2017 NBA Draft

On the Clock: Q&A with former Golden State Warriors GM Larry Riley

Man who drafted Stephen Curry in 2009 reflects on night that changed franchise, NBA

Larry Riley is forever a Golden State Warriors hero for standing firm in June 2009 against the logic they should flip the seventh pick for a veteran and certainly against much of his own roster. Golden State already had the popular Monta Ellis at point guard, Amar’e Stoudemire was a trade possibility after just averaging 21.4 points and 8.1 rebounds for the Phoenix Suns, and good luck finding many people in the Bay Area who could come within 1,000 miles of picking out Davidson on a map. But Riley as general manager was steadfast.

He wanted Stephen Curry.

The decision changed a franchise and a league, that’s all, how Curry went to Oakland, fought through ankle problems that threatened to ruin a career that had barely started, and turned into an international star now in his third straight Finals.

The Warriors were picking seventh. Blake Griffin (LA Clippers), Hasheem Thabeet (Memphis Grizzlies), James Harden (Oklahoma City Thunder), Tyreke Evans (Sacramento Kings), Ricky Rubio (Minnesota Timberwolves) and Jonny Flynn (Timberwolves) had been taken. Curry was on the board right about where projected going into June 25, 2009, in the middle of the lottery, with Jordan Hill (New York Knicks), DeMar DeRozan (Toronto Raptors), Brandon Jennings (Milwaukee Bucks), Terrence Williams (New Jersey Nets), Gerald Henderson (Charlotte Bobcats), Tyler Hansbrough (Indiana Pacers) and Earl Clark (Phoenix Suns) to follow in the top 14.

In Oakland, events had broken perfectly.

On the clock: Kiki Vandeweghe

On the clock: Jerry West

On the clock: John Hammond

NBA.com: What was your Draft board that night?

Larry Riley: Had we had the No. 1 pick, we would have screwed up and missed on Steph Curry because we would have taken Blake Griffin. I did, however, at the press conference when we brought Steph Curry in and introduced him, I did stand up, and Raymond (Ridder, the team vice president of communication) probably got it on record. I said, “I think Steph Curry’s the second-best player in the Draft and I would have picked him No. 2 and Steph Curry will set out to prove me wrong, that he should have been No. 1.”

I’ve never forgotten that and it’s interesting that it turned our pretty much that way. Our board would have had Blake No. 1. I didn’t like Thabeet. Candidly, I didn’t like Jonny Flynn. The choice would have been, I suppose, whether we would have maybe taken Harden or Curry if that kind of a scenario had presented itself where we were No. 3 or 4. That would have also been a choice to make. I would have been leaning toward Curry. I wasn’t a Tyreke Evans fan. I call him a manufactured point guard. You can make the argument the same way with Curry.

There were a lot of people who argued that Curry was a shooting guard, was a two. We saw him as a one. Do you remember when Tyreke was at Memphis? They put him in as a point guard and made him a point guard. That didn’t seem quite to be his natural position, although it worked quite nicely for them. And of course he’s had a great career and he was the Rookie of the Year. But we would have had Curry No. 2. It would have been a race between he and Harden, but I would have been leaning in that direction. We never felt we had to face that scenario because we really thought Harden would be gone and we weren’t at No. 3 anyway so we’re talking about things that weren’t very plausible.

NBA.com: What did you think the chances were that Steph would be there at seven?

LR: I really thought he would be gone. Jonny Flynn saved the day when Minnesota picked him. It was hard to read what was going on in Minnesota and therefore I wasn’t quite sure.

We had gotten word the day before the Draft that they actually were going to take Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn. I was having trouble believing it, but I did get it from a pretty good source. So the day before the Draft we begin to think, “OK, there is some chance.” Previous to that, I didn’t think so.

That’s what spurred all of the conversations about trading the No. 7 pick. And there were numerous conversations with various teams. Atlanta finally gave up, because Atlanta wanted Curry, and they knew that if Curry was available we were taking him and we weren’t trading him. I was also talking to Phoenix a great deal. There’s a story in Phoenix that keeps circulating that we actually welched on a deal, which isn’t true and I think Steve Kerr (the Suns’ general manager at the time, now Warriors coach) finally addressed that a couple of different times. The reason for continuing those discussions was that the next guy on our board was Jordan Hill and I wasn’t comfortable with the fact that that’s the guy we would end up with, so at that point I would have been comfortable trading the pick. But I was never comfortable trading it if it was Steph Curry.”

NBA.com: Did you have a trade in place if Steph was not available?

LR: I did not.

NBA.com: So it hadn’t gotten to the point where you guys said, “We’ll do this deal with Atlanta if Steph is gone” or “We’ll do this deal with another team if Steph is gone”?

LR: There was nothing in place. What would have happened is we would have had to try to do a Draft-day deal and see if we could get something done. But all that time leading up to that Draft we never got to the point where there was a deal in place, whether Steph was there or he was not there. If he was there it wasn’t an issue because we were keeping him. If he wasn’t there I didn’t have a deal in place, and I was a little bit concerned that we might end up with Jordan Hill.

The first pick, Ricky Rubio. OK. No big deal. That’s what you expect. … When they picked Jonny Flynn it was just an absolute sigh of relief for all of us.”

Larry Riley, on his thoughts during Draft night 2009

When I got the information that Minnesota was actually taking two point guards, I didn’t relax because you don’t believe it until you see it. But I did get it from a source that I believed in and I thought, “Well, there’s a good chance now.” You often look at what would have happened if you hadn’t gotten Curry. The second one is what would have happened if you hadn’t gotten Klay Thompson in that (2011) Draft? Who would the next guy have been? And it’s equally interesting to look at all the guys taken in front of Klay Thompson. There is some of those guys that you scratch your head. Derrick Williams was No. 2 and I think Jimmer Fredette was taken right in front of him (Editor’s note: He was). It’s crazy. Then I look at who we would have taken had Klay not been available. As I recall, it probably would have been Markieff Morris.

NBA.com: Give me your gut as you recall it. Steph is gone. He’s off the board. What do the Warriors do? Do you think you make the Jordan Hill pick or do you think that there is a trade that you guys like? Take me through the What If, if Steph had not been there.

LR: Atlanta wouldn’t have made the deal with us for Jordan Hill, for example. They were only interested if it was Curry. As it turns out, it was the same discussion with Phoenix. I was hopeful that if he was gone that I could get Phoenix to say, ‘OK, well we’ll take the No. 7 pick and we’ll take Jordan Hill” or whoever they wanted. But that was very, very doubtful because their target was Curry all along. I think what would have happened was we would have taken Jordan Hill and dealt with the issue that he wasn’t filling a particular need at that time. But we would have probably taken him and then we would have gone forward with trying to trade him or we would have just said, “OK, we’ve got a rookie, let’s see what we’ve got” without the same level of confidence, of course.”

NBA.com: So the Draft starts and Blake Griffin goes No. 1, which everyone expected. Take me through the mood and the emotions in the Warriors’ Draft room as you’re going through pick two and three and it’s getting closer.

LR: Most teams of course do the same thing and you guys in the media do it also. You pretty much have a list of how you think the Draft is going to go. I was totally convinced that Thabeet was going to go fairly high because both Oklahoma City and Memphis liked him. Things went pretty much as planned. And then you get to Minnesota and that’s where the crunch is. You’ve got Thabeet and you’ve got Harden and then you’ve got Tyreke and Blake’s already been drafted.

Now, to us, the Draft starts right there because we were pretty confident that’s the way, in some order, those top four were going to go. Now you’re thinking, “OK, Minnesota is supposed to take two point guards.” The first pick, Ricky Rubio. OK. No big deal. That’s what you expect. The next pick is the one where you’re either going to breath a sigh of relief and really be happy that you have Curry or you’re going to say, “Oh, (shoot).” When they picked Jonny Flynn it was just an absolute sigh of relief for all of us.

Actually, we didn’t want Jonny Flynn anyway, so it was really a situation that was good for us. And the second thing was, once they picked Ricky Rubio, you scratch your head and say, “Now wait a minute. Would they really pick two point guards?” Which they did, but typically that doesn’t happen. So when they made the first pick of Rubio, you’re waiting for the next one. That’s when the hammer falls and you’re either in or out with what you want to do. There was just a big sigh of relief when that took place.

NBA.com: What was the exact reaction when the Minnesota pick at No. 6 of Jonny Flynn was announced?

LR: Our war room was different than some. I think some of that had to do with the group of guys that I had assembled as scouts. It was my personality. I’m not going to be jumping up and down at much of anything. So while there was relief and I probably hit the table and said, “All right, we’re in” or something like that, everybody knew that there was a sigh of relief. But nobody jumped out of their seat. There weren’t a lot of high fives or anything like that, but everybody’s looking at each with a gleam in their eye, saying, “OK, we’re in good shape here.”

NBA.com: Do you think back to that night often when you see how things have developed with Steph? Or only when somebody else brings it up to you like this?

LR: I don’t think about it all that much, but he’s gotten so popular that it comes up all the time. It’s not like “I don’t think about it, it never comes up.” It comes up so much that maybe I don’t even have time to think about it. Somebody else always brings it up.

NBA.com: It’s a night that basically not only changed the direction of one franchise, but, really, the entire league.

LR: You said that correctly. And a lot of people are now on board with saying it’s accurate. Here’s a young kid that came out of Davidson and he’s really changed what the NBA is all about. The NBA is tremendously lucky, as are the Warriors, to have someone of his personality and his skill level that you can market. What greater thing can you have going on than to have a guy like him as a dominant player in the league…?

NBA.com: And that he’s doing it for the Warriors.

LR: That’s the great thing, yeah. That he’s doing it for the Warriors.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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