These Warriors Are All-Time, Even If They Are Not

Credit: Getty Images | Copyright: 2021 Will Newton

It’s been easy to stan for the Golden State Warriors in recent years. Between 2010–20, the Bay Area’s beloved “Dubs” delivered more titles (three) to its fanbase than any other franchise, won 60% of their games, and leveraged that success into a $1.4 billion waterfront acropolis. However, Golden State’s meteoric rise has been highlighted on a historic scale against the backdrop of a dismal decade-and-a-half that preceded its cryptocurrency-like come-up: one playoff berth between 1995 and 2012. That is why it feels fitting that the 2020–21 team, the first of a new decade and era, falls somewhere in the middle. On Sunday, the Warriors clinched the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoffs, punctuating a season that many critics — both local and national — did not expect to be one to remember. This group won’t win the championship, nor will they be remembered for influencing modern basketball as they did in years past, but because of their 72-game response to those expectations (others might call it doubt), I enjoyed this Warriors season as much as any in my lifetime.

This year, Golden State was coming off an NBA-worst 15-win season and the injuries that plagued them in the 2019–20 campaign continued into the offseason when Klay Thompson tore his Achilles tendon just over a month before the season started. Even with the anticipated additions of Kelly Oubre and James Wiseman, ESPN’s NBA Basketball Power Index (BPI) projected the Warriors to finish 29–43, 14th (out of 15) in the West and one game worse than the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Talk about setting a low bar.

There were justifiable questions they needed to answer entering this season: could Stephen Curry carry a team, with little offensive help, to the postseason on his trim but scanty shoulders? Would head coach Steve Kerr find a rotation trustworthy enough to depend on late in the season? Was the championship culture, forged from 2013–19, going to harmonize with an infusion of inexperience in time to maximize the Warriors winning window? While the answers to all three looked bleak at different points, the result of this year’s experiment was Yes, Yes, and Yes.

The conversation concerning Curry’s validity as a one-man wrecking crew had previously been up in the air. No one ever questioned the two-time Most Valuable Player’s ability to put up points in a hurry. But Curry had always had a splash brother in crime, a Finals MVP — or two — by his side. Now, with no one to share the scoring load, the world got to see Steph become what no one had ever associated with his name or brand: greedy. He averaged the most field goal attempts (21.7), three-point attempts (12.7), and free throw attempts (6.3) of his career. Yet, on certain nights, it seemed like he should have shot more. Perhaps that’s why Warrior’s fans glorified his gluttonous, Allen Iverson-Esque performance in the regular-season finale when Curry hoisted a career-high 36 shots, scoring 46 points against the Grizzlies.
It was an appropriate way to end a season in which he accounted for 24.6% of his team’s total points, more than anyone else in the NBA. Steph secured the second scoring title (32.0 ppg) of his career and reaffirmed his status as the greatest show in sports.

However, a great lead vocalist needs a good tune or the sweet-sounding tone will be drowned out. To win 39 games against the second-toughest schedule in the NBA (by SOS), Steve Kerr needed to find a dependable rotation. From 2015–19, Kerr had a 10-man lineup he trusted and when a game looked dire, could confidently rely on the hallowed “Death Lineup” to finish the job. Down the stretch of this season, the Warriors head coach was forced, primarily due to injury, into using an eight-man rotation:

— Starters —
Stephen Curry
Andrew Wiggins
Kent Bazemore
Draymond Green
Kevon Looney

— Bench —
Jordan Poole
Juan Toscano-Anderson
Mychal Mulder

Coach Kerr’s reliance on this octet began on April 21 and he leaned on them heavily after that night’s loss. Addition by subtraction helped the Warriors win 10 of their last 14 regular-season games.

This is where the comparison to the 2006–07 “We Believe” team arises. That year, coincidentally, the Warriors finished the regular season 10–4, earning the eighth seed, and head coach Don Nelson relied predominantly on a rotation of eight players. Now fans on social media have taken to calling the 2020–21 team “Re-Believe,” which sounds poetic but doesn’t fully encompass its makeup. Draymond Green thought as much, referencing his three championships as evidence for not wanting to be labeled the second coming of a team that only won a single playoff series. In fact, just one member of that memorable playoff run in 2007 had won a ring — Stephen Jackson in 2003 — but at that time Golden State was still seen as more of a sparring partner than the heavyweight fighter it became.

As Green illustrated, the chief distinction between the two teams is the championship pedigree. Curry and Green have it in spades, plus Bazemore and Looney also contributed to rings. That is why, when Golden State cratered to 24–28 on April 9, it was difficult to understand how the Dubs culture was not having a tangible impact on its young talent. It looked worse after Oubre hurt his wrist that game, playing in only five more the rest of the season. Then two days later, Wiseman was lost for the season with a meniscus injury.

However, the darkest moment of the season proved to be the turning point as Curry began his inferno-like, one-man assault on opponents, and everyone else fell into formation. After April 9, the Warriors went 15–5 to end the season, shooting better from the floor (46.1% à 48.8%), improving their three-point defense (36.9% à 33.2%), and limiting opponents total possessions by nearly two per game. Together, they averaged a +9.2 point differential in the final 20 games. Emblematic of all great Warriors teams, this group threw its strongest collective punch after being backed into the corner.

Golden State went from being on the outside looking in on the play-in tournament (7–10 seeds) to securing a firm grip on the eighth seed. In doing so, the stretch run of this season reignited a light that Warriors fans were not sure would brighten again. For much of the season, Golden State looked like a .500 team — their record was even a total of 15 times. The Warriors were the guys that could rally from a 14-point, fourth-quarter deficit against a full-strength Los Angeles Lakers team and also lose to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

But they always had Steph and his toque blanche, cooking opposing defenses with the skill of Alain Ducasse. They could always rely on Draymond to anchor a top-five NBA defense. Then, throughout the season, the stagehands stepped up and blossomed into supporting actors. Wiggins evolved into a dependable second scoring option while taking pride in his hardworking perimeter defense. Poole matured into a much-needed sixth man, providing punch to an offensively-starved second-unit. Toscano-Anderson, the hometown kid and best success story of this NBA season, flourished as a stretch-four forward and instilled grit into a bench that lacked it. Bazemore brought his long-armed defensive presence while shooting a career-best from three-point range. Looney logged offensive rebounds at a rate that was top-15 in the league. Even Mulder, whose shooting consistency looked like a coin flip for much of the year, found his stroke down the stretch.

Each piece of Golden State’s puzzle did not look like it fit until it suddenly did. Local trust in this team was unsurprising, whereas national expectations wildly fluctuated. There are certainly better-constructed rosters elsewhere, otherwise, the Warriors would not be an eight seed. Some of that has to do with talent, injury, or luck, or, more probably, a combination of the three. However, with the questions surrounding this team, it’s remarkable how most fans feel about them as they get ready for the play-in tournament. Not that no one believed they would get there, but I doubt anybody predicted the fashion in which they would earn our belief.

The Warriors are not feared entering the playoffs, but they are not seen as a pushover either. Similar to their performance all season, they fall somewhere in between. Yet, the toughest element to strategize against is unpredictability and Golden State embodies it. It is what allowed them to turn their season around when they looked destined for mediocrity. They answered the doubters, the questioners, the haters, all without a concrete explanation of how they did it. That is what is magnetic about them. They contain a quality you cannot quite analyze. They are not one of the all-time teams that went to five straight finals, nor are they the longshot overachievers of the late 2000s. Through their unusual performance and newfangled charisma, these 2020–21 Warriors have begun to write a new chapter in the franchise’s history.

I cannot wait to see where it goes.

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