One of the most delightful aspects of the Golden State Warriors Experience is the way that Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green’s tripartite excellence opens the door for less well-rounded players to make meaningful contributions to the team’s success and thrive in a way they never could for more limited teams. This is the team that made JaVale McGee an NBA champion and nearly pushed post-Achilles tear Boogie Cousins over the line a year later. If you have a trio of stars that so ruthlessly punishes bad positioning and brain farts on both ends of the court, you can get away with letting one-dimensional players simply do what they’re good at. Nemanja Bjelica is the slowest man in the Western Hemisphere, but when he has four 1,000 IQ help defenders around him at all times, he can focus on making cool passes and hitting open threes. That sort of thing.
Of the nine first-time champions the Warriors crowned on Thursday, none had a more tortuous journey to the top than Gary Payton II.
Payton received three mid-major scholarship offers out of high school, though academic troubles meant he had to attend community college for two years. Stellar play at Salt Lake Community College earned him a shot at his father’s alma mater, Oregon State, where he flourished but went undrafted. No matter, he earned a Summer League invite from the Rockets, which kicked off a half-decade odyssey. Days before the start of the 2015-16 season, Payton was the final player cut from the Rockets roster, who used their 15th roster spot on Bobby Brown. One year of G-League ball and a six-game cameo for the Bucks later, he was once again the preseason final cut, as the Bucks chose Gerald Green over Payton. He earned another two-way deal, was again cut by the Bucks, then played well enough in the minors to earn another brief stint in the NBA, this time with the Lakers. This pattern played out several more times: Portland gave their last roster spot to Nik Stauskas instead of Payton days before the 2018-19 season started; Payton played well enough in the G-League to earn another 10-day contract, this time with the Wizards; he repeated this feat and finally earned a real contract with the Wizards in 2019, but was back in the G-League shortly afterwards; after repeating this dance one last time, he earned a handful of 10-day deals with the Warriors in 2021, which he parlayed into a training camp invite. This time, however, he won his preseason battle, beating out Avery Bradley, Mychal Mulder, and Jordan Bell for the Warriors’ 15th roster spot. Payton was injured in the preseason and only played one game, so he was in the process of applying for a job as a video coordinator on the Warriors’ staff when he earned he final roster spot. He had lived six seasons in G-League limbo, playing just 71 NBA games, and he seemed ready to accept something less tumultuous. After all, his path to the Warriors was one basketball court long.
The Warriors wisely denied his front office aspirations, kept him on the court, and nine months later, he is an NBA champion, one who played a vital role in securing the title against Boston. The Celtics’ roster is a perfect contrast to the Warriors’, as every player in their playoff rotation (except Bob Williams) is a two-way killer who can hit a three and guard a bunch of positions. Meanwhile, the Warriors just won playing three one-dimensional players serious minutes. What sort of position did all that balance differential put the Celtics in? They spent the final three games desperately toggling between compromised defensive coverages, then getting outworked on the other end before they could punish any poor defenders. Payton is perhaps the best example of this phenomenon.
The Mitten is a violently athletic player, someone who Steph Curry once quipped was “the tallest 6-foot-3 guy in the world.” Like his father, he is an ornery pest on defense, someone with the balance, instincts, and disruptive abilities to make any guard in the NBA’s life hell for 15 minutes a night. Unlike his father, he has been a pretty non-functional offensive player for most of his career. This imbalance is why someone so obviously athletic has bounced between the NBA and G-League for so long, and why a team like the Wizards struggled to justify keeping Payton on their roster. If you can play good one-on-one defense against a lead guard but can’t hit a jumper and the team can’t play good help defense behind you, are you really that valuable of a player?
Maybe, but that very imbalance is not a problem at all for the Warriors. They happily tossed Payton out there on opposing teams’ best guards and wings and let him go all-out in short, controlled bursts. He found a way to be useful on offense, by being a fantastic cutter and figuring out how to exploit those little pockets of space that Steph Curry created. In Game 5, when Curry missed all nine of his threes and only managed 16 points, Payton almost equaled him by notching 15 of his own, playing 26 huge minutes off the bench, and leading the game with a +/- of +16. Payton only missed 10 games after breaking his elbow during the playoffs, and his re-entry into the Finals changed the series for the Warriors. Boston’s offense sputtered and died in the final three games of the series, which Payton played a major role in. The single most important statistic of this series was Boston’s turnover figure, as their half-court defense was so good, Golden State needed to get steals in order to keep scoring consistently. Payton had three steals in each of the last two games, which also scared Jaylen Brown off from driving into the Warriors defense. All he needed to do on offense was cut at the right time and hit like one-third of his wide-open threes. He happily obliged.
Like his father, Gary Payton II is now an NBA champion. His path to the top was significantly more difficult than his dad’s but he earned the hell out of his ring, and after six years of basketball purgatory, he’s also finally earned a real payday. Payton Sr. was asked whether his own title win or watching his son win a championship felt more special, and he didn’t hesitate. “Him,” he said. That’s the sweetest payoff possible.