It looked like Shaun Livingston’s career was doomed to injuries until a late-career surge made us remember him for his role in an all-time team.
Around 2013, if you had asked anyone about Shaun Livingston, they’d probably have winced and mentioned his gruesome knee injury.
NBA fans know all too well about injuries stealing a player’s career, and it looked like we were seeing another unfortunate situation play out with the high school prospect who had once been compared to Magic Johnson.
Today, Livingston is remembered for his role in one of the greatest teams ever assembled, the mid-2010s Golden State Warriors.
He redefined his career, and in doing so, became one of my favorite players to watch. Backup point guards always intrigue me because it’s one of the hardest roles to fill in any basketball game, let alone in the best league in the world. It’s like trying to get into a moving car’s passenger seat and try and drive as you do it.
Livingston was special because he could check in, instantly find the flow of the game, and find a way to make an impact. There aren’t many players in the league that could do what he did and his size and defensive versatility helped him play with and without Steph Curry — something that helped the Golden State Warriors start a dynasty in 2015.
How did Shaun Livingston get here?
Before his injury, Shaun Livingston was the fourth overall pick in the 2004 Draft, coming straight out of high school and to the struggling LA Clippers. At this point, he was still trying to establish himself as an elite guard in the league but had flashed potential with his size and athleticism.
The injury I’m alluding to was during his third year with the Clippers in which an ugly fall saw him tear his ACL, PCL, and meniscus, in addition to dislocating his left knee cap and breaking his left leg. I would recommend that anyone who hasn’t seen the video, keep it that way.
After the knee injuries, Shaun Livingston flew all around the country, trying to find a permanent home. He had stints in Miami, Oklahoma City, Washington, Charlotte, Milwaukee, and Cleveland before signing with the Brooklyn Nets for the 2013-14 season.
He joined the “title-contending” Nets that had future Hall of Famers in Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce alongside All-Stars like Joe Johnson, Deron Williams, Brook Lopez, and Andrei Kirilenko. We all know how that story went … While it might have worked well on 2K, all they could do in the playoffs was win one series against the Toronto Raptors.
Williams, who was in his age-29 season, was starting to fall off, and it opened up time for his new backup, Shaun Livingston. It was kind of a silver lining for the season that amongst the failures and aging stars, Shaun was able to play 76 games, starting for 54 of those.
He averaged 8.3 points per game and 3.2 assists while shooting 48 percent from the floor, a career-high at the time.
At the same time, the Golden State Warriors were thirsty for a backup point guard. And I mean Thirsty with a capital ‘T’.
After cycling through sub-par options in Steve Blake, Jordan Crawford, Toney Douglas, and Nemanja Nedovic (remember him?), the Warriors knew they had to address the spot in the offseason.
(Side note, I remember when Golden State traded for Crawford before the deadline. At the time he was averaging 13.7 points in 39 games for the Boston Celtics and looked solid for a tanking team. It didn’t work out and he spent the following two seasons in China.)
Livingston was one of Brooklyn’s best players, but since Mikhail Prokhorov was paying through the nose for a “title contender”, the Nets were above the salary apron, meaning if any team walked up and offered him something above the taxpayer mid-level exception, Brooklyn couldn’t match.
Golden State offered him the full mid-level exception, giving him roughly $6 million more than Brooklyn could, and the deal was done.
We know how things turned out for the Warriors, but the first major impact was on Stephen Curry. At the time, he had just made his first All-Star appearance but Mark Jackson’s pick-and-roll-heavy offense forced him to do a lot for an entire season, and was failing in the playoffs.
But whenever he sat, the offense fell apart.
Compare that to his first MVP and title season, and Steph’s minute load dropped from 36.5 to 32.7, despite hardly seeing any decline in production. In fact, he became more effective.
There were several moving parts in this Golden State equation that led to Steph’s rise as one of the league’s elite, there was the move of Andre Iguodala to the bench, the rise of Draymond Green, and the addition of Steve Kerr, but Livingston’s role can’t be overlooked.
The Warriors knew that when Steph sat, we weren’t all looking at our watches, waiting for him to check back in — Shaun was going to hold down the fort.
His size for the position made him just as much of an anomaly as Steph’s incendiary shooting. If you were an opposing point guard, you’d have to worry about Curry’s 3-point shot as soon as he crosses the halfcourt mark. Even if you were able to cover Steph and keep him quiet, Shaun would sub in and take you right down to the low block.
His mid-range pull-ups (hesi pull-up jimbo, if you will) were unguardable in the halfcourt or transition and if you were average-sized for your position, Livingston would just post you up and take a tidy post-fade over you. Only three things are certainties in life: death, taxes, and Shaun Livingston post fades.
I once played a drinking game where we took a shot every time he made one of his signature middies – I didn’t show up to work on Monday
On the defensive end, he was quick enough to check opposing guards but his size fit perfectly into Kerr’s switching defense. He was tall and strong enough to hold his own against bigs and being larger than some wings meant the Warriors lost nothing in those matchups too. Throw Iguodala and Draymond into the mix, and there are almost no weak links on that end.
This versatility also meant he could play the one next to Klay Thompson or the two next to Steph. If either was in foul trouble or Kerr wanted to counter a certain matchup, the bench rotations stayed relatively similar.
In the playoffs, Livingston’s role remained the same, and he actually shot better in the playoffs than in the regular season. I don’t know anybody that wasn’t happy to see him win his first-ever NBA championship after everything he went through.
The following season, Steph expanded his game again, becoming the first-ever unanimous MVP and led the league in scoring with over 30 points per game. He played even fewer minutes this season and the Warriors were often winning by so much that he rested most fourth quarters.
Shaun Livingston upped his minute load, points per game, and his field goal percentage jumped nearly four percentage points, all in his age-30 season. His role in Golden State was so well-defined, it was perfect.
I love the backup point guard archetype and my favorite team had managed to sign the best backup point guard in the league. S.Dot could slide in, play to the pace of the game, or even make his own impact by finding his own shot. He did this for a Warriors team that went on to win an NBA-best 73 games.
73 isn’t possible without elite talent across the entire roster and Livingston was the best at what he did.
Twilight Dubs, featuring David West
After signing Kevin Durant in the 2016 offseason, days after losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, things were going to change.
The Warriors used to win games with their strength-in-numbers mantra, beating you with depth and versatility. After signing KD, the Warriors had to sacrifice some of their depth, and turn to cheap, ring-chasing veterans to fill out the roster.
Livingston, who was crucial to what they did on both ends, was a holdover from the previous team and he had to redefine himself once again. This time, it’d be much easier.
Steve Kerr liked to keep two of his superstars on the court at all times. It was usually Steph and KD or Draymond and Klay. Those four started and finished halves but Kerr had to find a combination of role players to fill the gaps with and without those guys.
It was much easier with one of the most versatile backups in the league.
Shaun could play with Steph or Klay and it wasn’t hard to fit alongside Durant, who could score regardless of who was out there with him. He also paired nicely with Draymond as the two caused major issues for opposing offenses.
As an assistant coach, Luke Walton was always effusive in his praise for the Warriors’ bench unit. There was a time in history when Livingston and Walton actually shared the court together and made a pretty juicy bench combo themselves.
These atypical bench combos (that were interesting enough for ESPN’s Zach Lowe to make a segment out of it) became a staple of Livingston’s time in Golden State.
Despite the big names and impressive scorers on the roster like KD, Steph, and Klay, Shaun still did what he did best and the bench unit was killer.
The two-man combination of Iguodala and Livingston was an impressive plus-10.2 in over 700 minutes in 2016-17 while he and David West were plus-6.1 in just under 600 minutes. In the same season, the Warriors had the fifth-most effective bench in the league per Hoops Stats despite only Livingston and Iggy making more than the minimum salary.
David West was the ideal complement to Livingston in the twilight of their careers. Both had played for over a decade and found perfect roles as veterans that outsmarted their opponents and out-shot them with feathery, textbook jumpers.
If you wanted to help of either of their post-ups, they knew just where to cut to get an open look at the rim. If Shaun was drawing attention in the post and the cut was covered, West was one of the best mid-range shooters in the league and provided an easy outlet.
Shaun won two more titles while anchoring the Dubs bench with D.West and by the time he was finished, he wasn’t the guy with the gruesome knee injury, he was an elite backup on some of the best teams to ever exist. And boy was it fun to watch.