Last year, the Golden State Warriors entered rare company, joining some historic pro teams who’ve dropped from first…to worst throughout a season. Plagued by major injuries to stars, decimated by several key departures, and worn out from a long championship window, the Warriors produced only 15 wins and lost a league-most 50 games in the shortened schedule.
Ironically, it was their first season without a playoff appearance since the last shortened schedule back in 2012. The Warriors dominated the previous five seasons averaging 64.4 wins per year and winning three championships, both the most in the league during that stretch, but they came into the new decade and their brand-new arena with more catastrophe than contention.
It all started when All-NBA guard Klay Thompson tore his ACL at the end of the 2019 Finals, which meant he’d have to miss the entire 2020 season. Matters got worse when two-time Finals MVP Kevin Durant left for Brooklyn in free agency, resulting in a sudden sign-and-trade netting back the much younger and less gifted D’Angelo Russell as a salvage plan. Then needing cap space to replace their stars and bring in a new wave of talent, they traded 35-year-old former Finals MVP Andre Iguodala to Memphis. Their last hope at the playoffs came crashing down when two-time MVP Stephen Curry suffered a hand injury that’d cost him most of the campaign.
This fall, the front office made a few big additions to try and lift this team back into contention. They selected remarkable center James Wiseman with the second pick in the amateur draft. On the same day, the franchise suffered yet another brutal blow when the fully recovered and rested Klay Thompson tore his Achilles tendon in an offseason workout, causing him to miss his second straight season. It led to a second salvage in the form of a trade for rising star wing Kelly Oubre Jr.
Now behind the healed Curry and redemptive Draymond Green, the promising Wiseman and Eric Paschall, and the emerging Oubre and Andrew Wiggins, the Warriors have fought their way into the playoff picture with a current 12-10 record.
Let’s dive into the many elements of their return to recess, illustrating why the Warriors are fun again and how they’ve come out to play.
- Unmatched Energy
Offensive hustle, defensive intensity, and mental toughness are what made the super talented and innovative Warriors into champions, and one of the greatest dynasties in league history. Injuries and exits were obvious reasons why the 2020 team slowed down, however, it had more to do with poor morale throughout the organization.
As if the injury to Thompson didn’t dampen the mood enough, on a team that’s embraced a championship-or-bust mentality, the loss of Curry at the beginning of the year practically turned off all the lights. Very quickly the team’s effort started to fade because the team’s best remaining player couldn’t lead them as a scorer, their top offensive player gave little attention to defense, their journeymen pieces only cared about their stats, and their young guys knew they weren’t worth the jersey they were wearing. Down two All-NBA talents, it became so easy for management to fire up the tanks in hopes of landing a top prospect, and that’s exactly what happened.
With Curry back alongside Green and the influx of the rookie Wiseman, the Warriors are having success and knocking off some elite teams thanks to their high energy level, which can’t be fairly matched up against since their stars have a full year of fresh legs and the opposition just competed in the longest season in league history. Besides becoming another competitive team benefitting from a young star falling into their lap, this team is taking advantage of extensive rest that can’t really be replicated throughout the league’s top teams.
- Foundation of Defense
Everyone will remember the Warriors dynasty by their offensive supremacy, sparked by amazing speed and athleticism, and mainly their 3-point attack that completely revolutionized the game. Although, it should be argued their stellar defense during that run was nearly as important as their scoring prowess.
The “Splash Brothers” (Curry and Thompson) are the best example of this notion because they’re the best offensive backcourt in NBA history but they’re also both became excellent defenders pressuring shooters and forcing turnovers. The staple of the defense has been Draymond Green who’s a five-time All-Defensive player, contesting everything in his space and picking everyone’s pocket. Without the Splash Brothers and a motivated Green, the Warriors’ defense fell apart in 2020, getting run over by lackluster squads en route to finishing bottom-five in the league.
While the team’s offense without Thompson has a long way to go, their defense in 2021 has returned to top-10 form, partly because of their “unmatched energy” but mainly because of their foundation of defense built up over the last decade. The now 30-somethings Curry and Green are still creating lots of pressure, but most of the intensity and shot-contesting has been passed down and molded onto athletic freak small forward Andrew Wiggins, long and swift wing Kelly Oubre Jr., and muscular center James Wiseman, who’ve each become the champs’ developmental projects morphing into elite defenders.
- Quality Bench Mix
All great teams in recent years are only as good as their bench, providing a variety of skills and intelligence that elevates them for a full 48-minutes. The recent three-championship run had pretty strong contributions from point Shaun Livingston, two-guard Leandro Barbosa, bigs David West and Javale McGee, and most famously Andre Iguodala, who took home the 2015 Finals MVP after starting the series as the Sixth Man.
The 2020 Warriors had a depleted starting lineup so they spent most of the year building from the bench to the likes of All-Rookie scorer Eric Paschall, shooters Jordan Poole and Juan Toscano-Anderson, and interior threat Marquese Chriss. They also gave plenty of work to Alec Burks, Jacob Evans, and Omari Spellman who generated enough value to be traded and thus recycled into other assets.
With just two major scorers playing on the roster, the team’s top-ten scoring offense can be accredited largely to the reserve unit, which features their four developmental pieces from last year all taking strides. Starters turned role players Damion Lee and Kevon Looney are other significant contributors, vets Brad Wanamaker and Kent Bazemore give the unit some juice, and prospects Nico Mannion and Mychal Mulder add exciting youth. There are no realistic microwaves, game-changers, or all-time talents leading the way and causing havoc, yet this bench unit is deep with all sorts of skills impacting the team in positive ways.
- Cornerstone Development
The progressions of an undersized point guard (Curry), a virtually unknown shooting guard (Thompson), and an atypical small forward (Green) in Golden State over the last decade is the stuff of legend. They collectively evolved into three cornerstones who were All-NBA talents, three-time league champions, and future Hall-of-Famers that broke the single-season wins record (73 in 2016, one more than the 1996 Jordan-led Bulls).
The three are now in their 30’s, meaning management has to utilize their primed stars to develop the next great franchise players to build around. Acquired a year ago at the trade deadline, 25-year-old Andrew Wiggins has suddenly reinvented himself as a thunderous scorer and tenacious shot-blocker, demonstrating most of the potential scouts saw in him as the first overall pick in 2014. Acquired three months ago at the rookie draft, 19-year-old James Wiseman has performed as an impressive two-way force scoring at all levels and protecting the rim, demonstrating most of the potential scouts saw in him as the second overall pick in 2020.
Wiggins and Wiseman are exactly the player’s management hoped for when they paired them alongside their future Hall-of-Famers, giving menacing defensive and graceful offensive production. The immediate attention to cornerstone talent, the sizable sacrifice from stars, and the commitment to bridging the old with the new are the reasons why the Warriors keep creating franchise stars, and why they’re able to succeed in the present and in the future.
- All-Time General
Stephen Curry was drafted to Golden State as an instant source of shooting, who’d later develop into an elite scorer and eventually an all-time juggernaut. The two-time MVP is universally recognized as the best shooter the game has ever seen, though it’s really his game-changing, tempo-pushing playmaking that made the Warriors a perennial force.
Last season was the *golden* opportunity for Curry to light up the scoreboard; without Thompson and no longer playing with Durant, he was free to put on a year-long show similar to the performance he just had in the NBA Finals (playoff career-high 47 points against the Raptors without either of his co-stars). The long-awaited campaign for him to run wild ended abruptly when he broke his hand in the first week of the season. He’d spend the entire year as head cheerleader and mentor watching his young teammates step into the spotlight, while also sitting patiently as the offense began to crumble without him.
This season is the newest opportunity for Curry to carry the load and he’s putting on the spectacle many of us had hoped for, taking and making lots of 3-point shots and running a high-powered offense once again. There’s definitely some vengeance carrying over from 2020 since he saw the team struggle first-hand and felt powerless, but nonetheless, he’s returned to true MVP form, and is playing like the all-time general that earned him three championship rings.
Golden State had the highest of highs and very quickly the lowest of lows, yet in 2021 the franchise is rejuvenated thanks to hungry stars and emerging talents. After an abysmal start, they’ve put together some impressive victories beating the top-tier Clippers, avenging their Finals loss against the Raptors, and pinning the defending champion Lakers.
2020 was a heartbreaking season after five straight years of reaching the NBA Finals, but 2021 is looking much brighter as they’ve risen back into the playoff picture. Head coach Steve Kerr, general manager Bob Meyers, and the fan base have to feel excited their team is starting to click again.
This may not be the team from years past, or the strongest group put together, and we’re not sure where the team will finish. But when we see Steph and Draymond reunited, “Wiggy”, and “Wise” focused, and the state-of-the-art arena opened, we know the Warriors have officially come back to play…
Jordan Poole photo by Sportsology