A Crossover of Eras
Run TMC's Continued Influence on the Warriors and the NBA at Large
by Brian Witt
They never finished higher than fourth place in the division. They won just a single playoff series, and never came close to sniffing an NBA Finals. And yet, the Run TMC teams at the turn of the 90's solidified a spot in the hearts and minds of Bay Area and basketball fans through their revolutionary style and breakneck pace, which forever altered how the game is played today.
This coming Sunday, the Golden State Warriors will take on the Memphis Grizzlies at Oracle Arena, and do so while donning their Crossover jerseys for the sixth of seven times this season. Just as the bridge depicted on the team's official logo could be interpreted as the structural link between the communities that form the franchise's local fan base, the Crossover jerseys are an ode to the tie that binds the current team to one of the most adored eras of Warriors' lore. The uniforms feature the very same diagonal lettering worn by the team then, mixed with the color scheme and design of the jerseys the team wears on the road now.
It was a short-lived era, to be sure. They played only two seasons together and compiled a record of just 81-83. But Run TMC's impact on the franchise persisted long after its abrupt conclusion, and their influence continues on in the Warriors' team of today – and not just through the retro uniforms that harken back to the days of Tim, Mitch and Chris.
Chris Mullin was the first to arrive, joining Golden State as the seventh overall pick in the 1985 NBA Draft. The All-American with the thick Brooklyn accent forged from his days playing pickup on Flatbush Avenue would see his scoring average jump from 14.0 to 15.1 to 20.2 points per game in his first three seasons with the franchise before being joined by the next two incremental figures of Run TMC, Don Nelson and Mitch Richmond. Nelson, the NBA's all-time leader in coaching victories, began the first of his two tenures as the Warriors' head coach the following offseason, and used the fifth overall pick of the 1988 NBA Draft to select Richmond out of Kansas State. Nelson's run-and-gun style suited Richmond perfectly, and the two-guard would go on to capture Rookie of the Year honors after averaging 22.0 points per game. The following offseason, the final piece of what would become the famous trio known as Run TMC was acquired when Golden State selected Tim Hardaway and his 'killer crossover' with the 14th overall pick of the 1989 Draft.
The Warriors went 37-45 and missed the playoffs in the 1989-90 season, but the team was already displaying the characteristics that would come to define the Run TMC era. Golden State led the league in both scoring average and pace of play that season, and Hardaway, Richmond and Mullin had combined for 61.9 of their league-leading 116.3 points per game. The trio, alongside other cult favorites like Manute Bol, Sarunas Marciulionis and Tom Tolbert, made Golden State nightly can't-miss television and a nightmare for opposing defenses.
"Big guys playing outside, small guys going inside, point forwards starting the offense," Hardaway recalled to NBA.com's Fran Blinebury in June 2015. "Around the league it was: 'What are you all doing? What is this about?' They didn't know how to even play against us. They didn't know how to discuss it. They didn't know how to plan for it. It was mind-boggling to the other team."
"People couldn't stop us. They couldn't scout us. They didn't know what we were doing because we didn't know what we were doing. If they went to the playbook, we'd be like 'what are you looking at?' Because we might have a playbook but we're not running them tonight. We're just running you."
A year later, the Run TMC Warriors cranked it up another notch. In the very first game of the 1990-91 season, Golden State defeated the Denver Nuggets by a score of 162-158, which remains the highest-scoring non-overtime game in league history. They'd go on to average 116.6 points per game that season, second-most in the league behind only those same Nuggets, and would finish with a record of 44-38, pitting them against the second-seeded San Antonio Spurs in a first round playoff series. The Warriors dropped Game 1 in San Antonio by a score of 130-121, but they had seen all they needed to see.
"I remember losing the first game and having a team meeting, and how confident Nellie was that we were going to win the series," Mullin recounted.
"He said, 'I found something. I found it. We're going to get them. We're gonna beat them.'"
Whatever Nelson had discovered, it worked. Golden State reeled off three-straight wins to upset the Spurs and claim the series in four games. They'd carry that momentum into the next round and earn a split on the road in the first two games against Magic Johnson, James Worthy and the vaunted Los Angeles Lakers. After prevailing in Game 2, the series transitioned back to Oakland, and Golden State was riding high. So high, in fact, that prior to the start of Game 3, the Warriors were introduced by Run DMC, the popular rap trio from whom the Run TMC moniker was derived from. Unfortunately for Golden State, that display may have backfired.
"As we won Game 2, we was excited to go home," Hardaway said. "But I think we kind of embarrassed them with Run DMC when they announced us…that wasn't the right thing to do."
Right or wrong, the Lakers responded in kind by earning a three-point victory in Game 3 and swept the remaining games in the series to knock Golden State out of the playoffs. It wasn't readily apparent at the time, but their defeat in Game 5 not only brought an end to the Warriors' postseason run, but an end to the Run TMC era in general. Tim, Mitch and Chris would never play together on the same team again.
Coming off their defeat at the hands of the Lakers, the prevailing sentiment was that Golden State needed to get larger in order to take the next step, and that set forth a series of events that would end the Run TMC era almost as quickly as it came together. Hours prior to the season-opener the following year, Richmond was traded to the Sacramento Kings along with other assets for rookie forward Billy Owens. It was a severe blow to Richmond, and a trade Nelson looks back on in infamy.
"It was the worst trade I've ever made. Mitch was a star. That's the one regret I have of my career."
Richmond remembered it being a tough time for him personally: "Felt like this was a family to me, and then to get traded, it was very difficult to handle."
The impact of the trade wasn't completely negative though, particularly in the immediate aftermath. Golden State increased its win total by 11 victories the following season to finish third in the conference before suffering a first round exit from the playoffs at the hands of the Seattle Supersonics. Meanwhile, Richmond continued his eventual Hall-of-Fame career in Sacramento, leading the Kings in scoring each of the next six seasons.
But the long-term effects of the trade were crippling. Following that season, the Warriors would post only one winning season and secure only one more playoff berth over the next 14 years.
When Golden State finally reached the postseason again in 2006-07, enough time had passed for Mullin, Richmond and Nelson to reunite with the franchise, but in considerably different capacities. Nelson was in his second term as head coach, while both Mullin and Richmond had rejoined the organization in front office roles. Later that year, Golden State became the first eighth seed ever to defeat a one-seed in a seven-game series, knocking out the 67-win Mavericks in six games. While they'd eventually go on to lose to Utah in the second round, the 'We Believe' movement reawakened the fan hysteria from Run TMC's heyday.
Fast forward ten years, and one realizes that much has changed. On the other hand, in many ways, the past lives on.
The Warriors are coming off back-to-back trips to the NBA Finals. They claimed the league's ultimate prize in 2015, have clinched three consecutive division titles and have posted four-straight 50-win seasons. On top of that, they added a four-time scoring champion and former league MVP in Kevin Durant this past offseason, which is one of the key pieces that connect this current Warriors team to Run TMC.
The perennial All-Star forward has combined with incumbent All-NBA guards Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson to form the franchise's most potent scoring trio since Run TMC's last hurrah. In the 1990-91 season, their final and most successful one together, Hardaway, Richmond and Mullin combined for 72.5 points per game. At the time, that ranked as the second-highest combined total in league history for three teammates that all averaged at least 20 points per game.
"It was just a fun time because we didn't have a problem scoring. Nellie would come into the locker room and say, 'Hey, the first one to 125 wins the game.' We were like, okay, we gotta get to 125."
Care to take a guess as to how many combined points Curry, Thompson and Durant are averaging in the current season?
That's right. Precisely 72.5.
Only two teams since 1990-91 have averaged at least 116 points per game, and both of them have resided in Golden State. One was the '91-'92 Warriors, and the other is the one taking on the Grizzlies on Sunday night. Just like Run TMC, both of those teams ranked in the top-two in the league in pace of play that particular season.
But the similarities between the Warriors teams of then and now aren't limited to their respective triumvirates of scoring talents, nor the breakneck speeds at which they'd operate. There's also a link between the men at the helms.
"On a given night, Nellie would give us the freedom to go out there and play, if we played the right way," Mullin recalled. "In the locker room he'd say, 'You know what guys, tonight I'm going to call no plays. As long as you guys are sharing the basketball, playing the right way...no plays.' And that was an incentive for us to get out there and do just that."
Nelson's genius was equal parts innovation and opportunity. He understood the types of players that comprised his roster, and developed a game plan designed to maximize their skill sets, regardless of how departed from the norm it was. As Mullin so delicately put it during his Hall-of-Fame induction speech in 2011, "Who else would encourage Manute Bol to shoot three-point shots?"
Very few have had the audacity to employ such a philosophy, but it worked for Nelson and Run TMC, and the primary ball handler on that squad sees a similarity in how Steve Kerr and the current Warriors go about their business.
"What coach Steve Kerr is doing is, if you have the open shot, take the open shot," Hardaway said. "That's what Nellie was about. This team is unique in what they have right now."
Just like Nelson, Kerr has emphasized a movement-oriented offense, replete with passing and spacing. The Dubs led the league in assists in the first two years of his tenure, and are well on pace to do so again for a third-straight season.
Kerr and the Warriors have been at the forefront of an ongoing transformation of the modern game, in which offensive numbers across the league – including points, assists and pace – are at their highest mark in decades. The average NBA team is scoring 105.5 points per game this season according to Basketball Reference, which is the highest league scoring average since – you guessed it – the 1990-91 season that coincided with Run TMC's peak. In many ways, the same tenets of Run TMC's offensive philosophy are at the root of this league-wide explosion.
"They were a nightmare to guard," Kerr says of Run TMC. "They pushed the pace relentlessly. They were probably a little ahead of their time, you know, with small ball. Nellie was really the guy that invented small ball in the league, even before Run TMC with Milwaukee, so the Warriors were a perfect team for him."
"Point guard dominant offenses are a common theme around the league now, and Nellie did that with Tim," he continued. "A lot of high screens, and a lot of pushing the pace and three-pointers off the dribble. You see that all over the league now."
Hardaway has witnessed the offensive resurgence firsthand as a member of the Detroit Pistons coaching staff. Mullin and Richmond, on the other hand, have reunited as the head and lead assistant men's basketball coaches at Mullin's alma mater, St. Johns University.
In these ways, Run TMC remains connected to both each other and the NBA at large. In turn, the Crossover jerseys the Warriors have worn this season have kept Run TMC's memory alive and well within the franchise and fanbase.
"You know, we didn't win championships together," Mullin said. "We only played three years together. But we had a lot of fun, and we drove a lot of people crazy because we played a crazy style…Wish we would have done a little more, but for that little three-year period, man, we had a ball."
"It was the most fun I ever had playing basketball."