The Golden State Warriors have reinvented themselves three times on the way to four titles in eight seasons. At this point, history is the only appropriate measuring stick.
History will say the Golden State Warriors became 2022 NBA champions last night in Boston. The truth is the Warriors won this year’s title back in 2020, the year they were the league’s worst team at 15-50. Their rise from perdition to penthouse in just two years makes them just the fifth team to win four or more titles in eight years. Not only is Golden State’s dynasty uniquely distinct, they may be uniquely positioned to accomplish something none of the others could.
The four Warrior championships have been won by essentially three different teams. The only players on this year’s team who were there for the dynasty’s first title 2015 are Steph Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala. The 2017 and 2018 Death Stars with Kevin Durant were a philharmonic orchestra playing in a league of string quartets, trumpet solos and kazoos; those years were less competition and more coronation. This year’s winners ensured a connection with their predecessors by doing it their own way while laying the groundwork to contend for years to come.
In their first three title runs, the Golden State offense was young Mike Tyson, ranking second, first and third in offensive rating. The defense was mostly equally stellar, finishing first and second before slipping to 11th the year Durant’s free agency sparked division and disconnect in the locker room. Warrior caricatures tend to exaggerate their reputation as a tsunami offense, cresting and flooding opposing defenses. But this year their offensive rating was 17th, behind the trickle in Indiana.
But while they were 29th in turnovers and 26th in free throw attempts, their defensive rating was number one; that defense enabled the offense to break Boston’s ballyhooed bucket prevention. Golden State forced a tsunami of Celtic turnovers and easy points on the other end. These Warriors were less Tyson than Muhammad Ali rope-a-doping George Foreman in Zaire. Boston was bigger, stronger, more physical. Golden State was better. Tyson and Ali were both world champs.
The Golden State Warriors made themselves something different, while laying their groundwork for the next evolution
While the Warriors were working to bring another Larry O’Brien trophy to the Bay, they were also planting seeds to pay off down the road, seeds they were smart to pocket during that lost 2020 season. That February, with Curry and Thompson both out for the year with injuries, they made a trade with Minnesota, the headliners being D’Angelo Russell headed east and Andrew Wiggins coming to San Francisco.
Wiggins would play only 12 games for them that year, but that gave the organization a greater awareness of his game than they could know from a distance; player and team went into the offseason with an understanding of what they wanted from him. He didn’t need to be the franchise player the Timberwolves paid max money hoping to see. He needed to defend and provide tertiary scoring. Wiggins may never be All-NBA — then again, he might — but as role players go, he’s overqualified.
That same season, Golden State got a good look at the rookie they took 28th in the 2019 draft. Jordan Poole played 57 games in 2020. In his three years in the league, he’s played more minutes than 20 of the 27 players taken above him, including eight lottery picks. This year his 18.5 points per game were good for third on the team, trailing only the Splash Brothers. Some teams waste time playing veterans who have no place in their future over younglings who should be that future. The Warriors took advantage of their disappearance from the spotlight to weaponize entirely new talents.
When Minnesota sent Wiggins to Golden State they also traded what became the seventh pick in the draft. The Warriors selected Jonathan Kuminga, a 6-foot-8 210-pound top-rated teenager who played in 70 regular-season games and got his feet wet in 16 of the team’s 22 playoff games. Wiggins, Poole, Kuminga and his fellow 2021 lottery pick Moses Moody give Golden State a young, athletic quartet with upside for days. Some teams can’t seem to walk and chew gum at the same time. The Warriors do one-armed handstands while riding a unicycle and slicing up Fugu puffer fish.
At first glance, this Golden State dynasty may appear less brilliant than the league’s others. The 1950s Minneapolis Lakers won it all in five of their first six years of existence. The Celtics of the 1960s won eight straight. In the 1980s the Los Angeles Lakers won five titles in nine years and reached the Finals eight times in nine years. Last but never least, the 1990s Chicago Bulls won six times in eight years. Golden State’s four-in-eight is historic but doesn’t appear to measure up to their antecedents. Yet they may be on the verge of doing something the others never could.
After the Minneapolis Lakers won their fifth championship in 1954, it’d be 18 years and a move to the coast before they won one again. The Auerbach Celtics became the Bill Russell Celtics when the big man took over as head coach in 1967. The C’s would win the next two titles, giving them 11 of the league’s first 20 championships. In the 53 seasons since they’ve won six, and never two in a row. The Showtime Lakers won their last championship in 1988, then didn’t win another for 13 years. After Michael Jordan’s Bulls won their sixth and final title in 1998, Chicago ownership told Phil Jackson to get lost, even though they knew that meant Jordan would retire. They hired Tim Floyd, MJ left, and the Bulls haven’t sniffed the Finals since.
Joining the NBA’s pantheon of dynasties is one challenge met. Golden State may be on the verge of meeting an even greater one. Of the nine Warriors who led the team in minutes this year, seven were under 30; four were 26 or younger. Those numbers don’t include Moody or James Wiseman, the prized 7-footer who missed this year recovering from a torn right meniscus after averaging 20 and 10 per 36 over an abbreviated rookie season.
Curry is Babe Ruth: whatever he looks like aging into his final years, he’ll be beloved, and let’s not act like retirement is breathing down his neck; this year, in an off-year for him, he averaged better than 25/5/6 while making 38 percent of the nearly 12 3-pointers he took per game. Thompson and Green are both under contract two more years; Green has a $27 million player option he’ll likely exercise for 2023-24, when he’s 33. The team has tough decisions to make in the meantime: Wiggins is a free agent after next season, and soon after that the organization has decisions to make regarding team options and possible extensions for Poole, Kuminga, Wiseman and Moody.
Can the Warriors finesse this balancing act to its endgame — a mostly seamless transition from one championship core to another? Given they’ve already shown the ability to morph from one kind of champion to another, then another, it seems unwise to bet against them. If they could climb from 15-50 to a championship in two years, how high might they build their castles in the sky when the pinnacle is their ground zero?