Review: THE VICTORY MACHINE by Ethan Sherwood Strauss (Public Affairs)

StraussES-VictoryMachineAn interesting look at the rise and fall of the Golden State Warriors

How money, guts, and greed built the Warriors dynasty — and then took it apart

The Golden State Warriors dominated the NBA for the better part of a decade. Since the arrival of owner Joe Lacob, they won more championships and sold more merchandise than any other franchise in the sport. And in 2019, they opened the doors on a lavish new stadium.

Yet all this success contained some of the seeds of decline. Ethan Sherwood Strauss’s clear-eyed exposé reveals the team’s culture, its financial ambitions and struggles, and the price that its players and managers have paid for all their winning. From Lacob’s unlikely acquisition of the team to Kevin Durant’s controversial departure, Strauss shows how the smallest moments can define success or failure for years.

And, looking ahead, Strauss ponders whether this organization can rebuild after its abrupt fall from the top, and how a relentless business wears down its players and executives. The Victory Machine is a defining book on the modern NBA: it not only rewrites the story of the Warriors, but shows how the Darwinian business of pro basketball really works.

An interesting account of the rise of the Golden State Warriors, and the behind-the-scenes drama and tension surrounding Kevin Durant’s tenure as part of the team. A little bit gossipy, well-observed, and engaging, I enjoyed this.

Strauss writes with the eye of someone who clearly loves the game, but is somewhat cynical about the business of the NBA. He is sympathetic to the players and the BS they have to deal with, while simultaneously amused by their tendency to buy into (at least some of) that bullshit.

The NBA, a very top-down sport, marketed around a select few superstars, is bleak at the bottom.

Basketball is marketed to the public as joyful, but behind the scenes, it’s run on hypermasculine cruelty, the kind that has mostly been purged from civilized life.

The jock atmosphere permeates every part of the business, Strauss shows us, affecting the players, managers, back office, even the fans. It also had an impact on the Warriors’ internal dynamics. It’s a popular narrative, but it seems that the “KD was disappointed that Warriors fans never loved him as much as Steph” has a lot of truth in it. I’m sure it would be frustrating, but KD still won championships and MVP, so… I don’t know. I’d be pretty satisfied with that.

The author gives us a pretty extensive, broad-spectrum account of what was going on in the Warriors’ organization and team. He has access to players and management, who in turn seem to be pretty comfortable talking to him (even if they do, at times, lob criticism and insults at him — KD even made him into an enemy of sorts). I found the accounts of the team’s pre-winning streak experiences and management interesting and illuminating, and the portraits of the players engaging and insightful. Sure, more attention is paid to KD than the others, which is a shame because it is (or, was) a team of interesting characters and individuals. But, KD’s presence and desire to leave offers the author a great hook for examining the role and position of an NBA superstar and how the game, business, and culture can shift and morph to fit their needs, whims, desires, insecurities, and more.

The NBA superstar is often a mystifying man whose powers just happen to be worth the quirks. Honestly, in the modern social media–driven NBA, you’re lucky if the soft-spoken rookie you drafted doesn’t turn into Howard Hughes with a handle. “They’re all fucking crazy now,” one NBA coach said to me, when lamenting how his profession had changed. “All the superstars are fucking crazy.”

Placating the superstar (again, one that they didn’t really seem to need) seems to have sucked up a lot of the Warriors’ organizational time.

In their world, this was how you handled Kevin. He had the power and needed placation. If he was mad, you apologized, even if you weren’t sure about being in the wrong. This is the NBA and might makes right. KD is a superstar and his opinions are worth more than his teammates’. Grate on him and you’ll end up on another roster.

Reading this in the wake of the Raptors’ NBA victory in 2019 and also after watching the superb The Last Dance documentary, two things jumped out at me.

First of all, Kerr’s attempts to reshape the team around Kevin Durant echoed Phil Jackson’s strategies related to Michael Jordan: it seemed to me, reading The Victory Machine, that Kerr learned from being coached by Jackson, and maybe internalized the idea that one could focus a team around a single player’s talents (Durant). Certainly, KD is an incredible basketball talent. However, when you have a team like the Raptors, newly energized and changed for playing with Kawhi Leonard, you can’t have a single super-star and crush the opposition. As Strauss puts it,

In the Finals, against the Raptors, the Warriors faced an opponent complete enough to punish their weaknesses.

Even during the regular season, when the Raptors played the Warriors on November 29th, 2018, KD scored 51 points, and the Raptors still won in an extremely high-scoring game (131-128). Not only that, when you already have a winning team of incredible talents (e.g., Curry, Thompson, Igoudala, and Green), why twist it into a single-player focus? Strauss mentions, at one point, that when KD was out, the Warriors seemed to play with greater joy and life (see also this piece from Heavy) and were, therefore, much more fun to watch. In my humble opinion, it’s far better to have two or three players who can post up 20-30 points than focus all your efforts on stroking the ego of one who can hit 50.

Secondly, given the distractions behind the scenes, I don’t think the Raptors had quite as much to worry about as we all thought: the Warriors didn’t seem to have all of their attention on the game(s). That’s in no way meant to detract from the incredible basketball the Raps played — I was on the edge of my seat for every game of the play-offs and finals, near-heart-attack at the tense endings to the 76ers (the Shot) and Bucks series, and in constant awe of the amazing performances from the whole team. The Warriors seem to have chosen a slightly outdated strategy, one that didn’t actually suit their team. Sure, they pulled off a couple of wins in the Finals (despite, in both cases, the refs later issuing apologies for calls that effectively handed the Warriors the two points they won by), but judging from Strauss’s book, they never really gelled as this new unit and KD’s clear preference to leave was a problem.

The Victory Machine does a great job of giving readers a deeper picture of the Warriors’ rise to the top of the NBA. They are a team whose stars (Curry and Thompson) changed the way the game is played — the “Splash Brothers” took more of the game back to the 3-point line, opened up much higher scoring games, and mixed things up. Ultimately, though, they made a decision that was supposed to be the silver bullet for many more championship wins. They won twice with KD, so it seems to have been a justifiable strategy. But in 2018-19, due to the whims of the players involved (on and off the court), the team fractured.

If you’re a fan of the NBA, and especially the Warriors, I would certainly recommend you read The Victory Machine. It offers some great insights into the team, business and game as a whole. Very well-written, it’s engaging, amusing, and informative. A really great read.

*

Ethan Sherwood Strauss’s The Victory Machine is out now, published by Public Affairs in North America and in the UK.

Follow the Author: Website, Goodreads, Twitter

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