It was still dark one morning early this year when Joe Lacob, the majority owner of the Golden State Warriors, drove his Mercedes station wagon through the Stanford University campus. He parked near the business school, then walked down a sidewalk through a drizzle to meet a group of Silicon Valley executives. The ex-C.E.O. of OpenTable, now a partner at Andreessen Horowitz, was coming. So were a founder of the online-learning start-up Curious and a managing director of Vanguard Ventures. On another morning, they all might have met at a charity event or a TED Talk. But it was a Tuesday, and that meant basketball.
Lacob, who has worked in venture capital for three decades, has an open, expressive face and broad shoulders. He’s six feet tall but seems taller. The previous night, he watched his Warriors play a home game in Oakland, and now he looked tired. “The Tuesday mornings after we play Monday nights are the hardest,” he said. The basketball court, which is normally used by students and faculty members, has a tidy, corporate look: gleaming hardwood surrounded by plexiglass walls. In his Warriors T-shirt and shorts, Lacob pushed his hands against the glass and stretched his legs. “Honestly, this is my favorite time of the week,” he told me.
One by one, other players arrived. Most have known Lacob for years, since early in his career at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which is when he helped start this pickup game. There was no reason for anyone to be deferential to him. But owning a basketball team has cachet, especially when that team has come to rank among the best in N.B.A. history. Nobody mentioned his own business affairs, but everyone was eager to talk about Lacob’s. “Joe, good to see Barnes back,” someone said, referring to Harrison Barnes, a Warriors player who had missed games with an injury.
The group ran the court for an hour, playing games to 13 by twos and threes. Lacob, 60, was one of the older players there, and he had clearly thought through his strengths and limitations. He would head to a particular spot — often one on the right side, about a third of the way around the three-point arc — and wait. When he saw an opportunity, he called for the ball or cut along the arc toward it. If he received a pass, he would usually shoot. His shot was peculiar, fluttering like a knuckleball, rotating only a few times before it reached the basket, but it went in more often than not. The first game ended with his sinking a three-pointer, then raising his arms in triumph. A few minutes later, his team moved in position to win again. Lacob stood at the top of the key with the ball. “Here comes the game-winner,” he said to nobody in particular.
After he finished playing, Lacob wiped the perspiration from his hands with a towel. Then he pulled out his championship ring and passed it around for examination. “They’ve been asking to see it for two months,” he explained. The ring had an extravagant and revealing design. One diamond had been inlaid for each of the 200-odd games the Warriors won from 2010, when Lacob and his investors bought the team, through last year’s N.B.A. finals. “How much does this thing weigh?” asked Tom McConnell, the managing director from Vanguard Ventures, lifting his hand up and down as if trying to estimate its value.
Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors shooting over Kyle O’Quinn of the Knicks as Joe Lacob, majority owner of the Warriors, looked on.
Silicon Valley — the place itself, but also the society of smart, technologically savvy people who surround it — is full of basketball fans. Many of them made a lot of money in their 30s and 40s. Now in their 50s, they’re looking for something gratifying to do with it. In 2002, Wyc Grousbeck, a principal at Highland Capital Partners who spent two years at Stanford’s business school, bought the Boston Celtics along with a group of investors that included Lacob. In recent years, venture capitalists, private-equity investors and hedge-funders have been acquiring N.B.A. teams. The Detroit Pistons, Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers and Atlanta Hawks all belong to this new class of investor. The Sacramento Kings and the Memphis Grizzlies are both owned by Silicon Valley engineers. If you include Lacob’s Warriors, that’s more than a quarter of the league.
Lacob was not the first venture capitalist to buy a franchise, but he is the first to operate one according to what might be called Silicon Valley precepts: nimble management, open communication, integrating the wisdom of outside advisers and continuous re-evaluation of what companies do and how they do it. None of that typically happens in professional sports. Most franchise owners of previous generations became wealthy mastering businesses that did one specific thing, if only because that was the way that people used to become wealthy in America. They’ve run their teams, for better or worse, in the same autocratic, hidebound fashion that they ran those companies. As a manager, Lacob prefers to surround himself with expertise and exploit it.
This season, Lacob’s sixth as majority owner, the Warriors are on pace to break the league record of 72 wins in a season (which is just 82 games long). He and his partners bought a team that already had Stephen Curry, Golden State’s best player and a transcendent talent who is having one of the most dominant seasons in league history. He would be hitting tongue-flick jump shots from 30 feet away from the basket no matter who owned it.
But Lacob won’t accept that what the Warriors have achieved is a product of anything but a master plan. “The great, great venture capitalists who built company after company, that’s not an accident,” he said. “And none of this is an accident, either.”
After the pickup game, Lacob pulled on a sweatshirt and went to breakfast at a cafeteria on the ground floor. He goes there so often that one of the smoothies on the menu, involving orange juice, vanilla yogurt, bananas and strawberries, has been named for him. He pointed this out, then ordered one. When I asked him about the previous night’s game, he could hardly contain himself. He boasted that the Warriors are playing in a far more sophisticated fashion than the rest of the league. “We’ve crushed them on the basketball court, and we’re going to for years because of the way we’ve built this team,” he said. But what really set the franchise apart, he said, was the way it operated as a business. “We’re light-years ahead of probably every other team in structure, in planning, in how we’re going to go about things,” he said. “We’re going to be a handful for the rest of the N.B.A. to deal with for a long time.”
When Lacob and his group of investors bought the Warriors in 2010, the $450 million they paid was deemed wildly excessive by nearly everyone. Larry Ellison, one of the 10 richest people in the world, was the losing bidder. It was more than anyone had ever spent on an N.B.A. franchise at the time. And this wasn’t the Lakers or the Celtics or even the Knicks. This was the Warriors, a team that plays in Oakland and had last won a championship in 1975. In 2010, Lacob promised another within five years. And last June, the Warriors won the finals, defeating LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in six games.
In the months since, they’ve attained the status of a cultural phenomenon. More than any team since the “Showtime” Lakers of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, they’ve become famous not just for winning but also for how they win. You don’t need to know the nuances of the sport to appreciate Curry’s uncanny accuracy, or the fact that he routinely launches shots from longer distances than anyone ever has. You just need Internet access and a willingness to suspend disbelief. Curry has moved beyond “SportsCenter” to mainstream pop culture; even his 3-year-old, Riley, has developed a following. When Curry went on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” to be interviewed, a reaction shot of her in the audience elicited the biggest cheer of the night.
What’s happening with the Warriors as a business isn’t something Kimmel is likely to mention, but it’s equally impressive. The $450 million that Lacob’s group paid to Chris Cohan, the former owner, seemed so laughably expensive because of the woeful state of the Warriors franchise. This wasn’t just a bad team, but a team that seemed permanently stuck in a state of irrelevance. “The little engine that couldn’t” is how the investor Nick Swinmurn, the founder of Zappos and a lifelong fan of the Warriors, describes it. During Cohan’s 16-year ownership, the Warriors had reached the N.B.A. playoffs only once. Sixteen of the league’s 30 teams advance every season. “So on an odds basis,” Lacob notes, “you’re supposed to make it half the time. Something was very wrong.”
Such ineptitude had eroded interest. There were only 7,000 season-ticket holders. The arena where the team played, in a vast parking lot beside a highway, was outdated. Its corridors were narrow, its catering facilities rudimentary. It didn’t have rooms that could be leased for corporate meetings. While the league’s newest facilities have been built with palatial home clubhouses the size of health clubs, the Warriors’ was austere and cramped. One look at it during a road trip was said to discourage players around the league from considering the team when they became free agents.
Other potential buyers perceived the institutional decrepitude as a drawback. Lacob and his partner, the Hollywood entrepreneur Peter Guber, believed it represented an opportunity. “That’s what Joe does,” says Chip Perry, the founder of Autotrader.com, a Kleiner Perkins investment that Lacob aided as a board member for 14 years. “He saw potential in what we were doing with Autotrader, even when others were dismissive. He’s one of those rare people who can look around the corner and see something interesting.” In the Warriors, Lacob saw a start-up disguised as an underperforming business, a sports franchise that had been run autocratically — and therefore ineptly — as the industry evolved around it.
That $450 million investment is now worth around $2 billion. In 2019, the Warriors will move to a new, self-financed arena complex on the San Francisco waterfront that will include office buildings and commercial space. The move is estimated to add as much as $1 billion more to the club’s value. And while there’s only one Curry, the way Lacob and Guber run the franchise is replicable — at least in theory.
Among this emergent generation of investment tycoons, that hasn’t gone unnoticed. “I knew what Joe had done,” said Marc Lasry of Avenue Capital Group, a Moroccan-born billionaire who partnered with the private-equity investor Wesley Edens to buy the Milwaukee Bucks in 2014. “We’re trying to do the same.” Lasry insists he loves basketball, but the way he described his intentions sounded less like “Hoosiers” than like “The Big Short”: “We looked at it and said: ‘The Bucks have huge potential. We think we can bring in the way we do business and do a huge turnaround.”
Venture capitalists make large investments in companies that they don’t necessarily control. Lacob brought the same mind-set, if not the actual structure, to his basketball team. “In venture capital, I started 70 companies,” he told me. “I also watched my partners’ deals, maybe 200 of them. That’s a lot of companies. I thought about the way we design a board of directors, the way we design the financing. There’s an architecture to it. And I started thinking about the architecture I would use when I owned and built my own team someday.”
Lacob gave Guber, who owns a smaller share, all but equal standing because Guber brought four decades of connections in movies, music, sports and media to the deal. Together, they hired a general manager who had never worked for a team before, let alone run one, and two coaches who hadn’t coached at any level. At the time, these moves were perceived around the league as rookie mistakes. But Lacob was no rookie, not at building companies. And it turned out that they were not mistakes.
Underneath the stands in Oracle Arena, off a corridor that connects the Warriors’ clubhouse to the court, is a modest-size room where Cohan, when he was owner, entertained family and friends. After taking control, Lacob renamed it the Bridge Club and opened it to the team’s minority shareholders and their guests. They congregate there before each game, filling plates with carved roast beef and elaborate canapés. There is an open bar and, for those who prefer fine wine, unencumbered access to it from automated, climate-controlled dispensers.
One evening this season, Lacob arrived late after fighting traffic from Menlo Park. He asked politely for a turkey burger, then found a seat at a high-top table. Between bites, he greeted a steady flow of friends and colleagues, most of whom are big names in Silicon Valley. John Walecka of Redpoint Ventures — whose current investments include companies called Moogsoft, Quantifind, Datameer and Qihoo 360 Technology — walked past. So did Mark Stevens, who was a partner at Sequoia Capital when the firm helped finance Google, PayPal and LinkedIn.
The Bridge Club has become one of the best venues for venture-capital networking in the Bay Area. It’s a perk for the minority owners, but it serves a purpose for Lacob. Before and after each game, he’s accessible to any investors who want his ear. “It’s the atmosphere of knowing you have a voice — knowing you’re part of this,” he explained. “One thing I didn’t like when I owned part of the Celtics — was I really heard? I don’t know. I wanted to make sure that when I did this, everybody got heard.”
The N.B.A. demands that each franchise confer one owner, regardless of stake size, with nearly dictatorial power. Lacob wields his softly, just as he typically sits in the back of corporate board meetings without saying much, absorbing information, then guiding the discussion toward a decision. “I’m a professional listener,” he told me. “There’s a lot of smart people in the world, you know. I’m not the smartest. I’m just an integrator. The N.B.A. isn’t like the outside world. I can do whatever I want. But you don’t treat people that way.”
Even teams in small markets cost hundreds of millions of dollars these days. Unless you’re Steve Ballmer, the former Microsoft chief who spent $2 billion on the Los Angeles Clippers without the help of outside investors, most potential owners don’t have the wherewithal, or the gumption, to finance a purchase themselves. But rather than money without strings attached — investors who would have little involvement beyond writing checks — Lacob and Guber purposefully sought out entrepreneurs and businessmen with attributes and access that complemented their own. “Everyone he’s partnered with has a strategic reason to be there,” says Dennis Mannion, C.E.O. of the Detroit Pistons, who has held executive positions with teams in all four major American sports leagues. “You have this phenomenal bullpen of talent.”
So after the shareholder Dennis Wong, the managing director of SPI Holdings, advised Lacob on the real estate purchase for the new arena, Walecka helped with the financing. When I spoke with Swinmurn, he reeled off rapid-fire opinions on the design of the Warriors’ branded attire, the type of food sold at the concession stands and other disparate topics. Occasionally, minority partners can even influence what happens on the court. John Burbank of Passport Capital, who uses a deep knowledge of mathematics in his own investments, contributes detailed memos applying complex metrics to potential acquisitions. “I don’t know if any of it has 180ed us on a player,” Bob Myers, the Warriors’ general manager, told me, “but it has certainly moved us in a direction, one way or another. And he’s done it enough that it’s just the course of things now. It’s part of the process.”
Small-percentage shareholders have always existed in sports, but they’ve typically been local doctors or car dealers who’ve thrown in maybe a few hundred thousand dollars. They get a trip to spring training or a playoff game, a handshake at the Christmas party, a nice profit when they sell their shares, and not much else. “Nothing is more limited than being a limited partner of George Steinbrenner’s” is a quip that is most frequently attributed to the former Yankees investor John McMullen.
But sports isn’t a small industry anymore. Playing the games and charging people to see them now constitutes only a fraction of the business. Franchises run gourmet restaurants and concert venues these days, and entire streets of retail outlets. They service fans in distant cities through audio and video streaming and proprietary content. Those owners who want to personally dictate everything “down to the color of the underwear,” as Stevens puts it, can find themselves at a competitive disadvantage. “It’s very hard when someone has had great success in another business — the fish-delivery business, the box-cutting business,” Guber says. “And then you come into this because ‘I want to buy a sports team, and I know how to run a business.’ That just isn’t a formula for great success in today’s world.”
Lacob’s experience in venture capital, building a diverse portfolio of businesses, prepared him well for the peculiarities of owning a franchise, which perhaps explained why spending time in the Warriors’ front office often felt like hanging out at a software company. Soon after buying the team, Lacob supervised the removal of the walls inside its headquarters, which sit atop a parking garage in downtown Oakland. The various departments now share the same open-plan room; when I visited, I kept expecting to see a kegerator or some hoverboards. “You walk through there now, and it’s young, and there’s excitement,” said Gib Arnold, a former University of Hawaii head coach, who spent several days observing the franchise last year. “It’s Google in the N.B.A.”
In sports, unlike other businesses, companies have two bottom lines. Their owners want to win, of course, but they also want to make money, and the two are linked more loosely than you might think. You can make a lot of money with a bad team, as the N.F.L.’s Washington Redskins have done since 1999, when they were bought by Daniel Snyder. He has been a terrible owner, winning just 43 percent of his games, burning through seven head coaches, never reaching the Super Bowl and stubbornly refusing to change the team’s polarizing name. Yet if you judge him by the standards of any other business, he has been exemplary. The Redskins are the third-highest-grossing team in the N.F.L.; Snyder’s $800 million investment has more than tripled. If the team had public stockholders, they would be giving him a party.
Competitive success is more elusive. Teams that win a sequence of titles, or even come close, need superior talent. That’s especially true in basketball, where an extraordinary player — a Bill Russell, a Magic Johnson or a Michael Jordan — is one of only 10 on the court at any time. Put two or more together, uniting Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with Johnson or Jordan with Scottie Pippen, and you can create what in sports is hyperbolically called a dynasty.
How much this ever has to do with the owner of the team is questionable. The Chicago Bulls amassed six N.B.A. titles with Jordan. But Jerry Reinsdorf, who bought the franchise in 1985, hasn’t won since the last of those titles, in 1998. (He also has owned baseball’s Chicago White Sox since 1981. The White Sox won the World Series in 2005 but otherwise have performed unmemorably.) Whatever magic Reinsdorf used to create the Bulls dynasty in the 1990s presumably remains at his disposal, yet the team has cracked .500 in just seven of the 17 seasons since Jordan departed. The determining factor there seems easy to identify.
This isn’t to say that owners have no impact. They choose how to spend their money — and how much of it to spend. They determine the goals of a franchise and how it will go about attaining them. But their attempts to directly influence the sports side of their operations have usually ended badly. “These people have been wildly successful in all their endeavors,” says Jerry West, the N.B.A. Hall of Famer who spent 20 years as the general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers. “But being involved in a sports team is so much different than anything they’ve done in their lives.”
In Los Angeles, West worked for Jerry Buss, arguably the most successful owner in modern sports history. Buss presided over a franchise that reached the N.B.A. finals 16 times in his 33 seasons. He also invented or perfected club seating, luxury boxes and the glitzy showmanship that now seems an integral part of sporting events. “Jerry Buss was an innovator who thought basketball should have the cachet of a Broadway show,” West told me. “The fun! The excitement! But what made that possible? It was winning the way we won. Magic Johnson played the game with a joy that everyone could see. And he played with maybe the greatest player ever in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And he had James Worthy. We had seven players you could put on an All-Star team. And Jerry Buss had nothing to do with that.”
As West describes it, Buss regularly needed to be talked out of personnel moves that would have destroyed his team. “You don’t know some of the things that he wanted to do,” West said. He described one potential trade that Buss agreed to make: Worthy, the future Hall of Famer, to Dallas for Mark Aguirre and Roy Tarpley, who each had a reputation for being easily distracted. West found that idea so objectionable that he vowed to quit if Buss didn’t renege. “I went home to my wife and said, ‘I’m probably going to lose my job, but I can’t have this happen,’ ” he says. In the end, West says, he was able to persuade Buss.
When Lacob and Guber bought the Warriors, they hired West as a senior adviser. They hoped his reputation as a basketball genius could stave off criticism of any controversial personnel moves they might make — “the cover of darkness,” as Guber termed it. “Peter said, ‘We’re taking over this team, it’s a disaster, it’s going to be ugly, all these things will go wrong, we’re not going to win for a while,’ ” Lacob recalls. “If we make a mistake, ‘Well, Jerry West thought it was a good idea.’ ” But West was also promised a deeper role, one without decision-making power but with plenty of input. “Bringing in Jerry West is not just a V.C. move but a typical Kleiner move,” says Vanguard Ventures’ McConnell. “They always put Nobel laureates on their advisory boards. In basketball, that’s West.”
West is known for his spirited, and occasionally profane, defense of his strongly held opinions. But Lacob doesn’t mind the shouting. His professional experience involved investing hundreds of millions of dollars in nascent businesses, some of them in categories that didn’t yet exist, then relying on the judgment of the executives he hired to guide them to profitability. He doesn’t just appreciate conviction; he relies on it.
Since joining the Warriors, West has disagreed strongly with Lacob on several personnel moves. Each time, Lacob has deferred. “Not everything you’ll do as an owner will work,” West says. “Some things that you’ll do, or might want to do, will not work. So you have to have the right people in place who can tell you that, not people who will crumble as soon as you express your opinion. That’s the first part. And then you have to be willing to listen to them.” With all the innovations that the ownership group has put into place, West seems to be saying, if Lacob’s skin had been a little thinner or his need to assert his authority a little greater, the Warriors might still be struggling.
Lacob has fantasized about owning a team since he was 9, when he walked into a Boys Club in New Bedford, Mass., his hometown, and saw his first parquet basketball floor. He graduated from the University of California, Irvine, as the first in his family to attend college and earned additional degrees at U.C.L.A. and Stanford. By then, his life’s blueprint was just about complete. He would use the first half to get rich, then devote the rest to acquiring and running a team. “The first day that I met Joe, in 1998, he told me that he wanted to buy the Warriors,” says Warren Thaler, a former Cleveland Cavaliers director who serves with Lacob on the board of Align Technology.
Once he had his investors in place, Lacob treated the Warriors like another of his fledgling companies in need of adept management. In 2011, he hired Bob Myers as an assistant general manager. He promoted him to general manager a year later. Myers, now 41, lettered in basketball at U.C.L.A. as a walk-on, studied law at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles, then started a career as an agent, representing athletes. “The reason I’m sitting here now is because of that V.C. model,” he told me. “I had no track record. I had no past experience. If you only believed in past performance, you’re talking to someone else. I mean, I wouldn’t have hired me.” Last season, Myers was named the N.B.A.’s Executive of the Year.
At Kleiner Perkins, Lacob was often forced to change entire management teams and restructure companies before he could make them profitable. He wasn’t daunted by the challenge of turning around the Warriors. “You make highly contentious decisions in venture capital all the time,” says Trae Vassallo, a former Kleiner Perkins partner who worked with Lacob. “But not everybody sees them.”
In March 2012, Lacob took the microphone during a game at halftime to honor Chris Mullin, who played for Golden State from 1985 to 1997. From the moment he began speaking, Lacob was booed. It had nothing to do with Mullin. The previous week, the Warriors sent Monta Ellis, the team’s most popular player, to the Milwaukee Bucks in exchange for Andrew Bogut. With time, that would take its place among the most effective trades in basketball history. The Warriors did more than acquire Bogut, a seven-footer who had missed half the season with a broken ankle. Trading Ellis allowed Curry, the point guard, to look for his own shots instead of mainly facilitating Ellis’s. In truth, Lacob hadn’t wanted to trade Ellis. His basketball advisers, including West, persuaded him. “They made their case, especially Jerry,” Lacob says, “and I accepted it. They were right.”
Lacob understood that the Warriors, who had a losing record, needed to be dismantled before they could be rebuilt. He often had to implement a similar strategy with struggling companies. But the fans had been hearing about long-range plans for decades and had little confidence in them. And now they no longer had Ellis. The booing continued for so long that the former Warrior Rick Barry had to beseech the crowd to allow the ceremony to continue. By then, Lacob was shaking. The humiliation was so public, so raw, that Lacob’s friends were moved to send messages of support. Many mention it now, four years later, as a rite of passage.
That fall, the team had to decide whether to extend Curry’s contract. The guard had shown flashes of exceptional talent, but he kept injuring his ankles. The previous season, which was shortened by a labor dispute, he missed 40 of 66 games. “We had to make a decision in the margins, in the gray area,” Myers says. “He was hurt at the time — he’d just sprained his ankle again.” Lacob listened to both sides. Then he asked if anyone could recall an N.B.A. player whose career had ended because of ankle injuries. “Nobody could think of any,” Myers says. “And that kind of made the decision for us.”
What they did by offering Curry a four-year, $44 million extension, Lacob explained, was rely not on the future stability of Curry’s anatomy so much as the composition of his psyche: his determination to push through nagging discomfort to make himself great. “Now, if we were wrong, we’d just committed $44 million to a player who can’t play basketball,” Myers says. “So the risk was there.” Not only has Curry developed into the sport’s best player, but his paltry — in terms of N.B.A. superstardom — $11 million annual compensation gives the Warriors ample salary-cap room to surround him with other talent.
In 2011, Lacob and Guber chose Mark Jackson, the former St. John’s and Knicks point guard, to be their team’s head coach. Jackson was an unusual hire; he played for seven N.B.A. teams and worked as a commentator, but he had never coached. In his second and third seasons, he led the Warriors to the playoffs. “We were at the zero-yard line when Mark showed up here,” Myers says. “And he got us to the playoffs, and we won a round and became respectable.” So when Lacob fired him in 2014, after a 51-31 season, and replaced him with Steve Kerr, the basketball world was shocked. But Lacob had decided that a different type of leadership was needed for the Warriors to make the leap from a playoff team to a championship team. Such noodling with success, replacing a leader with a limited strategic vision with another who is comfortable aiming higher, rarely happens in sports. But in venture capital it happens all the time.
Lacob had known Kerr since the late ’90s. They had been part of a group that traveled to Scotland on golfing trips. Kerr won N.B.A. titles as a player, first with Jordan and the Bulls and later with the Spurs. He ran the Suns’ front office as their general manager. He had commentated on N.B.A. broadcasts. What he hadn’t done, as the man in charge or even as an assistant, was coach a basketball team. But Lacob had an intuition that Kerr would do better in the organization’s structure — in which department heads are expected to weigh in on matters outside their jurisdiction — than the more regimented Jackson.
Kerr’s willingness to at least consider suggestions from almost any source may have saved the Warriors during last year’s championship series. They were behind Cleveland, 2-1, when Nick U’Ren — Kerr’s assistant, whose responsibilities include constructing the musical playlists used during practices and splicing highlight reels — happened to be watching a tape of the 2014 playoffs. Noticing how San Antonio defended LeBron James, he suggested that the Warriors replace Bogut in the lineup with Andre Iguodala, who is half a foot shorter but athletic enough to at least force James to work to get good shots. Kerr took the suggestion, and the Warriors didn’t lose another game. Kerr publicly gave U’Ren the credit.
“I’ve played for nine different organizations,” Shaun Livingston, a Warriors guard, told me, “and I’ve never seen anything like that. This wasn’t even an assistant coach; it was a video coordinator. And Steve Kerr listened to him, and he did it. All the bridges are open here. There’s an open forum of ideas. A good idea really can come from anywhere. And that kind of thinking has to start at the top.”
But you know what’s a really good idea? Letting Curry shoot the ball 16 times from beyond the three-point line, as the Warriors did during a February game against Oklahoma City. The Warriors take more three-point shots than any other team, and they make a lot more of them — 20 percent more than the closest-ranking team, the Houston Rockets. In a sense, they’ve turned the standard way to run a basketball offense inside-out by looking to end a possession not with a layup but with an open jumper from back near midcourt. It’s a revolutionary strategy, but one that seems likely to work only if you have Curry to take the shot. And like so much else about Curry, that obscures the impact of Lacob and Guber’s innovations. Maybe they would have transformed the franchise without Curry, but it’s impossible to know.
Oklahoma City was the Warriors’ sixth stop in nine days on a winter road trip that had strained the limits of continental travel, from Portland to Los Angeles to Miami, and a loss to one of the league’s best teams would hardly have been a disgrace. Curry wouldn’t let it happen. He made 12 of those three-pointers, scoring 47 points in all. And with four seconds left in overtime and the game tied at 118, he brought the ball past the half-court line and stopped to set himself just beyond the R in the Thunder logo that straddles midcourt. Then he swished a jump shot. The Warriors, who led for a total of 29 seconds out of 53 minutes of play, had won again.
Even after winning the league’s M.V.P. award last season, Curry has improved in virtually every trackable metric. He is averaging more than 30 points a game while making 51 percent of his shots, including a preposterous 46 percent of three-pointers. Still, there’s no way to do statistical justice to those stretches on the court, sometimes a minute or two and sometimes an entire quarter, when Curry appears to have entered a freeze frame, running around while everyone else remains still.
I saw it happen in Oakland this season. The Warriors were behind Phoenix in the second quarter. Curry hit a casually spectacular fadeaway from the foul line that ended with him sitting on the court. Then he brought the ball downcourt at speed and abruptly flipped it to another player, who was unguarded, without looking his way, creating an easy jumper. Finally, with the crowd at full roar, Curry launched the ball from several steps beyond the three-point line, and its parabola toward the basket seemed to last forever. It was impossible to watch the ball and Curry at the same time, but out of the corner of my eye I saw Curry turn and begin to run back downcourt, his arms spread wide, before his shot had even reached the top of its trajectory. For me, the moment seemed to crystallize the entire Warriors season.
Lacob presents winning as an inevitable result of the way the team has been constructed. I couldn’t argue with one of the best records in N.B.A. history. Yet I also couldn’t shake the idea that the story could easily have gone a different direction. Since the start of the 2013-14 season, the Warriors have won 76 percent of their games. Playing without Curry, they’re 3-6. And if he were sidelined for the playoffs tomorrow, it seems unlikely that the Warriors would be favored to win the championship. As with Jordan and the Bulls, a strong case can be made that Curry, not the ownership group, provides the point of difference. “They did what every really good organization should do with their star,” the Bucks’ Lasry said. “They nurtured him. But they got lucky in that Steph became far and away the best player in the league.”
Still, Curry’s mere presence wouldn’t have created the means to overhaul a franchise. It takes an extraordinary player to do it — but that isn’t all it takes. LeBron James still hasn’t won a championship for the Cavaliers; playing together, the perennial All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook haven’t won in Oklahoma City. The decision to keep Curry, coupled with the good fortune that he remained healthy and grew into a transcendent player, gave Lacob and Guber’s structural innovations the chance to have their desired effect. But as Lacob sees it, Curry’s dominance on the court, though essential, is inextricable from everything else he’s done with the franchise over the last few years, from knocking down the office walls to the Ellis trade. “It’s not just Steph Curry,” he told me once. “It’s architecting a team, a style of play, the way they all play together. It’s all extremely thought through.”
This confluence of good planning and luck reminded me of a conversation I had with Lacob over a glass of wine one evening at the Bridge Club. He confided that he figures he’s one of the 10 best blackjack players in the world. “I shouldn’t say this,” he added, “but I’ve won over $1 million at one sitting nine times.” As in gambling, there are no certain outcomes in sports, which is exactly what makes them worth watching. Whether you’re playing pickup basketball on a Tuesday morning or hoping to turn a substandard N.B.A. franchise into a champion, all you can do is try to increase your chances of getting the outcome you desire. It was easy to see that Lacob had a knack for doing just that. For everything he did, he had worked out a system.
As an undergraduate at Irvine, Lacob took a calculus class from Edward Thorp, whose 1962 book, “Beat the Dealer,” proved that a blackjack player could gain a slight edge on the house by counting cards. Thorp was banned by casinos, so he taught his students the system, backed them on trips to Las Vegas and shared in the rewards. Lacob was one of those students. When he goes to a casino now, his blackjack sessions aren’t certainties, but Lacob has far better odds of succeeding at them than anyone else at the table. His purchase of the Warriors, I realized, was the same way. He counted the cards and played the odds. And he won.
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