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Can the Divided Warriors Still Conquer This NBA Season?

After the punch heard around the league, Golden State is hoping its players can sort everything out on the court

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When Jordan Poole stepped to a podium at the Chase Center in San Francisco over the weekend, hours removed from signing a $140 million contract extension, he knew he first had to address a different matter.

“So I’ll start in regards to the Draymond situation,” the Golden State Warriors guard told reporters. “He apologized. Professional. We plan on handling ourselves that way. We’re going to play basketball and everybody in the locker room and on our team knows what it takes to win the championship, and we’re going to do that on the court. And I mean, that’s really all I have to say on the matter.”

The statement was the bookend to a weeklong saga that started in the Warriors’ practice facility, a few feet from where Poole spoke. Draymond Green, one of the pillars of Golden State’s multi-title run, punched Poole in the face during a scrimmage, despite little to no provocation. The blow was caught on tape and later leaked to TMZ. It fractured a friendship and may have even started the clock on Green’s Bay Area exit.

The Warriors didn’t suspend Green over the incident. Instead, they issued a fine of an undisclosed amount and allowed him to return to practice last Thursday. For now, as the reigning NBA champions prepare to officially begin their title defense on Tuesday night, the organization is handling the skirmish like it has throughout its near-decade run of prominence: by trusting that its culture can absorb any blows as long as the core of Green, Steph Curry, and Klay Thompson remains intact.

Along the way to four titles and six Finals appearances, the Warriors have frequently let their players hash out their own disagreements without major punishments. Green lashed out at head coach Steve Kerr at halftime of a 2016 regular-season road matchup against the Thunder, to the point where police considered entering the locker room. But the forward missed no time because of the incident. They even stood by Green when Kevin Durant left the organization months after Green called him out in a vicious verbal attack during a 2018 regular-season game against the Clippers.

So while pundits and players criticized Golden State’s lack of punishment last week—including Bucks veteran Bobby Portis, who served an eight-game, team-issued suspension for punching a teammate when he played for the Bulls in 2017—the Warriors are once again opting to let time heal the wounds.

“None of this is comfortable,” Warriors general manager Bob Myers said Sunday. “I would say that we did the best we could, and picked the decision that we thought was the best for the organization. As far as it being easy or comfortable, it wasn’t, it isn’t. The work now has to be forward. That’s all we can do at this point. The decision’s been made and I think the players, the coaches, and the organization has been through it, and I think we’ll be OK.”

The task of mitigating the tension instead has been delegated to the players in the locker room. Among the vital voices has been center Kevon Looney, whom Kerr recently called the team’s “moral compass.” Looney, who was drafted by the Warriors in 2015, has been present for all but one of Golden State’s Finals runs and a vital part of three. As such, he holds the unique distinction as a player who’s gained the respect of Golden State’s veteran leadership while also being young enough to relate to the team’s younger players. Also, like Poole, he’s a native of Milwaukee, and an eager listener should Poole have complaints.

“For [Poole] it’s hard, because you can’t tell somebody how to feel or tell nobody what to do in a situation like that,” Looney told me recently. “You have to let guys figure it out on their own. You just have to want to be there for them and let him vent to you, just be a support for him. And let him get through his thoughts himself, and make sure he feels good about basketball and off the court. And try to be there for him. We don’t even talk about it. You just want to be a friend.”

While unconventional, it’s an approach Golden State’s coach hopes will work.

“I think the more time we get away from the things, the better,” Kerr told me last week, just before Green played in the Warriors’ preseason finale. “We had our conversations about what we needed to do moving forward and we’re going to do that. We’re not going to continue to hold on to the past. Doesn’t mean people don’t have feelings towards what happened or a situation, but we do all have goals, individual goals, team goals, and we understand what needs to be done in order to reach those and that’s our focus.”

The problem is that some individual goals have collided. As the Warriors convened for training camp, several key players were up for extensions, including Poole and Green. Poole was expected to come to an agreement before Monday’s deadline for rookie extensions, and ultimately agreed to a new four-year pact over the weekend. Andrew Wiggins, a key player in the 2022 title run, also signed a four-year, $109 million extension. But with the Warriors’ tax bill climbing to historic levels—current estimates have their payroll at nearly half a billion next season—Green was unlikely to get a new deal. Even before the punch, the divide between the future and the past was hard to ignore.

Most accounts suggest that Green’s attack on Poole was unrelated to the contract situations, that he came into the facility in a bad mood. “The day that that took place, I was in a very, very, very bad space mentally dealing with some things in my personal life,” Green said. However, after his run-in with Poole, it’s possible he won’t last in Golden State beyond this season, with a player option for the 2023-24 season awaiting him this summer.

Until then, Green has to find a way to mend fences with the Warriors’ younger core. While Green can be tough on teammates, he had become a mentor for many of Golden State’s young players in recent years. When Janet Jackson made a tour stop at the Chase Center in 2019, Green invited the youngsters to his suite. “That’s been my guy,” second-year guard Moses Moody said last week. “I can go over there talking to him, talk to him about anything, go to his house. So I feel like he has a real strong relationship with me. I don’t know about anybody else, can’t speak for anybody else, but for me, I don’t see how it could be any stronger.”

And when young’uns like James Wiseman struggled with injuries and inconsistency, Green would provide reassurance that everything would work itself out. “He told me a lot of stuff on what I need to work on,” Wiseman told me last season. “But him just telling me that stuff, and me going through my ups and downs, in terms of my experience my first year, really helped me out a lot. In terms of, as a basketball player, in terms of, mentally. Everything, like knowing the game, reading the game, and stuff like this. He taught me a lot of stuff.”

But Green’s closest relationship among the young core was with Poole. The duo had grown close since the Warriors drafted Poole with the 28th pick in 2019. When veterans complained about Poole’s arrogance, Green had his back. And when Poole struggled to find his footing in the league while Curry and Thompson battled injuries, Green reassured him that he would figure things out. “He was pretty accepting. He was willing to take me under his wing,” Poole told me last fall. “I want to say Steph was injured and Klay was out, so out of the Big Three, Draymond was the person I was around the most. And his locker was next to mine. So, as small as that is, it’s kind of a big deal to come see him every day. Even on the road, he’d tell me to come to his room, and I essentially was his rookie. So, we kind of spent a lot of time together my first two years.”

When Poole toiled in the G League, Green made a point to check in with the young guard. During a matchup against G League Ignite in 2021, Poole traded verbal jabs at then-Ignite coach Brian Shaw. The exchange was so surprising that Shaw called Golden State’s front office to share his concerns about the young guard’s behavior. By the end of the evening, Kris Weems, then the head coach of the Santa Cruz Warriors, received a few calls and a voicemail from a number he didn’t recognize. After a few minutes, a text from the unknown number revealed its sender: “Yo, it’s DG,” it read. “What’s up with JP?”

“It’s really a big brother–little brother relationship,” Poole told me last fall. “Sometimes it can turn into like a mentor–mentee situation with some players, but for Draymond, it was just like, he’s big bro and I’m little bro. He went to Michigan State, I went to Michigan, so he’ll use that card slightly, but I think we just kind of had the same sort of background, the same type of hunger, the same motivation, and obviously being African American men in today’s society. [When he gets] the chance that he gets to really kind of put knowledge on somebody, to kind of put somebody on game, he will.”

But the punch divided them. Following the incident, some within Poole’s circle didn’t want him to sign the extension because the team dynamics would be too difficult to repair. Before Green was reinstated, team officials approached Poole with the decision and asked him to sign off on it.

Over the weekend, Poole was asked whether his brotherhood with Green still exists. “If I said it, I meant it,” he replied. “Like I said, we’re here to play basketball, and our teammates and coaching staff and the organization, everybody knows what it takes to win a championship. And when we get out there on that court, we all have one common goal. Get the job done, win as many games as we can, and try to repeat.”

Green, for his part, has been contrite when speaking to reporters: “I didn’t handle that well,” he said days after the punch. “And I failed as a leader and, in turn, I failed as a man. I failed as a leader and, in turn, it’s led to this. And so for me personally, I have to take what comes with that. I have to deal with that and continue to better myself as I will. Like I said before, rebuild the trust and relationships in this locker room because ultimately that is what is most important to me. And making sure this team can come together and compete at the absolute highest level that we know we need to compete at to do what we’re setting out to do. And that goal doesn’t change.”

So far, the road back to friendship has been slow. Green and Poole exchanged a brief hug before Friday’s preseason game. Poole even sat next to Green in the first quarter, though the exchanges weren’t as affectionate as usual.

But a glimpse of how the two could repair the damage came Thursday morning, during Green’s first practice back since the incident. There was tension leading up to Green’s arrival, and around the uncertainty of whether Green and Poole would coexist. Then, at some point during a scrimmage, Green and Poole found themselves on the same team, alongside Curry. After a while, Green and Poole were running pick-and-rolls, completely in sync without saying a word. Just as Golden State hoped, the game was bringing them back together.

“It’s not really what I think, it’s about his teammates,” Myers said. “It’s not something I can answer. They can answer. And time will tell, you’ll see the results out there. You won’t need me to sit up here and tell you how it’s going with the players. So that question, I know we want an answer to now, but that question will be answered over the course of the season, like it should.”

The Warriors know they have as good a chance as any team to win the title this season if they can overcome this discord. But as they begin their quest for a fifth title in nine years, there’s as much caution as there is optimism.

“He’s got some work to do to get that trust back from us,” Looney said of Green. “But I think he’s willing to do it.”