It feels like yesterday that everyone hated the Golden State Warriors, save for those living in Oakland. It was one of the few things NBA fans agreed on in unison. When the Warriors signed Kevin Durant in 2016, he temporarily broke the NBA. The Warriors had already won a championship in 2015 before Durant, a top 75 player of all time, joined their ranks. By adding Durant, whose Oklahoma City Thunder the Warriors had been eliminated in the Western Conference Finals, the talent level of Golden State felt unfair. Durant joined fellow All-Stars and future Hall-of-Famers Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green to form one of the greatest, if not the greatest overall, teams of all time.
Along with 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala, the Warriors marched out their line-up of death, five guys who could handle the ball, score at an All-Star level and shoot the three-ball at a high clip. It was too much for the rest of the NBA to handle. They quickly dispatched LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in a total of nine games over two years on their way toward back-to-back championships. It felt like no one could beat them. That is until Nov. 18, 2018. In a tight game against the Clippers, Green grabbed a defensive rebound and dribbled it up the court, all while his teammate, Durant, clapped furiously at him to pass him the ball. Green went at it on his own, dribbling up towards the basketball before getting tripled-teamed, losing the ball on a turnover.
Durant was rightly furious. The tension boiled over into the return to the bench, where the overly-sensitive Durant and the hot-headed passion of Green laid bare the Warriors’ only enemy — themselves.
Green went off on his teammate. He said things he could never take back. After the game, the Warriors’ front office and coach, Steve Kerr, took a mealy-mouth passive approach to handle the blowup, suspending Green for one game, essentially stoking the flames even more. Both players would later say they just wanted the situation handled differently internally.
Those not wearing a Warriors jersey celebrated the team’s imposition. Durant was facing free agency later that season. That’s what Green was cussing him out for on the bench. Even Green knew the domination couldn’t last forever. Perhaps there was a bit of self-sabotage happening on his part. Durant would injure his Achilles in the Finals, leading to the Warriors losing to Toronto. That summer, Durant joined buddy Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn to create a store-bought “contender.”
The Warriors were also without Thompson the following season, who suffered a torn Achilles in Game 6. So for the first time since the 2011-2012 season, the Golden State Warriors officially sucked. Fans of the other 29 teams, specifically those in Oklahoma City, treasured the 15-50 season as the three-time champs were firmly knocked off their throne. But this is where the Warriors’ story gets interesting.
Instead of taking another swing toward a superstar signing or trade, they returned to the well that built their dynasty, to begin with — the Draft Lottery. They took full advantage of their injury-plagued season to retool and add depth to a team that shaved off legacy players to make room for Durant’s massive contract in the summer of 2016. But it wasn’t just a bunch of Lottery luck that helped them get back into contention. Jordan Poole, who has formed another big three scoring punch with Thompson and Curry, was selected 28th in the first round.
James Wiseman was selected second overall in 2020, while Jonathan Kuminga was taken 7th in 2021. But major contributor Gary Payton Jr., the son of Oakland legend Gary Payton, went undrafted in 2016 and bounced around the G League until finding a home in Golden State. Fourth-year shooting guard Damion Lee also went undrafted in 2016 and took a similar route as Payton Jr. before becoming part of the Warriors’ guard depth off the bench.
The Warriors also used a succession of trades over the course of two seasons. The first was part of the Durant sign and trade where the Warriors acquired guard D’Angelo Russell, along with guard Shabazz Napier and forward Treveon Graham. After Russell proved to be a poor fit, they found a trade partner in Minnesota who was thirsty to keep their budding star, Karl-Anthony Towns, happy. Russell and Towns have been friends since their AAU days. So the Timberwolves overpaid for his services by sending back Andrew Wiggins and a first-round pick and second-round pick in the 2021 NBA draft. That first-round pick would translate to Kuminga, who has been a solid contributor in his first postseason.
In Wiggins, the Warriors showed what their elite culture and development could do for a player known for putting up gaudy but empty stats on a losing team. Thanks to K-Pop fans, Wiggins was a Western Conference All-Star starter this year. But more importantly, his stats finally meant something. Wiggins’ 17 PPG might be his lowest since the 2017 -2018 seasons, but he has turned into a sharpshooter, hitting threes at a career-best clip of 39 percent. He is contributing to winning basketball and has added an element of athleticism and potent scoring in a non-starring role, not seen on this Warriors squad since the early days of Iguodala joining them.
While the Warriors have returned to relevance, joining the Phoenix Suns, Milwaukee Bucks, and Miami Heat as legitimate contenders, they’ve come back with the same underdog appeal they exuded when Mark Jackson paced the sidelines. Likewise, the vengeful vendettas many across fan circles dissipated when Durant left for Brooklyn. And while Curry’s neoliberal do-gooder image still rubs some the wrong way, Durant, Irving, and James Harden are way above him in the race for the most hated player.
Green still makes Baby Boomers’ blood boil, but without Durant to yell at, he’s gone back to primarily annoying opposing players and those Fox News harpies who prefer everyone but Enes Kanter to “shut up and dribble.”
We’ve seen players recently rehab their image. Hell, Wiggins is a perfect example of that. Kevin Love, DeMar DeRozan, Patrick Beverly, and Larry Nance Jr. also come to mind. But the Warriors have done the seemingly impossible and went from hero to villain and back to hero. Mainly because they went back to what made them an organic success story to begin with. By utilizing the draft and making shrewd, forward-thinking trades, they’ve shown that their three championships were more than just Durant’s superstar addition. The Warriors had to go back to the bottom of the NBA to claw their way back not just to relevance, but contention. Now they have a young core of Kuminga, Wiggins, Poole, Payton Jr., Lee, and Moses Moody to pair with their three Hall-of-Famers. They used two seasons of purgatory to remake their roster for the present and future. The Warriors are back. And they’ve given us something worth rooting for again.