Towels draped around their sweaty scalps, Gary Payton II and Stephen Curry stood together on the sideline during the final minutes of Golden State’s blowout win against the Celtics in Game 2 of the NBA Finals.
The Warriors teammates, both about 6-foot-3, meet each other’s eyeline. They both have NBA lineage. Their fathers, Gary Payton and Dell Curry, dueled in the ’90s. Both inherited the magic in their fathers’ hands, which is where the differences begin.
Dell passed down his shooting touch to his eldest son, whose feather-soft fingertips would eventually guide in more 3-pointers than any player in NBA history. Gary II inherited the long, pliable mitts that earned his dad the nickname “The Glove.” But the revolution that Curry’s touch fueled in turn boxed Payton, a guard with a shaky jumper, out of the modern NBA.
Payton went undrafted in 2016 and spent the next six years on five G League teams. Meanwhile, in Golden State, Curry drew even more attention, allowing non-shooters like Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green to coexist with him. NBA offenses copied the Warriors, loading up on shooters and creating even more space.
Space begs to be filled. Teams following Golden State started searching for their own Iguodalas and Greens: non-shooters who are smart, physical and explosive, who maximize openings for points at the rim—the most coveted shots in basketball—and are strong enough to guard bigs and agile enough to guard wings.
Six years after Payton went undrafted, the Warriors finally created enough space to let him in.
At Oregon State, Payton reminded his teammate Langston Morris-Walker of a different Warrior. “He always told me I played like Andre Iguodala, and I was like a smaller version of Iggy, because I didn’t shoot the ball well,” Payton says, “but I did everything else pretty well.”
Iguodala’s journey took him from miscast scorer in Philadelphia to Swiss Army knife sixth man, defending, handling the ball, and making plays for the Warriors. In the 2015 Finals, head coach Steve Kerr made a gutsy move by starting the 6-foot-6 Iguodala in Game 4 in place of injured center Andrew Bogut. They won the series, perfecting a yin-and-yang that has defined this decade’s Warriors.
The next season, Golden State’s Death Lineup incinerated teams on offense, posting a 135 offensive rating behind torrid movement, shooting, and transition baskets. Their defensive rating was just 94.9, making up for a lack of size with speed, physicality, and guile.
The Overton window for what made an effective NBA player was shifting, but not fast enough for Payton, a whole 3 inches shorter than Iguodala, to get drafted in 2016.
Payton tumbled into the G League, clawing for scarce playing time among other basketball misfits. He scored his first NBA basket on April 2, 2017, with the Milwaukee Bucks. The next season, they signed him to a two-way contract. Traveling up and down from the Wisconsin Herd, the Bucks’ G League affiliate, he started four games in a row for the Bucks in December and came off the bench in a loss to Houston.
He was making progress, but the 45 days of NBA service allotted to two-way players was running out. Despite the decision reportedly not sitting well with the locker room, Payton was told he was being waived before the team flew back to Milwaukee. It wasn’t the first time he’d been cut. The Rockets had waived Payton during the preseason in 2016. But it was his first brush with this particular sting of failure.
“It kind of blindsided me,” he says. “It hit harder because I felt like I was growing. I had spent a lot of time with the team, and I showed them what I can do.”
He went on to have stints with the South Bay Lakers, Rio Grande Valley Vipers, Capital City Go-Go, and Washington Wizards. Surviving multiple cuts taught him a valuable lesson: In the G League, improvement didn’t necessarily lead to opportunity. He couldn’t take anything that happened personally, because it wasn’t.
In early 2021, with the Raptors 905, he stood in front of his teammates and delivered a speech on coach Patrick Mutombo’s topic of the week: perseverance.
Matt Morgan, a 6-foot-2 guard out of Cornell, listened intently. He had been glued to the bench all season, watching Malachi Richardson, sent down from Raptors proper, eat up his minutes.
“Guys are sent to us and the expectation is they need to play minutes. That’s the nature of the beast,” says Mutombo.
“People can’t help you in situations like that,” says Payton, “but I think it’s important for whoever’s going through it to understand it personally. Just understand sometimes it may not be you, the reason that things didn’t go well. It’s a business side to it, too.”
Payton dragged Morgan out of his hotel room and into the gym, and told him the only thing he could do was keep working and waiting. “Some people have different paths they have to take to get to where they ultimately want to be,” Morgan says. “I think that was one message that resonated with me.”
Payton was a helpful conveyer of unorthodox lessons, like the fact that scouts looking for 15th men were more impressed by playing a simple role perfectly than 50-point games.
Payton had been asked to play that simple role since his AAU days. “I had trouble scoring back then,” he says. “I didn’t have that offensive game like that. But they just told me like, ‘Go steal and go dunk it, if you need a bucket.’”
You can’t just ask most players to get steals, which are usually the product of some mistake—an obvious crosscourt pass, a bobbled dribble. Payton honed the ability through the years. He learned to poke the ball away from behind dribblers right as they turn off picks; to swipe at a bouncing ball when it’s closest to the floor, a.k.a. farthest from the protective shell of the dribbler’s hand. He realized that aiming his trajectory toward the receiver on interception attempts would give him more time to go for the ball when it’s in the air.
And this part is key: When he does get his hands on the ball, Payton possesses the uncanny ability to deflect it in the direction he wants it to go. This subtle manipulation of the details has a large effect, like Bill Russell blocking shots to himself in place of the drama of slapping them out of bounds. Payton aims the ball into midcourt and chases it for easy dunks.
Payton, both engine and fuel, helped the Warriors generate 17.6 percent of their points from turnovers when he was on the floor, the second highest on the team, behind Iguodala.
“He knows before they even know where he’s going to throw it,” says Morgan, who learned those tricks from Payton.
But the Warriors were just as interested in what Payton could bring to the locker room as what he could bring on the court. Scarce minutes often make veterans hesitant to share tips and guards hesitant to share touches. In this cutthroat environment, Payton’s helpful nature stood out.
Warriors assistant coach Jama Mahlalela, whose time with Payton overlapped with the Raptors 905, noticed Payton’s leadership. “To me, that’s special,” says Mahlalela. “Most people don’t have a sort of servant’s heart where they want to help those around them.”
“He’s very unselfish,” says Morgan. “He really looks out for his teammates and I think that’s why he fits the Warriors culture right now so well.”
The origins of Payton finding his space in Golden State’s Chase Center can be traced to events taking place almost a decade ago, across the country.
In 2014, Alex Popp took on his first head coaching role at Vermont Academy, where Bruce Brown had just arrived.
Brown was a burly point guard with shaky range. His background in football made him comfortable with physicality. “A lot of young players who have those tools shy away from taking advantage of it because they’re afraid they’ll be labeled as a frontcourt player,” says Popp, now a coach at IMG Academy. “It’s so important to the insecure coach and the insecure player to market themselves at the position they think that’s advantageous for them to make millions, but the thing that got Bruce to this point was that he always just played to win.”
Popp would run the team through rebounding drills that he stole from college legends like Tom Izzo and Jim Calhoun. The ball was “live” coming out of the basket, meaning it was up for grabs by the offense and defense. The restricted area would become a moshpit of desperate rebounders. Brown clawed above the others, snatching the ball with his long wingspan.
“Feelings were getting hurt. Not all our guys were gifted physically as Bruce Brown and not all our guys had football backgrounds, so there weren’t a whole lot of fouls being called either,” Popp remembers.
Popp, who watched future NBA wing Malcolm Miller play in the post and roll off back screens as an assistant at College of the Holy Cross, plugged Brown into the same role.
“It’s serving him well now,” Popp says, “because he just has so many different types of finishing moves and finishing shots, 8 feet and in.”
In the 2020 offseason, when the Nets traded for Brown, Popp was initially worried about how the second-round draft pick would fit into a roster jammed on the perimeter that featured Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant and eventually included James Harden, three of the game’s greatest scorers.
But the more he thought about it, the more he wondered if the things that made Brown different from his teammates would help him stand out. “Here’s a guy who is in the 99th percentile as a defender and rebounder.” Popp says. The way the roster was built, people are gonna be less concerned with his shooting and they’re gonna fall in love with the fact that he wants to roll up his sleeves and do the dirty work.”
Steve Nash, a player development consultant for the Warriors before becoming the Nets head coach, dialed up the Warriors’ freewheeling and improvisational ethos in Brooklyn, where there was even more space to work with.
The offense lacked structure and leaned on the creative powers of the All-Stars, sometimes to a fault. But it also left room for players to sort out problems naturally.
In the Nets’ fluid, spacey offense, a discovery was made: Small ball was ready to go even smaller.
Early in the 2020-21 season, with the Nets’ frontcourt depth depleted by injuries, Nash plucked Brown from the depths of the rotation. He started screening and slipping into open space on the short roll, drilling floaters and kicking out to open shooters in the corner for 3s when defenders rotated. Brown became one of the Nets’ most reliable perimeter defenders and rebounders. The Nets, lacking a modern playmaking 4, found an unorthodox one in Brown.
The Nets’ scoring talent created such an unprecedented level of space that it was bound to spawn strange new evolutions. Brown, with his 6-foot-4 frame and his ability to cut and roll, was one of the first.
“He played point the vast majority of his career and now he’s literally playing four and five at the highest level,” Popp says. “The game is changing.”
The Warriors coaching staff, who once balanced the NBA’s most high-octane offense with its staunchest defense, watched Brown and wondered about the possibilities.
When the Warriors staff talked about Payton’s role, Brown’s name came up. “That gave some framework for us to conceptualize what it could look like,” Mahlalela says. “You sort of look at him and … ‘Could they be the same?’ … I think that opened the creativity that we have here, that we were excited and open to try it.”
They were even open to it a season ago, but their spacing wasn’t. When the G League bubble season ended, Payton signed two 10-day contracts with the Warriors.
One of those games, as it happens, was against Boston at the TD Garden. In the third quarter, Marcus Smart, Payton’s defender, helped off him to double Andrew Wiggins, giving Payton the space to make the kind of hard cut that now generates anticipatory murmurs from Warriors fans, already celebrating the incoming dunk.
But Boston sagged into the paint, cutting off the passing angle and leaving Green, a sub-30 percent shooter, open for 3. Juan Toscano-Anderson, who averaged less than one made 3 per game, was on the floor too. With Klay Thompson out for the season, Curry’s gravitational pull alone wasn’t enough to unclog the paint and allow Payton an open path to the rim.
The Warriors remained intrigued, inviting Payton to summer league and training camp, where Payton battled two-time All-Defensive guard Avery Bradley for the final spot. Nobody would have blamed the Warriors, looking to reach their former dynastic heights, for choosing a proven entity. Green and Curry reportedly wanted them to choose Bradley.
But the Warriors were looking for someone to play a smaller role. “[Payton] was this short-minute catalyst, and Avery’s more of a starting-caliber player in some ways,” says assistant coach Ron Adams, Golden State’s defensive guru. “That was what determined it when all was said and done, that Gary would be a really good 15th man, short-minute guy.”
But Payton quickly proved too valuable for a bit role. “The second game, or maybe the third, Steve said, ‘I think this guy’s pretty valuable, we’re going to have to play him more,’” Adams says.
The Warriors shored up on shooting in the offseason, Thompson returned from injury, and Jordan Poole started impersonating Curry. All of it opened the floodgates for Payton. “What’s great about this year’s team is we have a lot of spacing, which opens up the floor for Gary,” Kerr said in November, after Payton scored double-digits in three consecutive games. “This year’s team is much better fit for him than last year’s team was and that’s why he’s been able to make such a big impact.”
Adams compares Payton to Green. “He’s unique because he sees the pictures of the game well, much like Draymond does. They see what’s coming, then they act. They act early. That’s what this chip in him allows him to do, and everyone doesn’t have that chip.”
That chip is the subtle difference between a great and all-world defender who can have a sizable impact guarding superstars. Iguodala had the information processing ability, athleticism, and reaction time to consistently strip LeBron James, earning him Finals MVP in 2015. The two now have lockers next to each other. “I go to [Iguodala] about anything,” Payton says. “If I need to know something in the game, or how to do something.”
The Warriors are older now, straddling between two eras. The championship core from 2015 is on the wrong side of 30. Thompson is still shaking the rust off of two lost years recovering from an torn ACL and Achilles. Green missed 36 regular-season games this season. Iguodala missed 51, plus most of the NBA Finals. Kerr hasn’t had the stomach to allot significant minutes for their promising but undercooked rookies, Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody.
Payton has filled that void. While Poole runs Curry’s routes for open shots, Payton has followed the screening blueprint set by Iguodala and Green, allowing the Warriors to regenerate on the fly while Curry is still in his prime.
Golden State outscored opponents by 16.9 points per 100 possessions when Curry and Payton shared the floor this season. Six years after the 3-point shot boxed Payton out of the game, Payton and Curry’s diverging skills have brought them back together. “Funny how these teams are these living organisms that grow in different directions,” Adams says. “You can’t always predict the growth. You can’t always predict the direction.”