A lot can happen in five years. On March 19, 2012, a packed Oracle Arena took advantage of the opportunity provided by Chris Mullin’s jersey-retirement ceremony and lashed Joe Lacob with boos.
Only a year and a half earlier, Lacob’s ownership group, which included entertainment industry titan Peter Guber, purchased the Golden State Warriors from the hapless Chris Cohan for a then-record $450 million. The new owners fired Robert Rowell, the team’s dictatorial, wildly incompetent, and comically villainous team president. They brought in Jerry West, a living monument to the game, as a consultant. Mark Jackson, a respected former player, was hired as head coach. Klay Thompson was finishing up an eye-opening rookie campaign, a hedge against the uncertainty surrounding third-year guard Stephen Curry’s fragile ankles. In three months, the team would draft chunky-but-fiery Draymond Green out of Michigan State with the 35th pick. The foundational elements of Golden State’s coming greatness were clicking into place. In a little more than three years, the Warriors would win their first NBA championship since 1975. And still the boos crashed down.
The inciting event was the trade of inveterate gunner and professional Steph Curry–shine-blocker Monta Ellis, plus other pieces, for Milwaukee Bucks center Andrew Bogut and former We Believe gadfly Stephen "Captain Jack" Jackson, who was quickly rerouted to San Antonio for Richard Jefferson. Lacob, shaken by the boos, halted his introductory remarks several times. It fell to Mullin, the honoree of the night’s events, to attempt a rescue. The team icon strode into that lonely spotlight, placed his arm around Lacob, and pleaded repeatedly for patience. Still the boos came on. Finally, Rick Barry, the franchise’s irascible uncle, rode into the fray on his magic toupee.
"Come on, people. You fans are the greatest fans in the world, as everybody has said that," Barry said. "Show a little bit of class. This is a man that I’ve spent some time talking to. He is going to change this franchise. This is crazy, seriously. Come on, you’re doing yourself a disservice. … I know he’s going to do it, so give him the respect he deserves."
When you’re light-years ahead, it takes time for the wins and the fans to catch up. The Warriors finished that strike-shortened season with 23–43 record.
The Warriors are a juggernaut. They are on the precipice of their second title in three years (barring a collapse that would make the 3–1 meme seem like the cutest way to choke away a series). But even an unstoppable force has to start somewhere. The sheer number of flukey, once-in-a-generation events required to bring the Warriors to the mountaintop is notable. Here are the top seven.
1. The Minnesota Timberwolves Taking Point Guards Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn in the 2009 Draft
David Kahn’s tenure as Minnesota general manager was a slow-rolling disaster for the Timberwolves. The centerpiece of that desultory run was his performance during the 2009 draft. Kahn’s team was coming off a 24-win season and needed talent at every position, particularly at guard, where Sebastian Telfair and Kevin Ollie held sway. The day before the draft, Kahn swung a deal to acquire the no. 5 pick from the Washington Wizards in exchange for Randy Foye and locker-room rabbi Mike Miller. "This draft offers us an opportunity to begin transforming the Timberwolves into a team poised for long-term success, and the prospect of acquiring an additional asset in the no. 5 pick, along with some added depth in our frontcourt, was very attractive," said Kahn. "With six picks in the draft, including two in the top 10, I’m confident that we’re well on our way towards building a nice foundation of young talent here in Minnesota, and/or making further moves with an eye of flexibility."
Kahn went on to pass on Steph Curry — twice — selecting Spanish teen-hypebeast Ricky Rubio and Syracuse’s Jonny Flynn instead. You can kind of see what Kahn was thinking here. The Wolves would have to pay Joventut Badalona, Rubio’s ACB team, a buyout fee rumored to be in the $6–8 million range if they wanted him on the roster for 2009–10. Why pay that when you can simply draft Flynn — a pure distributor, unlike the offense-centric combo-guard Curry — and have him play the position until Ricky eventually comes over?
A) Flynn was a pick-and-roll player at Syracuse, and the Wolves would soon hire Lakers assistant and triangle offense acolyte Kurt Rambis as their head coach.
B) Flynn was really, really bad.
Two years later, Kahn flipped Flynn — whom, again, he picked over Steph Curry — to the Rockets for the rights to Nikola Mirotic, the pick that became Chandler Parsons, and a bunch of other stuff. Neither Mirotic nor Parsons ever suited up for the Wolves. Flynn, 28, has been out of the league since 2012.
The Warriors selected Steph Curry with the seventh pick.
2. Signing Curry to a Cut-Rate Extension Because His Ankles Were Made of Crushed Tic-Tacs and Daydreams
Less than a month after Oracle Arena vented nearly 18 years of invective onto Joe Lacob, Steph Curry — the baby-faced, 24-year-old sniper and future of the franchise — underwent surgery on his tattered right ankle. A litany of sprains and strained tendons limited him to only 26 games that season. It was his second procedure on the same ankle in as many years. The specters of past players whose once-bright stars dimmed due to lower-leg injuries hung over him.
On November 1, 2012, the Warriors, still keen on Steph’s plain-as-day talent and savant feel for the game despite the red flags, signed the guard to a deal meant to hedge against career-ending injury: four years, $44 million. It was a gamble. Could Curry even stay on the floor? The answer, resoundingly, has been oh fuck yes.
Curry would go on to redefine the very concept of what a bad shot is on an almost nightly basis, winning two league MVPs and a championship and piloting his squad to 73 regular-season wins. And he makes less, on a per-year basis, than fellow point guards Kemba Walker, Jeremy Lin, Rajon Rondo, Brandon Knight, Eric Bledsoe, Reggie Jackson, Goran Dragic, and Dennis Schröder. Steph’s below-market deal, combined with the salary cap explosion of 2015–2017 (more on this in a bit), gave the Warriors the economic flexibility to assemble — and sustain — their world-beating team.
"I wish we could’ve paid Steph more," Warriors GM Bob Myers told ESPN last season. Of course he does.
3. The Entire League Passing on Draymond Green
At 6-foot-7 and 230 pounds, Draymond Green was a tweener. Tweeners, at one time, were considered bad — too small for a big’s bruising interior duties, but too bulky to go scampering after perimeter players. Remember, in 2012, 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert’s ability to raise his arms straight up seemed like the future of defensive basketball. Draymond would go on to shake the traditional big man’s death rattle.
At school, Dray could shoot, dribble, and pass, and was the unquestioned star of his Michigan State team. He was also kind of pudgy. It was hard to see how Green would adapt to the pros without having a clear position and not being the star of the team. DraftExpress had his best-case career comparison as Ryan Gomes.
Instead, Draymond is (arguably) a top-10 player, the linchpin of the Warriors’ switch-whirlwind defense, the key that unlocked the lineup of death, an all-universe instigator, and the heart, soul, lungs, and balls of the Golden State Warriors. This team would not have conquered the league if not for Draymond Green turning into the best American second-round pick ever.
4. The Cap Spike of 2015–16
In 2014, the NBA and its broadcast partners announced a new television-rights deal that would pay the league $2.6 billion a year, for nine years, starting in the 2016–17 season. The salary cap was the single-most-powerful force in the NBA; it was responsible for what meager parity the NBA enjoyed. But once the television money hit the league’s bloodstream, the cap’s redistributive effect vanished under a deluge of cash. The cap ballooned from $70 million in 2015–16 to more than $94 million just a year later, allowing the 73-win Warriors to sign Kevin Durant in free agency.
5. The Thunder Blew a 3–1 Lead
When KD, Russ, and the Thunder booted the Warriors into the sun, 118–94, on May 24, 2016, the series looked over. Only nine teams had come back from a 3–1 series deficit in the 70-year history of the NBA. You’d see it maybe once a decade. And Curry was struggling; he looked out of sorts since slipping on a puddle of Donatas Motiejunas’s ass sweat in the first round against Houston.
Then the Warriors won Game 5, Klay Thompson laid down the tenets of Klaytheism in Game 6 (more on this in a bit), and Russ went 7-for-21 in Game 7. The Warriors went on to the Finals. Does Kevin Durant move to the Bay if the Thunder win that series?
6. Klay Thompson = Human Grease Fire in Game 6 Against the Thunder
The Thunder were leading by seven with five minutes left in the game when Klay flared out to 28 feet and broke the record for most 3-pointers in a playoff game. His 11th 3-pointer, a dagger in Kevin Durant’s eyeball, broke a 101–101 tie with 1:35 left in the game and had the Warriors’ bench speaking tongues. If Klay doesn’t single-handedly shoot Golden State over the top, the Thunder go to the Finals against Cleveland.
7. Jerry West Throwing Himself on the Tracks to Stop a Rumored Klay Thompson–for–Kevin Love Trade
Jerry West was brought in to be Oracle’s oracle. Five decades of success as a player and an executive, at the highest levels of the sport, gave West a singular perspective on the NBA. He is the league’s institutional memory made flesh.
Little wonder the team listened when Jerry threatened to resign if the Warriors included Klay Thompson in a proposed trade for Kevin Love. West, according to reports, felt that Klay’s defensive abilities were integral to the team’s identity. While Love has improved his defense lately, he’ll never make a difference on that side of the ball. This gets at an interesting aspect of the Warriors’ dominance: They are as much a next-level defensive team as they are a revolutionary offensive team.