The last time I saw Klay Thompson it was far away from the confines of any arena. It was in July, inside a local deli tucked in the Oakland hills. Upon spotting him, I asked how his summer was going.
“Great, happy to be back healthy,” he replied as he waited for his sandwich. “I just busted Steph’s ass. He’s shifty as hell. Really hard to guard one-on-one. But he’s getting me better.”
Through his mask, you could see his excitement—which was shared by many within the Warriors organization, and for good reason. Eighteen months after Thompson tore his left ACL in Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals, he, Stephen Curry, and Draymond Green were all expected to be healthy at the same time for the first time since their last title run in 2018.
“We were really excited about the season,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said by phone on Sunday afternoon. “We’d been itching to get to this spot.”
But those hopes were dashed hours before the 2020 NBA draft. Thompson’s agent, Greg Lawrence, called Bob Myers to deliver the news that Thompson had gone down with a lower-leg injury during a workout in Southern California, and it didn’t look good. A day later, an MRI confirmed that Thompson had torn his right Achilles, sidelining him for a second straight season. Since the Warriors lost the 2019 NBA Finals, those within the organization have held out hope that last season, when the injured Warriors mustered only 15 wins, would be a stopgap in a dynastic run. But in the wake of Thompson’s prognosis, the team is reckoning with the prospect of a different future.
“I think people feel bad for us, but the league doesn’t stop for us,” Kerr said. “We need to try to do what we can to get ready for next season.”
Adapting to the rest of the league is a relatively new idea for Golden State. Four years ago, Warriors co–executive chairman Joe Lacob said the organization was “light years” ahead of the rest of the league. At the time, his words had merit. His team was in the midst of a 73-win season, and months away from signing Kevin Durant in free agency. In five years, the Warriors won three titles and accumulated a 79 percent winning percentage, marking the best stretch in NBA history. Those fortunes changed last summer when Durant left. Thompson spent the season recovering, and Curry played just five games because of a broken hand. With a skeleton roster, the team finished with the league’s worst record, watching the postseason from home for the first time in eight years.
Those misfortunes haven’t stopped Golden State from spending. The Warriors have made efforts to improve the squad, including a trade for Kelly Oubre, while signing guards Brad Wanamaker and Kent Bazemore. As a result of Oubre’s signing, Golden State’s tax bill could balloon to $134 million, without attendance revenue to offset the cost, despite Lacob’s recent efforts. But they have yet to get a big man to compete with the size of the world-champion Lakers, Clippers, and Nuggets.
However, the answer to Golden State’s lack of interior presence could be the addition of no. 2 overall pick James Wiseman, a 7-foot-1, 235-pound athletic specimen. Though he played just three games at Memphis, his size, athleticism, and potential had him atop most mock drafts, alongside Anthony Edwards and LaMelo Ball. After Golden State’s season was cut short in March due to COVID-19, Kerr said he watched all of Wiseman’s collegiate games and even a high school appearance in the 2019 Hoops Summit, when he had 12 points and eight rebounds.
“You just rarely see an athlete like James,” Kerr said. “You rarely see a guy 7 feet tall who moves like that with that kind of coordination and hands and character.”
Kerr said he was convinced that Wiseman was his choice in June, when Warriors brass talked to the 19-year-old via Zoom, had his belief strengthened following an in-person workout in Miami, and didn’t waver even after the team worked out “eight or nine” prospects in preparation for the draft.
“He was a leader in the clubhouse,” Kerr said. “And then it was a matter of really making sure we watched all the other guys and evaluated everybody. And the other guys were impressive too. I mean, Ball and Edwards really stood out, obviously. I think the whole league had those three guys as the top three. ... Everybody probably always says this, but I can tell you without hesitation, James was the top guy all along.”
Developing while contending is no easy task, and the Warriors weren’t successful bringing along young players as they filled their trophy case. Of their last seven first-round picks, just three are still on the roster. The trend changed last season as forward Eric Paschall, a second-round pick, averaged 14.0 points and 4.6 rebounds, finishing on the All-Rookie First Team. Golden State’s success with younger players last season can be attributed to the team’s veteran core, most notably Green, who was known to take Paschall, fellow rookie Jordan Poole, and journeyman Marquese Chriss under his wing. When Chriss was invited to training camp last season on a nonguaranteed deal, after failed stops in Phoenix, Cleveland, and Houston, Green took Chriss aside and told him, “This is your opportunity to f—k up,” the veteran forward recalled last November. “You’re going to have an opportunity to show yourself. Take advantage of it.” Weeks later, following a preseason loss to the Lakers, Green defended Chriss’s reputation. Chriss rewarded Green’s trust, earning a roster spot and becoming a key contributor to the team. Green has already extended the same blunt encouragement to Wiseman.
“As soon as I got drafted, Draymond said, ‘Hey, look, as soon as you get drafted—ain’t nobody going to notice you got drafted the next day. So be ready to work,’” Wiseman said during his introductory press conference. “And Steph actually texted me, gave me words of encouragement. I just can’t wait to just put in the work, have fun with my teammates, work out, and just uplift each other.”
This year, however, there are stakes. Wiseman won’t have the luxury of learning through losses, and Green may not have as much patience. Despite Thompson’s injury, Golden State believes it has a chance this season. Lacob said he refuses to tank; Kerr says he feels the same, but says Golden State must be better defensively—a tall task with Thompson out of the lineup. Nonetheless, winning is still expected in the Bay Area, but the process will look a bit different.
“We have to adapt,” Kerr said. “We have a different look. We can be really good. We can be different. But we’ve got to figure out what that means and how it plays out.”