Drawing Comparisons (and Inspiration) – 2013 Golden State Warriors and the 1996 Houston Rockets


Even down 1-2, Warriors fans (and myself) should stay optimistic. It’s given that there is some unpredictability in the playoffs and anything can happen. After looking like a team assembled of senior rec league all-stars, the Spurs now have the series lead once again. There is so much variability in a basketball game, which is why streaks like the Warriors’ 17 year win drought in San Antonio, or Warriors being undefeated at home in the playoffs etc., are insignificant in any single given basketball game. But over the course of a series, that’s where we look at the integrity of the team.

People love to believe in a championship model. Indeed, in recent times most NBA championships have been won by the likes of Jordan, Duncan, Kobe, Shaq, players who have incredibly well-built teams led by an elite head coach. But occasionally there are a few teams that stray from this championship model who are able to slip in and win a championship.

No matter how much hype or how much history the Warriors backcourt is making, this Warrior team is still a huge underdog in the playoffs, and simply does not compare to any of the dominant Bulls, Spurs, or Lakers teams we have seen in the last 20 or so years. If we had to draw a comparison it would be the lowest seed to ever win a championship– the 6th seeded Houston Rockets of 1995.

Even as a reasonably optimistic Warriors fan, I am not saying that the Warriors will win the championship. But I want to believe in this team, and I do believe in this team. Here are seven reasons why the Golden State Warriors compare well to the 1995 Houston Rockets.

1. A revolutionary, unguardable player

Dominant offensive big men have been part of the game since Chamberlain entered the league in the 60’s, but it wasn’t until 30 years later in the 90s that Hakeem truly mastered low post scoring and became perhaps the most advanced, skilled, and unguardable low post scorer the game has ever seen. Teams have no answer for a guy like Olajuwon, because there is just no gameplan for him.

Similarly, the three-point line has been in the NBA for a little over 30 years, and it was not until this year that Stephen Curry (and Klay Thompson) showed the possibilites of 3-point shooting. Stephen Curry is to 3-point shooting what Hakeem Olajuwon was to low-post offense. Curry’s postseason averages of 27-4-9 on 46-43-91 shooting, and check this… 3.9 3-pointers a game may put him as the third most impactful player left in the playoffs, behind LeBron and Durant. And yes, I do know who Carmelo Anthony is. If you just want to talk numbers he could be second best in terms of productivity behind the Westbrook-less Durant.

Before you bring up the issue that Olajuwon was the 1994 Finals MVP, and undoubted the best NBA player in 1995, Olajuwon only received one first place vote out of 105 possible votes for MVP voting after the regular season. If you look at old NBA newsgroups from the 90s (I do because I just really like basketball), not a lot of people had Hakeem in their top 5 throughout the regular season, favoring his contemporaries such as Robinson, Shaq, Malone, Ewing, Barkley… even guys like Reggie Miller. If the Warriors were hypothetically going to win the championship, wouldn’t you consider Stephen Curry as the new best point guard in the league, even though throughout the whole year, Chris Paul was unquestionably better than him?

2. The new, young, emotional, player’s coach

Both Rudy Tomjanovich and Mark Jackson were/are relatively young coaches who are former players, with a reputation of being a player’s coach. Read these little excerpts on Rudy Tomjanovich, and tell me how easy it is to swap out his name for Mark Jackson and have it read properly.

“Tomjanovich was well known for his instinctive managerial style and intensity on the bench. Always self-deprecating, he nonetheless heaped tremendous pressure on himself and his assistants to be prepared for each game”

“His hands-off, easy-going manner with his players gave him a reputation as a “players coach,”

From Wikipedia

“Rudy has a real soft, but firm hand with the players, and it works,” Rockets General Manager Carroll Dawson said. “I’ve been coaching 35 years, and I’ve learned a lot watching the way he handles the team and individuals. They don’t always like what he gives them, but in their hearts, they know it’s what’s best for the team.”

“He’s a winner – plain and simple,” Olajuwon said. “He has been so enjoyable to play for. He does not have an ego. It’s a wonderful attribute, not just as a coach but as a person. Rudy is completely sincere. He has a great commitment to his players and that is all you can ask for in a coach.”

From All-American Speakers

“There might not be a player alive who has ever played for Rudy Tomjanovich without hearing a teammate do a Rudy T imitation or offering one of his own.

But now, word will spread around the league and it will come with that distinctive rasp.

With Tomjanovich coaching the United States Olympic Team, his style has already proved a huge hit and natural fit with the NBA superstars in his charge. Tomjanovich’s sincere, ego-less enthusiasm for his sport and job immediately clicked. In contrast with cool predecessors Chuck Daly and Lenny Wilkens, Tomjanovich has held nothing back, starting with a raucous, emotional address at the first team dinner.”

From SportsWriterDirect… It even talks about how players like to imitate Rudy’s voice… Sounds exactly like Mark Jackson.

Early success is a good indicator of head coaching. Phil Jackson won his first championship in his second year as head coach. Popovich won his first title in his third season. Pat Riley captured his in his first season. In the case of Tomjanovich, he won his first title in his third season as a head coach.

This just proves that in the NBA playoffs, head coaching experience is not something that can necessarily hurt you. It is very different from players like LeBron, Jordan, and Shaq who had to play through multiple rebuilding years and early playoff exits before actually winning a title.

Although one thing I do want to make a note of… Mark Jackson needs to pull Bogut out less, especially on Hack-A-Boguts. You are falling right into Popovich’s trap. Our offense tonight was struggling regardless of Bogut. Even if Bogut doesn’t miss two free throws, someone else would miss that field goal and result in no points in a particular possession anyway.

However our defense takes a huge hit when we sit Bogut, especially when the Spurs have some guy called Tim Duncan. And honestly Bogut can’t miss them all. Even if he consistently makes one free throw but is able to help us get a stop, it’s a net positive for us.

And please stop sitting him in the 4th quarter when he has 5 fouls. That’s like saving your milk for tomorrow when it expires today.

3. Young, yet effective role players

Although neither are perennial All-Stars, Robert Horry and Sam Cassell are pretty well known names in NBA history, and for good reason. As Chris Webber put it, if you are a young NBA player, there is no reason your legs can’t play a full NBA game. Having young rotational players who can play extended minutes gives a definite physical edge, especially if you are playing offense at the pace of the Warriors and playing defense at such a high intensity.

Barnes, Green, and Ezeli have all been huge for the Warriors this offseason. Barnes is probably destined for something a little more than his rookie teammates, but Green and Ezeli are both future Sam Cassell/Robert Horry caliber players – role players that most teams in the NBA could use.

In fact, I really love the Draymond Green-Robert Horry comparison. I’ll come back to this post in 10-15 years and count how many rings and clutch plays he has.

4. Inside/Outside game

Offensive balance is no secret to NBA success. Traditionally when people talk about the inside/outside game, they envision a low post presence that commands attention and creates open looks for shooters. Olajuwon is a master at that, and as a result the Rockets lead the league in 3 point makes that year.

Stephen Curry on the other hand, even if not the greatest 3 point shooter, has a strong strong case to be the greatest 3-point scorer the game has ever seen. I have never seen a player demand as many double teams as he does guarding the 3 point shot. And don’t forget about this one guy called Klay Thompson. With so much attention on the outside, everything opens up on the inside.  That is just how the Warriors offense runs.

5. The path to the Finals championship

The 1995 Houston Rockets played the teams with the four best records in the NBA on their path to the NBA championship. If you were one Andre Miller miraculous 4th quarter away from sweeping the 4th best team in the NBA, and up 20 in the first two games against the 3rd best team in the league while you are on the road, you might just be able to beat anyone.

Also noteworthy – The Rockets faced elimination five times in the first and second rounds as the sixth seed (down 0-2 in a best of 5 series, and down 1-3 in a best of 7 series), before beating 1-seeded Spurs in 6 and sweeping the Magic. Facing adversity never stopped the Rockets, and neither should a 1-2 deficit for the Warriors.

6. A lucky break

The 1994 and 1995 NBA championships are NBA fans’ favorite ‘what-ifs.’ Houston might not have won any championships if it weren’t for Jordan’s retirement from basketball. While LeBron and Durant are still in the playoffs, the absence of Westbrook really helps the Warriors chances if they make it to the Western Conference Finals.

7. The obvious

Defense wins championships. Both teams have a dominant shot-blocking center anchoring the paint, and as of the last week or so, the Warriors have learned to play excellent individual and team defense. There I said it. The Golden State Warriors are a good defensive team.

Could the Warriors make the Finals? Could they win it all?

Only one time in its rich history has the league seen a sixth seed win everything, but this is also the first time in the league’s history there has been a team that shoots the three as well as the 2013 Golden State Warriors do.

People love to say that you live and die by the three, but this special Warriors team may be able to rewrite this old adage.

“Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion.” – Rudy Tomjanovich

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