These were not the Warriors we knew from years past
November 3rd, 2019.
On one side of the court, the Charlotte Hornets took their places for the opening tip. They were young and gutsy, but nobody expected anything out of them this year. On the other stood the mighty Golden State Warriors. Their accomplishments were legendary. Three NBA championships in four years, five straight finals appearances, the best regular season team in NBA history.
But while the front of those proud Warriors jerseys were familiar, the backs were definitively not. No Curry. No Durant. No Thompson or Green or even Iguodala. Instead, the names on the iconic royal blue and golds read very differently. Paschall. Bowman. Poole. Cauley-Stein. Robinson III.
This was not the Warriors team of old. In fact, on this particular night, they had only one active player who was even on the previous year’s Western Conference champion roster.
The Warriors will have one active player tonight who was on the roster last year. That player (Damion Lee) was 14th in minutes on last year’s squad.
— Brady Klopfer (@BradyKlopferNBA) November 2, 2019
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If it wasn’t clear to even the most casual of NBA fans by this point, or if the 1-win, 5-loss start to the season wasn’t enough or their place at the bottom of the standings, these were not the Warriors we knew from years past.
Rome was burning.
And even if you knew this was coming—the good times were never going to last forever and that historic run would have to end at some point—nobody expected the fall to come so hard, so fast. Before dissecting all the ways things fell apart, the team deserves a look back to their past greatness.
The Glory Days
Back in the early 2010s, the Warriors were building a team organically, by drafting smart and developing their own players. “Built, Not Bought” was a slogan back then, and they were doing it the right way.
They took a flyer on Stephen Curry with the 7th pick of the 2009 draft. Early in his career, he was viewed as an undersized prospect with limited athletic ability and unreliable ankles. In a few years’ time, we would know him as the greatest shooter in the history of the NBA and the league’s first-ever unanimous MVP winner.
In 2011, they drafted Klay Thompson with the 11th pick in the draft. A year later, they selected Draymond Green in the second round of the draft at 35th overall. Like Steph, both would wildly outperform expectations. Klay became a five-time All-Star and two-time All-NBA team selection. He holds the NBA record for most three-pointers in a single game (14) and the most points in a single quarter (37).
Draymond emerged as a three-time All-Star and two-time All-NBA selection and one of the most unique players in the game, a genius defensive anchor who could guard any position.
They also added veterans through trades and free agency, like one-time All-Star Andre Iguodala, who gladly accepted an unconventional role that saw him become a sixth man but also a Finals MVP.
All this to say, the Warriors were once likable. Curry and Thompson’s unbelievable shooting prowess changed the geometry of the game. The team was sharing the ball in new ways. They were so much fun to watch, and easy to root for and good.
The Warriors won their first Larry O’Brien trophy in 2015. The next season they fell short to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the finals, but not before making history by netting the best regular season record in NBA history at 73-8.
The Warriors organization was so good at its job that—coming off one championship, two finals appearances and the best record in history—they entered the 2016-17 offseason with enough cap space to add a max contract player. That big fish ended up being Kevin Durant.
KD was considered by many to be the second-best player in the league, behind only LeBron. He was a former MVP and four-time NBA scoring champion.
This was peak Warriors. They got revenge on LeBron and his Cavs that year with Durant outplaying James in the Finals. Then they did even better the next year, sweeping the Cavs, 4-0, in a less than competitive rematch despite a Herculean effort from LeBron.
The party looked like it would never end.
The next offseason, they signed another All-Star, DeMarcus Cousins, to their talented roster. By June, they made it to the finals for a fifth consecutive time.
But, because of a stroke of NBA fortune (the weird Kawhi Leonard-San Antonio situation) that created a formidable Eastern Conference power armed with arguably the new best player in the league in Leonard and a spate of injuries to key Warriors players, the Golden State dynasty was denied one last championship before it all fell to pieces.
So after all that, how are the Warriors so bad this year? How can a team go from five straight finals to the worst record in the league (which they’ve held at some point in this season?)
The big one, of course, is Durant leaving.
He was in the final year of his contract with the Warriors, and in this era of player empowerment, it was always in his best interest to try the waters of free agency. But the uncertainty of his contract situation exposed some very real cracks in the Warriors’ foundation.
In November of 2018, Green and Durant had a heated late-game exchange during a loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. Reports said that Green questioned his commitment by bringing up his upcoming free agency. He was later suspended by the team and KD would later admit this altercation contributed to his decision to leave in the offseason.
But it wasn’t just this one incident that caused it. No, Durant also admitted that despite everyone’s best efforts, he was just never going to be one of the Warriors—not in the way that mattered to him.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, he said, “I’ll never be one of those guys. I didn’t get drafted there…Steph Curry, obviously drafted there. Andre Iguodala, won the first Finals, first championship. Klay Thompson, drafted there. Draymond Green, drafted there. And the rest of the guys kind of rehabilitated their careers there. So me? Shit, how you going to rehabilitate me…I got an MVP already. I got scoring titles.”
And sure, KD leaving was the big thing, but the truth is this Warriors dynasty was never a sure thing to last long in the first place. The very same system that allowed them to land a Durant was always going to bite them in the back eventually.
They were able to lock up their homegrown stars to team-friendly contracts, sure, but they also lucked into a serendipitous spike in the salary cap after the NBA signed some lucrative TV deals. That allowed them to amass the max contract space in the summer of KD.
But those early contracts were always set to expire, and they would have to pay each of their stars what they were really worth. That meant keeping this team together past this expiration date would be expensive.
And while the Warriors front office said they were willing to pay Durant what was necessary to keep him, it would have eventually cost them their depth.
They likely would have had to build a team of minimum contract guys around their stars. And with KD out for the season with an injury anyway, this season in particular would have maybe looked very similar with or without him on the roster.
And that’s the other factor here: injuries.
Heading into the season, people didn’t expect the Warriors to be title favorite, but people didn’t expect them to be out of the playoff picture either.
Thompson tore an ACL in last season’s finals and was expected to be out until the 2020 All-Star break. But no one expected Curry to break his hand only four games into the season. Or for Green to miss 10 games or D’Angelo Russell, to miss 12 games.
What’s clear, though, is that other teams are enjoying kicking the Warriors when they’re down. And right now at least, they are down.
Just a week and a half ago, they were at 5-24, worst in the league. They were on a five-game losing streak, and had dropped nine of their last 10. That game against Charlotte at the start of the article? They lost that by six points. Then, they lost to the Hornets again a month later, this time by 15.
“We went the bulk of the last five years beating up on pretty much everyone,” said Green. “Right now, it’s our turn to get beat up on. It’s kind of what’s going on.”
But just because the Warriors are down right now, doesn’t mean they will be for much longer.
There’s hope for the future. In the wake of Durant’s departure, they landed Russell, a one-time All-Star who’s only beginning to find his stride as a Warrior. He’s averaging 23.2 points this season—and he’s only 23 years old.
Second-rounder Eric Paschall was having himself a nice rookie season before a hip injury started to derail him. And they actually have good chances of getting a top-5 draft pick next season. Any and all of those could be nice long-term pieces or trade assets to make the team competitive sooner.
The Warriors core will be healthy again. Curry will come back and later Thompson will, too. And they’re coming back strong. And it’s likely they’ll be really good again, with moves available to them.
We might never see the return of peak Warriors. But the days of them being contenders? It might be too early to write that off just yet.
Words Mikkel Bolante
Art Alexandra Lara