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The Warriors brought their dynasty back from the dead with no margin for error

The rest of the NBA is still chasing the Warriors.

2022 NBA Finals - Game Six Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

The Golden State Warriors’ dynasty was on life support in the aftermath of their loss to the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 NBA Finals. The Warriors had made five consecutive trips to the NBA Finals with three championship rings to show for it, but organization was staring down the first real threat to its supremacy since it first rose to power.

Kevin Durant’s intention to leave in free agency was the worst kept secret in the NBA. Klay Thompson had just suffered a torn ACL that was set to wipe away his next 12 months. Andre Iguodala was about to become a cap casualty, and Shaun Livingston was set to retire. Stephen Curry was still standing, but he was already 31 years old and was now going into the next season down three of his four best teammates.

The Warriors faced a number of key decisions in the ensuing offseason with no margin for error. First, they used the No. 28 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft to select Michigan sophomore guard Jordan Poole. Next, they agreed to a five-year, $190 million max contract with Thompson despite a long and grueling rehab ahead of him. Then the Warriors turned Durant’s departure into a sign-and-trade with the Brooklyn Nets, one that returned D’Angelo Russell to Golden State on a four-year max contract worth $117 million. They also re-signed young big man Kevon Looney to a three-year, $15 million deal.

The next season ended before it ever really started when Curry suffered a hand injury that would end his year after only five games. The only notable moment of their season after that point happened when the front office decided to trade Russell to the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for Andrew Wiggins and a first round draft pick. Golden State finished the year 15-50, the worst record in the NBA, and drew the No. 2 overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft lottery. They selected Memphis center James Wiseman over LaMelo Ball.

The dream of the Warriors returning to the mountaintop the next season was quickly dashed when Thompson tore his Achilles while ramping up for his return. Curry proved he could still play at a near MVP level, but the new-look Warriors just didn’t have the same flow that defined their early rise. The Warriors finished 39-33 overall, and missed the playoffs when they lost to Memphis Grizzlies in the play-in tournament.

The Warriors headed into this season knowing they were going to get Thompson back at some point, but they did not know how his game would look after two years off. Golden State drafted Jonathan Kuminga with the Wolves’ pick, and selected Moses Moody with their own lottery selection. They were lauded for their offseason work on the margins — signing Otto Porter Jr., Nemanja Bjelica, and Iguodala to minimum deals — but Las Vegas wasn’t buying their odds as a real contender. Eight teams were pegged to finish with as many or more wins than the Warriors. Golden State was expected to be formidable, but the glory days felt like they were way in the rearview mirror.

The popular opinion was that if the Warriors dynasty had any chance of staying alive, they needed to trade some or all of their three young lottery picks over the last two years for more established help. Golden State maintained they weren’t going to do that. The Warriors believed they could win another championship with their old core and still compete well into the future.

It was the sort of plan that wasn’t just easy to doubt — it was one that seemed like a moral failing that denied giving Curry the best chance to win another ring.

2022 NBA Finals - Game Six Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

The Warriors’ rise into 2022 NBA champions probably shouldn’t feel as stunning as it does. Curry already had a strong case as a top-10 player of all-time before this year. We had seen Kerr’s systems on both ends of the floor lead to championships. Green doubled as both one of the best defensive players in the world and one of the highest feel players ever. Even after two awful injuries, it could have been reasonably assumed Thompson could still hit open spot-up three-pointers.

The Warriors told us they were really good right away, starting the year 18-2 in their first 20 games. I ranked NBA championship contenders on Nov. 30 and had the Warriors at No. 1.

Then Curry went into a strange shooting slump after the calendar flipped to 2022. Green got hurt and missed substantial time. Curry got hurt and missed the month before the playoffs. The Memphis Grizzlies passed the Warriors for the No. 2 seed in the West. Entering the playoffs, the Phoenix Suns, Milwaukee Bucks, and Brooklyn Nets (!) all had better championship odds than the Warriors. Golden State was tied for fourth with the Celtics as the most likely title team by the oddsmakers.

Very few believed another Warriors championship run could actually happen, but from the minute the playoffs started, Golden State put the rest of the league on notice that they were the team to beat.

Golden State’s evolution into champions happened for so many reasons.

It happened because Andrew Wiggins found the right role for his talents, and emerged into the best wing stopper in the league. Wiggins had been a can’t-miss prospect his high school. He was the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2014 mostly because of his incredible physical tools. He was given the opportunity to be a primary scorer with the Wolves, but he was never quite cut out to be that. In Golden State, Wiggins focused his talent first and foremost on the defensive end. The same tools that once made him such a highly touted prospect — speed, length, absurd leaping ability — translated to shutting down some of the best scorers alive. Wiggins locked down both Luka Doncic and Jayson Tatum about as well as anyone can do it during these playoffs. He was Golden State’s second best player throughout this run.

It happened because Draymond Green still influences winning as much as any role player in NBA history, even at age-32. There were moments in this playoff run where Green looked like a liability offensively and perhaps a little old on defense. It was easy and maybe even natural to say he was washed. Everyone had their little podcast jokes. He even got benched for a stretch late in the fourth quarter of the Warriors’ Game 4 victory that tied the series 2-2. But when the chips were really on the table in the last two games of the series, Green was incredible. His help defense flustered Boston’s offense all over the court, and he was a big reason for both the Celtics’ turnover issues and Jayson Tatum’s struggles scoring at the rim. It might not be pretty on an every game basis anymore, but Green still has the juice when he needs it.

It happened because Thompson gave the Warriors both an emotional lift and some necessary shot-making after his painstaking return from injury. Thompson is not the same player anymore, but his contributions shouldn’t be totally discounted. He was the Warriors’ third leading scorer in the series. The only player who hit more three-pointers than him in the Finals on either team was Curry.

It happened because the Warriors nailed everything on the margins. Porter Jr. was a minimum signing who started in the NBA Finals. Gary Payton II was kept as the 15th man on the roster over Avery Bradley in training camp and emerged into a lockdown wing defender. Looney slowly developed into an essential big man, showing the ability to play off Curry and provide the key rebounding and paint protection Golden State needed.

Getting Jordan Poole’s ridiculous microwave scoring ability with the No. 28 pick was a stroke of genius. He’s just tapping into his powers as an offensive supernova.

Golden State wouldn’t be champions without the contributions of all of these players. Of course, it still all comes back to Curry.

Curry is not just the greatest shooter ever — he’s in the rarified air of the all-time greats. Curry is still behind Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, LeBron James, Bill Russell, and Magic Johnson on the all-time list, but he’s close to breaking into that top-five. At this point, he has an argument to be alongside or above Kobe Bryant, Shaq, and Tim Duncan as one of the very best to ever do it.

Oh, and Curry still isn’t done. As he said himself after the 2021 All-Star Game: he has nothing to prove, but plenty to accomplish. That top-five is still within reach — hell, it feels likely he’ll get there. Not bad for a three-year player at a mid-major college who was drafted behind Hasheem Thabeet and Johnny Flynn, among others.

The Warriors are still the gold standard the rest of the NBA is chasing. They are led by an all-time great who isn’t slowing down at age-34. They have shown the ability to weave in homegrown young talent with Poole, and trade for a player like Wiggins firmly in the prime of his career. They still have those three former lottery picks — James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga, and Moses Moody — who are all 21 years old or younger. Should we really doubt the Warriors’ ability to mold them into impact pieces as long as Curry maintains his greatness?

The Warriors dynasty was on the brink of demise. To win this title after losing Durant, and after going through so much other adversity, really is remarkable. Golden State run isn’t finished yet: they will be among the favorites next season alongside the Milwaukee Bucks. The team that once defined the terms of the modern game and established the bar for excellence in this era is still setting the pace. Until further notice, this remains the Warriors era.