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Learning to Love the Warriors Again

Golden State has been the NBA’s overwhelming favorite for so long that it’s hard to remember a time when the team was a scrappy underdog. But as the injuries and losses mount, the franchise is no longer the league’s villain.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In January 2017, when construction began on the Chase Center, the Warriors’ new arena, it was difficult to not get swept up in the metaphor of it all: Golden State—a startup that had blossomed into a market leader—was abandoning its proving ground in Oakland and moving to San Francisco. Never mind that the city, the team’s owners, and former commissioner David Stern had agreed to funding in 2012, when the team was coming off a season when the playoffs were a pipe dream and David Lee was king. The symbolism was, like the move itself, too rich let go.

As the Chase Center rose out of the dirt, Golden State won its fifth championship. Kevin Durant was named Finals MVP. It was nearly a sweep, save a 40-point performance by Kyrie Irving. The entire affair was good for confirming the Warriors were both untouchable and unbearable, Durant’s presence making it impossible to beat them or cheer for them. The following postseason, it happened again. Again, Cleveland lost; again, Golden State won. Except this time, mercifully, the Warriors didn’t whiff the kill shot, and the Cavs were finished in four games. After that, Golden State felt something more than untouchable. The Hamptons Five wasn’t just out of reach, it was a lineup on a different plane of reality. Golden State couldn’t be beaten.

After years of planning, spending, and building, basketball in the Chase Center got off to an unfortunate start. In the team’s October 24 opener, the Warriors lost to the Clippers by 19 points. A lot, really, has been unfortunate for the Warriors of late. They lost to the Raptors in the 2019 Finals, a sentence that still catches me off guard, four months later, because of the utter improbability (see above); Durant left to sign with the Nets; Klay Thompson, who tore his ACL in Game 6, is likely to miss the entire season; Steph Curry broke his hand last week and won’t return for at least three months; Draymond Green is out with a sprained left index finger; new Splash Baby Brother D’Angelo Russell is having ankle issues and has missed the past two contests. Golden State, at 2-5, has the third-worst record in the Western Conference. Even before the in-season injuries began, it was obvious that the Warriors were in for a public humbling, just as it was obvious the public wanted to relish in it. That we knew two championships ago. It’s the depth of the Warriors’ despair so far that’s made way for a revelation: It’s not possible to hate-watch this Golden State.

It took five home games to finally christen the Chase Center with a win, which came Monday against Portland, 127-118, without Thompson, without Curry, without Green, and without Russell. There was no Andre Iguodala (traded in July), no Shaun Livingston (retired in September), no Quinn Cook (signed with the Lakers), no Jordan Bell (signed with the Timberwolves). Not a single player from the 2018 championship team participated. The longest-tenured active Warrior on Monday night was Damion Lee, a two-way player picked up 16 months ago who averaged 11.7 minutes last season and, as Curry’s brother-in-law, was initially dismissed as a nepotism signing.

Here’s the lineup that started against the Blazers, in front of an awfully sparse Chase Center crowd: Ky Bowman, Jordan Poole, Glenn Robinson III, Eric Paschall, Willie Cauley-Stein. Together, they had started a total 265 NBA games. Cauley-Stein was responsible for 201 of those, which makes a man the Sacramento Kings were desperate to discard last season the most experienced starter on this team. Three-fifths of that lineup has less than two weeks of NBA exposure; Golden State selected Poole 28th and Paschall 41st, while Bowman went undrafted.

These are the men that Steve Kerr asked to face last year’s Western Conference finals runner-up. I wasn’t sure whether to pity them or be happy for them; Paschall decided for me 33 seconds into the game, when he hit the first 3-pointer of his career. Then, 43 seconds later, Paschall hit the the second 3-pointer of his career, and tweets with his name spelled a variety of incorrect ways began populating. (Hint: It’s not Pascal.) The broadcast shared that it was Paschall’s birthday, and I wondered when I last learned an anecdote about a Warriors starter. I know Curry’s draft story, his injury history, the Davidson years, and his childhood memories watching Dell as well as I know the step he takes to the left before catch-and-shoot 3s, and the way his body bends to sell an in-and-out dribble. The Warriors’ reign wasn’t just maddeningly stellar, it was repetitive. Toward the end, their stars agreed: They were bored. In turn, they were boring. But this? This is fresh:

Golden State wore throwback jerseys from the Wilt Chamberlain era on Monday. It was appropriate, since Paschall finished with 34 points; the Warriors have had 92 games in franchise history when a rookie finished with at least 34 points, and Wilt was behind 49 of them. It was convenient too. Removing the visual association from the dynasty made this weird, new Warriors team easier to watch without wishing for their demise. They’re learning on the go, at the same time viewers are learning them. Monday taught me that Bowman is the kind of player willing to square up with Hassan Whiteside, who is 11 inches his senior, and that Poole has the ability to provoke Rodney Hood to ridiculously cheap-shot him in transition. But it was the clapping and hugging and newfound camaraderie between overjoyed and underestimated young men that reset all schadenfreude.

When was the last time Golden State was enchanting? There’s the 2007 playoff run blazed by Nellie Ball and those blinding orange jerseys. They Believed; I was charmed. There’s early Steph Curry, made of the real heroic stuff, when his shimmies and shakes and shots were the most endearing thing in basketball. There’s the title team that kicked off this era, which prompted an admiration for the front office that had the cunning to draft a handful of championship pieces—Curry, Thompson, Green, and Harrison Barnes—and grow them in-house, rather than recruit. (Before the Warriors became the poster child for “This Is Your Brain on Player Empowerment,” they were celebrated for doing things organically.) Durant came to the Warriors on a gold-and-blue platter. Signing KD made the rich richer, turning Golden State from an overwhelming threat to a monopoly, the closest a league of 30 will ever be to a proverbial 1 percent. It’s why analogizing the Warriors’ success with the wealth in San Francisco seemed so accurate.

Durant left this summer, but the antipathy among-non Warriors fans stayed. I can’t blame you for holding on to it after years of being crushed, or for having sympathy for the original fans, who suffered through a 18-year stretch in which the team made the playoffs just once only for the franchise to erect a palace built for tech-bro fans who wear jerseys over button-ups and can afford $300 seats. Curry, Thompson, and Green will eventually all return, with a new All-Star in Russell by their side. The Warriors won’t be short-staffed and pleasantly decent like they were Monday forever. There’s no guarantee that Golden State will be a powerhouse again, either, once it’s back to full health. But for now, its name doesn’t have the same overtone it used to. There is no automatic expectation that the team will win each game. It’s easier to cheer for an underdog than the favorite, and it’s more fun to watch when you’re unsure which is which. There’s a newness—one that isn’t adding another superstar—that the Warriors haven’t had in years. A once-impenetrable dynasty is now another team hoping to prove it can be unique. Loved, even.