Fun and games: Warriors' title-winning culture faces biggest test

AN NBA FRANCHISE'S culture can only truly be measured under stress, which the Golden State Warriors now face in earnest for the first time season: The Warriors trail the Oklahoma City Thunder 3-1 in the Western Conference finals after Tuesday's 118-94 Thunder victory. The Los Angeles Lakers' mystique has been hollowed out by their losing. The San Antonio Spurs seem to have built the league's most enduring culture, but who knows what will happen when Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili retire? The Miami Heat will face a similar challenge when Dwyane Wade and Pat Riley move on. Daryl Morey's organizational philosophy in Houston was the subject of a flattering New York Times Magazine profile seven years ago, but the Rockets are now undergoing intense self-examination.

In March, the Times Magazine published a cover story titled, "What Happened When Venture Capitalists Took Over The Golden State Warriors," in which owner Joe Lacob touted the franchise as being "light-years ahead of probably every other team in structure, in planning, in how we're going to go about things."

"We're going to be a handful for the rest of the NBA to deal with for a long time," he said in the article.

Lacob proudly insisted that the Warriors will achieve with ease the most difficult accomplishment for an NBA team: a culture so foundational to its identity that it can protect the franchise from a downward spiral for years. But with the Warriors struggling to deal with a handful of their own in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook & Co., how accurate is Lacob's bravado, which was excessive by NBA standards, if not by Silicon Valley's? What makes the Warriors a sure bet?

Asked about "light-years," Warriors general manager Bob Myers said, "As an organization, one of our goals is to be consistently good over a long period of time, similar to what the Spurs and [New England] Patriots have accomplished. Those organizations have been synonymous with success for decades and have set the bar incredibly high for the rest of us, both on the business and team performance sides. We have a ton of work to do and have a long way to go before we reach that level. Joe understands this better than anyone and knows that we have our work cut out for us, if we are to maintain a level of excellence for years to come."

At some point, the Warriors' tide will recede, or perhaps they'll endure a sequence of bad luck -- an injury to a key player or a no-brainer of an acquisition who somehow disrupts the magic. There's a good chance the Warriors bow out of the most successful season in NBA history with a loss in a conference finals. Only when events such as that occur will the Warriors' culture be tested.

"WHAT DID YOU SEE?" Warriors coach Steve Kerr asked Myers as he ran into him in the hallway outside the visitors locker room during halftime of Game 3 of the conference semifinals in Portland.

The Warriors had just been doubled-up by the Trail Blazers 36-18 in the second quarter, with their usual crisp ball movement regressing into one- and two-pass possessions.

"That was a nice moment," Myers said. "Steve is so secure in who he is. I think that's atypical -- his willingness to collaborate and seek input. And it's fun. It makes the job better to feel like the coach cares what you think."

In winning a record 73 regular-season games, the Warriors drew endless comparisons to Phil Jackson's 72-win Chicago Bulls. There are some similarities -- Kerr was on both teams, though in different roles. But there is one profound difference: Jackson wanted hard organizational lines, most importantly to keep the front office out of his on-court decision-making. Jackson battled with Bulls general manager Jerry Krause and later, with the Lakers, kicked legendary front-office man Jerry West out of the locker room. West is now on the board of the Warriors, and Kerr is the coach who seeks counsel from West -- and just about everyone else who works there.

People up and down the Warriors' org chart tout collaboration as the defining quality of the team's culture. As with the Spurs, one is judged not on agreeability but on the ability to present original thinking -- even contrarianism -- agreeably. Myers and Kerr often wield the whiteboard marker in basketball brainstorming sessions, but sometimes it's assistant general manager Kirk Lacob or associate GM of the Warriors' D-League team Jonnie West or analytics maven Sammy Gelfand.

In a well-documented tale, Kerr's special assistant, Nick U'Ren, suggested the key adjustment in last year's NBA Finals: starting wing Andre Iguodala in place of center Andrew Bogut.

The Warriors circulate this anecdote not as a precious attempt to prop up U'Ren so much as to shine light on the fact that a junior member of the staff felt comfortable airing such a suggestion at the most critical moment of the season. The idea got a serious audience at dinner, but U'Ren felt empowered enough to bolster his case and bug a coach of Kerr's pedigree in the wee hours of the morning.

"Decisions are made collaboratively," Kerr said. "There's a ton of discussion that goes into what we're going to do. Any decision is discussed at length. It's healthy, and we get a lot of different points of view."

"Our communication happens on a daily, sometimes an hourly, basis," Myers said. "It's rare that anyone ever goes off in a silo, even me, and comes into the office one day and says, 'This is what we're doing.' We're having conversations organically, and they have a rhythm to them. We're all formulating thoughts in a daily flow. We call each other to chat the way you'd call a buddy to check in."

IN THE ORGANIZATION and around the league, people marvel at Kerr's emotional intelligence. Joy is constantly cited as a guiding principle within the organization.

"I know I speak for my teammates: We love coming to play for you guys every single day," Stephen Curry said in his MVP acceptance speech. "We know it's going to be fun, and we're going to be challenged."

The coaching staff under Kerr has adopted a mantra: "Either get s--- done or go have fun." Work is honored, and it's vital to the development of both the team and the individual players. Players such as Draymond Green and Festus Ezeli and coaches such as Luke Walton and Jarron Collins grow by putting in the work, and to a man, everyone points to Curry as the Minister of Labor in Oakland.

But work-life balance is sacrosanct. Preserving that joy is not just a byproduct; it is an objective unto itself. Nobody in Oakland is setting up a cot in the video room, and nobody would think better of you if you did. You are unlikely to find this in Pat Riley's organizational playbook.

"Either get s--- done or go have fun." The motto of Kerr's coaching staff

"We understand that what we're doing is trying to play basketball, which sometimes seems like it's the most important thing in the world, but it's not," Myers said. "So we're realistic about what we're doing, which gives you some humor to the operation sometimes, understanding that we're not curing the world of any disease. We're not involved in politics or changing the world. We're just trying to play basketball and build a basketball team that's fun to watch -- and also can win. There's some levity to it, but we're passionate about what we're doing."

There's a strong trace of Spurs here, though when Gregg Popovich calls basketball boring or trivial, he tends to be gruff, while Myers and Kerr are warm. The Warriors share several commonalities with the Spurs: collaboration, a Renaissance Man's approach to the craft, an insistence on humor as a necessary ingredient at the office. But while the Spurs are an insular operation with a severe allergy to the media and any gesture that could be seen as showboating, the Warriors know how to play nice and smile for the cameras.

SOON AFTER THE 2014 draft, Kerr popped down the hall into Myers' office for a phone call. The Warriors were curious about free-agent point guard Shaun Livingston, who had just completed a one-year stint with the Brooklyn Nets. Kerr knew someone with the team who could offer a nuanced view of Livingston's game and thought it would be constructive for Myers and him to listen together.

As this person enumerated Livingston's attributes over speakerphone, Kerr wrote them down one by one on the whiteboard in Myers' office: Professional. Good pull-up J from 16 feet. Play him with a shooting 4. Play him along the baseline. Good passer.

Livingston has been a solid addition to the Warriors' second unit the past two seasons, but the insights into Livingston's game were hardly revelations, nor was the decision to sign him for three seasons for the team's midlevel exception. Even so, Myers never erased the evidence of the skull session. It's still up in plain view.

"Steve comes in my office all the time and says, 'I can't believe you leave this up there.'" Myers said. "I said, 'Man, this is a good reminder of how to make decisions.'"

Myers immortalized Kerr's scribbles as a monument to the Warriors' process. An initial conversation born of curiosity broadened to include the larger basketball operations team. The fact-finding was comprehensive, the discussion was lively, alternatives were proposed and debated. The question before them was approached seriously, but nobody lost his sense of perspective: This was a backup point guard for the midlevel, not a justice being appointed to an unelected, lifetime term.

And it was fun. Spitballing with like-minded people about the future is not only constructive -- it's also a blast. So is the privilege of being one of a handful of people in the known universe who make an exceptionally good living at professional basketball.

Myers' instinct to leave the hieroglyphics in plain view was as much about that aspect of the exercise as anything else.

JOE LACOB'S FORTUNE was made in the venture capital and tech world, which has provided 20 years worth of managerial creeds -- some profound, others insufferable in their steadfast belief that Silicon Valley invented best practices. But for all the buzzwords and armchair behavioral psychology, in his actions, Lacob demonstrates a sincere devotion to curiosity.

That the Warriors executives have an easy time abandoning traditional roles is a byproduct of the fact that Lacob has assigned them to do just that. Not too long ago, Kerr was general manager of the Phoenix Suns. Much of Myers' approach as Warriors GM is derived from his years as an agent under Arn Tellem at Wasserman (formerly Wasserman Media Group), where he represented a long roster of NBA players.

Lacob purchased the Warriors in July 2010, and he elevated Myers, then the assistant GM, within a year. Even though Myers was a front-office novice who had never worked with a team, he had represented players for years, helping them manage their expectations, cope with the frustrations that come with daily NBA life and navigate thorny issues. For instance, when Green could use a player whisperer or Harrison Barnes needs an extra jolt of motivation, Myers has an intuitive understanding of those needs.

In this spirit, the Warriors adopted a rule: 10 percent of your time should be spent in pursuit of things that have nothing do with basketball. Both Myers and Kerr are voracious readers. On a daily basis, the GM reads the Wall Street Journal, stories from which are often the basis for instruction about what the Warriors can learn from the world outside basketball.

"This is our R&D," Kirk Lacob said. "Sports Business has usually been treated like 'The Sports Business.' But we see it as a business that happens to be entertainment that happens to be sports. It's interesting to look at other organizations, how they operate, how they take information. We're constantly canvassing not just the sports world but outside the sports world. Bob has us go out asking different questions and look at how others do it and report back."

"Sports Business has usually been treated like 'The Sports Business.' But we see it as a business that happens to be entertainment that happens to be sports"
Kirk Lacob, Warriors assistant GM

Rick Welts, the Warriors' president and chief of operations, can be found a few doors down the hall from Myers.

"Every Tuesday at 10 o'clock, Bob comes to our senior executive staff meeting where we talk 95 percent about business and 5 percent about basketball because his voice is an important one and his insights help guide us," Welts said. "That doesn't happen everywhere, and I think that's how you get to the best place."

Welts will note that many of the key members of the management team in Golden State aren't conventional choices for their positions. Kerr and Myers had careers with diverse experiences. Kirk Lacob -- Joe's son -- comes from Stanford and the startup world, and he is steeped in the gospel of analytics. The other assistant GM, Travis Schlenk, is a basketball lifer who colleagues say likes to evaluate through direct observation. Jerry West, officially listed as a "Warriors Executive Board Member," is Jerry West.

The same holds true on the coaching staff, where Walton, the Lakers' head coach-to-be, has an uncommon magnetism that endears him to players, who know they can confide in him or just share a laugh. On the other side of Kerr sits Ron Adams, who is cerebral, measured and Yoda-like.

Joe Lacob is drawn to the nuts-and-bolts of basketball operations, whereas co-managing partner Peter Guber's passion is mass entertainment. The Warriors are the greatest show on earth, and they just happen to play NBA basketball. While Lacob spends much of his time talking to Myers, Guber is more likely to engage Welts.

Such a contrast in sensibility can spell trouble for an NBA ownership group, but in Oakland, it underscores the Warriors' bedrock principle: Homogeneous thinking can only hurt the ballclub.

MURALS OF THE Warriors' celebrating their 2015 championship, mean-muggin', pointing to the sky and flexing, adorn the walls of the practice gym in Oakland. It's a proud scrapbook of their achievement. It's something you would never find in San Antonio.

"We purposely have these pictures up because we're trying to show competition and joy," Kerr said. "We want to compete our asses off, but we want to have fun. We have pictures of guys smiling and fired up and winning a championship, and our history, with Warriors, all of this matters."

The stars of the photos tend to be Curry and Green, two men who differ so vastly in temperament that it's easy to imagine a world in which they don't coexist so successfully. Steph and Dray, the on-court stars, might be the two best served by the team's organic approach.

"You've got to be who you are," Kerr said. "Steph and Draymond are so different. The thing that binds them is that they both work their asses off. They love the game. They love to work, so we have a really good structure in terms of our daily routine. Draymond is loud and provocative and confrontational. Steph is very quiet, introspective. Both of their personalities matter to this. Steph gives us the stability. Draymond gives us the edge. You need both. I don't know if it would work without either one of them, but they bring totally different things."

Both Myers and Kerr emphasize that however deliberate the Warriors' cultural vibe might seem, it's ultimately a reflection of Curry and Green. Joe Lacob might inject an entrepreneurial spirit, Myers and Kerr an emotional intelligence, Kirk Lacob a curiosity, Schlenk and West gut instinct and old-school chops as counterweights, former GM and director of scouting Larry Riley an institutional knowledge -- but a team's culture emanates from its players.

"If I or Steve wrote it up on a whiteboard, 'We're going to have X culture,' if you don't have players, if they're not aligned with you on that culture, it doesn't matter what you say," Myers said. "If you start a company with 13 and 14 people who aren't of that ilk, it doesn't matter what you think you have. They have to embrace it. To me, trying to separate it is hard. But I will say this: In basketball, if you have a player like a Tim Duncan or a Steph, where they are coachable, humble, team-oriented, then you have a real good chance of building around that."

HUBRIS HAD NOT, until this point, been part of the public-facing game plan for the Warriors brass. An NBA team executive said of The New York Times Magazine piece, "Well, that didn't take long."

One well-credentialed leader in the field of organizational dynamics declined to speak of the Warriors because he said nothing would be as revealing as Lacob's "light-years" comments.

Lacob violated one of the tacit bylaws of the NBA owner code: You don't take victory laps and declare supremacy. The code exists because any owner who has presided for a full life cycle of a franchise knows how hard it is to sustain success.

The irony of Lacob's comments was how far they departed from the sensibilities of Myers, Kerr and the team's business folks. One NBA executive who knows the Warriors staff well said many inside the organization cringed at the tone of the piece.

"That's the furthest thing from who Rick, Steve and Bob are," the exec said.

By all accounts, Lacob is a strong, positive force in the Warriors' process, something Kerr never had during his tenure in Phoenix. This is essential because fitness of ownership is the greatest predictor of long-term franchise health in the NBA. An owner's first obligation: First, do no harm.

"Culture's a word that's probably misused," Myers said. "When you use that word, there's a gravity to it. You may not know what it means until you capture that. Because culture is so hard to actually obtain, once you get it, you really have to be cautious and careful and cognizant of what it is you have and who it is that fits into it. When it erodes, it doesn't happen immediately. It happens over time, over each day, each moment, where you're just not all moving in the same direction. It's so hard to get, so you have to protect it."

After Russell Westbrook's steal in the closing seconds of the third quarter of Tuesday's Game 4, practically everyone in Chesapeake Energy Arena was up, chanting, screaming -- engulfing the blue-clad Warriors in a sea of matching white T-shirts. Just off the baseline, slightly to the right of the basket, Joe Lacob wore a green shirt and gray jacket, arms folded, more than a hint of annoyance in his downcast gaze. His team may have been light-years ahead, but they were down by double digits.