How the Warriors walked a tight, ambitious line from lowest point to revamp their dynasty without full rebuild

·12 min read

SAN FRANCISCO — It’s easy to paint Steve Kerr as a sentimentalist, the championship coach with the magic touch and a moral compass to boot.

But he’s been on the business side of at least one abrupt ending to an incredible run, then found himself decades later trying to complete a mission the Boston Celtics could never reach the finish line on.

In 1992, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Celtics engaged in a seven-game slugfest for the right to play the defending champion Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals. For the Cavaliers, a trip to the NBA’s final four represented breaking through after years of knocking. For the Celtics, it would’ve meant they at least gave themselves a chance of reliving the glorious ’80s, although their stars were on the back end.

Sounds familiar, no?

The Cavaliers wound up humbling the old guard with a resounding 122-104 win, ending the Celtics' dreams that year. Kerr, a reserve on that team behind the likes of Mark Price and Craig Ehlo, remembers celebrating in the locker room at Richfield Coliseum when a ball boy came in with a request: Larry Bird wanted the game ball.

It wasn’t Bird’s best game, the Celtics had been eliminated in the second round for the second straight season and hadn’t advanced to the conference finals since 1988. Bird’s back was ailing, requiring spinal fusion surgery a year later, so everyone was aware the end was near. He’d missed the first three games of that series before returning to help the Celtics force a Game 7.

“And we all looked at each other, like, holy s***, Larry’s retiring,” Kerr told Yahoo Sports of the reaction in the locker room. “I mean, why else — we just beat him by 20. You know, the only significance of that game ball was obviously, it was going to be his last game.”

That was the closest any franchise had come to achieving the impossible, bridging the gap between old and young, and doing it to a championship standard. Len Bias died shortly after the 1986 draft, and a year after Bird’s retirement, Reggie Lewis unexpectedly died. Lewis was the closest realistic talent to take the load off Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, who’d gone years through the playoff gauntlet and needed fresh energy around them.

Following Lewis’ death, the franchise was dormant for over a decade. There were flashes here or there but nothing to the reputation the Celtics built over those glorious eras.

Kerr chuckled at the irony, with his team at the time being days away from clinching another berth in the Finals — unaware it could be the birth of another golden era in the Bay.

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, center, holds up the Bill Russell Trophy for NBA Finals Most Valuable Player after the Warriors defeated the Boston Celtics in Game 6 to the NBA championship on June 16, 2022, in Boston. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, center, holds up the Bill Russell Trophy for NBA Finals Most Valuable Player after the Warriors defeated the Boston Celtics in Game 6 to win the NBA championship on June 16, 2022, in Boston. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

“It’s very ambitious,” Kerr admitted. “And in some ways, fortuitous. Because, you know, we have a couple of down years, so we get two lottery picks of our own.

“So fortunate, but also good management, from Bob [Myers] and the front office. And it’s a great position to be in [but] it doesn’t guarantee anything.”

Something always gets in the way, even with the well-managed teams that walk the tightrope between business decisions and sentimentality. The San Antonio Spurs came close, but the franchise’s relationship with Kawhi Leonard went sideways and it has been wandering in the wilderness ever since trading him to Toronto.

Who knows what Magic Johnson’s Lakers had up their sleeves before his HIV diagnosis in 1991 derailed any plans of making life headed into his mid-30s fruitful. The Lakers swapped out pieces and restructured from their first title run to the last of “Showtime” in 1988, but an aging Magic would’ve been interesting to see.

The Bulls retooled around Michael Jordan from their first three-peat to the second one, bringing in the aforementioned Kerr to keep a fresh set of reserves.

Those teams were always going for it, until they weren’t. The team the Warriors vanquished in the Finals a week ago, a different version of the Celtics, was built on the back of knowing one run was over and jump-starting a rebuilding process in a trade that netted Jaylen Brown and then Jayson Tatum in consecutive drafts.

As hard as it is getting to the mountaintop, it’s more difficult staying there and it would take an NBA earthquake to produce that streak ever again.

‘The low point’: How worst days helped Warriors rebuild ambitiously

The hilarious trolling, note-taking and name-checking are in sharp contrast to the dark days, when hardly anyone was taking notice of the franchise in pause mode. The club was so exhausted, it was nearly impossible to celebrate an exhilarating win in Game 5 of the 2019 Finals because Kevin Durant went down with an Achilles injury.

The next game, Klay Thompson tore his ACL and the lights went out in Oracle, forever.

In Kerr’s words, “We had to fill up our cup again.”

For that to happen, there had to be trust, and buy-in and continued sweat equity from the pillars.

It was accepted the 2019-20 season would be difficult, a reality made clearer once Stephen Curry broke his wrist four games into the season.

The darkest day, Kerr said, was actually the same day everything began to turn around for the Warriors. It wasn’t losing by 41 in Brooklyn to the Nets that made the night somber or uplifting — but less than an hour before, when Myers let Kerr know Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III would be getting moved for future draft picks.

The Warriors were already 12-40, with the world soon to be shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic. In that moment, Kerr was taking satisfaction in the small victories — watching Robinson III and Burks develop.

“This may sound strange,” Kerr told Yahoo Sports. “The beauty of that season was seeing some of the guys who were trying to jump-start their careers, see them thrive, and we just had a weird night in Brooklyn.

“There were a lot of tears and you know, we had the worst record in the league and you know we’re struggling anyway, but now all of a sudden, you know two guys who you really care about, really watched thrive in difficult circumstances were heading out the door — that was the low point.”

Golden State's Alec Burks, left, and Glenn Robinson III against the Los Angeles Clippers on Jan. 10, 2020 just a month before they were traded and what coach Steve Kerr called the franchise's
Golden State's Alec Burks, left, and Glenn Robinson III against the Los Angeles Clippers on Jan. 10, 2020, just a month before they were traded and what coach Steve Kerr called the franchise's "low point" in its climb back. (John McCoy/Getty Images)

Myers notes there’s a separation between the coach and front office because of the proximity to the team. Myers sits as close to the bench as any franchise executive not named Mark Cuban, but he’s not in the locker room, absorbing those daily, minute-by-minute emotions.

“For Steve, it was kind of like, a little bit like getting a leg cut out from under him,” Myers told Yahoo Sports. “And to kind of have that tough conversation with him and explain, ‘Look, I know it’s not easy. I’m not in the locker room. But you got to do this.’ It’s a hard truth.”

In a separate trade that same day, they acquired Andrew Wiggins in a deal for a protected first-round draft pick and D’Angelo Russell. The pick became Jonathan Kuminga. Wiggins became arguably the most valuable piece next to Curry in these playoffs, but also the start to replenishing a depleted corps of wing players following the 2018-19 season.

Durant, gone.

Shaun Livingston, retired.

Andre Iguodala, traded to clear salary-cap space to get Russell once Durant decided to go to Brooklyn.

Thompson, already missing one season and soon to miss one more with his Achilles tear before the draft in November 2020.

“This wasn’t some idealistic, sort of like, hey, we have to build for the future. We’re hanging on to — no, this was practical,” Kerr said.

Myers had been having tough conversations with key members of the franchise for months to that point, and even some afterward. But explaining the vision to Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green took some presenting options and leaving space for input.

They weren’t going “all in,” trading draft picks for established stars, preferring to walk this tight and ambitious line, hoping everything would go right just to give themselves a chance at playing in June once again.

They drafted James Wiseman second in 2020, then Kuminga and Moses Moody last season — none played a key part in the Warriors’ title run. Wiseman could play in Summer League, and it seems certain Kuminga and Moody will.

If Wiseman pans out and lives up to his pedigree or even comes close to it, early June will have NBA reservations in the Bay Area for the foreseeable future. It’s almost amazing the Warriors have done this without any meaningful contributions from Wiseman.

“Yeah, I think that’s fair,” Myers said to Yahoo Sports when asked if Wiseman is an unknown. “I still don’t know — you talk about James, we haven’t really played a season together with this team.”

Luckily, it didn’t backfire.

“Absolutely. Absolutely,” said Kerr when asked if it was a hard sell to Curry, knowing his time as an elite player is finite and that time should be maximized by an organization.

“At that point, I have no doubt, Steph, Klay — both injured for a year, Draymond, on an island without enough help. They were all frustrated.”

‘We deserve that’: Candid talks with front office, Warriors pillars helped shape team’s future

Perhaps it seems like yesterday, or worlds away, depending on one’s view, but considering the Warriors weren’t in the Orlando bubble, the group spent some six months without seeing each other together.

It’s a lot of time for doubts to creep in, to watch the NBA move on without them, particularly for Curry, who could’ve followed the tried-and-true method of applying pressure on the organization and holding it hostage until getting what he wanted.

So many other franchises loaded up for title runs while the Warriors played it a little on the cute side.

“It was a lot of conversations,” Curry told Yahoo Sports. “One, would we be willing to package a bunch of stuff to bring in a vet or another star? Two, who would that be? It’s a bunch of hypotheticals, nobody knows. As an organization that’s trying to win, you have all those conversations, you bring in me and Draymond because it matters.”

Winning is hard enough without trying to balance two competing objectives, and as one would expect, Myers said, Green was pretty vocal with his opinions. Curry stated his. As for Thompson? Myers joked the shooting guard didn’t say much, as usual.

“Draymond’s the closest to giving a demonstrative opinion,” Myers told Yahoo Sports. “He’ll call me about the 15th guy, but that’s been going on since we drafted him. I don’t look at this like, it’s hard to convince Steve to go this route or hard to convince Steph.

“Maybe that’s because we’ve had success, those conversations don’t go that way. Maybe that’ll change!”

It wasn’t quite a leap of faith, but the trade for Wiggins, absorbing his max salary without pushback from team ownership, reaffirmed Curry’s belief in the plan. It was cemented when Curry agreed to a four-year extension before the start of this past season, keeping him with this franchise until 2025-26.

“At the end of the day, it’s about me, Klay and Draymond being the leading forces to play at a high level to get back here,” Curry told Yahoo Sports. “I think we took that pressure, but you want to be part of an organization that’s going to hear us out in what we feel is in our best interest, to make best use of our time.

“Obviously, we deserve that.”

Golden State Warriors players Draymond Green, left, Klay Thompson, center, and Stephen Curry laugh together after winning the 2021-22 NBA championship on June 16, 2022. (Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
Golden State Warriors players Draymond Green, left, Klay Thompson, center, and Stephen Curry laugh together after winning the 2021-22 NBA championship on June 16, 2022. (Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

They’d already drafted Jordan Poole in 2019 and in his second season, he began to blossom. If there’s a comp to Reggie Lewis and the Celtics, it would be him given his trajectory to date. The subtle moves of Poole and Wiggins made up for not leveraging the draft picks for more established stars, and perhaps the Warriors took advantage in a season when the Western Conference wasn’t as strong.

“We get Klay back next year [from 2020], we have bookend wings who can guard the LeBrons and Kawhis of the world,” Kerr told Yahoo Sports. “In retrospect, seeing how well Wiggins has played, that [trade] was probably the high point because it’s panned out so well for him and us.”

What’s more, particularly for Curry, is ensuring there’s a standard to follow for everyone who walks into the building. Wiggins hasn’t become a different player, it just seems like he best fits where he is and there’s accountability for how plays.

That could be the definition of “culture.”

“It’s hard to define, but culture is really about the players,” Kerr said. “Steph Curry and Draymond Green, they establish a culture. I try to feed it as [the] coach, but if you don’t have players who share the values … it’s a sweat equity.”

Lost in all the talk of joy the Warriors exude, is an aura of competition that seemingly won’t subside.

“It does,” Kerr said. “Look at those two guys. It’s a fierce competition, all the time.”