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The Warriors Want More

Even after winning a fourth title in eight years, Golden State is thinking ahead. By investing in a young core, the Warriors hope their own “short Tim Duncan” can lead them on a run of success that rivals the greatest dynasties in NBA history.

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Ten minutes into a surprise press conference three days before the 2022 NBA Finals, Warriors executive chairman Joe Lacob turned his head toward Golden State’s PR czar, Raymond Ridder, in need of an answer.

“How many titles do they have?” he asked.

“Seventeen,” Ridder responded. “Lakers and Celtics both have 17.”

Lacob grew up in Massachusetts, listening to Johnny Most narrate the Celtics’ success from his transistor radio. Havlicek, Cousy, and Russell showed the New Bedford native what a dynasty looked like. By the time Lacob was 13, Boston had captured 11 titles in a 13-year span.

“They both have 17?” he asked Ridder.

Lacob’s face went blank.

“That’s a lot,” he said. “How many do we have, Raymond?”

“Six,” Ridder responded, referring to the Warriors’ title count since the franchise’s inception.

Three of those have come under Lacob’s watch. Twelve years ago, after making a fortune in venture capital, he bought the Warriors, inheriting Steph Curry, then acquiring Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and, later, Kevin Durant. Golden State built a dynasty of its own, claiming three titles and making five NBA Finals in five years. But it’s a small feat compared to the legacy the Celtics have built in Boston.

“It’ll take a lot of years of ownership,” Lacob said, “to even come close to what the Celtics have achieved in terms of all the fantastic decades of success.”

But that doesn’t mean he won’t try.

Even when the Warriors were at their peak, winning back-to-back titles in 2017 and 2018, Lacob had his sights set on the future, on a “Spurs-like 20-year run of being very consistently good and competing for championships.” That dream seemed to vanish the following year, when Durant left in free agency. The Warriors struggled in the aftermath, missing the playoffs twice, but the setback also provided the franchise with the tools to make Lacob’s long-term vision a reality.

A sign-and-trade for Durant returned D’Angelo Russell, who was flipped for Andrew Wiggins and the draft pick that became Jonathan Kuminga. Two trips to the lottery brought back James Wiseman and Moses Moody. Jordan Poole was the 28th pick in 2019.

Other franchises likely would have utilized the stockpile of young players as trade fodder in order to supplement its core with a proven veteran—or a disgruntled star ready to win now. But the Warriors held firm that they would make such a move only for an MVP-caliber player, and instead invested in their youth. Above all, they trusted that Curry could lead them back to prominence no matter what.

They were right. With a 34-point performance in a 103-90 win over the Celtics in Game 6, Curry lifted the Warriors to another championship.

“We found a way to just get it done,” Curry said on the postgame podium. “It’s part of a championship pedigree, our experience,” he said. “We built this for 10-11 years. That means a lot when you get to this stage.”

That makes four titles in eight years for Lacob. Not even the Spurs won that many in that short of a span. But as the Warriors bask in their latest title win—no. 7 for the franchise—there’s still work to be done once the champagne haze clears.

“Our goal is to be perennially really good and challenging for a title,” Lacob said. “Otherwise, there’s no point in doing this. Zero. And so, everything we do 24/7, 365 is all about making this the greatest organization on earth, and certainly in the NBA and basketball.”

Growing up in Springfield, Illinois, Andre Iguodala’s eyes were often glued to WGN, a local Chicago TV station, to watch the Bulls dynasty of the ’90s. Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman got most of the headlines, but Iguodala’s eyes would fixate on the guys around them. “I was able to see B.J. Armstrong and John Paxson, Bill Cartwright and Horace Grant,” he said. “I saw Steve Kerr; every open shot, he made it. … It was just, you play to win, you understand your role. I saw that on a daily basis. And I think that helped my appreciation for the game of basketball and winning in the game of basketball.”

Iguodala tried his hand at a starring role earlier in his career, as a scoring swingman for the 76ers. But he found his true calling as a defensive-minded, do-everything player for the Warriors, earning a Finals MVP mainly for his coverage of LeBron James in the 2015 Finals. Even when he served a similar function for the Heat on their road to the bubble Finals in 2020, he found himself drifting back to the Bay.

The Warriors traded Iguodala to the Grizzlies in 2019, in the wake of Durant’s departure, to free up cap space. While his representatives and Memphis explored other trade options, Iguodala was frequently spotted in the East Bay, not too far from Golden State’s San Francisco headquarters. A few days after being sent to the Heat on the eve of the 2020 trade deadline, he was once again in Golden State’s orbit: Following a win over the Warriors in his first game at the Chase Center, he hobnobbed with familiar faces and took pictures in the arena’s back lot. After about an hour, it was time to go, so he gave out a few more hugs and a message for anyone within an earshot: “I’ll be back.”

In the meantime, he kept watching from afar. As Curry dazzled in the 2020-21 season, returning from injury to put on one of his best offensive seasons and lift Golden State to the play-in tournament without Thompson, Iguodala thought of ways he could enhance his buddy’s game again.

“Everyone was saying, ‘Steph don’t have all his health. Steph’s on his own now,’” Iguodala said. “Being able to watch him terrorize the league from afar and like, ‘OK, OK, he’s even getting better.’ And just knowing if everything came back together, my small one teaspoon of whatever into the big pot will be a big difference.”

Last August, after Miami declined his option, he signed with Golden State for the veteran’s minimum. In addition to filling the gaps around Curry, Thompson, and Green, he also wanted to help foster the next generation of Warriors role players. He’s schooled Kuminga, Iguodala’s locker-room neighbor, on how to deal with the media, and has given tips to rookies on how to navigate the Silicon Valley investment space. During games and practices, he’s even more vocal. “He’s amazing,” said Gary Payton II, who’s blossomed into a Swiss Army knife rotation player under Iguodala’s tutelage. “I look for him before I look to the coaches just to see what should I do better or whatever, but he’s just as big as he is on the bench as he is on the floor.”

After the Warriors clinched their latest Finals bid by beating Dallas in the Western Conference finals, Iguodala issued one more reminder to the young guns. “Just making sure they enjoy the moment,” he said on the eve of his seventh Finals appearance. “Understand this isn’t really a given, and it’s really, really hard to get here.”

The Warriors’ other veterans have taken to mentorship roles, too. When Wiseman needs advice, Thompson invites him onto his boat for a day on the Bay. If Poole wants to steal Curry’s moves, the former MVP is eager to dish out a crash course.

Green struggled to recalibrate his expectations in the wake of Durant’s exit, telling me it led him to lose interest in basketball. But now, if the younger players need some tough love, he is there with a stern message, followed by an arm around the shoulder.

“You need to be showing younger guys the ropes,” Green told me last fall. “You need to be teaching them things that you know, that you’ve learned, that’s how you keep this thing going. That’s how you continue to move this thing ahead.”

The Warriors have also adjusted their infrastructure in recent years, diverting more resources toward player development. While they flourished on the court starting in 2014-15, they misfired in the draft: Jacob Evans, Damian Jones, Patrick McCaw, Jordan Bell. Now, Kerr’s bench is stocked with development-focused coaches, including (soon-to-be Hornets head coach) Kenny Atkinson, Jama Mahlalela, and Dejan Milojevic.

“I love what we’ve been able to do. We’ve been able to do this, call it a two-tiered strategy, call it whatever you want,” Lacob said. “But you got your core guys that are going to get you there. Meanwhile, you’re going to develop these young guys and I think we’ve done that.”

It remains to be seen how long Iguodala will stick around to see the next generation blossom. Whispers of retirement have permeated the building. But in addition to fostering a new class, the Warriors have made efforts to find roles for players within the organization when their playing days are over. In recent years, former players Mike Dunleavy, Zaza Pachulia, and most recently Shaun Livingston have been hired in the front office. It’s unclear whether Iguodala will follow suit.

“I’m letting it happen naturally,” he told me the day before Game 6. “I’m not pre-planning anything.” He still owns a house in the East Bay and plans to stay in the area until at least his teenage son, Andre Jr., graduates from high school. But as everyone within his orbit knows, he’ll never be too far away.

“I’m just staying in the moment day to day,” he told me. “I got my goals that I’ve set out for myself, so I kind of got a vision, but I won’t start actually trying to execute it until the job’s done.”

2022 NBA Finals - Game Six Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Forty-eight hours before the 2012 trade deadline, when Monta Ellis, Curry’s first backcourt mate, was shipped to Milwaukee in a deal that netted the Warriors Andrew Bogut, Golden State coach Mark Jackson had a message for his talented but unproven star. “[He] pulled me aside and mentioned the keys were given to me,” Curry told me. “And he would do everything he could to put me in a position to be successful.”

A decade later, Curry’s still the driving force for Golden State. Last week, he led the Warriors to a crucial Game 4 win with a 43-point, 10-rebound masterpiece. Following the game—one of the best in his Hall of Fame career—he strutted around Boston’s parquet floor, yelling at anyone in a green shirt. The performance, which came days after Curry suffered a foot injury, was the latest reminder of his dominance.

Curry finished the Celtics off Thursday evening, overseeing a vintage offensive onslaught, going on a 21-0 run that started in the first quarter and never looking back. By night’s end, Curry had finally earned his first Finals MVP, adding the most elusive trophy to his collection after averaging 31.2 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 5.0 assists.

“This one hits different,” Curry tells me about an hour after the game. “When you hear all that talk and all that conversation over and over and over again even when you’re doing great things in the league, it’s like ‘What do you not have?’ I hear it all, and I carry it, and I do my job, and God takes care of the rest.”

But more importantly, it was Curry’s unshakable confidence that kept Golden State afloat. Following the Warriors’ Game 1 loss to Boston, a contest in which Golden State squandered a 15-point third-quarter lead, Curry was calm as ever.

“He’s sitting there smiling like ‘This is over,’” Green tells me. “Like they don’t stand a chance and we all fed off that the entire series. When everyone else was struggling, different parts of the series, he stayed down, he stayed true, and carried us when he needed to carry us. And it’s such an incredible thing to have that guy as the head of your snake, face of your organization, the face of this dynasty.”

Curry’s stoic demeanor in the face of on-court misfortune reminds his coach of another all-time great.

“I call him the short Tim Duncan,” Kerr told me. “He’s very similar to Tim. People wouldn’t realize it because Tim publicly was very quiet. Steph’s more expressive, both as a player and in his life. But they both share this incredible combination of amazing talent and humility. That’s a rare combination.”

Duncan won five titles over two decades with the Spurs, including the 2014 championship when he was 38. San Antonio emerged as the NBA’s model franchise during that time, blazing trails in the fields of analytics, international scouting, and player development. But whenever he’s asked about his franchise’s long-running success, Gregg Popovich, the Spurs’ longtime coach and lead executive, will point to Duncan. Last year, ahead of breaking Don Nelson’s record for coaching wins, Pop was asked his key to success. “Draft Tim Duncan,” he said. “After that, stay alive.”

A similar scene unfolded following Curry’s Game 4 performance, when Kerr gushed about Steph to NBC Sports Bay Area during an on-court interview. “Whenever I’m done coaching,” he said, “I’m going to go say thank you to Steph night after night because he’s made this situation easy for everybody.”

It’s not just Curry’s play that’s sustained the Warriors, either. His calm demeanor steadied the team throughout Golden State’s run to the title, whether it’s pulling a rookie aside during a shootaround, or bringing Green back to center when the forward feels undervalued by the franchise, like he did last summer, when his name was attached to trade rumors.

“It’s just a consistent approach of wanting and holding yourself to a high state of how you play,” Curry said. “How you carry yourself in the locker room, but also being aware of what that means in terms of consistency, at the level that we were trying to get to.”

But to realize Lacob’s vision of contending for years to come, consistency will also come at a cost. The Warriors are paying roughly $176 million in player salaries this season, which balloons to nearly $350 million because of the luxury tax—a sum that has reportedly drawn the ire of rival executives. Next season, the Warriors are already on the hook for nearly as much, with key veterans like Kevon Looney, Otto Porter Jr., Iguodala, and Payton set for unrestricted free agency, and Poole up for an extension on his rookie deal. Looney, for one, said he’s hopeful to return.

“This is definitely my no. 1 option,” he told me. “I’ve been here my whole career. We’re in the Finals and hopefully with a chance to win the championship. So this will definitely be no. 1.”

Wiggins has completely flipped the narrative of his career this postseason, guarding Ja Morant, Luka Doncic, and Jayson Tatum in consecutive rounds and recording back-to-back double-doubles in games 4 and 5 of the Finals. After years of bearing the weight of being a max player, he could be in line for another big payday soon, either in the summer of 2023, when he’s set to become an unrestricted free agent, or this summer, via an extension with the Warriors.

“Man, I would love to be here,” he told me. “It’s been nothing but blessings for me here, so that’s something that I would love.”

As for how much it would take to keep him?

“I don’t know,” he said with a sheepish grin. “My agents take care of all that.”

When the Warriors won their last title in 2018, the second of a back-to-back run, Curry—inspired by the Bulls of the ’90s, and on a team featuring Durant, Thompson, Green, and a newly signed DeMarcus Cousins—set his eyes on a three-peat. But after the Warriors lost to the Raptors in 2019, and after Durant left for Brooklyn, Curry began to study the team in San Antonio. He hoped he could one day lead Golden State to a Spurs-like second act.

“The Spurs were the team that was the most consistent over a longer stretch of time,” Curry tells me. “They didn’t win back-to-back ever but they always found a way to retool and reshape what they were doing around the court and that was probably the closest comparison to what obviously we had.”

About an hour after adding to the trophy collection, Green, Curry, and Thompson are still on the court doing interviews. If the trio had their way, they’d be together forever.

“You can say what you want about him, about myself, about Klay, say whatever you want,” Green gloats. “But the three of us, it still hasn’t been proven that we can be stopped.”

The postgame party has all the remnants of a family reunion. Following an interview with an overseas outlet, Thompson stops over to hug Green’s mother, Mary, who hugs Klay as if he were her own son. When Curry gets done with a postgame phone call with former president Barack Obama, he stops to say hello to Green’s son, Draymond Jr., and holds his Finals MVP trophy just close enough so the young lad can see his reflection. The boys who won their first title in 2015 are now men, and have every intention of savoring the moment.

“Even the fact that we’re here,” Curry tells me. “I strongly remember a conversation from the experts, they’re talking heads around what we were capable of and getting older and all that stuff. That we wouldn’t be a contender ever again. No matter how this series played out, we’re here in the Finals and we’re doing it at a very high level and I don’t really see the time that this is going to end anytime soon.”

And with that, it’s time to go. There are plans for a postgame shindig before the team flies back the Bay Area, and plans for a parade next week are already in the works. It’s time to celebrate now, and worry about the future when it comes.

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