Chemistry, Context, and CoCo: Andrew Bogut Explains the Warriors

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

We had to start with the Instagram videos.

“It was just random,” Andrew Bogut tells me. For the first month of the season, the Warriors finished their road wins in the aisles of their chartered plane, with teamwide renditions of the song “CoCo,” by O.T. Genasis. “I think someone was just playing [the song], I think Draymond was playing it. Everyone was just bouncing around, enjoying themselves, and then someone recorded it, and we made it a thing.”

This happened four or five times, and more people found out about it, and it became an even bigger thing. Eventually, someone complained that the entire team was singing along to a drug anthem.

“Yeah, it’s being pulled off the shelf,” Bogut says. Last week, the tradition was banned. “A fan wrote in and wasn’t too happy about it. So obviously as soon as the politically correct police come out and play, things get flushed down the toilet.”

It was a somber day for everyone. The Warriors were disappointed. Fans were disappointed. We were all disappointed.

“There’s way worse rap songs out there than that one,” Bogut says. “We’re not condoning drug use or anything like that. ‘Coco’ can mean a lot of things. Coca-Cola, Cocoa Puffs … But that’s today’s world that we live in.”

We start with this for one obvious reason: The only thing better than the Warriors’ “CoCo” tradition is the Warriors’ “CoCo” controversy it turned into. There is also a less obvious reason: If you think about it, Instagram censorship is about the only thing from this Warriors season that could possibly be considered a disappointment.

Golden State is the best team in basketball right now. The Warriors have the top-ranked defense in the league, and it’s not close. They have a top-10 offense, an MVP candidate in Steph Curry, a budding superstar in Klay Thompson, and arguably the deepest rotation in one of the deepest conferences ever. They move the ball better than anyone in the league, and move just as well off the ball on defense. It all looks effortless.

Nine days ago, they played the Bulls close, in Chicago, all night, then blew them off the court in the fourth quarter. A few nights before, they watched Anthony Davis put up 11 points and five boards as the Pelicans went up six in the first quarter. Then they outscored New Orleans 90-57 over the next three quarters. This weekend, they went to Dallas and dismantled the Mavs on Saturday. Sunday it was the Pelicans again, in New Orleans, and a tired Golden State roster was down eight with five minutes left. They fought back to tie, then won easily in OT.

It’s just ruthless right now. The Warriors have the best record in the league (21-2) and they’ve won 16 straight.

Golden State Warriors v Chicago BullsGary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

I ask Bogut if he’s ever had more fun on a basketball team. “Fun comes with winning,” he says. “So the answer would be no. We’re moving the ball, we’re winning games. We’ve got really good chemistry. Put all the pieces together, it becomes a much more enjoyable season.”

He was sold on Steve Kerr from the first practice on. “The first day of camps we did fundamentals,” Bogut says. “That’s something not many coaches want NBA guys doing. [But] we were a high-turnover team the last few years, and his big thing was making fundamentally right decisions and passes, and handling the ball efficiently. We were doing high school, college-type drills. That’s when I knew this guy was serious.”

Whatever Kerr’s doing, it’s working. Look at someone like Marreese Speights. He was a footnote on this roster last year, and now he has turned into something like a cult hero.

“Coach Kerr’s given him the green light,” Bogut says. “He knows he’s talented, it’s just a matter of getting in the right place, in the right situation. He comes in, ready to shoot 15 shots in 10 minutes, and that’s exactly what we want from him. His defense is a lot better this year, and he’s rebounding. Our whole bench has been huge, but he’s probably won us two or three games by himself.”

Speights is the most surprising NBA weapon since Boris Diaw rose from the dead in the Finals two years ago. The Warriors roster is full of guys finding an extra gear. Harrison Barnes went from a lost bench scorer to a starter, and that took him from being a failed lottery pick to an overqualified role player. Andre Iguodala has found a second life coming off the bench, and Draymond Green has gotten even better as a shooter and has probably become the best glue guy in the NBA. Everybody loves Draymond.

Bogut: “He’s a guy who came out of college … went low in the draft … was told he’s not a shooter. Then he comes out and hits seven 3s in Chicago the other night. Draymond’s been making big shots his whole career. He’s a dog. He’s a guy that you love to battle with. He’s scrappy, he’ll fly into a dying death no matter what the score is.”

Meanwhile, Steph Curry has been near flawless on offense, and now that coaches have stopped hiding him on defense, he looks more complete than ever. He’d probably win MVP if they voted today. Klay Thompson is neck-and-neck with Jimmy Butler as the breakout star of 2014, and with him stepping up next to Steph, an offense that struggled last year is clicking on a nightly basis.

And at the center of all this, there’s Bogut.

2005 NBA DraftJesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s easy to forget that Bogut was a no. 1 pick. He doesn’t play like one. But that wasn’t always true. His career took off when he trained with Australian Institute of Sport, and later he starred for his national team at the FIBA Junior World Championships in 2003.

“My family and myself didn’t know a whole about America besides what we saw in movies,” he says. “And then what you see in movies is a lot of crime in New York and California. So we knew Utah was very safe, very clean, family-oriented, and I wanted to go somewhere where I could focus on basketball 100 percent, and not get caught up too much in the partying.”

At Utah, he turned into a monster. His sophomore year, he averaged 20 and 12, with almost two blocks per game, while shooting 60 percent. When people watch Bogut now, it’s hard to imagine him as an NBA superstar. Ten years ago, it was easy.

He was a legit 7-footer with great footwork, skills on offense to score or pass, and the toughness to hit the boards with anyone. He went first overall to Milwaukee as the new future of the franchise. “When you first come into the league, you definitely need help,” he remembers. “I had no idea what to do with millions of dollars. I had no idea how to pay a bill or whatever it was.”

With the Bucks, there were good years. Better than people remember. Bogut started slow, but by his third year he was averaging 14 and 10, and he’d turned into one of the best passing big men in the league, while also anchoring the defense. His best season came in 2009, when he was averaging 16 and 10, plus two blocks, and the Fear the Deer Bucks went 46-36.

Toward the end of that year, things got unlucky. He was going up for a dunk against the Suns when Amar’e Stoudemire shoved him in the back, and he slipped coming off the rim. On the fall he broke his hand, sprained his wrist, and dislocated his elbow. He was done for the season, and the Bucks were done without him. With no Bogut, they went down in the first round.

The next year, the feel-good Bucks turned dysfunctional and missed the playoffs. Bogut still wasn’t right after the injury.

In 2012, Bogut played in just 12 games thanks to a fractured ankle, and that was the end in Milwaukee. After one winning season in seven years, the Bucks sent Bogut to Golden State. He wasn’t exactly a bust, and it wasn’t entirely his fault, but as a no. 1 pick, he was definitely disappointing.

Fast-forward three years, and it’s a whole different story. Bogut has gone from being an underwhelming franchise player to one of the most overqualified role players in the league. His numbers are down across the board since his time in Milwaukee, but the entire league knows exactly how important he is to the Warriors.

“I don’t really care about numbers,” he says. “I’m the linchpin defensively, set good screens, and rebound. All good teams have players that have to give things up. When you’re on bad teams, you have guys like myself, Steph, Harrison all fighting for touches saying, ‘I want mine, I want mine.’ I’ve been on both ends of it, and I understand what it takes, and I’m happy to play my role.”

You know how sometimes you’ll hear an older guy talk, and it’s clear that he has given up worrying what other people think? That’s where Andrew Bogut is.

He’s gone from being the overwhelmed no. 1 pick to someone who now handles all his investments himself. “I was reading through my statements and realizing how much I was paying people to do things I could do for myself,” he says. “I want to do everything myself, just so when I retire, I can transition much easier, and stop paying people to do things that are, basically, daily chores and errands.”

“I actually did a finance course,” he explains, “through an Australian online university. I didn’t do it for a degree. I did a full year’s course on financial planning and financial management, which covered everything from budgeting to going through different investment criteria — stocks, bonds, and all that type of stuff. It really helped me. It basically gives you a little bit more than the basics, where you can manage yourself, and save that 30, 40, 50 grand you’re paying someone to do this stuff for you.”

He laughs, “I can sleep at night knowing that I’m not going to be on a 30 for 30 in 10 years.”

The kid who started at a sports institute in Australia started his own training academy during the last NBA lockout. “We serve to younger kids trying to make it,” he says. “And then we also have a postgraduate program. Australian high school finishes in December, so a lot of Australian kids have from December to August, before they go to college, where they’re not doing a whole lot. So we have a program where they train for three hours a day. We look to get kids into anywhere from D-1 schools here and in Canada, to NAIA,or D-2/D-3 NCAA schools.”

This can be tricky, mostly because the NCAA is horrible. “NCAA probably has the most abundant set of rules you’ll ever find in any organization,” Bogut explains. “And they change on a yearly basis. International students feel the wrath of that, because if you screw one thing up, you’re ineligible. So we make sure they’re doing the right things in school, so when they get their scholarship offer they can actually go.”

“We’re going into our third year now,” he says. “It’s been very successful.”

The no. 1 high school prospect in the world, Australia’s Ben Simmons, counts Bogut as a friend and works out at his gym in the summers. The former prodigy is something like a mentor now.

Golden State Warriors v Denver NuggetsBart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

Anytime anyone mentions Golden State as contenders, it comes with the caveat: “If Andrew Bogut can stay healthy…”

Given the history, it’s a big if. Aside from the injuries in Milwaukee, Bogut also missed last year’s playoffs, with a broken rib. He’s older, too. He’s actually hurt right now, with knee tendinitis. (“Little bit of a flare-up,” he says. “A little bit of treatment and rest, it should be good.”)

I ask Bogut whether injuries in the past change the way he prepares in the offseason. “People ask that, and I kind of find it tough to answer.” He laughs as he says this, but it’s an annoyed laugh. “I think most of my injuries, to be quite honest, 90 percent of them have just been unlucky. I can’t go and do weights and practice not falling off a rim and breaking my elbow. I can’t go and do a conditioning exercise to stop breaking my ribs. It’s not like I tore my quad or hamstring from being overweight or out of shape. It’s high-impact injuries because of the way I play.”

He’s saying two different things there.

On the one hand, the injuries have mostly been freak accidents that he can’t prevent. On the other hand, the way he plays exposes him to more freak accidents than most other players. He throws his body around in the middle of the paint every night. Maybe those unlucky injuries are inevitable.

Whatever you think about Bogut’s health, it’s the key to how far this Warriors team goes. He’s the linchpin for the defense that makes the Warriors offense twice as staunch.

“They know if they funnel a guy to the rim I’ll come and help them,” he says. “They can put more ball pressure on the perimeter. And our personnel’s gotten better. Draymond’s an all-league defender, in my opinion. Andre’s been an all-league defender. Klay’s gotten a whole lot better since his rookie year. Steph’s gotten better.”

It all starts with Bogut, though. He’s currently leading the league in defensive plus-minus and defensive rating, and he’s tied for fourth in blocks. Those first two numbers are vague, but an easier way to explain Bogut’s impact is to say that if he’d been healthy last year, the Warriors probably wouldn’t have lost that brutal series against the Clippers in the first round.

I ask him if he wants another shot at L.A. this spring.

“If we see them in May,” he says. “There might not be any guys left to play in the next round. We both don’t like each other, there’s no doubt about that. There’s a lot of physicality in the games, and a lot of animosity toward each other. As far as TV ratings and fan viewing, it’d be the series everyone wants.”

But then: “As for us, we’re happy to play anybody.”

After the past two months, I don’t blame them.

Los Angeles Clippers v Golden State WarriorsNoah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

If you listen to Bogut and think about his career, two lessons jump out that also apply to how the Warriors got here.

The first is that circumstance determines success in the NBA. Context matters. People say this all the time, but that doesn’t really stop anyone from ripping players who struggle on bad teams, or loving the players who shine on contenders. Had Bogut stayed with the Bucks, we might be lamenting his limited offense after the injuries, and remembering him as one of the bigger no. 1 pick disappointments of all time. Not quite Kwame Brown or Michael Olowokandi, but a long way from Chris Paul, the guy who went three picks after him in 2005.

Instead, Bogut landed in a situation perfectly suited to his strengths, he changed the entire culture of the team, and all anyone can talk about is how underrated he is.

When Steve Kerr and his assistants took over for Mark Jackson, he changed the context for half the team, from Barnes to Draymond to Speights and even Curry on defense. It’s the biggest reason Kerr and his staff have been so successful. With a couple of tweaks to find smarter roles for everyone, the same nucleus from the past two years now looks twice as talented.

The second lesson you get listening to Bogut is that all these players are also humans. And humans grow up. The same way Bogut went from the no. 1 pick, clueless with millions of dollars, to the financial planner mentoring future no. 1 picks — that can happen on the court, too. Players get smarter, stronger, and better.

In the NBA’s asset-flipping universe, it’s easy to forget that the young players we argue about can change dramatically before any argument’s ever settled. The Warriors are our reminder. Kerr deserves a lot of the credit for finding the right roles, but some of this comes down to young players figuring out how to play in the NBA, and understanding how to play with teammates.

That last part is what Bogut credits for Golden State’s success this year. “It’s being together for an amount of time,” he says. “That’s really underrated in this league. General managers, coaches, fans, they want changes as soon as there’s a sign of something not going right or a bad stretch. I think some of the good teams out there, like Dallas a few years ago, their core groups have been together a number of years. That’s what we’re seeing now. We’re in that third year together, and guys are just more comfortable.”

There’s a reason it looks effortless. The changes the Warriors didn’t make (Klay and Barnes for Kevin Love) are every bit as important as the one they did (Kerr for Jackson). In one of the busiest NBA offseasons since the ’90s, the best team in the NBA bet on what they already had. They bet that young players could get better, and that a new coach would give them new life.

So far, it’s paying off better than anyone could have imagined. Even people who believed in the Warriors never believed they would do anything like this. The team that used to have matchup problems with half the West has turned into the one team that nobody wants to match up with.

Are you in love yet?

Filed Under: NBA, Andrew Bogut, Golden State Warriors, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Steve Kerr, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green, Kevin Love, Los Angeles Clippers, Milwaukee Bucks, Ben Simmons, Marreese Speights

Andrew Sharp is a staff editor at Grantland.

Archive @ andrewsharp