out.
After all, it was the loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals that led to Dwyane Wade formally ceding the Miami Heat to LeBron James, a key step in their winning the next two championships.
"That was looking in my mirror and saying, 'At the end of the day, what do you want out of this?'" Wade said. "I knew that Bron coming to Miami, that he was at times looking for me, trying to make sure I get the ball, trying to make sure I wasn't left out at times. The offense went to him, but he didn't want to step on my toes.
"Also I'm a killer as well. I want it. So I decided to come in after looking at it over the summer [and say], 'Just go be great. You're the greatest player in the game right now. And just go do that. And we will follow. And don't worry about us. At the end of the day, you be great. We're going to get what we want out of this.' Sometimes you've got to do that. Sometimes it takes losing to get to that point. And we got there."
Both Durant and the Warriors team he joined endured the sting of blowing 3-1 leads in the playoffs last year. But they haven't gone through that pain together. Will the ups and downs of the regular season be enough to forge the bond and bring out the sacrifice, or will it take more suffering?
Curry, for one, insists the quest for individual accolades is over and he only cares about championships.
"That's all that really matters," Curry said. "And having experienced success at that and obviously defeat at that, it makes it … the only mission that I'm on. Other stuff will come out of that."
Personal glory comes from the team winning. And sometimes the team's winning comes from losing. If the Warriors need a reminder, they can look up to the Celtics' 2008 championship banner.