Few player-team alliances in sports history can claim to be as pleasantly surprising and mutually beneficial as the two-year marriage between JaVale McGee and the Warriors.
It was the kind of pairing that caused more than a few folks around the sports landscape to wonder. Why would the nouveau riche Warriors, after zooming into the NBA elite, bother with such an established hoops bungler?
Two years later, the Warriors are two-deep in championship parades and McGee has two championship rings, with his popularity at an all-time high and eight years of derisive graffiti scrubbed from his image.
The relationship officially ended Sunday, to the disappointment of considerable segment of fans, when McGee agreed to a one-year deal with the Lakers, as reported by ESPN’s Chris Haynes.
The unofficial end came on June 8, after Game 4 of the NBA Finals in Cleveland. McGee started and played 16 minutes of good basketball, finishing with 6 points (3-of-4 shooting from the field), three rebounds, one block and some perimeter defense that may be described as “inspirational” insofar as it came from a 7-footer.
McGee was plus-21 in a game the Warriors won by 23 (108-85) to take the series. He dived into the postgame celebration, grinning as if he were paid in gold to do so and telling everyone how he enjoyed this team, this championship and this life.
“Coming to the Warriors was definitely a blessing,” he said. “I came on a (non-guaranteed contract), contributed, and we won the championship. Then this year was kind of rocky for me also, just playing time-wise, but we all were grinding. We all came through and back-to-back. That's just an amazing feeling.”
McGee, 30, surely had an idea that this, barring an unforeseen turn of events, would be his last party with this bunch. He knew the Warriors were edging toward a future that looked less like him and more like young centers Jordan Bell and Damian Jones.
From All-Star Draymond Green, McGee learned the importance of communicating. From All-Stars Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, McGee learned that marquee players could be, needed to be, selfless for the sake of the greater good. He learned from fellow big men David West and Zaza Pachulia that being a professional means being ready even when you might not be needed.
“That I’m a part of it, being behind the scenes and seeing how unselfish these guys are, is amazing,” McGee said after Game 4 of The Finals. “I'm just so happy I got to be a part of two back-to-back championships with four All-Stars who are as unselfish as they are.”
McGee played 171 games, playoffs included, starting 37, for which he was paid about $2.67 million. Though he wasn’t perfect, not even close, he gave the Warriors much more than his salary would suggest. The Warriors gambled and won. Big.
Yet McGee may have gotten the better end of the deal. He got his dignity. The laughter and ridicule that preceded his arrival are, for the most part, relegated to history. He became a favorite of Warriors fans, with cult status. His career was resurrected.
The two seasons during which McGee was a Warrior delivered as much jewelry as joy, as little consternation as calamity. Everybody won. It gets no better than that.