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The Two-Track Plan Divided the Warriors

A preseason punch eroded Golden State’s once-vaunted culture, and now the franchise faces more uncertainty than it has in a decade

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Twenty minutes after purple and gold confetti rained on the end of Golden State’s season, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr was asked about his team’s immediate future.

“I think it is probably too raw right now for me to think about,” Kerr responded. “The one thing I will say is that Draymond, Klay, Steph, our core guys, they’ve got plenty left to offer. There is still plenty in the tank there.”

Historically, whenever the Warriors have found themselves at a crossroads, the organization has leaned on its pillars. Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson have guided the franchise to the top of the NBA landscape, building a dynasty comparable to the likes of the Spurs, Bulls, and Celtics. But now, after a second-round elimination at the hands of LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, the Warriors face more uncertainty than they have in a decade. Several years of team-building decisions have depleted Golden State’s roster, and now the franchise finds itself painted into a corner that even Curry and Co. might not be able to lead them out of.

When Kevin Durant departed Golden State in the summer of 2019 for Brooklyn, Warriors executive chairman Joe Lacob oriented the team around a “two-tiered” plan. The organization aimed to compete for titles with Curry, Green, and Thompson, while also developing the next generation to continue the Warriors’ winning ways into the next era.

In subsequent years, as Golden State traded for Andrew Wiggins and signed veterans to fill out its rotation, it also built a youth movement. The Warriors drafted Jordan Poole in 2019, James Wiseman second in 2020, and Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody in the 2021 lottery. Meanwhile, they developed fringe prospects like Gary Payton II and Juan Toscano-Anderson to round out the roster.

That approach appeared to be blossoming last year. Curry, Green, and Thompson led the Warriors to their fourth title in eight seasons, and Poole put together a breakout year, averaging 18.5 points and four assists, and carving out a meaningful role in the playoff rotation. Following their title, the Warriors leaned further into the two-timeline strategy. They signed Poole to a four-year, $123 million extension and allowed key contributors like Otto Porter and Payton to walk in free agency, opening up minutes for the team’s young prospects. The organization believed it could follow the blueprint of previous dynasties like the Spurs of the 2000s, with Poole and the rest of the Golden State youth movement ready to both support the current stars and guide the franchise into the future.

But the 2022-23 season never quite went according to plan, and the team struggled to find its footing amid injuries, poor play, and inconsistency. The defending champs finished the season sixth in the Western Conference, with uncharacteristically shoddy defense and an 11-30 record on the road.

The stumbles led the team to trade Wiseman for Payton, who had signed with Portland last summer, as Golden State’s front office attempted to rectify its problems on the fly. When the Warriors stormed back from a 2-0 series deficit to beat the Kings in the first round of the 2023 playoffs, it seemed like they might still be able to walk the tightrope of winning now while building for later.

But after losing to the Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals, the Warriors enter a critical offseason. Golden State’s general manager, Bob Myers, is in the last year of his contract and has yet to sign a new one. Green has a player option for next season, and Thompson is eligible for an extension. Poole struggled mightily this postseason and Kuminga failed to crack the rotation. With a $480 million tax bill looming, the price tag to bring this team back for another run may be too much for Lacob to bear.

“No matter how different it looks, I think we all understand each other, what we bring to the table,” Curry said over the weekend. “The trust that we’re just going to compete until the wheels fall off. That is something that should not be taken for granted in this league.”

2023 NBA Playoffs - Sacramento Kings v Golden State Warriors Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

The most public crack in the Warriors’ two-timeline foundation emerged last October. In a preseason practice, Green punched Poole in the face. The incident was captured on camera, and the tape was leaked to TMZ and eventually made public, putting a national spotlight on a 23-year-old who actively attempts to avoid attention.

Believing that the public shame was punishment enough for Green and that the organization’s championship culture would smooth over any festering resentment, the Warriors opted to fine Green but not suspend him. That decision momentarily eroded Poole’s trust in the franchise and disrupted the brewing bond between the up-and-comer and one of the franchise’s cornerstones.

During his first two years in the league, Poole considered Green an older brother. The two spent time on road trips together, and Poole sought tutelage from his favorite vet.

“He was pretty accepting,” Poole told me prior to last season. “He was willing to take me under his arm. 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.”

In addition to breaking down the relationship between Poole and Green, the aftermath of the punch offered another example of Golden State’s propensity to cater to the established core over the young prospects the team hopes will pick up the baton.

“We just play, and then the relationships are what they are,” Kerr told me last fall, a few days after the incident.

However, some within the Warriors organization say those relationships haven’t recovered, and that the incident furthered a growing divide between the members of each timeline within the team.

“I don’t have no answer for you,” Poole tells me when asked where his relationship with Green stands now. “Other than that, we was just on the court and teammates, and we was out there trying to win games.

“What I do recall saying at the beginning of the season is that, ‘We’re coming. We’re going to come out here. We’re going to play on the court. We’re going to try to win a championship.’ We were teammates. It’s just business, honestly. And that’s really all it was, it is, it has been. It’s just been business. It’s been basketball.”

The Warriors’ young players each had moments during the season when it seemed like they’d solidified their roles. When Curry missed 11 games with a shoulder injury, Poole filled in, averaging 28 points and four assists, and helping keep Golden State near .500 as its franchise player recovered. When Wiggins sat out 25 games for personal reasons, Kuminga stepped in to average 13.4 points and 4.3 rebounds, helping the Warriors maintain playoff position.

But the opportunities didn’t stick, and roles shifted. “I had to get adapted to it,” Kuminga told reporters a day after the season ended. “I was just in my second year in the league, and I feel like the people that came back have established more, especially here. It’s nothing I really could do to change that. I just have to get used to it and that’s it.”

Throughout their run, the Warriors have developed a culture of selflessness. When Kerr was hired in 2014, he asked Andre Iguodala to take a bench role, opting to start then-third-year forward Harrison Barnes in his place. Iguodala reluctantly accepted the change, and became an instrumental figure in Golden State’s 2015 title team, winning the Finals MVP after the Warriors beat the Cavs in six games. Seven years later, Curry opted to come off the bench in a series against the Nuggets, after a foot injury kept him out for the last month of the regular season.

This season, however, when veterans struggled, Golden State’s young players grumbled that they weren’t getting enough opportunities. And when the young’uns complained about inconsistent playing time, veterans scratched their heads, wondering why their tales of yesteryear weren’t resonating. The departures of Porter, Toscano-Anderson, and Payton—three figures in the locker room who had the respect of both the young players and the veterans—further widened the divide.

“We had our vets coming off the bench. Guys were really stable in their roles,” Iguodala said in April when I asked about last year’s team compared to this year’s. “I think when I say stable, you know exactly what you’re doing when you get in the game. And this year has been a little bit more variables … and just making sure that those things don’t get in the way of the success of the team. Because it’s natural, because we’re human beings, so I’m not saying anybody did that. That’s the normal NBA, and we haven’t had to deal with normal NBA. We’ve been in fantasyland for so long, and this year was more like the real NBA.”

Iguodala came to the Warriors in 2013 and is now the team’s elder statesman, tasked with helping Golden State’s next generation adapt to the NBA. Getting the entire team on the same page has been a yearlong struggle. Before Game 7 of the Warriors’ first-round matchup against the Kings, with the season on the line, Curry echoed a similar sentiment in a fiery—and perhaps pointed—speech to his team.

“I’m doing the same things as last year, minus a Game 7 first-round speech,” Curry tells me about the leadership style required this season compared to previous campaigns. “Every year there’s a different narrative you have to overcome.”

Curry scored 50 to propel the Warriors past the Kings in that Game 7, but he didn’t have enough help from his supporting cast against the Lakers. In that series, Golden State’s old guard didn’t play to form, and the new regime was not yet ready to pick up the slack. Besides a 30-point performance in Game 2, Thompson struggled with his shot and scored just 27 points across the final three games. Poole shot just 35 percent from the field and scored in double figures twice in six contests. And during the waning moments of Game 4, Curry and Green committed costly turnovers, sealing a 3-1 lead for the Lakers.

But throughout the series, Poole’s dismal performance provided the most fodder.

“It caught me by surprise,” Poole tells me of the attention he’s attracted this postseason. “I don’t be on social media during the playoffs, so if I’m seeing it, that means it’s everywhere.”

He says he tried to block out the noise, hoping his play would make the news cycle subside.

“You can’t do anything about it,” he says. “That’s what you have to resort to, that’s what you have to tell yourself, that you can’t do anything about it. Like, what are you going to stress out about it for? This is all from regular people. Most of it is from regular people. Obviously, you have commentators or analysts who will go and say something, but these guys aren’t in the rooms, they’re not in the front office.”

After a season of turmoil, the Warriors brass will have big decisions to make. The lack of trust, the unclear roles, and the preseason punch proved too much to overcome. Last season, Poole was at the center of Golden State’s two-timeline approach. Now, he’s an example of its shortcomings.

But Poole’s postseason performance hasn’t broken the organization’s trust in him. Two nights after a scoreless performance in a Game 4 loss to the Lakers, Poole improved marginally in Golden State’s Game 5 win, as he added 11 points and shot 5-of-14 from the field.

But that game was won by the veterans: Curry finished with 27 points, while Green added 20 points and 10 rebounds in a vintage performance to extend the series. Following the game, I asked Curry how the Warriors could bridge the gap between the dynastic present and an unknown future. Curry paused, then glanced to his left, toward Poole’s locker, and pointed.

“He’s the key,” Curry said, for all to hear, before exiting the room.

Throughout the postseason, fans and pundits have wondered whether an early playoff loss would spell the end of Green, Curry, and Thompson’s time as a trio. When a radio host asked Kerr about the possibility on the eve of Game 5, with his team down 3-1 to the Lakers, Kerr said, “That’s never crossed my mind.

“I’ve played on those Bulls teams, The Last Dance … I don’t feel that way about this team at all. I think Steph, Klay, and Draymond, they’ve got lots to give for years to come. I never even stopped to give that a second thought.”

Kerr’s response mirrored the growing sentiment throughout the organization as the Warriors hope to extend the greatest run in franchise history. But doing so will require answering immediate questions, including ones about the futures of Myers, Thompson, and, of course, Green. League sources believe that the Warriors will be open to negotiating a multiyear deal with Green, should he decline his player option over the summer.

“I want to be a Warrior for the rest of my life,” Green said following the Warriors’ Game 6 loss to L.A. “I want to ride out with the same dudes I rode in with. I think we’ve put the work in to make that happen.”

Yet even if the Warriors’ Big Three returns, the front office needs to upgrade the supporting cast of a team that bowed out of the playoffs before the conference finals. Early reports suggest that the Warriors may make Poole available in a trade, which would mark a pivot from the last few years of two-tiered team-building.

“I don’t know why I wouldn’t be [back],” Poole told me a day after the Warriors’ season ended. “It wasn’t a bad year. I mean, career highs in two categories. I was able to make history with Klay and Steph. My first game-winner. It was a lot of good things that happened this season. It wasn’t a bad season. Yes, I’m in the fabric. Yes, I belong here in this organization, bridging the gap. And I’m a young guy who was drafted here. We won a championship last year, and we have another chance to do it again. And I don’t know why anybody else would feel otherwise. I don’t think anybody is thinking like that.”

Eleven months ago, Thompson, Green, and Curry scampered around the TD Garden in Boston with glee after winning their fourth title. They celebrated together once again atop the NBA world, puffing their chests out at the rest of the league. The trio has lifted Golden State to unimaginable heights in the past decade—and the stage seemed set to sustain that success for several more years.

The Warriors will remain on the path set by Curry, Green, and Thompson. The question now is where it leads.