Building a championship caliber roster takes both luck and skill. Not to disparage Bob Meyers, Steve Kerr and the lot–constructing and coaching a roster that is the fastest ever to win 50 games is mostly reflective of skill–but a percentage of good fortune comes into play when you draft Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli, all within four years. Even if you can spot the stars before they mature, they still need to be available when you’re drafting. What separates great teams from very good ones can often be depth and how they fill out that second half of the roster.
The 1996 Chicago Bulls, the team these Warriors occupy so many sports debates with, had Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman. Sure. They also had the likes of Tony Kukoc, Steve Kerr and Bill Wennington coming off the bench. Where drafting Jordan requires some luck, the roster turning at six-through-15 very much comes down to skill. Front offices have to be creative in finding cap room and have the foresight to attract the right free agents who mesh with the core group of players. When the Warriors signed Shaun Livingston two summers ago, it was one of the shrewdest things they did in shepherding this team to greatness.
Livingston was coming off a strong season with the Brooklyn Nets then. First-year coach Jason Kidd reinvented the way to play Livingston, who had previously been bouncing around the league. Seven teams in five years. Livingston spearheaded a long, athletic lineup that switched everywhere on defense and created mismatches on offense. The Nets went to the playoffs that year and seemed to have something good going. However, they screwed up their cap situation (here’s my shock face) and couldn’t re-sign Livingston. Instead, the 6-foot-7 point guard signed a three-year deal with the Warriors. Bad by you, Nets. Good by you, Warriors.
Now Livingston comes off the bench for Curry, averaging nearly six points and three assists in 19 minutes per game. He and Andre Iguodala—as two lengthy, position-pending ball handlers–make the Death Lineup for the Warriors possible. Outside of Iguodala, no player plays more minutes alongside Curry, Thompson, Barnes and Green in a center-less lineup than Livingston, per NBA.com.
It’s been a long journey for Livingston, who nine years ago injured his leg in nearly every conceivable place. It wasn’t certain he would ever play basketball again, let alone live up to his high expectations after being drafted fourth overall out of high school. The one-time Magic Johnson/Penny Hardaway doppelganger was relegated to journeyman. Suddenly the goal went from becoming one of the NBA’s best to finding a role with a team. Any team.
Players who rely on superior physical gifts can have a particularly hard time crafting a new game. We see it now with Derrick Rose. Rose, the MVP of the league in 2011, is still fighting to find consistency after tearing his ACL in the 2012 playoffs.
Athleticism wanes with the natural aging of a career and, so, players such as Tim Duncan and Dwyane Wade can age “gracefully.” They can lose a smidgen of their athleticism and add small tweaks to their game year over year, eventually becoming a different player at 33 from 23.
However, some players aren’t allowed to go from full sprint to light jog over many years. Sometimes, the rug is swiped out right from under them. Suddenly they can’t run, can’t jump and, in Livingston’s case, can’t walk. It took many years for Livingston to find his way, and if it wasn’t for finding the right fit–first with the Nets, then with the Warriors–he could still be toiling away at the end of benches. Livingston recognizes this.
“Yeah, it’s very important for any professional career, as far as a team sport goes,” Livingston told FanSided. “Guys find their niche, they find the right system, the right organization and place for them and, as comfortable as they are, they’re allowed to gain experience, gain confidence that helps them throughout their careers. There’s just a few guys that can go pretty much anywhere and have the same success.”
Livingston has found his niche. The Warriors are heralded for what they can do beyond the three-point arc, but they like to get their guards in the post, too. Curry, Thompson and Livingston are three of the top 10 guards in the NBA in post touches, per NBA.com.
The Warriors will run triangle-like motions to get Livingston the ball in the post. It’s something unexpected given the sans big man lineup, but it plays right into Golden State’s strategy of taking advantage of mismatches.
Sometimes the Warriors don’t even have to get fancy. Livingston’s length creates automatic mismatches against opposing point guards, and he’ll kill you every time you let him get this deep unbothered. Nobody helps pick up Livingston early in transition, and Tony Parker has no chance here.
Getting Livingston in the post is one of the team’s go-to plays. You’ll see them run this diddy a handful of times a game.
Livingston’s most underrated attribute is his movement off the ball. Fully embracing his status as a role player, he plays off the gravity of his high-profile teammates perfectly to create easy shots.
He can disappear between the likes of Green and Curry, and reveal himself at the perfect moment on the cut for the easy score.
Or use subtle movements to get lost in Golden State’s motion, giving defenders heart attacks when they realize he’s wide open for a three-pointer.
So much of a player’s success can depend on fit and timing. If Kidd never re-invents the way to use Livingston, or the Warriors don’t steal his Intellectual Property in utilizing him, Livingston could still be sitting on a bench somewhere, collecting checks but not rings.
Livingston may have been ahead of his time when he entered the NBA, but the adversity he faced has helped him become a more complete player, one who has what he calls a “calming influence” and brings a “positive mindset” to the Warriors. In Golden State, Livingston has found a home.