The NBA Playoffs tipped off this weekend and the Golden State Warriors are trying to pull off what no team has accomplished in more than a half-century. Not the Michael Jordan Bulls. Not the Magic Johnson Lakers. Not the Larry Bird Celtics. The Warriors are attempting to make their fifth straight trip to the NBA Finals, and win their third straight title. Golden State thrives with an extravagant collection of talent - you'll hear from most of the star-studded lineup in a moment. But the overriding question in basketball right now: will the best team in a generation be able to triumph over not just the opposition, but over human nature - forces like ego, money and fatigue? We recently spent a week with the Warriors in this, their last season in Oakland. One observation among many: when you're the hottest act in sports, the show starts early.
Ninety minutes to tip-off at Oracle Arena, home of the Warriors. Stephen Curry emerges for his warm-up. No matter the night, no matter the opponent, fans show up early to watch this.
Curry launches dozens of shots, from every conceivable spot on the floor. Once he gets loose, he keeps it loose. And for his final trick: the mother of all Hail Mary's. Halfway to the locker room, he drains it. Of course he does.
The greatest shooter in the history of the NBA, Curry is only Exhibit A in the Warriors' embarrassment of riches. Here's Kevin Durant, MVP of the finals two years running.
Meet Klay Thompson, whose 14 three-pointers in a game earlier this season broke the NBA record. But wait, there's more.
That's Draymond Green, among the best defenders in the league.
And, with authority, it's DeMarcus "Boogie" Cousins.
This roster is enough to make a coach relax. Steve Kerr, who came on five years ago, admits he takes a hands-off approach with this team, especially with Curry.
Jon Wertheim: What are you telling him to do?
Steve Kerr: I don't tell him anything.
Jon Wertheim: You don't tell Steph Curry anything?
Steve Kerr: No.
Jon Wertheim: That's the trust you have in him.
Steve Kerr: Yeah. I had to learn my first year of coaching. It's probably midway through that first season. We're playing the Clippers. So Steph goes into this, like, Curly Neal impersonation, Harlem Globetrotters, around the back. And I'm like-- like this. Don't dribble through traffic. Move the ball on. And of course, swish.
Steve Kerr: And I walk back to the bench and "Good shot, Steph, way to go. Way to go." But that was actually a key moment. The important thing for me to realize was-- who Steph was, who Klay is--
Jon Wertheim: Who are they?
Steve Kerr: They're gunslingers.
Kerr knows greatness when he sees it. He was an important role player on the Michael Jordan Bulls teams in the late 90s. He told us the vibe at Golden State feels similar, to a point.
Steve Kerr: I sat and watched Michael Jordan every night in Chicago, something special was happening. The difference is, it could happen from Steph, Kevin, Klay-- it could happen from anyone of those guys on a given night.
We stuck around one day after practice to meet those guys, along with veterans Andre Iguodala, who was finishing his Wheaties, and stalwart Shaun Livingston. It was a rare five-on-one interview, with the players showing some signs of midseason fatigue.
Klay Thompson: Let's go, Steph!
Jon Wertheim: If I told you Steph would be the last one, would you have predicted that?
They weren't willing to confirm or deny that Curry is always late.
Not until a few questions later, when he gave himself up.
Jon Wertheim: Most likely to keep the bus waiting?
Klay Thompson: This guy right here.
Jon Wertheim: This guy?
Klay Thompson: Prima donna after games, man.
Stephen Curry: I own that. I own that.
Andre Iguodala: Who got the most fines, though? Who got the most fines?
Kevin Durant: Great question.
Stephen Curry: Who had the most fines?
Andre Iguodala: For being late.
Kevin Durant: You do have a set time, though. After games, we usually have a time on the board when we're supposed to be on the bus, but couple guys just don't even worry about that. They just come whenever they want.
Lateness notwithstanding, the Warriors' style of play recalls a symphony, emphasizing collective over the individual.
Jon Wertheim: There's so much talent on this team that you guys sometimes have to sacrifice ego. You ever wonder what it would be like just put all your talents on display?
ALL: I think we do that now.
Jon Wertheim: You feel like you do that right now.
Jon Wertheim: Do you feel like you guys are sacrificing?
Kevin Durant: Maybe minutes.
Stephen Curry: Yeah, in terms of, like, obviously everybody, if they really wanted to, they say they play 48 minutes a night. Shoot 40 shots. But, like, at the end of the day that gets old. When you're out there on the podium with the trophy, you're running around hugging everybody because you know, like, what you all been through together. So, that's the fun part.
Beyond the champagne-soaked locker rooms and championship parades, they've also managed to transform the sport. The Warriors shoot from long range more often than they go to the rim, making them near impossible to defend.
Steve Kerr: It's changed the geometry of the game. And you're seeing it league-wide now. Guys are shooting three pointers from all over the place.
Jon Wertheim: The three pointer's a not a gimmick anymore.
Steve Kerr: It's not a gimmick. It's-- it's kind of a staple.
That staple requires constant upkeep. Once practice ended, we watched as Durant got in his extra work. His intensity is mesmerizing.
Steve Kerr: He's so dialed in. It's, like, he's in the zone. It's, like, a Zen state.
For decades, there was no Zen to the Warriors. The only constant in their 82-game seasons: losing. They once went 12 straight years without reaching the playoffs.
Jon Wertheim: Does that make it sweeter that you guys didn't start out as this champion-caliber team?
Klay Thompson: Trust me, I would have loved to win my rookie year too. It wasn't fun winning 23 games. But, even last year winning 58 games, people thought that was a down year for us and we won 58 games. I mean that would be an all-time high for so many teams.
Stephen Curry: No, you know like my ten years being here, I feel like I've played for three different teams.
ALL: Ah, mmhmm.
Jon Wertheim: What are the teams?
Stephen Curry: Like, the team that sucked. To the team trying to figure it out, to the established team that we've got now where we're very confident in who we are, what we all bring to the table. I like this one.
But after five long seasons and five short summers, this one is beginning to show signs of wear and tear.
Andre Iguodala: We've been goin', playin', you know, 90, 100 games a season. And the grind of that not havin' off-season. I also know that teams play their best basketball versus us.
Jon Wertheim: Everyone's bringing their A-game when the Warriors come to town.
Kevin Durant: It's supposed to be that way, especially when you set the standard in the whole league, you know? Everybody wants to beat that every night.
Keeping this team going is an expensive proposition. The combined salaries of Curry, Durant and Thompson alone are expected to top one hundred million dollars next season. The Warriors already pay tens of millions in tax to the league for exceeding the NBA salary cap.
More talent also means more ego and expectation. And it's all complicated by free agency. There's been relentless speculation about Durant in particular leaving Golden State after this season. It's produced an unmistakable tension.
Jon Wertheim: It's inevitable there's gonna be some friction sometimes. How do you guys handle conflict?
Kevin Durant: You lookin' at me?
We were looking at him.
Jon Wertheim: You said peace is a big word for you these days. What did you mean by that?
Stephen Curry: Did you say that?
Kevin Durant: I don't remember. (laughs) I'm sure I thought about it.
It's fallen largely to Kerr, who had never coached before the Warriors, to foster the team's culture. He told us the bulk of his work is done outside of game time.
Steve Kerr: You know drawing up the plays is maybe 20 percent of it.
Jon Wertheim: What's 80 percent?
Steve Kerr: Oh man, 80 percent is being a psychologist.
Steve Kerr's strategy for dealing with the drama: something he calls the fun factor. He's put a premium on joy over this championship run. This is a coach who will cancel the occasional practice in favor of bonding time at the bowling alley.
Jon Wertheim: What's the fun factor this season?
Steve Kerr: The fun factor is --
Jon Wertheim: It's like your campaign promise.
Steve Kerr: It is. It is.
Jon Wertheim: Have you met it?
Steve Kerr: Yes. But it's harder than ever. You do something with the same group of people over and over again. Maybe you get on each other's nerves a little more often.
If anyone understands the burdens that come with winning, with eight NBA titles to his name, it's Kerr. He has got a knack for looking after his backups as well as the starters.
Jon Wertheim: You relate to those guys at the end of the bench, not just the stars making the All-Star teams.
Steve Kerr: I don't really relate to the stars at all.
Steve Kerr: My favorite nights are when our starters play really well and our bench gets to play, like, a whole quarter, the whole fourth quarter. And during that fourth quarter our starters are jumping for joy.
Jon Wertheim: That's the ultimate for you.
Steve Kerr: That's the ultimate.
And this top-to-bottom spirit seeps all the way into the team's laundry room. We made the rounds after a game one night with Eric Housen, director of team operations, who has been with the Warriors since the 1980s. Among his duties: keeping track of all those shoes.
Many championship teams give their employees rings. The Warriors didn't just give Housen a ring, they surprised him with one at center court during the ceremony.
Eric Housen: "Oh man" my heart sank. And I was like, "Really, you know, me?"
Jon Wertheim: What did that mean to you?
Eric Housen: The time and effort I put into it that they recognize that.
Jon Wertheim: You still get emotional talking about this, don't you?
Eric Housen: It was just an incredible feeling.
Next season, the Warriors will pack it all up and move across the Bay to downtown San Francisco. The new arena is ten miles but a world away from Oakland.
Team President Rick Welts gave us a tour of the model courtside suites, which come flush with a butler and private wine storage.
Jon Wertheim: What's the price point on this?
Rick Welts: If you have to ask you can't afford it.
Most fans can't afford it, at $2 million per suite each season. The Warriors may have sold out every game at Oracle but many of the faithful won't be able to follow their team to San Francisco.
Tyri Kayshawn: The Warriors mean so much to us.
Tyri Kayshawn lives in Oakland and walks 45 minutes to every game at Oracle, home of the Warriors for the last 47 years.
Jon Wertheim: What's the vibe in Oakland about this move? How are people feeling about that?
Tyri Kayshawn: They're not feeling too good, man, because it's hard when the team you've been holding down for so long, even when it was bad, is-- is kinda leaving you. It's tough, you know?
The Warriors still have the NBA's longest season ticket waiting list. We were at center court of the new arena the day after the concrete was poured.
Jon Wertheim: Have we told your owners they paid three times as much for this building as they paid to buy the team ten years ago?
Rick Welts: I'd prefer you didn't describe it to them exactly that way.
So of course, we couldn't resist. Joe Lacob, a venture capitalist, and Peter Guber, a Hollywood producer, bought the team in 2010 for what was then the highest price ever for an NBA franchise. The Warriors are now worth at least seven times that.
Jon Wertheim: So, the good news is you paid $450 million for a franchise now valued at three billion. The bad news is you're gonna spend over a billion on a new arena.
Peter Guber: Privately financed--
Jon Wertheim: You guys paid for that?
Joe Lacob: Everything. Every dollar. There's not one dollar of public money and it makes him very nervous 'cause he calls me all the time. I say, "Don't worry, we're gonna get through it."
Peter Guber: I worry. Every minute.
Joe Lacob: He's the worrier.
Peter Guber: He's a Warrior.
Joe Lacob: He's the worrier.
Peter Guber: --I'm a worrier.
Joe Lacob: I'm the Warrior, he's the worrier.
Jon Wertheim: The Golden State worrier--
Peter Guber: Golden State worriers.
But we noticed the laughter stops abruptly when you call this team the defending champions.
Jon Wertheim: You guys enter the playoffs and best you can do is defend.
Stephen Curry: I think that's a bad perspective.
Jon Wertheim: Bad perspective. How would you reframe it better?
Stephen Curry: You have to shift it. You gotta be like-- attack. You know, you gotta go after. You can't just sit and, like, I'm protecting something.
Kevin Durant: We're not cocky to walk in here and say our trophy is ours, we gotta defend you from it. You know, we're just gonna go get it.
By June, this team may get its three-peat and cement its dynasty; or the joy ride may end. Either way, let the owners do the Golden State worrying, the coach is happy to savor the moment.
Steve Kerr: It's our last year at Oracle. It's our last year in Oakland. And this city has been really special to us and-- to the Warriors for the last four decades or so.
Jon Wertheim: I know of a hell of a goodbye gift.
Steve Kerr: Yeah. So do I. So do I. So, that's -- that's the goal.
Produced by Nathalie Sommer and Vanessa Fica. Associate producer, Ian Flickinger