It feels like yesterday everyone hated the Golden State Warriors except those who lived in Oakland. It was one of the few things NBA fans agreed on. When the Warriors signed Kevin Durant in 2016, he temporarily broke the NBA. The Warriors had already won a championship in 2015 before Durant, a top 75 player of all time, joined their ranks. The addition of Durant, whose Oklahoma City Thunder the Warriors were eliminated in the Western Conference Finals, made Golden State’s talent level feel unfair. Durant joined fellow All-Stars and future Hall of Famers Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green to form one of the greatest, if not the greatest, team of all time.
Joined by 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala, the Warriors marched with their deadly lineup, five guys who could handle the ball, score at All-Star levels and hit the three-pointer with a high clip. That was too much for the rest of the NBA. They quickly dispatched LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in a total of nine games over two years on their way to back-to-back championships. It felt like nobody could beat her. That is through Nov. 18, 2018. In a close game against the Clippers, Green grabbed a defensive rebound and dribbled it across the court while teammate Durant angrily slapped him to pass the ball to him. Green went it alone and dribbled to the basketball before triple-crossing and losing the ball in a turnover.
Durant was rightly angry. The tension boiled over into the return to the bench, where overly sensitive Durant and the hot-headed passion of Green exposed the Warriors’ only enemy – themselves.
Green lunged at his teammate. He said things he could never take back. After the game, Warriors front office and coach Steve Kerr took a cautiously passive approach to dealing with the blast, suspending Green for a game and basically fanning the flames even more. Both players would later say they just wanted the situation to be handled differently internally.
Those not wearing a Warriors jersey celebrated the team’s imposition. Durant faced free agency later that season. For that, Green scolded him on the bench. Even Green knew that reign couldn’t last forever. Maybe there was a bit of self-sabotage going on on his part. Durant injured his Achilles tendon in the finals, causing the Warriors to lose to Toronto. That summer, Durant joined pal Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn to create a store-bought “Contender.”
The Warriors were also without Thompson the following season, who tore his Achilles tendon in Game 6. So for the first time since the 2011-2012 season, the Golden State Warriors were officially finished. Fans of the other 29 teams, especially those in Oklahoma City, cherished the 15-50 season as the three-time champions were finally toppled from their thrones. But this is where the story of warriors gets interesting.
Rather than take another swing towards signing or trading with a superstar, they returned to the fountain that built their dynasty to begin with – the draft lottery. They made full use of their injury-plagued season to retool and add depth to a team that shaved off veteran players in the summer of 2016 to make way for Durant’s massive contract. But it wasn’t just a bunch of lottery luck that got them back in the running. Jordan Poole, who formed another Big Three scoring punch with Thompson and Curry, was picked 28th in the first round.
James Wiseman was voted second overall in 2020 while Jonathan Kuminga finished 7th in 2021. But main player Gary Payton Jr., the son of Oakland legend Gary Payton, wasn’t drafted in 2016 and hopped around the G League until he found a home in Golden State. Fourth-year shooting guard Damion Lee also wasn’t drafted in 2016 and followed a similar path to Payton Jr. before becoming part of the Warriors’ guard depth off the bench.
The Warriors also utilized a number of trades over the course of two seasons. The first was part of the Durant sign and trade that saw the Warriors acquire guard D’Angelo Russell along with guard Shabazz Napier and forward Treveon Graham. After proving Russell a poor fit, they found a trading partner in Minnesota keen to keep their rising star Karl-Anthony Towns happy. Russell and Towns have been friends since their AAU days. So the Timberwolves overpaid for his services, sending back Andrew Wiggins and a first-round pick and a second-round pick in the 2021 NBA draft. That first-round pick would mean Kuminga, who has made a solid contribution in his first postseason.
In Wiggins, the Warriors showed what their elite culture and development can do for a player known for providing flashy but empty stats to a losing team. Thanks to K-pop fans, Wiggins was a Western Conference All-Star starter this year. But more importantly, his stats finally mattered. Wiggins’ 17 PPG may be his lowest since the 2017-2018 seasons, but he’s blossomed into a sharpshooter, hitting three times with a career-high 39 percent. He helps win basketball and has added an element of athletics and heavy scoring in a supporting role not seen in this Warriors roster since the early days of Iguodala.
As the Warriors are relevant again and join the Phoenix Suns, Milwaukee Bucks and Miami Heat as legitimate contenders, they’ve returned with the same underdog appeal they exuded when Mark Jackson paced the sidelines. Likewise, the vengeful vendettas of many fan bases dissolved when Durant went to Brooklyn. And while Curry’s neoliberal do-gooder image still rubs some the wrong way, Durant, Irving and James Harden are way ahead of him in the race to be the most hated gamer.
Green still gets baby boomers’ blood boiling, but without yelling at Durant, he’s gone back to primarily annoying opposing players and those Fox News harpies which everyone but Enes Kanter prefers “Shut up and dribble”.
We’ve seen players polish their image recently. Heck, Wiggins is a perfect example of that. Kevin Love, DeMar DeRozan, Patrick Beverly and Larry Nance Jr. also come to mind. But the warriors have accomplished the seemingly impossible, going from hero to villain and back to hero. Mainly because they returned to what has made them an organic success story. By using the blueprint and taking smart, forward-thinking trades, they’ve shown that their three championships were more than just Durant’s superstar addition. The Warriors had to get back to the underside of the NBA in order to fight their way back not just to relevance but to competition as well. Now they have a young core of Kuminga, Wiggins, Poole, Payton Jr., Lee and Moses Moody to pair with their three Hall of Famers. They used two seasons of purgatory to redesign their list for the present and future. The warriors are back. And they’ve given us something worth getting back on track for.