Ever since taking hold of the Golden State Warrior reins in 2014, Steve Kerr has had an embarrassment of riches to work with.
The mainstays—a two-time NBA MVP in Stephen Curry, a three-time All-Defensive first-teamer in Draymond Green, a four-time All-Star in Klay Thompson—got their first taste of gold in year one of Kerr’s tenure.
Sprinkle in Kevin Durant, a former regular season MVP and two-time Finals MVP, to sweeten the original pot and it’s resulted in two more NBA titles (three in total). And, with DeMarcus Cousins added to the mix, the team may end up with its fourth in five seasons.
Those are the sexy names, the media darlings and the star talent—but there are two players who have been there since the inception of this dynasty that don’t receive nearly enough credit.
Mention Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston to Kerr and you’ll hear him rave.
“In many ways the unsung heroes of our team over the last four years,” Kerr said of his veteran pairing.
As the “backbone” of Golden State’s second unit, Iguodala and Livingston have made their biggest impact through pestering opposing offenses. Having the luxury of tall wings with long arms, Kerr experimented with a tactic, which, at the time, hadn’t been implemented before. To say it worked would be an understatement.
“They represent a lot of what we’ve done defensively, in that, we put a bunch of 6-7 guys who could switch,” Kerr said. “And Shaun and Andre were two of the biggest reasons we decided to go with that strategy because they were great with that stuff.
“So I’m just lucky to have coached them and to continue to coach them. They still are an enormous part of what we do, on and off the floor.”
Father Time Is Undefeated
Both Iguodala and Livingston were selected in the top 10 of the 2004 NBA Draft, with the former being older than the latter.
Though Iguodala’s 36,013 career minutes essentially doubles that of Livingston’s total, the younger one feels about the same age as him.
Battles with injuries early in his career and putting in extra hard work to continue playing at 33 years old have admittedly worn on Livingston.
In late November, Iguodala hinted to NBC Sports Bay Area about retiring within the next few seasons. Is it fair to say Livingston is in the same boat?
“I mean, honestly who knows?” Livingston told Basketball Insiders as Warrior trainer Drew Yoder wrapped a bag of ice around his knees. “A year, couple years? But I mean, it’s coming sooner than later. Handwriting is on the wall.”
Named Mr. Basketball for Illinois in 2004 and a McDonald’s All-American standout at Peoria Central High School, Livingston was a top point guard prospect in the nation. Instead of attending Duke, he decided to enter the draft, where the Los Angeles Clippers took him fourth overall.
Livingston’s stint with the Clippers went well when he played. The issue was his body wouldn’t allow him to stay on the floor.
As a rookie, a dislocated right patella and torn shoulder cartilage sidelined Livingston for 52 games. The following year, he missed the first 21 games of the season with a lower back injury.
What happened on Feb. 26, 2007, however, was a tragic moment no basketball fan will ever forget.
On a fastbreak drive to the basket, Livingston lost his balance after a layup attempt and landed awkwardly. Writhing in pain, he had broken his left leg, dislocated the same knee, severely sprained his MCL and tore his ACL, PCL and meniscus—all in one life-changing sequence.
It was so devastating that Livingston almost lost his leg. He had to re-learn how to walk. Months upon months of rehabilitation were necessary to do so.
But Livingston was determined to return. Sure enough, in June 2008, he was cleared to resume basketball activities.
His contract with Los Angeles had already expired and he didn’t receive a qualifying offer, so he became an unrestricted free agent.
While he was blessed to be playing at all, the road was still rocky for Livingston from there. The Miami HEAT offered him his first contract post-injury. He only played four games for the organization before he was sent to the Memphis Grizzlies and subsequently waived the same day.
Whatever it was—a D-League stint, 10-day contracts, trades—Livingston continued to grind, playing for seven organizations in six years. He found footing at the end of 2013 in Cleveland and continued the momentum the next season in Brooklyn, where he started a career-best 54 games and averaged 26 minutes per contest.
Livingston’s fight to not only keep his career afloat, but also make an impact in the process attracted the Warriors’ front office towards him. Three championship seasons later—the rest is history.
“Just being able to get to a position to where I can contribute, and for me personally, that was my goal,” Livingston said of what kept him going. “My goal was to continue to get better and be on better teams.
“I felt like if I was on better teams and able to contribute to a winning team, I felt like I was doing something right because they wanted me.”
So how will Livingston look back on his career when it is all said and done?
“I’ll be pretty proud of the fact that I was able just to stick with my career,” Livingston said. “I didn’t give up on myself.
“It’s just something to hang my hat on. A part of my character. It’s who I am more than anything, not the kind of player I was. It’s more about who I am as a person. That means more to me than anything I could do on the court.”
Who’s Up Next In The Bay
Of course, the show must go on in Golden State once Livingston decides it’s time to retire. Luckily for the franchise, they have a ton of promising players on deck.
Warrior guards Quinn Cook and Jacob Evans, along with young frontcourt players like Kevon Looney, Jordan Bell and Damian Jones, are the future. Some of them are getting meaningful minutes already, while the others are observing and preparing themselves.
“I mean, those guys are grinders,” Livingston told Basketball Insiders. “They’ve worked their way to this position, now it’s about getting better. It doesn’t stop once you’re here. They haven’t ‘made’ anything. It’s just about getting better and continuing to help the team grow.”
As soon as the subject of growing talent was brought up, Livingston loudly responded with a stern voice: “LOONEY.”
“I mean that’s a perfect example,” Livingston said. “He’s our most important big right now with Draymond [Green] out, know what I mean? ‘Cause of what he brings to the table and he knows how to play. He’s always in the right spot.
“So that’s the progression of him being here these years and watching, learning from the vets – watching Andre [Iguodala], watching Draymond. And now he’s one of the main core guys that has to be on the floor.”
Player development is an element of Golden State’s organization that hasn’t really been talked about all that much, but has certainly been impactful on the depth of the roster.
Just look at when Curry went down with an injury—Cook had to step in and start, while two-way player Damion Lee supplanted those bench minutes.
Or with Green and, recently, Jones being out now, consider the job Looney, McKinnie and Bell have done filling the void.
“It’s important for every organization to grow from within and to develop young players, guys who may be new to the league and put into complementary roles,” Kerr said.
“We work really hard with our guys who are in that situation and I think they’ve made great strides. But it’s critical. You have to constantly be thinking about your entire roster.”
Durant insists that player development is the main focus of the league and has been an integral part of Golden State’s reign as champions.
“Obviously when you win, it’s always about the trophy or the guys that help you get the trophy,” Durant told Basketball Insiders. “But you’ve got a lot of young guys in our organization that work extremely hard every day. That’s the core of the league. That’s just the foundation of the league, is player development.
“It’s a next man up league and you’ve got an opportunity to play or get minutes, shots and you want to take full advantage. So everybody’s putting in that work just in case their number’s called.”
And if you want to know who’s next up for the Warriors, both Livingston and Kerr agree that it’s Evans.
Focus On The Season At Hand
While looking at the past and pondering the future can be on Livingston’s mind, he is 100 percent locked in on what’s happening in the present.
Golden State’s record is 17-9, good for fourth place in an extremely tight Western Conference at the beginning of December. It’s been a bit of a roller coaster season for the back-to-back defending NBA champions.
“Keeping guys’ body language, keeping their spirit right, that’s pretty important,” Livingston told Basketball Insiders of powering through.
There has been a bunch of injuries to key players, reported discord between certain guys in the locker and inconsistent effort game-to-game. Basketball Insiders asked what needs improvement on the court.
“I think it’s our defense, but I think that comes from energy and effort,” Livingston said. “I think we have the right group. And part of that is we’re a younger group, so we’ve got some young guys out there that’s feeling their way out.
“But it comes down to energy and effort and sometimes in the regular season, obviously the 82-game schedule catches up to you.”
However, the Warriors are well on their way back. After missing 11 games with a groin injury, Curry has returned to the floor, invigorating the team’s spirit with more than just his talent.
“The fact that he’s the type of player he is only elevates us,” Livingston said. “And then, his presence, as far as just his positivity. He never gets too down on himself. It’s just more about next play mentality and that just always helps coming from your best player.”
Livingston’s shooting numbers are down this year. On the bright side, he is coming off a 3-for-4 night against the Cavs.
He’s not asked to do much scoring with the abundance of talent around him, but when he does, there’s always the bread-and-butter of Livingston’s game—the backdown, turnaround 10-foot jumper.
It’s been a staple to the veteran’s career ever since he’s been in the league and it has served as a dagger to many opponents.
“You always have to try to have a go-to move or something that can get you a bucket when you need it, that you rely on when you may be struggling,” Livingston said. “It’s just about being a threat on the court and that’s really where it comes from.”
Pose a question to Livingston about what makes him who he is as a player, and he’ll tell you that it’s unselfishness—the characteristic that made Livingston so highly sought-after as an 18-year-old.
And that’s why Kerr and Golden State’s organization love him.