The Golden State Warriors and the Unmaking of a Dynasty

The rise and fall of one of the most unprecedented success stories in NBA history

Spencer Young
May 5, 2020 · 17 min read

IT WAS LATE into the Warriors historic 2016 season where their success peaked. The team was playing at a level not seen since 1996 when Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls won 72 games, and they were doing so by playing a beautiful brand of basketball that was both analytically and traditionally appealing.

Feeling particularly emboldened, on March 31, 2016, Joe Lacob made comments that would signal to the rest of the league just how far the Warriors had come as a franchise.

At 68–7, with guard Stephen Curry playing at a historic level with unparalleled efficiency and shotmaking numbers, Lacob, the team’s majority owner, claimed that the Warriors were “light years ahead” of the rest of the NBA.

“We’ve crushed [our competition] on the basketball court, and we’re going to for years because of the way we’ve built this team,” said Lacob at the time. “We’re light-years ahead of probably every other team in structure, in planning, in how we’re going to go about things.”

And at the time, he was right.

Nobody had come close to where the Warriors were in two decades of play, and there was seemingly no end to this upstart dynasty. With Curry being a two-time MVP at only 28, and his co-stars Klay Thomson and Draymond Green both turning 26, it appeared that Golden State was on pace to potentially mirror the achievements of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.

But, looking back, maybe the Warriors inopportune lack of fortune during the 2016 Playoffs should have foreshadowed the eventual demise of this dynasty — even when Golden State gained a new level of invincibility by signing Kevin Durant.

Lacob’s comments were lost in time, among many facts surrounding that historic 73–9 team which were overshadowed by the narratives and unbelievable performances in the 2016 Finals that led to LeBron James and Kyrie Irving toppling the greatest regular-season team in NBA history.

But, today, whenever the NBA season resumes or the 2020–2021 season begins, the Warriors won’t be where everyone in 2016 expected them to be. In fact, Golden State isn’t even among the top-3 contenders for the next NBA championship, even with the impending returns of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

So what happened to the Golden State Warriors that made a franchise that was “light years ahead” of its competitors appear to be light years behind just four years later?

THE ROOTS OF the sudden collapse of what appeared to be the NBA’s most indomitable super-team began well before 2019. The demise of the Warriors, whose rise from first-round exits to a perennial Finals contender, began in the fateful month of July in mid-2016.

In the Hamptons, a tall, quiet client began searching for a rental. The broker, Renee Gallanti, struggled, as she found that many locations had a ceiling too low, while others didn’t have enough privacy. Soon, she realized, her client wasn’t just any well-off individual; it was Kevin Durant.

When the Warriors, who sent the quartet of Steph Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, and Andre Iguodala to the Hamptons, took their turn to pitch Durant, they spoke about everything Durant ever wanted in the NBA. Here, they claimed, there would be no selfishness, no egos, and no conflicts, with the pursuit of greatness and championships taking precedent over everything.

It’s not hard to see why Durant wanted to join the Warriors. In Oklahoma City, rumors swirled about his conflicting fit with Russell Westbrook, critics swarmed him after every early playoff exit, and overall, the situation looked much less appealing by 2016 than it did just four years earlier, when Durant, Westbrook, and James Harden made the NBA Finals.

Golden State appeared to be perfect, a basketball utopia where egos were set aside in the pursuit of perfection, where criticism was replaced by accountability. Remember, this is a player in Durant who was so annoyed by the media attention surrounding his name that he would later claim, “ I just wanna play ball. I wanna go to the gym and go home. That’s all.”

As it turned out, these claims of a perfectly balanced culture would prove to be a fallacy and illusion, quickly replaced by the reality of unhappiness and unsteadiness.

Soon after joining the Warriors, the sports world was taken aback by the revelation that Durant, for an indefinite period, used “burner accounts” on Twitter to defend his name against the millions of users who were now pillaging his name.

These new revelations — Durant’s consistent sense of instability and insecurity — would prove to be costly later on, becoming key factors in the Warriors, who were the NBA’s top team, becoming its worst team in just one year.

THERE WAS AN unspoken tension around the Golden State Warriors throughout their two title seasons with Durant on the roster. Part of this tension was natural, as one of the NBA’s best teams tried to add one of its top players.

After losses, the team was mocked heavily and questioned by many, as the entire sports world outside of California sought the failure of this new “super-team.” Durant and Curry were both over-adjusting to each other, being passive almost to a fault, and deferring to each other. This “feeling out” process was a struggle that every NBA team must adjust to, but with four All-Stars on the roster, the Warriors adjustment was a formidable obstacle in their path to a championship.

After one particular game, a 108–109 loss to the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers, the mockery of Golden State as the supposed most-talented team ever assembled reached an all-time high. Privately, Curry admitted that it was time for Durant to take the reins on offense after Durant poured in 36 points and 15 rebounds in the Christmas matchup while Curry struggled with 15 points on 4/11 shooting.

But, the defining trait of this Warriors team was their ability to simply overwhelm their competition due to their talent, and this overwhelming talent hid their issues for two seasons.

As Durant put up historic numbers in the Warriors 2017 championship run and saved the team from disaster against James Harden and the Houston Rockets in 2018, he never truly felt integrated or celebrated the way a player of his caliber should be — which was the one issue that was left visible to the public throughout the second stage of the Warriors title runs with Durant on the roster.

Though this effect was far from quantifiable, there was a noticeable change in energy when Stephen Curry was in command of the team, as opposed to Durant.

In other words, Durant, who was sold on fitting into a selfless, incredibly talented Golden State team in 2016, never truly fit in, as he was treated like a hired gun or mercenary of sorts who was the finishing piece to an already masterful roster. With no way to truly fit in, it was natural for Durant to have a wandering eye, never fully committing to a team that would never fully commit to him.

This tension rarely spilled into the public eye, which was a testament to the maturity of the veterans on the roster more so than a confirmation of the “Strength in Numbers” and team-first philosophy the Warriors claimed to have.

However, on occasion, it became clear that something was happening in Golden State, and though a name was never put to it, it was implicated that Durant was at the center of it.

At the Warriors championship parade in 2018, following a grueling season that finished with a sweep over LeBron James’ unresolved Cavaliers, Bob Myers made comments that revealed an internal tension to the public — with Myers not knowing just how much damage the Warriors’ internal tension would later cause.

“I heard you tell Steve that Kevin Durant could have whatever contract he wants next year,” said a reporter, speaking to Myers. “That was just for the media he can’t have anything,” Myers jokingly retorted. Coach Steve Kerr added to the lighthearted conversation by exclaiming, “Mid-level,” referring to the minuscule mid-level exception that is usually used for lower-tier role players.

The reporter added, “I think I heard you [Myers] tell Steph he could have whatever contract he wants too.” In a telling response, Myers claimed that Curry’s contract status “was different” because Curry remained in Golden State “since the way-before days.”

In a foreshadowing of things to come, the reporter jokingly claimed, “And there ended the Warriors cohesion right there,” not anticipating the events that would transpire over the next 12 months.

Also, respected veterans David West and Shaun Livingston came out to the media after the Warriors Finals runs and reflected on the drama and turmoil they overcame to win their two straight championships.

West claimed, “Y’all got no clue. No clue. That tells you about this team that nothing came out,” hinting at a possible rift in the team. It turned out that West was mostly referring to a meningitis breakout in Golden State, but the point stands: Golden State was far from the basketball utopia it advertised itself as.

And Livingston directly referred to the fractured state of the team, saying in a reflection of the 2018 season, “Shout out to Steve Kerr for dealing with all our B.S. this year.”

In the following season, the “B.S.” Livingston referred to would prove to be too much for Kerr, Curry, or Durant to handle.

AFTER TWO GRUELING title seasons, the 2018–2019 season was supposed to be different for the Golden State Warriors. After resigning Durant and Curry, while adding former superstar center DeMarcus Cousins in a move that shocked the sports world once again, there was a new energy that surrounded the locker room in Oracle Arena.

Whether it was because this season was the Warriors’ last in the fabled “Roaracle Arena” (a nickname given from the passionate fans at Oracle) or because a three-peat of championships felt impossible without more happiness in the locker room, the members of Golden State decided that they would approach this season with a new joy and gratitude.

At the beginning of the season, the plan was working perfectly.

After beating the New Orleans Pelicans on Halloween, coach Steve Kerr echoed the resounding joy that permeated in the Warriors locker room. “Last year I know a couple guys told us Game 1 felt like Game 41,” he said. But, “this year Game 1 felt like Game 1,” which he believed was key to maintaining winning habits throughout an 82-game season.

Draymond Green added, “We came into this season excited about the season,” claiming that the team was “embracing the process [of] getting better and trying to win a championship.” This process of trying to embrace winning every day led to a dominant 10–1 start, mirroring the past Golden State teams that were indomitable during the regular season.

But when Curry went down with a strained groin early in November, missing 11 games, everything that Golden State’s 2019 season was supposed to stand for — renewed joy, more focus in the regular season — went up in flames.

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The “B.S.” that Steve Kerr had to manage proved to be unbearable in 2019. Jaime Valdez/USA Today

“YOU’RE A B****,” exclaimed Draymond Green at Kevin Durant.

“You’re a b**** and you know you’re a b****,” he continued. “We don’t need you. We won without you. Leave.”

Moments earlier, with the score knotted at 106, the Golden State dynasty officially began to unravel.

Clippers guard Lou Williams missed a fading, leaning jump-shot, barely grazing the rim. Green grabbed the miss with 5.6 seconds remaining, but instead of looking Durant’s way — who was desperately calling for the ball — Green took off down the court, hoping to make a play.

It is important to note that this sort of play — the semi-transition assist — was key in Green carving a niche for himself as an All-Star player. But it was this type of play, the free-flowing, dynamic offense that was unique to Golden State in the years before Durant’s arrival, that directly conflicted with the preferences of the best individual scorer since Kobe Bryant in Durant.

As Green passed mid-court, multiple Clippers defenders swarmed his dribble, causing him to lose his dribble and turn the ball over — meaning the Warriors did not get a shot off to try and win the game. An incensed Durant never made past half-court, resorting to yelling at Green even when a pass to him no longer was feasible.

As the two embattled stars walked back to the huddle, the barking between the two continued. It is here when Green challenged Durant, mocking him for complaining, while both daring Durant to leave and claiming that the Warriors did not need Durant’s services to win a third straight NBA championship.

In the coming days, Durant separated himself from his teammates, especially Green, and his sour mood showed. After a blowout loss in Houston during their next game, he told reporters, “Don’t ask me about that again,” when prompted to speak on his fiery argument just a few days earlier.

This wasn’t the first time Green and Durant had quarreled, as they are two strong personalities with diametrically opposed games that were made to conflict with each other.

In 2017, while blowing a 24-point lead to the Memphis Grizzlies, Green was incensed at Durant for his shot selection down the stretch. Up 109–111, and being guarded by the slower Zach Randolph, Durant pulled up for a contested three without moving the ball, a shot which he missed.

In the ensuing timeout, Green lit into Durant, telling him to change his ways for the betterment of the team.

During this same season, amid a loss to the lowly Kings, in which Durant shot 2/10 from the floor, Green again went at Durant, for reasons which were not clear at the time.

Going back to November of 2018, Golden State decided to suspend Green for “conduct detrimental to the team,” prioritizing their 7-foot superstar scorer over Green.

But the damage was done. It was clear, after this incident, that nothing would ever be the same for Durant, Green, or this vulnerable Warriors locker room.

In the coming weeks, the quotes coming out of the Golden State locker room were no longer about positivity or seeking joy.

“Right now, you don’t take a lot of joy out of losing,” Kerr admitted as his team tried to mitigate the loss of Curry in a tough December stretch. “We’re going through kind of a perfect storm of injuries and scheduling and just the internal stuff,” he added.

Durant claimed that many people “confuse joy and happiness.” In Durant’s perspective, “happiness is a feeling that is fleeting,” meaning it goes through a “back and forth” process. Durant also stated that “joy is something that you can stand on. And when you’re enjoying what you do, you don’t mind the adversity, the tough times, the challenges.”

As it turned out, the lack of joy inside the Golden State locker room after that November spat would make the 2019 season as unbearable as ever for many players, including Durant.

And how were the Warriors, trying both to regain that joyous “spirit” and a third straight championship, adjusting to this new reality of turmoil? Well, as Klay Thompson, when asked about his team’s pursuit of joy, briefly stated: “Had it. Lost it.”

THE WARRIORS PLAYOFF run in 2019 did little to quell the noise surrounding Kevin Durant’s impending free agency.

Just two games into the NBA Playoffs, the team blew a 31-point lead to Doc River’s scrappy L.A. Clippers, setting another embarrassing milestone for a roster that planned to “lock-in” come playoff time. And more than ever, even against a team whose best players came off of the bench in Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, Golden State needed Durant to carry the load offensively.

In the first round, Durant averaged a scintillating 35 points per game on 40% three-point shooting. Remember, these performances came in a season where Draymond Green claimed that the Warriors didn’t need Durant to win anymore, but, more than ever, they needed Durant just to escape a grueling first-round series. And, whether it be fate or coincidence, prophecy or circumstance, the Warriors would find themselves without Durant — with Green having the opportunity to prove his scathing comments about Durant were true.

In the second round, through the first four games, the Rockets and Warriors were knotted at 2–2 in a grudge-match between two powerhouse rivals. Through the four games, James Harden averaged 35.75 points per game, while Durant matched him with 36 points per game of his own. but everything changed in Game 5.

With the Rockets rallying from a huge deficit to bring the score to 65–66 late in the third quarter, Durant tried to drive by Rockets guard Iman Shumpert. After making a tough, contested jump-shot, Durant noticeably limped while trying to get back on defense. Grabbing at his lower leg, Durant limped straight to the locker room.

Commentator Reggie Miller remarked that Durant’s reaction looked like “someone kicked [him]” in the leg, which was a similar reaction that many players who tore their Achilles tendon had in the past.

Remarkably, with Durant out for an indefinite time, the Warriors rallied to win a highly contested Game 5, before stunning Houston on its home floor in a historic Game 6. In the first half of Game 6, Golden State managed to keep the score tight despite Steph Curry scoring 0 points.

And, in the second half, Curry was historically dominant, putting up 33 points to overcome Harden’s 35 points and Chris Paul’s 27 points to defeat Houston in the playoffs yet again.

By the Conference Finals, rumors swirled around Golden State, and every headline was related to Durant. Had Durant played his last game in Golden State? Would he return in a potential NBA Finals matchup? Would a potential re-injury of his lower leg hamper his coming offers in unrestricted free agency? And, was the Golden State medical team diagnosing Durant in good faith?

Oddly enough, however, as a team, Golden State was as connected and joyous as ever when Durant went down with an injury, defeating the Portland Trail Blazers with a dominating sweep.

Green, in particular, seemed reinvigorated in Durant’s absence, averaging 16.5 points, 11.75 rebounds, and 8.75 assists during the Conference Finals. And it was not a coincidence that his improved play coincided with Durant’s absence.

See, throughout Durant’s tenure, many noted that when Durant sat for rest or injury, Golden State never seemed to miss a beat. This is because Curry, Thompson, Green, and Andre Iguodala’s bond had grown and evolved to the point where their chemistry alone made them one of the best teams to ever play.

Durant was never someone who “fit” into this core group of players. No, he was treated like a hired-gun, an ultra-talented scorer who could outduel the NBA’s top stars, but never somebody who could mesh with the seemingly telepathic bond between Golden State’s four core veterans. It was no secret that Golden State’s inability to make Durant feel at home would be a major point of discussion in the 2019 free agency.

After four hard-fought games in the 2019 NBA Finals, the Warriors were down 3–1, with seemingly no options left to somehow secure a third straight championship. Except, they had one secret weapon left: the return of Kevin Durant.

Durant returned for Game 5, putting up 11 points while functioning as a role-player in the egalitarian Warrior’s offense.

But, with 9:52 left in the second quarter, after getting a switch with Serge Ibaka guarding him, Durant tried to make a move off the dribble. Immediately, Durant started limping towards the sideline, grabbing at his Achilles tendon.

In a mixture of excitement and shock, the Scotiabank Center erupted at Durant, with both Raptors and Warriors players at Durant’s side.

Later, the worst would be confirmed: Durant tore his Achilles.

The ripple effects of this injury were huge. This injury had a decided impact on Durant leaving Golden State in the offseason — the immediate debate after the game was whether the Warriors medical staff treated Durant in good faith.

After the game, the Warriors locker room had the atmosphere of a team that just lost the championship and not one that had just pulled off another incredible playoff victory. Warriors General Manager Bob Myers was in tears, feeling remorseful for being partially responsible for Durant’s circumstances while calling Durant “misunderstood” and having “one of the purest hearts” in a person he knew.

Contrast these comments with the lighthearted, awkward comments made by Myers mocking Durant’s contract status after 2018 and a new implication was very clear: Durant was finally “in” on the Golden State family. But it was too late.

See, a moment of tears, raw sadness, and empathy from everyone, including Green and Myers, couldn’t make up for the years worth of devaluing and depreciation that Durant felt since his arrival in Golden State.

So, after three years, Durant was truly part of the brother-hood that Golden State spoke of back in that Hampton’s home in 2016. But, just as quickly as he was injured, Durant made up his mind: he would leave Golden State to sign with Brooklyn.

And with Klay Thompson being potentially sidelined for the remainder of the 2020–2021 season after tearing his ACL in Game 6 of the Finals, the Warriors were suddenly challenged greatly to find a way to remain atop the league.

More than ever, Joe Lacob’s comments about being his team being “light-years ahead” of their competition would be put to the test — and soon, the Warriors would find themselves light-years behind the top teams in the NBA.

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The Warriors’ season began with 2019 excitement. It ended in tragedy and disappointment. AP

IN THE OFFSEASON, many gave Golden State the benefit of the doubt when they used Durant’s contract with the Nets to acquire All-Star D’Angelo Russell. Though Russell did not fit particularly well with Curry, he was a young, All-Star level guard, who was a valuable trade piece should the Warriors pursue the third star to mitigate the loss of Durant.

The 2019–2020 season was supposed to be a transition year, one where Curry would get back to being an MVP-level first option, Russell would learn to play next to him, and one where coach Kerr could find which pieces fit well around Curry and Green — with Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston leaving the team in the summer via trade and retirement, respectively.

But, on October 31, the Warriors’ plan went to shambles, as the lumbering Aron Baynes of the Phoenix Suns crushed Stephen Curry’s hand. The news didn’t take long to break: it was a season-altering hand injury, one that would require immediate surgery.

And just like that, Golden State found itself at the bottom of the league, with Russell putting up star-level stats on a team that was reminiscent of the terrible Nets and Lakers rosters he led earlier in his career.

Optimists claimed that the Warriors still had a plan and path to success, regardless — after all, this was the Golden State Warriors, one of the best teams in NBA history. And the “plan” was clear: with a top-pick in the draft and D’Angelo Russell, the Warriors had a clear path to acquiring a superstar-level player.

But this “plan” seemed as questionable as ever when the team sent Russell in exchange for former #1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins, a protected 2021 first-round pick and a 2021 second-round pick from Minnesota.

While Wiggins potentially fit better than Russell next to Curry, Thompson, and Green, he was a former #1 overall pick who fell out of favor in Minnesota because he was one of the NBA’s most inefficient scorers in his tenure with the Timberwolves while not providing much other value.

By the trade deadline, the optimism around the Warriors was gone. Since 2018, Golden State was linked to many superstar players — including reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.

But as of now, a package of Wiggins, a top-pick in the weak 2020 NBA Draft, and a future first-round selection from Minnesota isn’t even close to matching the value of Antetokounmpo. In fact, that trade offer of Wiggins and picks likely is not enough to acquire Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, or any other superstar-level player that the Warriors have sought to put themselves back at the top of the league.

In just one season, the Warriors turned Kevin Durant, arguably a top-10 talent in NBA history, into Andrew Wiggins, who is one of the most disappointing prospects in NBA history, and a first-round pick.

Once “light-years ahead” of every team in the NBA, the remains of the Warriors’ once fabulous dynasty are now light-years behind the top teams in the league.

Sources:

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Spencer Young

Written by

Student. Fan. Writer. Words in Bleacher Report, others. Check out our official website: https://officialbballuniversity.com

Basketball University

Weekly articles analyzing a variety of basketball-related topics

Spencer Young

Written by

Student. Fan. Writer. Words in Bleacher Report, others. Check out our official website: https://officialbballuniversity.com

Basketball University

Weekly articles analyzing a variety of basketball-related topics

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