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The Warriors’ Patience During the Klay-less Years Paid Off

Savvy trades and an investment in youth helped pave the way, but in the end, Golden State knew the road back to the Finals was the same road to getting Klay Thompson healthy

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After the final buzzer sounded on the Warriors’ 120-110 win over the Mavericks, Klay Thompson kept looking up—to the Chase Center rafters, or to something beyond them—shouting out to no one in particular. “Just such a surreal feeling,” he said later. “It’s hard to put into words, really.” There was a lot to process: the pride in restoring a dynasty, as the Warriors earned their sixth trip to the NBA Finals in eight seasons; the gratification of contending again after two lost years, in which Thompson’s recovery from a torn ACL spilled into his recovery from a ruptured Achilles tendon; and, in all of that, how it felt to be Klay Thompson again. To be the kind of unflappable shooter who could put away the Mavs by hitting eight 3-pointers (en route to 32 points), only to note afterward that he should have drained 10.

“This time last year, I was just starting to jog again and get up and down the court,” Thompson said. “Now to be feeling like myself, feeling explosive, feeling sure in my movements, I’m just grateful.” As the festivities began on the Warriors’ home court, Thompson bounced around, hugging his teammates. And whenever he found a moment to himself in between embraces, he would look up.

The Warriors have made clear that their road back was also Klay’s road back. There are other well-known stakeholders (most notably: newly crowned Western Conference finals MVP Stephen Curry and the absolutely essential Draymond Green) and other mitigating circumstances (where to even begin?) in the dynasty’s two-year recess, but it was the prospect of Thompson’s return that bolstered Golden State’s belief in a revival. When the Warriors lost—and they lost more than any other team in the 2019-20 season—they held that a healthy Klay could help get them back to solid ground. When the Warriors won, they pointed to Klay as the variable that would make them even tougher to beat.

“Last year felt like we spent the year trying to get back on track,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “And I think we did at the end of the season. I thought last year’s finish, even though we lost in the play-in, winning 15 of our last 20, kind of finding our mojo a little bit, and knowing Klay Thompson was coming back this season—I thought last year was a springboard into this one.” A run to the Finals is never really the work of a single season. If the Warriors do become the 2022 NBA champions, it will be three years in the making, if not seven, if not 10.

Golden State might not be Finals-bound if not for the wildfire development of Jordan Poole, and Poole might never have found the oxygen to grow his game without injuries to Thompson and Curry along the way. The lower stakes of an incomplete roster gave the 22-year-old guard just what he needed to thrive. During those intervening years, the Warriors also traded for Andrew Wiggins and helped him pivot from a misguided iso scorer to a designated defensive stopper. The hounding, full-court pressure that frustrated Luka Doncic throughout the Western Conference finals (including Thursday’s Game 5, when Doncic shot 10-for-28 from the field) was the culmination of a 28-month process that ultimately changed the alignment of the Warriors’ defense.

“I told him: ‘Wow, you make my job so much easier,’” Thompson said. “‘I don’t have to chase these guys around like I once did. We have a defender like you.’”

Wiggins and Poole now look the part of fully fledged Warriors—in part because Kerr never bailed on his cascading offensive system, even when some of the teenagers Golden State drafted in the lottery struggled to acclimate to its rhythms. The long road paid off. Poole now moves and attacks like Curry. Wiggins found ways to space the floor and move the ball and still be explosive in the gaps. And two of those teenagers—Moses Moody and Jonathan Kuminga—have stepped into the rotation at various points in this run to fill vital minutes and make big plays. A less capable franchise might have retreated faster from its approach of working in young players, to fare better in the immediate. Golden State doesn’t really operate that way.

“We don’t chase wins during the regular season,” Green said. “We chase improvement during the regular season.”

A franchise can afford to take that patient approach when it knows that, surely, its three stars—the foundation of one of the great dynasties in modern sports history—would be back in the lineup together again. That doesn’t necessarily make the wait any easier. “I can’t remember what the number was,” Curry said after Thursday’s game, racking his brain. “But since the 2019 Finals, how many days it was that me, Klay, Draymond hadn’t even played on the same court?” It was 1,005 days. One thousand and five days passed between sightings of the real, fully formed Warriors. Some were bleak; there were truly cursed games from that 2019-20 season that can never be unseen. Yet Golden State tried to maintain championship habits in a lost-cause season, and it paid off in the brimming confidence of Poole and the slow-burn development of Wiggins and Kevon Looney.

“We always knew we had championship DNA,” Poole said. “Maybe the pieces didn’t fit at first, the first two years. [But] you could tell that was the core.”

You could tell, in other words, that the Warriors had enough to find a way. Curry is 34 years old, Green and Thompson are both 32, and yet it feels like another window is opening—all without any singular young superstar in waiting. It’s still Curry who led the team in points and assists in the conference finals, and who claimed the series MVP by a unanimous vote. It was Curry who forced the Mavericks to compromise their defensive game plan by switching more than they were comfortable, and then wrecked their coverage anyway. It’s Curry who makes it possible for the Warriors to plug-and-play so many different kinds of supporting players, because of all the many allowances that come when you share the floor with the greatest shooter to ever live.

“We found a way to create the culture that it starts with us, but everybody else gets to eat, too,” Curry said. “I guess that’s the fun part.” It seems the fun won’t stop there. The first playoff run in the Chase Center will be christened with its first Finals, and maybe even its first championship. These are the standards the Warriors foster: not a championship, but a first championship. Green told reporters after Game 5 that he had “always believed” a team with Curry, Thompson, and himself would have another chance at a title, and that’s probably true. Yet once the series was over and the blue and gold streamers fell, the Warriors showed us something else. Giddy smiles beneath a commemorative hat. Dancing and towel-waving and fist-pumping. Long, knowing embraces. Some of the most accomplished players in the NBA, living this moment—in pure elation—like they had never been here before.

“The low moments,” Thompson said, “make the high ones so much sweeter.”