Sports

What the Golden State Warriors Have to Fear

They’ve made the Finals yet again. But the old dynasty they’ve emulated is also a cautionary tale.

Steph Curry watching his shot, with his arm raised in follow-through, with an Xes and Os basketball play illustrated on a basketball key behind him.
Steph looking at what he’s done. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images.

After dispensing with the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday night, the Golden State Warriors are now headed for their sixth NBA Finals in the past eight years. That’s a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since the 1990s Chicago Bulls, a team you may have heard about. Stephen Curry took home the inaugural Magic Johnson Western Conference Finals MVP award, Klay Thompson made eight three-pointers, and the Mavericks never led in the decisive game. The Warriors are now one series away from their fourth championship since 2015; the team’s core three of Curry, Thompson, and Draymond Green are already locks for the Hall of Fame, but a fourth title would assure their status as one of the great dynasties of NBA history.

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It’s probably hard for the kids out there to believe, but there once was a time when the Golden State Warriors were bad. Not just bad, but perennially, morbidly bad. From 1992 to 2014—a 22- year stretch—the Warriors never won more than 50 games in a single season, and most seasons won far less than that. There were some isolated bright spots—the “We Believe” squad of 2007, who became the first 8-seed to dethrone a 1-seed in a seven-game series, being the brightest—but for the most part the Warriors were, if not quite a Clippers-level joke, certainly a malfunctioning afterthought. These years were marked by internal combustions, lottery busts, a bumbling owner who was considered one of the very worst in the sport.

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You probably know what happened from there. In 2009, the Warriors drafted Stephen Curry with the seventh overall pick. In 2010, the team was sold to a forward-thinking and deep-pocketed ownership group led by venture capitalist Joe Lacob and movie producer Peter Guber. In 2011, the Warriors drafted Klay Thompson with the 11th pick, then plucked Draymond Green with the 35th choice the following year. In 2015, the core of Curry, Thompson, and Green helped lead Golden State to their first NBA title in 40 years. In July 2016, coming off a record-setting 73-win season in which they blew a 3–1 lead to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, the Warriors signed Kevin Durant in free agency, which for nearly three years made them the most unstoppable force in American professional sports, winning two more titles in 2017 and 2018 before being ravaged by injuries and falling to the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 Finals.

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The intervening two years that the Warriors were absent from the Finals weren’t exactly uneventful for the team, either. After Thompson tore his ACL and Durant decamped for Brooklyn, the 2019-20 Warriors literally bottomed out, finishing with the worst record in basketball in that COVID-interrupted season. In 2020-21, still missing Thompson, the Warriors lost to the Memphis Grizzlies in the postseason play-in tournament; that offseason the team used two lottery picks (one acquired from Minnesota) to draft hyperathletic wing Jonathan Kuminga and guard Moses Moody.

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As I wrote about earlier in the playoffs, this Warriors squad is markedly different than the last one we saw in the Finals, three very long years ago. Curry, Thompson, Green, and 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala are still there, but Kevin Durant isn’t. (Not exactly a minor detail.) These Warriors also have Andrew Wiggins, a former No. 1 overall pick who’d long been seen as a serial underachiever until reinventing himself in Golden State as a do-it-all role player, and Jordan Poole, a microwave scorer whom the team deftly stole with the 28th pick in 2019, making him the draft-day spoils of Golden State’s last Finals run.

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Golden State’s ability to build and rebuild multiple iterations of title-worthy teams around their core three is remarkable but not unprecedented. The Warriors have frequently spoken of the San Antonio Spurs as the model for what they are out to achieve. Between 1999 and 2014, the Spurs won five championships over a 15-year span, an astonishing run marked by steadiness at the core: Center Tim Duncan, point guard Tony Parker, and swingman Manu Ginobili all spent more than 15 seasons with the team as the front office and coaching staff deftly shuttled role players in and out around them. In the modern NBA the Spurs are the gold standard for a dynasty that was simultaneously rooted in stability and adaptability, exactly what the Warriors are striving for.

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But the Spurs also stand as a cautionary tale for dynastic fragility. As long as San Antonio’s reign lasted, it was supposed to have stretched even longer. The MVP of the 2014 Finals wasn’t Duncan, Parker, or Ginobili, but rather 22-year-old Kawhi Leonard, an up-and-coming star whom the Spurs had added as a rookie in 2011 via a brilliant draft-day trade. In 2015, the Spurs hit the free agency jackpot by landing skilled big man LaMarcus Aldridge, a four-time All-Star who was the most coveted available player of that offseason. As Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili eased into the twilight of their careers, Aldridge and Leonard would extend the Spurs’ excellence into a new generation.

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It didn’t happen that way. Leonard got hurt in the 2017 Western Conference Finals (which the Spurs lost to the Warriors, incidentally) and played only nine games in the 2017-18 season before demanding a trade. A month after leading the Toronto Raptors to that 2019 championship, the peripatetic Leonard signed with the Clippers, where he remains, and has become one of the signature figures of the “player empowerment” era. Aldridge had some terrific seasons in San Antonio and made a few more All-Star teams, but he was never the perfect fit that the Spurs had hoped he’d be, probably in part because filling the shoes of Tim Duncan was always going to be an impossible ask. Now Aldridge is with Durant in Brooklyn, and the Spurs haven’t had a winning season since 2019.

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These Warriors are making a similar bet on trying to cycle newer, younger players into their gradually-aging core. (Curry is the oldest of the Warriors’ key three at 34, although in many ways his game also feels the most age-proof.) In 2020, Golden State drafted center James Wiseman with the second overall pick in the draft, but he has battled injury issues throughout his first two years in the league and has thus far played only 39 games. Rookies Kuminga and Moody have shown flashes that suggest they could become serious contributors sooner rather than later, and in Kuminga’s case possibly even a star. Poole is only 22 and will be eligible for a lucrative contract extension this offseason, which the Warriors can fortunately afford.

The future appears bright in Golden State, but it’s nothing like the present, and no amount of foresight can stop the fact that the greatest NBA teams are always unique and finite occurrences. There won’t be anything quite like this Warriors team ever again, and if you’re a basketball fan it’s good to have them back in the Finals and to know, for right now, that they still belong there.

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