The Golden State Warriors might be the best team we’ve ever seen. Don’t scoff.
They’ve now completed their second title in three seasons with a 129-120 victory over the Cavaliers, and they might’ve had a third if Draymond Green didn’t get himself suspended. This comes on the heels of the best regular season streak we’ve ever seen, winning a league record 207 games over the past three years.
This all despite not making it past the second round in their previous two seasons before this run. This despite having decades of futility following their 1975 title.
How did this happen? It’s worth our time to look back at how the Warriors became the Warriors.
We know roughly how each player arrived in Golden State — Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson were both picked in the middle of the lottery, Draymond Green was a fantastic find in the early second round, and Kevin Durant signed with them this summer.
But of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Here are five moments that proved crucial.
STEP ONE: They drafted Steph. (And Minnesota did not.)
I still remember the exact reaction when the Minnesota Timberwolves drafted Ricky Rubio with the fifth overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, and then with the sixth overall selection, took Jonny Flynn. Two point guards! Back-to-back! In the top six! What they hell are they thinking!?
The Warriors happily took Stephen Curry at seven.
Minnesota had a two-in-three chance at a future unanimous MVP and blew it. They drafted one solid point guard in Rubio, and one in Flynn who barely lasted three years in the league. They wanted two point guards and decided Rubio and Flynn — not Rubio and Curry, not Flynn and Curry, not even Brandon Jennings (who went 10th) and Curry — was the correct combination with their two consecutive picks.
And like that, they missed out on the player who would become the first-ever unanimous MVP.
Maybe Curry doesn’t develop into the exact player he is today if he goes to the Timberwolves, but certainly that inherent talent was there regardless. Even as Minnesota finally appears to be on the rise, this remains as classic as any Timberwolves move possibly could be. David Kahn forever!
STEP TWO: Golden State bailed on Monta Ellis
To clear the path for Curry to emerge as the transcendent, game-changing player he has become, the Warriors needed to move Monta Ellis. Right before the 2012 trade deadline, they did that.
It was a move that made sense on paper, but it was a little more difficult to sell it to fans. From 1994 to 2012, Golden State had only been in the playoffs once — the “We Believe” Warriors of 2007, who surged late in the year, snuck into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed, and beat the 67-win Dallas Mavericks in six games. Ellis developed into a fan favorite for his happy-go-lucky play style, and he was the last remaining connection to 2007. But Golden State knew what it needed to do.
Ellis went to the Milwaukee Bucks and Andrew Bogut, a crucial building block, returned to Golden State. The move was crucial to free up the backcourt that we later coined the Splash Bros, but it wasn’t quite as clear-cut as you might remember. In the same deal, the Warriors also received Stephen Jackson. Instead of keeping the former “We Believe” member, they dealt him two days later. That Warriors team wasn’t going to be defined by their past, but their future.
STEP THREE: Stephen Curry struggled with injuries.
During the 2012 offseason, the majority of the Warriors had fallen into place: Curry, Thompson, and Bogut were all there, while Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes, and Festus Ezeli joined in that summer’s draft. Still, the Warriors were a couple years away from putting the league on notice.
One small but crucial detail happened the following summer, when the Warriors re-signed Curry to a four-year, $44 million deal. Curry was coming off the best season of his career where he averaged nearly 23 points and seven assists on 59 percent True Shooting Percentage. No one knew consecutive MVP awards were coming, but Curry had emerged as one of the league’s best point guards. The deal he signed easily could have been twice as large.
But Curry had a problem — he developed a reputation as an injury-prone player. Here’s an SB Nation headline.
And here’s Bleacher Report the year before, when Curry played only 26 games due to his bad ankles.
Despite a healthy season where Curry was better than ever, the Warriors leveraged his history and signed Curry for an absolute steal of a deal. Curry ended up making just $12 million this season. (They wouldn’t have had space for Durant if Curry was making significantly more.)
You could argue the Warriors lucked out with Draymond Green (and to a lesser extent, Klay Thompson), who took a five-year, $80 million deal in the 2015 offseason. If he were on the free market this summer, he would make twice that — at least.
STEP FOUR: Klay, Steph, and Draymond each took one more step.
A few people foresaw the Warriors’ rise. Zach Lowe, then writing for Grantland, published an article before the 2014 postseason appropriately titled “Why Not the Warriors?” Ethan Strauss, ESPN’s Warriors beat writer, correctly predicted that Golden State would win the 2015 championship. He was the only writer in the ESPN panel to predict the Warriors.
Still, the Warriors had to go from a 51-win team who lost in the first round of the 2014 playoffs to a 67-win one who confidently marched to an NBA championship.
So Curry increased his efficiency even more and Thompson showed a much improved off-the-dribble game. Green made the biggest jump, with his metamorphosis taking him from a quality bench player to a versatile defensive anchor who pushed David Lee completely out of the rotation.
The coaching change from Mark Jackson to Steve Kerr that season was important to unlock those three, too.
STEP FIVE: NBA players rejected cap smoothing
The Warriors won in 2015 and they infamously blew a 3-1 Finals lead in 2016. It led to Durant signing with the team that summer, which was caused by a huge salary cap spike stemming from the league’s new $24 billion television deal.
Because of that deal, the salary cap jumped from $70 million in the 2015-16 season to $94 million in the 2016-17 one. Without that, the Warriors wouldn’t have had nearly the money to sign Durant. As it was, they had to part with nearly all their depth, letting Barnes walk and trading Bogut for nothing.
This is ultimately the NBA Player’s Association’s fault, though. The NBA was in favor of a smoothing mechanism, where the salary cap rose gradually over five seasons. The extra money would be divided and split among the players, so it wouldn’t have resulted in lost wages, but the players were against that idea. The NBA conceded the point, and instead we saw a $24 million jump.
Durant signed with the Warriors for $26 million.
We’ve never seen a team quite like the Warriors and we probably won’t see another one for a long time. Golden State came together in a particularly unique manner, one that would be impossible to duplicate if you ran it all back. You can’t expect to steal a player like Draymond Green in the second round or get a future two-time MVP on a discount contract because of some injuries. You can’t sign a player as good as Kevin Durant when you already have a Finals-winning team together unless something unprecedented happens, like the salary cap spike. Everything perfectly fell in place.
You don’t have to like the Warriors, but you should recognize that this is a special team.