In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Golden State Warriors attempted to compete with a fun, high scoring, perimeter-oriented team, affectionately nicknamed Run TMC, a pun on the popular old rap group Run DMC. In this case the, “TMC” represented T(im Hardaway), M(itch Richmond), and C(hris Mullin). Hardaway, Richmond, and Mullin all scored over 22.9 ppg in 1990-91. This fun team scored a lot of points and even upset a much higher ranked Spurs team in the 1990-91 playoffs. Right before the 1991-92 season, Richmond was traded for rookie Billy Owens and Run TMC ended after only two seasons.
In the ensuing 26 years, Run TMC is remembered fondly. In 2017, Dennis Rodman asserted that Run TMC would have beaten the current Durant/Curry Warriors. I think it’s pretty safe to ignore Rodman’s analysis on most (or perhaps all) subjects but Run TMC has gotten a lot of credit over the years as innovators and a potential great team that was short-circuited too soon. In a recent article, Greg Bishop in Sport Illustrated wrote that though the Run TMC wasn’t great: “[t]o watch those Warriors and then watch these Warriors is to trace both the history of a franchise and the evolution of pro basketball.”
Was Run TMC an important evolutionary stage that got us to the NBA of 2017-18? Was Run TMC’s shot at glory short changed by the Richmond trade? Let’s take a look…
The Origins of Run TMC
The foundation of Run TMC was Chris Mullin, who was drafted in 1985. Mullin was a famed small forward and shooter at St. John’s who struggled a bit his first few years. In 1988, the Warriors drafted Richmond fifth overall to play shooting guard and named Don Nelson coach. In 1988-89, Mullin went from a decent player to full-fledged All-Star (26.5 PPG) and Richmond scored 22 ppg and won Rookie of the Year
Despite having two stars, the 1988-89 Warriors weren’t great (43-39). They weren’t even particularly good offensively (14th) and were actually better on defense (12th). They played at a fast pace (2nd) but the rest of the roster was filler (Winston Garland, Terry Teagle, Larry Smith, Rod Higgins, Manute Bol).
The Warriors were the seven seed in the playoffs and met the second seeded Utah Jazz (51-31). Somehow, the Warriors were able to sweep Utah in a big upset. Utah’s stars did great (Karl Malone put up 30.7 ppg, 16.3 rpg and John Stockton 27.3 ppg, 13.7 apg) and, at the time, Nelson called the sweep a “miracle.”
After the Warriors won the first two games in Utah, Sports Illustrated broke down the GS strategy: “Nelson’s road Warriors had twice run amok in the Salt Palace, flummoxing the Jazz with end-to-end offense and half-court traps in 123-119 and 99-91 victories….some teams go ‘small’ on offense, others play ‘big,’ and a few are deep enough to do both. With the lineup Nelson unveiled against Utah, Golden State proposed to play small, looking to isolate a quick player against a mismatched defender in open-court situations. To play big, as the Jazz does, is to structure an offense around a low-post, half-court set.… a team that plays big is vulnerable to an opponent that can set a disruptively fast tempo. But in the postseason, teams usually turn conservative, sticking to a half-court game in which size prevails. Not the Warriors. Nelson entered the Utah series determined not to permit the ritual downshifting.“
Nelson did employ some “stretch forward” tactics that are recognizable today. Rod Higgins, a journeyman small forward, played a lot at center and power forward and shot 6-17 from three against Utah, which was a ton of threes for that time (Higgins averaged 2.1 three attempts in the regular season and somehow put up 14 ppg and 10 rpg against Malone and Mark Eaton). Nellie even had Manute shoot a bunch of threes to stretch the defense, though that was not particularly successful (Bol went 2-12 that series). There were definitely some elements of modern NBA in that team but Richmond and Mullin were taking it to the basket and not shooting deep (they were a combined 2-6 from three but 43-48 from the line).
Essentially, Nellie was running and gunning to prevent Malone from posting them up every time and he would let his bigs shoot threes in the half court just to keep Eaton and Malone out of the paint on defense. In the next round, the Warriors were trounced 4-1 by a Phoenix team that was well-equipped to run with GS.
Enter the “T”
In the 1989 NBA draft, the Warriors nabbed Hardaway 14th overall. T-Hard immediately took the starting job from Garland and put up a solid season (14.7 ppg, 8.7 apg). Richmond and Mullin put up similar numbers in 1989-90 as well. As a whole, though, the Warriors were worse. They went 37-45 and missed the playoffs. The Warriors led the league in pace and the offense slightly improved (12th). The problem was that the defense cratered (26th).
The Short Peak
In 1990-91, the Warriors brought back the core. Mullin (25.7 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 4.0 apg, 21.4 PER) and Richmond (23.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 17.8 PER) had their usual great seasons. On top of that, Hardaway exploded as well (22.9 ppg, 9.7 apg, 20.9 PER), to make up 72.5 of the 116.6 points that GS scored per game (2nd in the NBA). The defense, which was bad in 1989-90 remained bad (23rd) but the offense became close to elite (6th in offense and 2nd in pace) and that improvement was good enough to push the Warriors back to the playoffs (44-38).
This didn’t seem like a particularly magical season until the playoffs, when GS was able to knock off of a second seeded Spurs that won 55 games with David Robinson, Terry Cummings, and Rod Strickland. As with Karl Malone and Utah in 1988-89, it seemed liked the Warriors would have no answer for Robinson and no shot of winning. In fact, the Warriors didn’t stop Robinson (25.8 ppg, .686 FG%, 13.5 rpg, 3.8 bpg) and the Spurs went to the line and out rebounded the Warriors fairly handily. GS still won 3-1. Nelson, again, used Higgins as a proto-stretch forward (he took three three-pointers per game in the series but shot only 3-12 from long range).
So, how did the Warriors beat the bigger and better Warriors? Run TMC played pretty much exactly to their regular season numbers and Nelson used an extremely small lineup by playing their three perimeter stars with backup shooting guard Sarunas Marciulionis, who played great (17.3 ppg in about 25 mpg) or Mario Elie as forwards. The Warriors also made some points back from deep. The Warriors shot 20-52 from three for the series versus a morbid 3-26 for the Spurs.
The Warriors went on to the second round to play the Magic Johnson Lakers and were dispatched 4-1 in an entertaining but not particularly competitive series. The Warriors tried the same strategy of leaving Higgins at the three-point line and playing Marciulionis with the Big Three but it didn’t work. The Lakers had Sam Perkins and A.C. Green who could chase Higgins around and Sarunas didn’t score as easily (Lakers starting center Vlade Dviac played only 16 mpg in the series as a result). On top of that, Byron Scott shot 8-10 from three in the series.
The Quick End of Run TMC
Run TMC had a nice a little run but the nickname and the exciting playing style seemed to resonate with the fans, who were excited to see if 1990-91 presaged something bigger for the Warriors. Right before the 1991-92 season, however, the Warriors traded Richmond to the Kings for rookie Owens, the versatile 6’9 forward out of Syracuse. Sports Illustrated wrote skeptically at the time that: “[e]vidently Nelson feels that Owens is good enough to take the Warriors to the next level. Maybe, but many others aren’t even sure Owens will be as good as Richmond.”
In 1995, Richmond admitted the trade was a huge disappointment, telling Sports Illustrated that he initially went “into a long funk” before accepting his lot. Richmond would go on to be an All-Star for years in Sacramento for a mostly lottery-mired Kings team. In the 2018 Sports Illustrated retrospective, Richmond attributed the traded to his friction with Nelson about defense and Richmond’s desire for a new contract. In that same article, Hardaway said that GS never was able to “recover from that [trade] to tell you the truth.”
But the facts don’t corroborate these memories. First, the nice 1990-91 season was really no different than the 1988-89 run, which was also nice but lacked a fun nickname like Run TMC. The Warriors running and match up issues bothered a good but not dominant team enough to steal a short series. It was clear that the Warriors needed some bigger players and that they had a glut of backcourt players. So, trading from the glut made sense. Moreover, Richmond was the right candidate trade. Check the stats for the guards of 1990-91:
-Mullin, age 27: 40.4 mpg, 25.7 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 4.0 apg 21.4 PER, 12.2 WS, 4.5 BPM, 5.4 VORP
-Richmond, age 25: 39.3 mpg, 23.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 3.1 apg, 17.8 PER, 7.1 WS, 1.0 BPM, 2.3 VORP
-Hardaway, age 24: 39.2 mpg, 22.9 ppg, 4.0 apg, 9.7 apg, 20.9 PER, 9.9 WS, 4.0 BPM, 4.9 VORP
-Marciulionis, age, 26: 19.7 mpg, 10.9 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 1.7 apg, 16.3 PER, 2.5 WS, -0.4 BPM, 0.4 VORP
With Elie and Sarunas emerging, Richmond was replaceable and his raw stats overrated his contribution. The real legitimate question was whether the Warriors cashed in enough by grabbing Owens, who was considered a hot prospect. Probably not.
Richmond wasn’t missed in 1991-92
Regardless, the Warriors didn’t seem to miss Richmond in the least in 1991-92. GS busted out to 55-27 with the same great offense. With Owens, the defense went from gross to merely bad (20th). The 1991-92 squad was, by far, the best Warriors team between Rick Barry’s 1975-76 squad and the Curry title teams. Owens was fairly effective (14.3 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 2.4 apg in 31.4 MPG) and Sarunas put up pretty good numbers (29.4 mpg, 18.9 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 3.4 apg, 18.8 PER, 6.4 WS, 0.9 BPM, 1.6 VORP).
The Warriors went into the playoffs as a three-seed, finally having home court and not trying to upset a 50-win team. Ironically, the Warriors drew another young, match up nightmare in the George Karl Sonics. Karl had an athletic team that could chase around the Warriors small lineup and Shawn Kemp dunked all over the smaller GS team . The Sonics won the series 3-1.
The Warriors drafted Latrell Sprewell after the season but they slumped in 1992-93 when Mullin, Hardaway, Sarunas, and Owens all struggled with injuries. This led to nabbing Chris Webber in the draft and a very nice 1993-94 for GS. That team fell apart but that is a story for another day.
Did Run TMC lead to the modern NBA?
Well, yes and no. The Warriors did shoot more threes than the typical early 1990s NBA team and they did use Rod Higgins as a stretch forward. Still, Run TMC only showed vestiges of the modern teams. The Warriors were sixth in the NBA in threes (270-801) and they didn’t shoot them particularly well (.337%). In fact, Mullin shot a terrible .301% from three. In addition, the Warriors did not show the ball movement of the modern teams. The current Warriors have led the NBA in the assists almost every season since 2014-15. Run TMC was more of a one-on-one isolation team (18th in the NBA in assists in 1990-91). Really, the team that shot threes and had better ball movement back in 1990-91 was the Blazers, who were a much better team and played much closer in style to the current Warriors. Give Run TMC credit for playing a modern(ish) style with Higgins but to say they were an important factor in the NBA’s the current style is, pardon the pun, a bit of a stretch.
The real lesson: the facts don’t match the retrospective hype
27 years later, Run TMC is remembered fondly and sort of sadly as a missed opportunity. This memory (and that of Run TMC) is mostly inaccurate. Run TMC was a fun all-offense team and they did nice work exploiting mismatches with Higgins in a very modern fashion. But those Warriors were never even remotely close to a title with this team. Trading Richmond had no effect on the future (Sarunas was nearly as good in 1991-92 and Sprewell would also be better thereafter) and the Warriors played better without Richmond. I don’t point this out to crap on the fond memories of Run TMC or to disparage Richmond, who was a very good player, but it’s clear that some recent retrospectives have indulged in a bit too much mythos.