The Golden State Warriors are the most forgettable franchise in the NBA. They have one playoff appearance in 18 years, one All-Star representative in 16 years, and they're practically the only professional sports franchise in the country without the city or state they play in in their title -- which, while neat, basically means no one knows where the hell they play, or even that they're an NBA team. They've occasionally gotten attention for being sort of quirky, like when they adopted a ridiculously high-octane style under Don Nelson, or when Latrell Sprewell -- their one All-Star in 16 seasons -- choked his head coach and nearly got thrown out of the league. But other than that, and other than having an unusually rabid fanbase, the organization has been marked by failure if it's even been marked at all. And now that Jeremy Lin has taken off since joining the New York Knicks, it's just one more example of what a disastrous franchise the often-exciting Warriors really are.
Lin basically wouldn't even be in the league if the Warriors hadn't plucked him from obscurity last season. Lin, an undrafted, Asian, Harvard-graduate California local, was an immediate fan favorite in Oakland; he received a rousing ovation every time he came in the game, without exception. But it seemed that the Warriors didn't have much use for him. He played in merely 29 games last year, averaging only 9.8 minutes, and he never got a consistent run in the rotation off the bench. At times, it seemed like the Warriors would shoehorn him into the end of games just to get a cheer out of the fans, as though the entire reason he had been drafted was to appeal to the crowd as an eastern Brian Scalabrine.
In the offseason, the Warriors changed coaches and Lin was waived in a proactive move to clear cap space in case DeAndre Jordan decided to sign with them. Not only did Jordan leave them hanging, but Lin, at last getting legitimate playing time, has morphed into a superstar for the New York Knicks. The Warriors have an atrocious history when it comes to judging talent (they once passed up Kobe Bryant for Todd Fuller), but this is the lowest point in a long line of terrible recent mistakes. It's one thing to pass on a Kobe Bryant by accident, but it's something entirely to have a great player in your possession and do nothing with him. For a while, it looked like the Warriors were patently unlucky. Now, they just look incompetent.
Obviously, saying that the Warriors shouldn't have waived Lin last December is an incredibly easy position to take. But who knows if he could've actually become a presence on a Warriors team already loaded with guards. Even if he did get on the court more, there'd only be so much he could do behind Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry. Still, that doesn't detract from the larger point, which is that Lin was never given a chance by management to show if he was good or not. The most minutes Lin ever received off the bench came in the final game of the 2011 season, when Lin produced 12 points on 5-8 shooting with 5 assists, 5 rebounds, 2 steals and no turnovers in 23 minutes. Lin played well, but he was never afforded the luxury that he's since received in New York. Had he actually gotten 35 minutes in that game, it's possible he could have put up 20-and-10 or numbers close to the ones he's putting up now. It's possible he could have become a star in Golden State too, and captivated the nation from the western part of the country. Instead, all Warriors fans can do is speculate. Lin has only started in five games, but he's scored more in his first five starts than any player in history since the NBA/ABA merger.
What's fascinating is that this is weirdly consistent for the Warriors, who have a habit of taking players high in the draft and then never actually using them in games. From 2005 to 2012, the only Warrior selected in the first round to get playing time right off the bat was Stephen Curry, who started 77 games in 2009-10. And Curry is an excellent player. But he is the outlier compared to everyone else the Warriors selected early, which is all the more puzzling, since you'd think the Warriors would try to repeat the success they had with Curry. Instead, they've been content to let their draft picks rot on the end of the bench, which is an interesting way to groom a player who you hope will become a factor for your franchise -- interesting in that it seems awfully illogical.
Remove Curry's name, and the Warriors first rounders over the last seven years have barely gotten in the game at all. From Ike Diogu (2005) to Patrick O'Bryant (2006) to Marco Belinelli (2007) to Brandon Wright (2007) to Anthony Randolph (2008) to Ekpe Udoh (2010) to the most recent first-rounder Klay Thompson (2011), those seven players combined average of minutes per game in their rookie season is 14.78. The most playing time any of those seven got in their rookie year was Anthony Randolph, who started 22 games, averaged 17.9 minutes and played in nine games where he received thirty minutes of action. Combined, those seven players have 18 thirty-minute games to show for their seven rookie seasons, which is still ongoing in Thompson's case. Diogu, Udoh and Randolph are the only three to have started in more than six games as a Warriors rookie, and of those seven rookie seasons, the grand total of games started is 61. That's right, 61 starts out of seven seasons worth of first round draft picks. For context, consider that Ryan Gomes started 62 games for the Clippers last season, and had 29 games where he went at least thirty minutes.
For a franchise that has one playoff appearance in 18 years, Golden State isn't in a hurry to disrupt the status quo. They've been so steadfast in trying to make their current batch of players work, and so desperate to latch onto the final playoff spot in the west, that they'd rather waste their time with middling role players with no upside at all than raw, inconsistent rookies who could be good down the line. The Warriors could have cleared the way for Ekpe Udoh to become their starting center, but instead they signed Kwame Brown to a $7 million salary. They could have cleared the way for Klay Thompson to be their first small forward off the bench, but instead they handed that role to Brandon Rush. In this context, it's easy to see how Jeremy Lin and all his potential went to waste. If a first-rounder like Udoh can barely get in the game at all, on a team with a painfully-obvious deficiency in big men, what chance did Lin have to get much run behind Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry? It was never going to happen.
At some point, the Warriors should learn a thing or two from horse-racing. The only way a horse will be great is if it's trained to be great. Horses that never get the time of day, that are only used in practices, never amount to anything. It's possible that Ike Diogu and Brandon Wright would have been lousy no matter how much they played, but it doesn't detract from the larger issue that they never even got the chance. Besides, the worst thing a team can be in the NBA is not good enough to make the playoffs but not bad enough to get a high draft pick. As horrible as Golden State has been, they have just one top-five lottery pick in the last 13 years. Part of getting higher draft picks is playing the young guys more, seeing if they can play, sacrificing wins in the present and getting more young guys down the line. The law of average says that once a team stockpiles enough high-end prospects, they'll eventually be able to become a contender. The Warriors, however, haven't even embraced stage one of the conventional rebuilding formula.
To their credit, they've been able to find guys like Antawn Jamison and Gilbert Arenas and Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry over the years, which have allowed them to be mildly competitive. But it's to their own detriment. They've over-committed to players patently incapable of being the best players on winning teams; as good as Curry and Ellis are, they alone will never make the Warriors anything but decent. As long as the Warriors convince themselves that they can skirt over rebuilding, and as long as they have the mentality where Kwame Brown is considered more valuable than their 2010 first round pick, not only will they perpetually linger as a 35-win team not good enough or bad enough to go anywhere, they won't have anything to build on if Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry ever leave for another franchise. Nor will Jeremy Lin be the only player who could have been great for them but never got the chance.