Long before the 3-point avalanches, the quick-strike fast breaks, the game-breaking third quarters and the annual trips to The Finals — before the Warriors became the Warriors — Golden State was nearly synonymous with failure.
That was more or less the case for the decades after the Warriors’ mid-1970s peak, which culminated with a surprising run to the NBA title in 1975. Hiccups of fun interrupted the misery along the way. Joe Barry Carroll and Sleepy Floyd snapped a nine-year playoff drought in 1987. “Run TMC” — the high-scoring trio of Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin — invigorated the fans base from 1989-91, although their run amounted to just one playoff series win. The “We Believe” Warriors of 2006-07 rocked the NBA with an upset of top-seeded Dallas in the first round, but that party train quickly ran aground in the Western Conference semifinals against Utah.
It is largely because those blips of success were so few and far between that they are remembered so fondly — and why this current dynasty has blind-sided the rest of the league.
How we got from the depressing “there” to the historic “here” is a series of steps carved from a combination of good fortune and the intelligence to take advantage of said fortune. Nail that combination enough times, and an NBA team can find itself built on a foundation of contention for years to come.
And man, did the Warriors nail it …
June 25, 2009
It’s unclear whom the Warriors expected to take with the No. 7 pick in the 2009 draft. What is clear is that they were headed toward using that pick on behalf of another team. Ironically, Golden State was negotiating with then-Suns general manager Steve Kerr to trade their pick and a package of players to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for All-Star forward Amar’e Stoudemire.
Both teams were forced to wait until Minnesota used its back-to-back picks (Nos. 5 and 6). When the Timberwolves chose a pair of point guards not named Stephen Curry (Jonny Flynn and Ricky Rubio), the Suns draft room erupted in cheers. So did the Warriors, who quickly canceled the advanced trade talks in order to keep the future two-time Kia MVP.
“I think we felt like from our side that if Steph dropped to seven where they were picking that we were going to get a deal done,” Kerr reflected years later. “That’s what it felt like.”
Of course, Kerr eventually did get his man. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves …
April 14, 2011
Bob Myers grew up a Warriors fan in Oakland before earning respect as a professional agent during his adult career. But even with those credentials — and a few kind words delivered by Danny Ainge — Myers later admitted he “fully expected to be denied” when he approached Warriors owner Joe Lacob in 2010 about possibly working for the team.
Lacob, however, was intent on permanently changing the culture around Golden State. He pegged Myers as a central figure in that process and hired him to eventually succeed then-general manager Larry Riley. That succession took place just one year later, cementing Myers as a leading decision-maker for a dynasty that was just beginning to take shape.
June 23, 2011
Golden State missed on its 2010 first-round pick (Ekpe Udoh at No. 6), but it recovered by selecting future All-Star Klay Thompson at No. 11 the following summer.
The decision was not universally lauded as the Warriors already had Curry and Monta Ellis in the backcourt. But Golden State ignored 1) the appeal of best fit via defensive-minded forwards like Marcus Morris or Kawhi Leonard and 2) San Antonio’s last-minute efforts to trade up for Thompson.
Luck played a role here, as well. The three teams drafting immediately before the Warriors all opted for other sources of backcourt scoring.
March 13, 2012
Ellis or Curry?
The answer wasn’t nearly as clear in the moment as it is in hindsight. Ellis, a key member of that beloved “We Believe” squad of 2007, was averaging more than 20 points per game for the third consecutive season. Plus, he was just 26 years old.
Curry’s ankles, meanwhile, had already shown significant signs of being injury prone, reducing him to just 26 games in 2011-12.
Those ankles, however, wound up being a blessing in hindsight. Riley later reflected that Curry’s injuries might have scared off Milwaukee, which ultimately accepted a trade package of Ellis and Udoh in exchange for defensive-minded center Andrew Bogut.
The trade cemented Curry as Golden State’s lead guard while simultaneously fortifying a porous frontcourt — a winning formula the Warriors have relied on ever since.
May 30, 2012
Again, luck matters, and it might never have mattered more for the Warriors as we know them than on this date. Golden State owed a top-seven protected pick after acquiring Marcus Williams from New Jersey in 2008. The Nets then conveyed that Warriors pick to Utah in 2011 as part of the Jazz’s trade for All-Star point guard Deron Williams.
Golden State, however, was desperate to ensure the pick remain in their hands. On April 26, 2012 — the final night of the season — the Warriors ran out a starting lineup of Chris Wright, Jeremy Tyler, Mickell Gladness, Charles Jenkins and Thompson against the San Antonio Spurs. Golden State’s 107-101 loss assured it of the league’s seventh-worst record heading into draft lottery.
The lottery balls did the rest on May 30, and the Warriors found themselves remaining at No. 7 — allowing them to keep what would be a franchise-altering Draft pick.
June 28, 2012
While Curry and Thompson get the headlines and nicknames (see: “Splash Brothers”), the players selected in the 2012 draft helped define the modern-day Warriors as much as anyone else.
Golden State pounced on North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes at No. 7, giving them a slash-and-shoot forward to complete their perimeter rotation.
The Warriors then completed one of the most difficult tasks in the NBA by hitting on not one, but two picks outside the lottery. Golden State took Vanderbilt big man Festus Ezeli at No. 30 and Michigan State prospect Draymond Green at No. 35.
Ezeli would go on to become a valuable backup behind Bogut during the Warriors’ first championship run in 2014-15. Green, meanwhile, was a future All-Star hidden in the kind of 6-foot-7 frame that was once dubiously dubbed as a “tweener” build — too slow to play on the perimeter but not tall enough to man the paint.
Instead, Green used his skill and instincts to become one of the most versatile players in the league. But again, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Oct. 31, 2012
After choosing to make Curry a vital part of the franchise just seven months earlier, the Warriors were determined to make that decision long term.
They did not do so blindly, however. Golden State was well aware of Curry’s ankle issues, which had required two arthroscopic surgeries. The 6-foot-3 guard had sprained his ankle again just 12 days earlier.
The risk was clearly worth it for the Warriors, who ultimately offered Curry a four-year extension worth roughly $44 million.
“For our group, the consensus was, yeah, we might be wrong in that he might not be healthy and he might not reach his full potential,” Myers reflected years later. “But let’s bet on him. And if we’re wrong, we’re wrong.”
They weren’t. Curry wound up winning back-to-back Kia MVP awards on that contract. More importantly, his salary allowed Golden State to create cap space that would pay off handsomely down the road.
July 10, 2013
By now, Golden State was viewed as a Western Conference up-and-comer. The young Warriors, in their second playoff appearance since 1994, had pushed the Spurs to six games in the 2013 West semis.
Now they had their eye the kind of veteran presence they had just seen up close in the playoffs: then-Denver Nuggets swingman Andre Iguodala. The former All-Star was just as eager to join move to the Bay Area, but the Warriors were strapped for cap room and found few avenues through which to create any.
Finally, with Iguodala on the verge of signing with Dallas, the Warriors completed a three-team trade that allowed them to dump salary at the cost of four draft picks (two first-rounders and two second-rounders).
The price was steep, but it helped Golden State secure a selfless, defense-first presence that ultimately unlocked the position-less lineups that have broken opposing gameplans for four seasons running.
May 19, 2014
New York or Oakland?
That was the choice facing Steve Kerr, a former NBA player, general manager and TNT NBA analyst who was now readying for the coaching phase of his career. He had his pick between the Warriors and the Knicks, with the latter boasting his own former coach and Hall-of-Famer Phil Jackson as team president.
Jackson’s pull, however, ultimately wasn’t enough against Golden State’s young core, contract offer or proximity to Kerr’s San Diego home. All of those factors helped net the man who would eventually help unlock the Warriors’ shooting and passing to their full, devastating extent.
Oct. 24, 2014
Injuries are never good in a vacuum, but their ripple effects can sometimes lead to surprisingly positive adjustments. Such was the case on this night, when starting forward David Lee came up hobbling with a strained hamstring in a preseason game.
The injury forced Kerr to start Green at power forward to begin the 2014-15 campaign. Though the former second-round pick had shown flashes in his first two seasons, no one expected the Swiss Army knife of defense, passing and competitiveness Green became once unleashed. His promotion became permanent, and is viewed as one of the key turning points of Golden State blossoming from good to great.
Feb. 13, 2015
A massive new television deal for the NBA meant more money for everyone. The league, however, attempted to smooth the projected spike of incoming cash over several years so as to avoid a temporary — and ultimately significant — blip in the salary cap. On this date, the National Basketball Players Association rejected two smoothing proposals from the league.
This meant that the bulk of the incoming money would be injected all at once in the summer of 2016. Two consequences emerged from this development:
- Members of the 2016 free agent class would find themselves in a market flush with cash and teams eager to spend it.
- Teams that would have already used all their cap space would find themselves flush with enough new money to sign another player of significant value — even if they were already stocked with expensive talent.
The second consequence wound up dramatically benefiting the soon-to-be-champion Warriors just 17 months later.
July 7, 2016
Fresh off a devastating Game 7 defeat to Cleveland in the 2016 Finals, Golden State was eager to bounce back in unprecedented fashion. The Warriors had their eyes set on adding league-altering talent to a group that was already good enough to win an NBA-record 73 games.
Kevin Durant witnessed that group up close in the Western Conference finals, where his Thunder squandered a 3-1 series lead to Curry (now a two-time Kia MVP) and the Warriors. Golden State’s playing style appealed to Durant, and more importantly, the league’s 2016 cap spike gave the Warriors enough money to sign him.
The former Kia MVP and four-time scoring champion took advantage of the rare opportunity, giving the Warriors an unprecedented collection of shooting and pure talent.
It’s important to note, however, that even the cap spike would not have been enough for the Warriors to sign Durant had Dallas not been willing to take on Bogut’s contract in exchange for a second-round pick.
Since then, the Warriors have reeled off consecutive NBA championships and are heavy favorites to win it all again in 2018-19. More dates of significance loom on the horizon, particularly as Durant and Thompson approach free agency next summer.
If the last few years are any indication, the Warriors are getting pretty good making the right call.
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