NBA Finals 2022 – The grueling, expensive and risky reconstruction of the Golden State Warriors

NBA Finals 2022 – The grueling, expensive and risky reconstruction of the Golden State Warriors post thumbnail image

GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS general manager Bob Myers has forgotten much of what transpired in the hours after Kevin Durant told him he was leaving as a free agent and signing with the Brooklyn Nets in the summer of 2019.

It was, as one can imagine, a low moment. The Warriors’ run of five straight NBA Finals appearances had just ended in the most painful way possible, with a loss to the Toronto Raptors following devastating injuries to Durant and Klay Thompson. The dynasty that once seemed impenetrable was now collapsing on itself. Durant was leaving, the remaining roster was creaky and expensive.

But Myers’ job is to think about the future even when the present is on fire. The Warriors weren’t the first franchise to stare into the abyss after a superstar departure and wonder how it would ever climb out of it.

Most teams take years to recover. Their runs fade into NBA history, a reminder of how rare it is to build an historic dynasty like the Boston Celtics (1960s-70s), Los Angeles Lakers (1980s and 2000s) and Chicago Bulls (1990s) that can extend beyond that first rise and fall.

It remains to be seen which group of championship teams these Warriors will fall into. But in returning to the Finals after just a two-year rebuild, they’ve already done what few expected back when Durant left.

“If I’m being honest, I’m surprised because we really were on the other side of things,” Myers says. “We had the worst record in the league, then we missed the play-in tournament.

“So I think I’m appreciating this year, however it goes, more.”

There is no one trait that led the Warriors back to the Finals this year. Some will use “culture” as a way to explain this season’s run. But that has become a generic catch-all in modern professional sports.

But the construction — and reconstruction — of a championship-level team is a special kind of alchemy best explained in hindsight by those who lived it.

“It’s easy to look back and connect the dots,” Myers says. “It’s a little tougher when you’re looking ahead. When you’re in it.”

And in the summer of 2019, Myers and the Warriors were in the thick of it. The way forward was perilous, costly and not at all guaranteed to succeed. But there was a way. The Warriors just had to have the chutzpah to try.

THE MOVES MYERS and the Warriors were going to attempt to extend their championship run in 2019 would be delusional for most franchises.

But the Warriors are not like most franchises. And it began with them recognizing and accepting there was little chance to convince Durant to stay with them.

“We knew he would probably leave,” says Warriors controlling owner Joe Lacob. “And we knew we’d get nothing back … unless he went to Brooklyn and we could maybe get D’Angelo Russell in a sign-and-trade, because he was also [a free agent].

“Now we’d have to make it work somehow, make everyone agree. But we thought there was a chance of doing it. We identified this in advance.”

The idea of salvaging a free-agent departure with a sign-and-trade is not a novel one. But the Warriors’ version of it has been unprecedented in its long-term yield.

Russell was a 23-year-old All-Star, whom the Warriors liked, but weren’t sure would fit long term in their system. Nevertheless, they decided he was talented enough to take a risk, and valuable enough to trade later if it didn’t work out. Which is exactly what happened seven months later when they traded Russell to Minnesota in a deal headlined by 2014 No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins and a future first-round pick, which became Jonathan Kuminga.

This grand plan, which has revived the Warriors dynasty, could only have gone into effect if Durant decided to play for the Nets. Not the New York Knicks or LA Clippers or any of the other teams who pursued him in free agency. Just the Nets.

“That was luck,” Lacob says.

And uniquely Warriors.

It would’ve been far easier and more cost effective for a rebuilding team to let Durant and his maximum salary walk out the door without adding any new salary. Replacing Durant with Russell, who signed a four-year, $117 million contract, hard-capped the Warriors and took a team that ended up finishing with the worst record in the league deep into the luxury tax.

“We knew this was a gamble that cost a lot of money,” Lacob says. “Maybe other teams wouldn’t have been able to do it or would want to do it. But we felt that we were in a championship window once these guys came back from injury and I didn’t know how else we were going to get another serious player.”

The Warriors are often called this generation’s San Antonio Spurs because of their organizational stability, success and culture. Stephen Curry is the Tim Duncan, coach Steve Kerr is the Gregg Popovich, Myers is the R.C. Buford.

But the Spurs never played the heavy during their NBA-record run of 22 consecutive playoff appearances from 1998 to 2019 the way the Warriors did when they added Durant to the team that had won 73 regular-season games. If anything, the Spurs’ humility during their run is what defined them.

Lacob’s Warriors have been defined by their audacity. And that starts at the top, with Lacob.

“I grew up with the Celtics in the 1960s,” Lacob says. “They were my team. Then I lived in L.A. and was a big Laker fan. … So my goals were to be at the level of, or surpass, what was done by the great Celtics dynasties and Laker dynasties.”

Lacob says he recently read that former Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss went to the Finals in 16 of 33 seasons.

“That’s incredible. My goal is to be at that level, to do something like that. It’s really hard in this day and age,” Lacob says.

So when high-risk opportunities present themselves, like the gamble on Russell, Lacob rarely flinches.

IT WAS MYERS and Kerr who had to execute the play, however. And the transaction that rejuvenated the Warriors dynasty took the collective talents of the entire organization.

First Myers had to convince Durant and his business partner Rich Kleiman to consider a sign-and-trade instead of leaving free and clear and signing into the Nets’ cap space.

There used to be financial incentives for players to do such sign-and-trades when they left a franchise in free agency, but the NBA closed that loophole in 2011 in response to LeBron James‘ decision to leave Cleveland for Miami in 2010.

So Myers’ pitch to Durant was a personal one.

There was no incentive for Durant to help the Warriors recoup some assets on his way out of town. If anything, sources said, Durant wasn’t keen on the idea of being traded at all. Players of his stature rarely are.

But Myers didn’t give up. He and Durant had developed a strong relationship in their three years together. So much so that when Myers’ 9-year old daughter, Annabelle, asked if they’d still be friends, Myers didn’t hesitate.

“If you can’t stay friends with somebody because they went to work somewhere else, then you’re not really friends with them,'” Myers told her.

It was the kind of question only a 9-year-old would ask, but it speaks to the strength of the relationships Myers and the Warriors built their dynasty on, then used to rebuild it faster than even they expected after Durant left.

“The big things you do and the little things you do,” Myers says. “I think it all matters.”

Eventually Golden State added a highly protected future first-round pick (which has become a 2025 second-rounder) to make it worth Durant and the Nets’ while. But the bedrock of this entire deal was the goodwill that had been built between Myers, Durant and Kleiman during their short-lived, but successful run together.

“Do the right thing,” Kleiman says. “And we both love Bob.”

THE NEXT PART fell on Kerr, and was the most painful of all.

To execute a sign-and-trade with Durant and Russell — to get under the NBA’s luxury tax apron — the Warriors had to trade the player Kerr believes is part of the team’s “soul,” Andre Iguodala.

“That was a gut punch,” Kerr says. “But in retrospect that move turned into Wigs and Kuminga and allowed us to extend this run.”

It was unpopular at the time and took two seasons to bear fruit. But having been a general manager himself once (with the Phoenix Suns from 2007 to 2010) helped Kerr understand the reasoning behind it.

“I can sit there and think, ‘How can we possibly trade Andre Iguodala?'” Kerr says. “But I understand from a big-picture standpoint that it’s management’s job to look ahead, to look forward and to make moves that, while painful, are going to set the stage for the next one.

“That’s the collaboration you have to have, but also the understanding.”

It’s not easy or comfortable to start over — the Warriors had the worst record in the league in 2020 — after coaching at a championship level for five straight years.

But Kerr says he found parts of the process refreshing.

“We really did maintain our process of making the gym a really productive place, a fun place to be, and our players really enjoyed that year,” he says. “We had a lot of individual progress.

“That year was sort of validation for us, that this is a good process, and the process can survive even through devastating injuries and losses mounting up.”

That organizational stability and trust is essential to being able to execute what Kerr was tasked with.

“Bob and Joe always have my back,” Kerr says. “Doesn’t mean they agree with everything I do. But we have meaningful discussions about everything. They know I’m going to make mistakes, I know they’re going to make mistakes. But we do it all together and stability allows for that culture to maintain.”

If there’s a comparison to the Spurs, this is the strongest one. Kerr is now the third longest tenured coach in the NBA behind Popovich and Miami’s Erik Spoelstra while Myers is the fourth longest-tenured lead front office executive, behind Buford, Miami’s Pat Riley and Oklahoma City‘s Sam Presti.

Warriors associate head coach Mike Brown, who began his career as an assistant for Popovich from 2000 to 2003, said that alignment between ownership, front office and coaching staff is the most important thing in building sustainable success.

“It starts from the top,” Brown says. “Your ownership has to be right. But just as important is the relationship between your GM and your head coach. That relationship can go sideways very, very easily. And if it goes sideways a little bit — the players pick up on it and now you’ve lost any momentum or a hope going forward.

“And … if you don’t have the players, you’ve got no shot at it.”

IT’S AT THIS point everyone involved mentions Curry. He is the lodestone everything is based on, the singular talent and personality around which the Warriors are constructed.

“The best thing about Steph is that he finds happiness all the time,” Myers says. “Everybody thinks his life is perfect and easy. Nobody’s life is easy and perfect. No, you’ve got to work at happiness, and he does. People want to be around that authentic happiness. You gravitate towards it.”

When the Warriors were in the worst of the 2020 season and Curry was out with a broken hand, he still found ways to bring that to the team.

When they were struggling to make the playoffs in 2021, Curry carried them with a season that rivaled — and in some ways surpassed — his two MVP seasons.

At one point during the Warriors’ two-year bottoming-out, Myers checked in with Curry to make sure he wasn’t getting demoralized by all the losing. Curry told Myers that it was “hard” but that he trusted him to get the roster back to a place where they could contend again.

“When you have a guy like that, you have responsibility to them,” Myers says. “So many other guys would raise their hand at some point and go, ‘I tried but I can’t keep doing this.'” Myers nodded and told Curry he promised to “get it right.”

The easiest way to do that would’ve been to sign or trade for an established star to pair with Curry, Thompson and Green. The Warriors did explore those options, sources said, most notably surrounding Washington’s Bradley Beal.

But when nothing came together in a way they liked, they decided to double down on young players such as Jordan Poole, Damion Lee and Wiggins, whom they’d developed during the interregnum years.

It was a controversial strategy at the time.

“Some people criticized Bob and I, ‘Well, you didn’t go all out and bring Steph another star,” Lacob says. “We think that’s a completely false narrative and people just don’t understand. … Every single dollar that we could possibly spend, we did.

“I don’t want to trade all my young assets for some over-30-year-old who all of a sudden is broken down. That to me, is not smart.”

That outlook relied heavily on the institutional knowledge from the team’s veterans — and their willingness to share it.

“It’s easier for us to bring Kuminga along because Andre [Iguodala] is in his ear,” Brown says. “The other day when we decided to go with Moses Moody [in the Western Conference semifinals against the Mavericks], I walked by Draymond and whispered, ‘We’re about to go Moses … go get him ready.'”

In San Antonio, Brown says they used to count on the same thing with Tim Duncan and young players such as Tony Parker.

“If you don’t have the veterans around that speak the same language, especially when the coaches aren’t around, then it’s hard to raise these guys the right way,” he says.

But perhaps the best thing the Warriors got from their two-year hard reset was the opportunity to catch their breath and see what they had accomplished during their five-year run with fresh eyes, not tired ones.

“I remember reading something recently where someone said, ‘Well, if Michael [Jordan] hadn’t played baseball, the Bulls could’ve won eight straight titles,'” says Kerr, who played with Jordan on three championship teams (1996 to 1998).

“I spit my drink out. Like, ‘Do you people have any idea how exhausting this is?’ Somebody wrote something similar the other day, ‘If Klay hadn’t gotten hurt, we could be looking at this as the eighth straight title.’ And I’m like, ‘Just stop. That’s not how this works.'”

In Kerr’s mind, that year where Jordan retired to play baseball and the Bulls fell off was as necessary to the second three championships they won together, as the two-year stumble the Warriors lived through after Durant left and Thompson was injured.

“The break that you get allows for, not only a long offseason to recover, but time for reflection,” he says, “You kind of need that as long as you maintain your culture and identity. … And still have Steph Curry.”

THE WARRIORS STILL need four more wins to fully reclaim their spot atop the NBA.

But there’s a lightness about them this time that feels different from their previous trips to the championship round.

They might have a lot of the same people and players as before, but the journey has changed them. Myers felt that change this week at practice, as he stood with Curry, Thompson and Green. In his younger days, Myers might’ve jumped into shooting drills or a staff pickup game after the players finished for the day. But after three hip surgeries, those days are behind him.

So instead of playing, he just talked to the three players who have fueled this historic run.

“I just told them, ‘I’m so lucky. I can’t believe we’ve been doing this for 10 years together,'” Myers says. “Then we started laughing and I said, ‘Who’s going to be the last one here?'”

Curry, of course, will be the one who turns out the lights.

It felt a little like the cast party at the end of a long-running TV show. Only this show is still going.

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