During quarantine I’ve decided to get back into the flow of reading books.
One of the first books I chose to read was The Victory Machine: The Making and Unmaking of the Warriors Dynasty by Ethan Sherwood Strauss.
I am a big fan of Ethan’s going back to the HoopSpeak Live days. He used to write for ESPN, currently writes for The Athletic and hosts the House of Strauss podcast as well as probably some other podcasts that I can’t/don’t listen to because I don’t subscribe to The Athletic.
Ethan always comes with insightful takes on NBA happenings, and isn’t afraid to deviate from the NBA twitter media zeitgeist of accepted opinion
At The Athletic Ethan is an NBA reporter, with a large bulk of his coverage focusing on the Golden State Warriors.
You may know Ethan from his public kerfuffle (what a word) with Kevin Durant in February of 2019. Ethan published an article on KD’s impending free agency, specifically the fact that many within the Warriors organization thought he was leaving, and KD responded by calling him out during a press conference
… and then leaving the Warriors at the end of the season.
That is the context behind the author, his connection to the Warriors, and Kevin Durant.
The Victory Machine is 214 pages and I read it almost entirely in one day. Was that due to quarantine boredom or was the book just that engaging?
Let’s get into that.
The book is not a straightforward summary of the 2018-2019 Golden State Warriors season. The focus is not on recounting individual games and performances and winning streaks and shooting slumps. It’s not that the details of the 2019 season are excluded entirely, but a decision was clearly made that, “The vast majority of people who will buy the book are familiar with how the 2019 Warriors’ season went, let’s give them some information they are not as familiar with.”
Four of the central characters of the book that I want to discuss are:
- Joe Lacob, majority owner of the Warriors
- Steve Kerr, head coach of the Warriors
- Bob Myers, general manager of the Warriors
- Kevin Durant, formerly with the Warriors, and currently with the Brooklyn Nets
Yes, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are mentioned frequently but the four that I listed above were whom I learned the most new information about.
The first chapter of the book is titled, “The Big Deal” and covers how Lacob and Warriors co-owner Peter Guber came to own the Warriors in the first place. I don’t want to spoil some of the juicy details, but Lacob and Guber were bidding against Larry Ellison, the American business magnate, who is currently worth $67 billion and at the time of bidding was, according to Ethan, worth $28 billion. Lacob and Guber were not billionaires, and thus the deck was very much stacked against them in this particular scenario.
So how did they go about “beating” Ellison and becoming owners of the team? You’ll have to buy the book to find out.
What I will say is that I appreciated the insight the book gives into not only the bidding process when professional sports teams are up for sale, but also the mindset of both Guber and (mainly) Lacob.
The owners of sports team have a great deal of power and yet we often know so little about them.
Ethan’s description of Lacob as someone who, “does not play the game to compete so much as he plays it to end competition” gives you and idea of how he approaches owning the Warriors, and life in general.
Kerr in some ways is the antithesis of Lacob. Sure, they both want to win, but that seems to be where the similarities end.
Ethan details Kerr brainstorming his coaching philosophy with Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll in the summer of 2014. Carroll asked Kerr to list the most important principles of his life and Kerr came up with, “joy, compassion, competitiveness, mindfulness.”
One can imagine that Lacob’s answer to the same question would be slightly different.
It’s easy to question how much of an impact Kerr really had on wins and losses once the Warriors signed Durant, but the transformation of the Warriors offense from 2014 to 2015 is remarkable.
In Mark Jackson’s final year as head coach the Warriors they ranked 12th in the NBA in offensive efficiency.
The next year, Kerr’s first year as head coach, with basically the same team, the Warriors ranked 2nd in offensive efficiency.
The defense also went from 4th in efficiency in 2014 to 1st in 2015.
I always come back to that when I find myself questioning Kerr’s credentials.
Kerr’s depiction in the book has him seeming like a thoughtful, spiritual, and curious guy who would be easy to get along with.
Ethan quotes Kerr as saying, “I would feel blame if we couldn’t find joy in our circumstances … we’re playing basketball and getting paid a ton of money to do it. You better find joy or I’m not doing my job.”
Which of course leads us to … Kevin Durant.
As I mentioned earlier, Ethan was called-out by KD in public, an event which Ethan details in the book, amongst a few other run-ins with KD that weren’t publicized.
At one point Ethan describes Durant as, “a man without a country” which is accurate.
As Ethan puts it, “Fans in Oklahoma City resented him for what they regarded as a betrayal. Fans in the Bay Area preferred the little guy and always would.”
When you factor in the, “Everyone thinks LeBron is better than you” dynamic that I remember KD complaining about as early as 2013 you can see a recipe for resentment and a malcontent mindset.
I remember listening to Durant on one of the earlier podcasts that he did with Bill Simmons and thinking to myself, “Man, this guy is insufferable.”
He was ultra-defensive to the point of not being able to take basic compliments without contention.
He also was trying to mesh 2 different personas at once.
The first was, “I don’t give a fuck about anyone or anything besides playing basketball. The only thing I care about is being the best basketball player I can be and I don’t care how anyone feels about me or what anyone says about me.”
The second was, “I don’t get the respect I deserve because all these Blog Boys don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about. They don’t know the game like I do and their criticisms of me are irrelevant.”
It was all so tedious.
You’re either Mr. No-Fucks-Given or you’re Mr.I-Care-About-Everything but you can’t be both.
I found his personality to be grating and insecure.
Ethan has several anecdotes regarding Durant and his time with the Warriors, as well as some insight into Durant’s relationship with his mother that I found to be fascinating.
The final figure that Ethan covered in The Victory Machine whom I wanted to touch on is Bob Myers, the general manager of The Warriors.
The main reason that my interest was piqued by Ethan’s coverage of Myers was because it touched on an idea that resonated with me about being a general manager.
For a lot of people who grow up obsessed with sports, and soon realize their chances of going pro are nil, that interest is then channeled into the idea of, “Wouldn’t it be great to be a GM of a sports team?”
Ethan just nukes this notion altogether.
He writes that, “Being a general manager isn’t what you think it is. It’s not at all like playing fantasy sports” and goes on to say, “It just so happens that almost no one is actually happy doing it.”
Ethan details the dizzying amount of responsibilities that being a general manager entails, and how much of a stressful pressure-cooker the role can be.
Once I got to the point in my life where I realized that GM’ing was a lot less trading for superstars and a lot more scouting 2nd rounders in Switzerland, the dream was dead.
In regards to the Warriors general manager, Ethan goes on to say that, “Those who know Myers relay that he’s less buoyant than in years’ past. Winning achieved a great dream, but its fruits did not sustain the soul. For one, a GM is not permitted to sleep, let alone slip off into dream world. The job demands hypervigilance, a perpetual state that more reliably chases away happiness than it does threats to a franchise. The threats will come. Something is always going wrong on a basketball team.”
Sounds like a walk in the park.
Another huge topic that gets covered in The Victory Machine is the sneaker industry and the amount of control that corporate behemoths like Nike have over various NBA happenings.
I found the insights into how Durant’s secondary positioning in the Nike hierarchy may have played a role in his general dissatisfaction and how Steph Curry being with Under Armour played a role in the behind-the-scenes machinations that led to Durant on the Warriors to be thought-provoking.
Overall, I really really enjoyed reading The Victory Machine and encourage anyone and everyone who reads this review to go and buy it.
If you are a sports fan in general and/or a basketball fan specifically, there is a 100% chance you will find this book to be a worthwhile read.
Kudos to Ethan on a job well done!
Go buy the book: