It’s been a pretty fun NBA season so far. The Trade Deadline was awesome, the top of the East is wide open, and the top 10 teams in the West are tighter than ever before. There have been all kinds of dramatic sagas, from AD’s trade request to KD and Draymond arguing to Kyrie calling out Boston’s young guys. The league is as talented as ever, as popular as ever, and as entertaining as ever.
But there’s a shadow, a dark cloud looming over the entire NBA. Whatever happens this regular season, whichever East team can make it to the Finals, and whatever the Thunder, Nuggets, Rockets, and Lakers can do in the West… there is a superteam awaiting them. The Golden State Warriors, sitting at 40-15, have a starting lineup of FIVE all-stars. It’s the most talented lineup in basketball history. And it’s hard to see anyone beating them the way they’ve been playing. According to OddsShark, they’re -230 to win the title. That means you’d have to put down $230 to make a $100 profit on your bet on Golden State. They’ve got a 70% to win it all, going off that number.
There are many reactions to the Warriors’ talent and success. Many hate them, some blame Durant for signing there in 2016. Others give the front office credit for putting the team together. But how exactly did they put such a talented team together? Sure, there were lots of smart decisions by the front office. But as they say, “You’ve gotta be lucky to be good, and you’ve gotta be good to be lucky”.
1. They Drafted Incredibly Well
In 2011 Steph Curry was a scrawny 21-year old tweener guard from a mid-major college. He was a great shooter at Davidson, a tiny college in North Carolina which has only made the NCAA tournament 14 times in its entire history. Since 1970, all 11 appearances lasted exactly one game… except one year: 2008. Curry’s senior year, when he led them to the Elite 8. Curry scored one-third of Davidson’s points that season, averaging 25.9 of their 77.9.
Coming from such a small school, Curry wasn’t much of a draft prospect, and the Warriors took him 7th, behind the likes of Hashem Thabeet, Johnny Flynn, and a few players that are still in the NBA. Curry has become a 2-time MVP, the first-ever unanimous MVP, and the greatest shooter of all-time. Not bad.
Similarly, Klay Thompson also came from an hardly-prestigious basketball program, Washington State. He was picked 11th in the 2011 draft, behind Derrick Williams, Jimmer Fredette, and Jan Vesely. Now he’s made five straight all-star games, won two titles, and is widely regarded as one of the best defenders in the NBA and one of the greatest shooters of all time.
The third cornerstone of this dynasty was a bit of a different story. Draymond Green was a four-year player at Michigan State. One of the biggest programs in the country, Green was (like Curry and Thompson) considered a “tweener”, too small to play the four, but not quick enough to play the three. The Warriors snatched him with the 35th pick, and he’s become a defensive player of the year, and one of the league’s best all-around players, averaging 14 points, 10 rebounds, and 7 assists in his best season.
Drafting is a combination of preparation and luck. Scouting is huge and having the foresight to project different players, but there’s plenty of chance involved. Even the Warriors’ front office didn’t expect these three to become what they did. But the groundwork for any dynasty is laid through the draft. The reason Golden State could afford Durant is, among other things, their savvy drafting of the other three.
2. They traded Monta Ellis and committed to Steph and Klay (March 2012)
At the 2012 trade deadline, the Warriors made a big decision. They traded away their leading scorer, one of their franchise’s centerpieces over the past few years. Monta Ellis, 26 at the time, hurt his ankle in a moped crash the summer before. He was suspended 30 games without pay because moped-riding is prohibited by pretty much all NBA contracts. This soured the relationship a little, and there were questions about the fit with Curry, so Golden State shipped Ellis to Milwaukee for Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson. Bogut ended up being pretty good for the Warriors, but the real reason they unloaded Ellis was to clear the way for Klay Thompson.
As an ESPN article said at the time, “Ellis has been the Warriors’ main offensive threat, averaging 21.9 points. But Golden State struggled to win with the backcourt tandem of Ellis and Curry. The deal clears a spot for 6-foot-7 rookie Klay Thompson to take over at shooting guard, adding needed size to the starting backcourt.” And Klay added WAY more than size. He became the #2 option on a 73-win team.
Warriors fans didn’t like the trade at the time, and understandably so. Ellis had been their leading scorer the past three seasons. Ever since the 2008-09 “We Believe” team fell apart, Ellis was the cornerstone of the Warriors. The fans booed GM Joe Lacob at Chris Mullin’s jersey retirement ceremony, but they would come to regret their disapproval soon enough.
3. Steph Curry’s ankles held up (October 2012)
With his recent dominance, NBA fans forget the injury-riddled beginning of Stephen Curry’s career. NBA players can sign their rookie extension any time before their fourth season. In 2012, Curry’s fourth season was about to begin. He had only played 26 of the 66 games in the previous season, averaging 15 and 5, and he’d undergone arthroscopic surgery in each of the last two offseasons. Negotiations progressed all the way into the preseason, and with the clock ticking on his extension, Steph sprained his ankle again, in a preseason game. Golden State understandably couldn’t commit much money to such an injury-prone player.
They offered Curry a 4-year, $44 million contract, and told him they’d “set aside” max money for him next summer if he could stay healthy. Steph had a choice to make. Take the money now, or take the risk, and hope you can stay healthy and get max money after the season. Curry took the money. He signed the 4-year, $44 million deal, returned from his ankle sprain, and didn’t miss any more games that season, averaging 24 and 7. Curry hasn’t missed an all-star game since his that contract kicked in, and it quickly became THE biggest bargain in the league. That contract is one of the main reasons they could clear space for Kevin Durant in 2016, and Curry’s health is (obviously) vital to the Warriors’ success.
4. The Warriors missed out on Dwight Howard in Free Agency (July 2013)
In 2013, Dwight Howard as 27 years old. He was a beast in Orlando, then was traded to Los Angeles for a very weird season, and now he finally had the chance to choose his team and swing the balance of the NBA. At the time, Howard was widely considered one of the best players in the league. He averaged 27 and 12 the past season and had made seven straight all-star games.
This is a case of luck, not skill, by the Warriors front office. They really wanted Dwight and were closer than we may think. Lacob said, “We were a lot closer than people realize to perhaps that actually happening, (Howard) coming here. I think that is a testament to what is happening here. He was affected by the presentation that he saw by our ownership and our management.”
Howard chose Houston instead. As I mentioned, he was coming off 7 straight all-star seasons. Since, he’s 1 for 6, making it that year in Houston, but hasn’t since. It’s crazy to think how different things would look if the Warriors had Dwight’s huge contract stuck on their books from 2013-2018. Instead, they “settled” for Andre Iguodala… the 2015 Finals MVP.
5. Jerry West wouldn’t let them trade Klay Thompson for Kevin Love (June 2014)
The deal was as good as done. The Warriors had just lost to the Clippers in the first round. They had finished as the 6 seed the past two seasons, and couldn’t seem to break through in the playoffs. Steph Curry had a breakout year, averaging 24, 8, and 5, and earning his first all-star appearance. Kevin Love was coming off a 26 and 12 season. He was one of the best players in the league, exiled in Minnesota. Klay was 24 and improving, but no star yet. He was coming off a career-high 18.4 points per game.
Owner Bob Myers and the Warriors’ front office was reluctant to trade away Thompson, but they could stomach it to acquire a superstar like Kevin Love. The deal was as good as done, both sides agreed until Jerry West stepped in. The hall-of-famer was an adviser for Golden State at the time, and he was adamant that they could not let go of Klay. He saw the league becoming smaller and faster, and a big wing like Klay was far more valuable than a back-to-basket power forward like Love. West even threatened to step down if the team traded Thompson. They wisely went with his advice.
Since, Klay Thompson has been an all-star all five seasons, while Kevin Love has gone two for five. Here’s a comparison of their stats:
Thompson: 362 games, 21.6 points, 3.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 47% field goals, 43% threes
Kevin Love: 277 games, 17.1 points, 10 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 43% field goals, 37% threes
The Warriors’ style is built around the splash brothers. The summer of 2014 was when they really committed to the small-ball style they made famous. This was also the offseason that they fired Mark Jackson and hired Steve Kerr. Kerr is the mastermind behind the system that unleashed Steph, Klay, and Draymond. Yes, I understand he has a crazy amount of talent these days, but the Warriors are not an iso-ball team. They have a beautiful motion offense centered around cuts and screens. The Kerr hiring was widely unpopular at the time.
Sam Amick wrote at the time, “One week after firing Mark Jackson despite a second consecutive playoff appearance, the Warriors gave Steve Kerr a five-year, $25 million deal that naturally led to all sorts of fair questions how this all made sense.” This is the way many people felt, but Kerr unleashed Klay, promoted Draymond, and shocked the world by leading Golden State to the 2015 NBA title.
6. The Blown 3-1 Leads
In 2015, the Warriors broke through to win the championship. That was a huge shock in comparison to expectations. However, their Finals opponent was quite depleted, without Kyrie or Love, so many continued to doubt Golden State. They responded by starting off the season 25-0 and finishing 73-9, the best regular-season record in NBA history.
Then came the postseason. The Warriors met their match in the Western Conference Finals. The Oklahoma City Thunder were primed to knock them off. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook both played 50+ games for the first time since 2012-13. The Thunder came out determined and jumped out to a 3-1 lead in the series.
At Oracle with their backs against the wall, Steph and Klay scored 31 and 27, respectively. Bogut, Draymond, and Speights were all in double figures, as well. Despite 40 and 31 from KD and Russ, Golden State’s role players outplayed OKC’s, and the series went back to Oklahoma.
At home, Game 6 was the Thunder’s chance to take the series and head back to the Finals, where they hadn’t been in four years. This was their opportunity, but instead, Klay Thompson flat-out took over the game. 41 points, 11-18 from three, that’s 61%! Meanwhile, Durant and Westbrook shot 58 times combined and went 1-13 from three.
In Game 7, it was Steph’s turn. He dropped 36, and the Splash Brothers shot 13-23 from three combined, 57%. On OKC’s side, KD scored 27 on 10-19 shooting, but Westbrook shot them out of the game, 19 points on 21 shots. 33% from the field as opposed to Durant’s 53%.
The Warriors made it through that series and then ran into LeBron James and the Cavs, who had their full team this time and poised to get revenge for last season This time, it was the Warriors who jumped out to a now infamous 3-1 lead. However, Steph Curry re-injured the knee he’d been struggling with throughout the entire playoffs. This would prove to be a pretty significant factor in the series.
Game 5 swung the series. In Oakland, Bron and Kyrie dropped 41 each, and both shot above 50% from the field. Klay’s 37 wasn’t enough from Golden State’s side, as Steph went cold, 8-21 from the field. The Warriors didn’t have Draymond in this game, due to the “retaliatory swipe of his hand to the groin” of LeBron, as the league put it. Draymond had been playing very well in the series, and his stupid decision really hurt the Warriors.
Back at the Q for Game 6, LeBron hung 41 again, alongside 11 boards and 8 assists, and shot 59% from the field. What a series he had. Tristan Thomson added 16 and 15, perfect from the field, and Kyrie scored 23. Heading back to Oracle, it was winner take all.
Everyone was cold in Game 7. LeBron finished with 27, 11, and 11, but shot 9-24. Steph was 6-19 from the field, 4-14 from three. Klay went 6-17 from the field, 2-10 from deep. It was actually Draymond that carried the Warriors, finishing with 32, 15, and 9, 11-15 FGs, 6-8 threes.. Amazing game from him. And of course, Kyrie hit the big shot, but he wasn’t on fire either. 26 points, 10-23 field goals, 2-5 threes.
Just like that, the 73-9 Warriors were eliminated on their home court. Steph wasn’t 100%, and the role players went cold. In those last three games, Andre Iguodala shot 2-10 from three, 20%. Harrison Barnes shot a horrid 5-32 from the field, 15%, and 3-15 from deep, 20%. LeBron also went nuts in this series, averaging 31, 9, and 11, and shooting 49%.
Whatever the reason, it was crazy to see the seemingly invincible 73-win team come up short. The Warriors found that when their shooters went cold, they didn’t really have an option who could score in isolation. Little did we know, the stars were aligning, and a bomb was about to drop on the NBA world.
7. The Cap Spike
In 2016, the NBA salary cap jumped from $70 million to $94 million. This was largely due to a new TV deal, but a bunch of NBA teams were left with money they didn’t think they’d have. This resulted in lots of crazy contracts like these:
- Timofey Mozgov getting $64 million over 4 years
- Jordan Clarkson getting $50 million over 4 years
- Chandler Parsons getting $94 million over 4 years
- Solomon Hill getting $48 million over 4 years
- Matt Dellavedova getting $38 million over 4 years
- Luol Deng getting $72 million over 4 years
- Ryan Anderson getting $80 million over 4 years
- Joakim Noah getting $72 million over 4 years
- Jon Leuer getting $42 million over 4 years
- Ian Mahinmi getting $64 million over 4 years
- Tyler Johnson getting $50 million over 4 years
- Lance Thomas getting $27 million over 4 years
- Allen Crabbe getting $75 million over 4 years
- Miles Plumlee getting $52 million over 4 years
- Bismack Biyombo getting $72 million over 4 years
Without the cap spike, the Warriors would have no shot at clearing max space. But like I said, the stars aligned, and the NBA’s 3rd-best player was coming to join the 73-9 team. They traded Bogut and Barnes, and boom. Durant signs with Golden State. It was unbelievable. The backlash toward Durant was absolutely malicious, and the Warriors were instantly the biggest villains the NBA had seen in a while. They responded by winning the next two championships, sending LeBron and the Cavs home without a doubt each time. Five games in 2017, and a sweep in 2018.
8. Boogie tears his ACL
DeMarcus Cousins was never satisfied in Sacramento. It was a tumultuous seven seasons he experienced there, and he was traded to New Orleans in February of 2017. Cousins, a four-time all-star, played very well alongside Anthony Davis in that half-season. The Pels made a push for the playoffs but came up just short. Almost a year later, when they were in the playoff race, Cousins tore his Achilles on January 26. New Orleans went on to get the 6 seed and upset Portland in the first round. Cousins had declined an extension the past summer, and at this point, the Pelicans chose to let the injured big man walk. They didn’t make another offer.
Well, a 7-footer coming off a torn Achilles doesn’t have a lot of value. NOLA passed, as did the Lakers, and many other teams refused to give Cousins the money he was hoping for. Then he came upon a team that had its Mid-Level Exception ($5.3 million) still available, and a hole at center. That team offered him a one-year contract. They said he could take his time coming back, play for a championship, show off his value, and then get back on the market in 2019. That team, of course, was…
The Golden State Warriors.
The fifth all-star was on board. The last infinity stone was in place if you will. After all those ups and downs, Monta’s moped crash, Steph’s extension, the blown 3-1 lead, and the back-to-back chips, the Warriors came into 2019 with a starting lineup of five all-stars. Great scouting, smart decisions, luck, and good timing all played a role in Golden State assembling the most talented basketball team of all time.
Things are coming full circle now. The Warriors are the overwhelming favorites to win their third straight title, a feat only accomplished by the Shaq and Kobe Lakers, Jordan’s Bulls, and Bill Russell’s Celtics. However, as they dominate the league and blow through the Western Conference, there’s a new dark cloud, looming over everything that happens in Golden State: Kevin Durant’s free agency.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was Golden State’s basketball empire. But one thing we’ve learned through all the great dynasties of history is to never take greatness for granted because the most invincible of empires can come tumbling down in the blink of an eye. I guess we’ll find out July 1.