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The Warriors’ Path Back To The Finals Was Never Guaranteed

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - MAY 26: The Golden State Warriors hold the Western Conference Champion trophy after the 120-110 win against the Dallas Mavericks in Game Five of the 2022 NBA Playoffs Western Conference Finals at Chase Center on May 26, 2022 in San Francisco, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

There is an aura of inevitability to the 2022 Warriors when they are fully locked in, as they were in the Western Conference Finals. When you see Klay Thompson toss in a couple of long three-pointers in a row, then Andrew Wiggins put Luka Doncic in jail on three straight possessions, and then Draymond Green make yet another perfect pass, it starts to feel like this team can't be beaten. It begins to feel like the Warriors were always going to waltz back into the NBA Finals once they got healthy, and that their third-place seeding and token challenges mounted by the Grizzlies and Mavericks were speed bumps on par with the 2019 Blazers or 2017 Jazz. The team's perfect record in Western Conference playoff series under Steve Kerr certainly justifies some of that sense of premonition, though as Thompson knows better than most, none of this is guaranteed. It is worth remembering how precarious of a situation the team was in three years ago, and how hard it was to get back here.

The last time Klay Thompson played in an NBA game before his 2022 return, Ja Morant was still a Murray State player, Luka Doncic was playing with Dirk Nowitzki, the Suns were a 19-win team, and nobody had any reason to know Anthony Fauci's name. Before he tore his ACL in Game 6 of the 2019 Finals, Thompson was in the process of yet another Game 6 supernova performance, with 30 points on 12 shots. The moment he crumpled into a heap under his own basket, the Warriors immediate- and medium-term futures turned bleak. Kevin Durant was pretty obviously out the door after three uneasy years with the team and Thompson was going to have to take a year off. The team's books were clogged up to the point that they had to attach a first-round pick to get off Andre Iguodala's contract. Without those three key pieces, all the Warriors had left besides Steph Curry and Draymond Green was Kevon Looney and a bunch of borderline unplayable depth pieces like Alfonzo McKinnie, Jonas Jerebko, and Quinn Cook, none of whom are even in the league anymore. Curry and Green are unquestionable geniuses, but they can only paper over so many cracks. Title windows slam shut so quickly in this sport. Many more well-furnished title contenders than the 2019 Warriors have melted away never to return, and given the unsparing competitive nature of the NBA, the odds were always stacked against an intact version of the Warriors ever again reaching the Finals. Knowing how difficult it would have been to keep leveraging the future against Green and Curry's prime without Thompson around for a while, Bob Myers and his front office tried to get younger.

The theory may have been sound, as the strain of five straight Finals appearances had compounded the Warriors' depth and overwork problems to the point that the team couldn't credibly expect to fight back to another Finals without some dramatic reshuffling, though the Warriors immediately sunk all the way to the bottom of the toilet. Myers swung big by swapping another first-round pick for D'Angelo Russell, a gambit that initially seemed like quite a risk for a team built on a coherent defensive identity that already had a point guard who can be isolated and picked on. The cadre of young guys the team essentially gave season-long tryouts to during the 15-win 2019-20 season mostly disappointed; Jacob Evans proved he was not an NBA player, Glenn Robinson III showed exactly how limited he was, and after his rookie season, Jordan Poole looked like one of the worst players in the league. The team got younger, and all they had to show for it was proof of who sucked and the No. 2 pick, which they of course blew on James Wiseman.

Myers made another play by flipping Russell for the misunderstood Andrew Wiggins, but even then, the team lined up for their first real go of it in two years in 2020 with a roster unable to play their preferred brand of basketball. The team was being pulled in two directions at once rather than following the Spursian path of competing in the present while building towards the future. Kelly Oubre showed that the Warriors' collective intelligence could only redeem so much brain-power deficit. Myers had to watch Wiseman struggle with the basic tenets of bipedal locomotion as LaMelo Ball sparkled, and a heroic year from Curry resulted in a whimpering play-in exit. Thompson was even further away from the court after tearing his Achilles in the offseason. Two years and zero playoff wins seemed to spell things out clearly: the sun was setting on the Curry-Green-Thompson triumvirate. Reinforcements were not coming. But Curry never wavered, and the Warriors turned the corner at the end of the 2021 season. They exiled Oubre to the bench, sheared the rotation of clearly unplayable kids, and got back to the basic dynamic of Curry and Green outsmarting everyone. The team finished the regular season 15-5.

Ahead of the 2021 NBA Draft, the Warriors were widely called on to trade the seventh and 14th picks and maybe Wiggins for an easily identifiable fourth star. The Wiseman failure and the pair of grim years were supposed to have shown management that you cannot be two places at once. It was fair to wonder whether Thompson would ever look like himself again, if Green's offensive recession was permanent, and how much longer Curry could keep doing everything all the time. Instead, they swung big on Jonathan Kuminga and added a very smart wing in Moses Moody. Myers focused in on players who would complement the Curry-Green engine. Rather than Kent Bazemore, who never once knew where to be on the court, the team buffed out their wing depth with Gary Payton II, a less-skilled offensive player who played better defense than Bazemore and also scored just as much because he knew exactly when to cut. Instead of relying on talented airhead Oubre, Myers pulled off a coup by signing Otto Porter. Eric Paschall's minutes went instead to Nemanja Bjelica, a willing and able passer who had the good sense to shoot only when necessary. It was a masterwork of team building. Any notion that you could just throw anyone in alongside Curry and Green and make it work was dispelled by the previous two years. Once again set up as a coherent team, the Warriors returned to form as a terrifying team of killers.

Consider the Mavs series. Dallas's cohesive, intelligent defense was never able to get comfortable against Golden State, with Curry and Green engineering good shots whenever they pleased. Dallas tried to make things hard for them, but Kevon Looney had enough experience within the Warriors system that he emerged as an unlikely facilitator. Wiggins never shot the rock outside of the logical progression of the Warriors' offense, and Poole's emergence as a legit ballhandler and offensive threat kept the Mavericks more honest than they wanted to be. Thompson was the Warriors' top scorer in the closeout Game 5, hitting eight threes on his way to 32 points.

Thompson is, I think, the key to understanding the terms of the Warriors' latter-day success. He's not the same athlete he was before the injuries, though his decline as an off-ball defender can mask how much he's rounded back into form as an on-ball defender. When he can happily switch out onto Doncic or Spencer Dinwiddie, he makes the Warriors a significantly more robust defense. On the other side of the court, the surest sign that the Warriors offense is humming is a good Klay game. Though he led the game in scoring yesterday, most of his shots were akin to the period at the end of a sentence written by Curry and Green. He scarcely dribbled, took zero free throws, and was always in the perfect spot to punish the Mavericks for any mistakes they made in the course of guarding the primary action. This is not to say that Thompson just stands there and benefits from the hard work of others. This game, as scholars have noted for decades, is about a bucket, and Thompson's utility to the Warriors is to deliver the grand finale on beautiful possessions engineered by others, possessions that would mean nothing if they didn't end in a basket. Curry and Green's passing demands most of any defense's focus, but so does Thompson's shooting. This is the core loop the Warriors won with before the years of wandering, and while Wiggins and Poole give them new flourishes, it's still the same way they win today. Management built the right team around them, and it's such a treat to see Curry, Green, and Thompson on the verge of yet another NBA championship after all they've been through.

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