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NBA PM: Using Fiction to Capture the Warriors

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In Orson Scott Card’s seminal 1985 novel Ender’s Game, Earth faces peril from an extraterrestrial threat. Known as the Formics (or the ungracefully-aged “buggers”), these alien forces had already been engaged twice decades prior to our story, but a third and presumably final encounter is fast approaching to decide the fate of both species.

To prepare, humankind’s international government forms an outer space training facility called “Battle School,” designed to mold the most gifted young minds on the planet into weapons of military might through intense, advanced strategical simulations. Students are placed into “armies” complete with commanders and ranks; the armies are pitted against each other in a battle most resembling a high-stakes game of zero-gravity laser tag. Over time, the thinking goes, the top strategic minds will separate themselves from the pack, and can be plucked for placement at the head of humanity’s interstellar military forces.

Our protagonist, Andrew Wiggin (Ender), quickly sets himself apart. Ender is unconventional, bucking several older approaches to rise incredibly quickly to command of his own army – one ostensibly comprised of nothing but “launchies” (the Battle School equivalent of raw rookies) and cast-offs from other armies, and meant as a challenge to Ender’s creative abilities.

Dragon Army, as they’re called, is innovative and trendsetting. They eschew traditional battle room “formations” in favor of a free-flowing approach that leaves unprecedented amounts of decision-making in the hands of each individual soldier. It’s like nothing anyone in the program has ever seen.

Dragon Army takes Battle School by storm. They crush confused and overwhelmed opponents, drawing the ire of the rest of the school in the process. They break no rules, and in reality, they advance the entire school’s understanding of the way the game’s guidelines can be manipulated. Before long, Ender is leading Earth’s forces in a third battle against that powerful alien force.

On the NBA’s battleground, the Golden State Warriors are Dragon Army in a game full of envious competitors. And as they prepare for a momentous third test against a seemingly alien life force, their limits – like Ender’s, eventually – could be tested.

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In a subsequent Card sequel to Ender’s Game, we learn an important detail about Dragon Army: They weren’t quite the group of misfits the original novel had led the audience to believe. Their formation was predetermined by an architect based on their collective qualities; in many cases, their skill had previously been untapped or improperly used. Ender’s innovation brought out their full potential, but it’s not as if his approach could have simply be applied to any random collection of soldiers with the same results.

The formation of this current Warriors juggernaut followed a similar path thematically. Draymond Green might be the league’s perfect poster boy for the way talent and personality need the right vehicle to succeed; when they were drafted, many in a league not yet so thoroughly dominated by shooting didn’t think Steph Curry and Klay Thompson had the size and skill to survive as a starting backcourt pairing.

Some of their core had been miscast under previous leadership, too, just like several of Dragon Army’s best. Mark Jackson reached players and was a relative success by all accounts, but his eventual replacement, Steve Kerr, would reveal the degree to which Jackson may have held this group back. Jackson’s more rigid, matchup-oriented style now looks silly in the face of this innovative beast.

Ender’s approach with Dragon Army was simple at its core: Let skill and creativity trump a more predictable style. Where other commanders held a Napoleon-like vice grip over strategy, herding their soldiers into uninspired formations that surely became formulaic over time, Ender possessed limited central authority during battle.

He emphasized creativity and the element of surprise, giving his army the license to adjust on the fly and exploit the openings overmatched opponents inevitably gave up. He insisted that his soldiers push the envelope, even at the risk of error.

After Jackson’s ouster, Kerr pushed the same kinds of themes. He realized the element of his group’s skill that had yet to be mined, leveraging their historical shooting into a whole new kind of attack. He had the same approach to pushing the envelope – mistakes (turnovers, in this case) were a necessary step on the path to success, and they’d inevitably be covered up by the larger successes of the group as a whole.

NBA defenses to this point were almost universally conditioned to defend beginning from the point of attack (the ball), then moving backward from there. Suddenly, they were facing a machine where the guy with the rock was often the least important part of the equation. Armed with unprecedented shooting skill and the knowledge of what that skill would do to the opposition, the Warriors created an offense that was more about space, reaction and simple physics than any overwhelming physical quality.

They don’t pass more than other teams, necessarily – they pass more effectively. The Dubs have produced a positive event (a made shot or free throws) on a higher percentage of their passes than any other team in the league every year since Kerr came aboard, per SportVU data, and they’ve virtually lapped the field on points created via assist.

So little of it is directly planned, either. The Warriors have unprecedented freedom on both ends of the court – Curry has the license to jack up virtually any shot he likes, just like Green is free to roam and disrupt on his way to captaining the league’s most unique defense. Other teams enter the battle room, await their commander’s formation signal and then execute; the Warriors are already flying toward the enemy with guns blazing, forcing them into decisions they aren’t yet prepared to make.

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Dragon Army and Battle School weren’t Ender’s final tests. After dominating them, he would face a far more daunting adversary. And as the Warriors enter a third battle against perhaps the closest thing the NBA has ever seen to an extraterrestrial force, perhaps it’s fitting that, like Ender, they could be forced to morph once more to reach the ultimate goal.

When Ender took command of his forces against the Formics in a series of final battles, he did so with certain advantages he never held at Battle School: a hand-picked team; a legendary mentor; maybe most importantly, a fancy new weapon capable of destroying an entire enemy planet in one fell swoop (think of it as the fictional military version of Kevin Durant).

At the same time, he faced an enemy vastly different from his previous experience, one better prepared to absorb his strengths and exploit his weaknesses. In the end, success came down to one last little bit of improvised innovation.

Whether it will come to that for these Warriors remains to be seen, especially with a detonator like Durant now in the arsenal as well. But whether or not this final challenge presents real intrigue, we can always remember this group as the NBA’s Dragon Army.

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About Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.