According to 76ers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey, the average time to get back into contention is eight years once a team falls out of the NBA Playoffs. It took the Warriors just two.
By the end of the 2019-20 season, the Warriors found themselves at the bottom of the league standings with 15 wins. In 2020-21, they were knocked out of the Play-In Tournament. Now, they’re on their way back to the NBA Finals for the sixth time in the Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala era.
How did they get back so quickly? A return from injuries obviously played a key role.
“We didn’t leave the space because we just got too old to do it. We didn’t leave the space because all of us went our separate ways,” Green told ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk. “We left the space because Klay Thompson was out and then he was out again, and Andre [Iguodala] wasn’t here.
“And then Steph Curry was out. We didn’t leave this space because we weren’t capable of being in the space anymore.”
Green’s point is certainly valid. Eric Paschall, Glenn Robinson III, Damion Lee and Alec Burks led that 15-win team in minutes. But the Warriors faced a series of inflection points throughout those two years, and nailing those team-building decisions led them to where they are today.
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June 20, 2019: Drafting Jordan Poole
The Warriors selected Poole with the 28th pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, and the internet went crazy. It was called the worst pick in the draft by some. But the team saw something that nobody else did.
Poole has been a key piece of the new Warriors, averaging 18.5 points per game and shooting 39.5 percent from 3-point range in the 2022 NBA Playoffs. That pick, panned by many of the experts and thought of as a reach, ended up being one of the best value selections in that draft.
July 1, 2019: Acquiring D’Angelo Russell as part of Kevin Durant sign-and-trade
After losing to the Raptors in the 2019 NBA Finals, Durant announced that he had enough. He made his intentions to leave the Warriors clear, but they managed to salvage some value back. The Nets sent Russell back in a sign-and-trade deal.
Russell never fit well with the Warriors, but he gave them a piece that they could trade down the road.
July 1, 2019: Re-signing Kevon Looney
Steve Kerr rarely speaks on personnel decisions. But throughout the 2018-19 season, he urged the Warriors to bring back Looney, calling him a “foundational” piece.
Looney’s career averages of 4.7 points and 4.8 rebounds seem easily replaceable. But Kerr knew how well he played in the Warriors’ system, freeing up other players for shots with his screening and doing whatever was asked of him.
The Warriors signed him to a three-year, $15 million contract. He was one of their best players in the Western Conference Finals, dominating the offensive glass and playing superb defense.
July 1, 2019: Maxing Klay Thompson
The Warriors knew that Thompson would likely miss an entire season after tearing his ACL in their NBA Finals loss to the Raptors. They gave Thompson a five-year, $190 million max contract anyway.
That contract was far from a no-brainer decision. Thompson’s age and the nature of the injury made it a significant risk. It looked even more questionable after Thompson tore his Achilles in a pickup game and sat out another year.
But Thompson’s return to the Warriors late this season has brought the full band back together, and they’re back on top with him.
Feb. 7, 2020: Trading for Andrew Wiggins
Russell lasted just 33 games before the Warriors realized that they needed to flip him. He’s at his best as a ball-dominant decision-maker, and that was never going to be his role on the team.
Wiggins wasn’t living up to his max contract with the Timberwolves, so the two sides decided to make a deal. The Warriors viewed Wiggins as someone who could be a better role player than Russell. That vision has come to fruition.
Wiggins’ defense has proven invaluable in the Warriors’ run. He’s been asked to defend Luka Doncic, crash the offensive glass to tire Doncic out and guard other star scorers like Ja Morant and Donovan Mitchell. He’s done whatever the team has needed, and he hasn’t gotten enough credit for fully buying in. He’s completely flipped the narrative on his career, starting in the 2022 All-Star Game and emerging as a major piece of the current core.
Making the deal even more lopsided, the Wolves included a first-round pick. That turned into the seventh pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, allowing the Warriors to add talented wing Jonathan Kuminga to their roster.
The moves the Warriors didn’t make
Along with nailing a series of controversial personnel decisions, the Warriors also got to this point by holding off on many changes that critics insisted they should make.
They had young assets in Kuminga and former No. 2 pick James Wiseman. There was a clamor for them to flip them for win-now veterans. But they chose to stay on their path, and it’s worked out for them.
The Warriors have also been criticized for not installing more ball screens for Curry. Their unique style of motion offense, reliant on passing, cuts and movement, runs counter to what most of the rest of the league is doing.
Kerr has always believed in his system, and that again looks to be paying off. The Warriors were the worst offense in the league without Curry and Thompson in 2020. They stayed the course, got role players like Otto Porter Jr. and Gary Payton II that could fit into that style of basketball and have been lighting up the scoreboard in the NBA Playoffs.
The Warriors now find themselves as the gambling favorites to win the title. They spent two years searching for a path back to the top. It was ultimately their faith in their core and system that brought them there.