Stephen Curry, Steve Kerr and a Warriors dynasty at a crossroads

NBA

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IN THE AFTERMATH of another frustrating loss, Joe Lacob paced the hallway in the depths of Chase Center, just outside the room where the Golden State Warriors hold their postgame news conferences.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr hadn’t yet entered. His team had just blown an 18-point lead to the defending champion Denver Nuggets, who closed the game on a 25-4 run, capped by a buzzer-beating half-court heave from Nikola Jokic. The defeat had marked another body blow in a season defined by them. The Warriors were 11 games into Draymond Green‘s second suspension, this one indefinite. Andrew Wiggins and Klay Thompson were having uneven seasons, and uncomfortable whispers about their futures were becoming national talking points. The Warriors were 11th in the West — and falling.

The minutes passed. Lacob, the Warriors’ owner, paced back and forth. Finally, Kerr arrived, and Lacob stepped inside. He stood near the back. His team had just played its league-high 27th clutch game of the season — defined as games in which the final score is within five points in the final five minutes — and had lost for the 14th time. Another game gifted away.

From the dais, Kerr noticed Lacob, leaning against a wall in the back, near the door where he often exits before anyone notices him. Lacob hired Kerr in 2014, and since then, the two men have overseen an extraordinary run of success, including four championships and six Finals runs as the team has become a global brand.

But this loss had highlighted an issue that represented years of internal struggle, which, against Denver, emerged in the form of Jonathan Kuminga.

The promising third-year wing had scored 16 points in 19 minutes against the Nuggets, but Kuminga was benched for the game’s final 18 minutes. The decision had riled the Warriors’ fan base, and Lacob, too, was certainly aware, as he had championed Kuminga ever since the Warriors drafted him No. 7 overall in 2021. Lacob says now that he knew it would take Kuminga time to grow, perhaps even a few years before he could impact winning. But the pace of Kuminga’s development — or the lack thereof — had become a source of tension inside the organization, with questions percolating about whether Kerr trusted the young players enough — or whether the team was holding on to its aging core too long when a pivot to the future was needed.

As Kerr faced the media, as well as Lacob, he unpacked a loss that had dropped the Warriors to 16-18. Kerr explained that Kuminga was slated to reenter the game midway through the fourth quarter, but the player he would’ve replaced — Wiggins — was playing well, so they stood pat. More time passed, Kerr said, and it didn’t seem fair to insert Kuminga. “So,” Kerr continued, “I stayed with the group that was out there, and obviously we couldn’t close it out.”

Lacob listened. “Was I steaming and mad about losing? Sure, we all were,” Lacob recalled to ESPN, “but there was nothing to it.”

No hidden meaning, no subtle message to Kerr, he said.

Sitting there, answering questions centering on the direction of a team seemingly on the downslope of a dynasty, Kerr also found himself in an unusually precarious position.

The 58-year-old coach is entering the final months of his contract. The Warriors are facing a record tax bill. And the organization itself, for the first time in a decade, is facing a rebuild.

The Warriors have long known this shift would come, but for years the team has struggled to establish a clear path forward to stave off the descent into irrelevance that has befallen other NBA teams facing the sunset of a dynasty.

Part of that struggle, team sources said, has been their own success, the 2022 championship serving as a seismic event: a crowning achievement for their veteran stars, but also a pivot point that derailed plans to develop potential successors.

As the February trade deadline approached, Lacob, in consultation with Green, inquired about trading for Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James, as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne reported.

While the blockbuster acquisition never came to pass, the inquiry, team sources said, represents Lacob’s desire to keep the team competitive at this critical phase, teetering between its dominant past, aging present and uncertain future.

“I’m not going to comment on something I can’t comment on, but, in general, I just want to win,” Lacob said. “We just want to win. We want to be the best, and we’re going to try whatever tactic it takes to get there. I am not here to screw around. We are not here to screw around. We are not here to be just ‘some team.’ We’re not going to do that. We may fail. Everyone fails. We may fail occasionally, but it will not be for lack of trying.”

To sustain excellence thereafter — or to even remain competitive — would cast the Warriors as historical outliers. Lacob knows the track record, and many in and around the Warriors do, too, with some privately acknowledging the unprecedented nature of the task.

But to understand how they reached this critical juncture, sources close to the team point to a series of events beginning five years ago, when the Warriors were at their peak, the present and future firmly in their grasp.


IN JUNE 2019, the Warriors reached their fifth consecutive Finals, a feat not achieved since the 1960s Boston Celtics, and were aiming for their third straight championship, a feat not achieved since the mid-1990s Chicago Bulls.

Then, in Game 5 against the Toronto Raptors, Warriors star forward Kevin Durant tore his right Achilles. Three days later, in the Raptors’ title-clinching Game 6 win, Thompson tore the ACL in his left knee. Durant departed for Brooklyn a month later. Three months after that, star point guard Stephen Curry fractured his left hand, sidelining him for four months.

It was then, nearly five years ago, that whispers of a dynasty in peril first emerged, team sources said.

The Warriors were exhausted from five Finals runs in a row under Kerr. They’d played more than a full season’s worth of playoff games. Now key stars had either departed or suffered major injuries — the sort that could derail careers. The transcendent Curry alone could lift a team in an outsized way, the thinking went, but uncertainty loomed. Had the Warriors’ dynasty run its course? Some Warriors decision-makers privately feared the answer might be yes.

“I can’t sit here and deny that,” Lacob says now.

The next two seasons seemed to offer a definitive answer. The injury-ravaged Warriors missed the playoffs in each, leading to lottery picks in 2020, when they held the No. 2 pick, and 2021, when they held the Nos. 7 and 14 picks. An opportunity to reload so soon after a title run was rare; the Warriors became the first team to win multiple titles and have multiple top-10 picks in a five-season span since the Bulls from 1996 to 2000.

Given their stars’ ages and injuries, the Warriors opted for a “swing for the fences” approach, as one source called it, by selecting high-ceiling players — raw but tantalizing center James Wiseman, who had played just three games in college; Kuminga, who had played 13 games in the G League; and guard Moses Moody, who had played one season at Arkansas.

It was known throughout the organization that all three players would require considerable playing time to develop, sources with knowledge of the situation said, but the Warriors seemed to have plenty to offer.

“We could have drafted more ready players that maybe had a lower ceiling,” Lacob says now. “We thought we had more time with our Big Three. How much more? We didn’t know. And at what level? We weren’t quite sure.

“Now, melding them in with the Big Three, that’s where I think it got complicated.”

Curry returned from his fractured hand in March 2020. That summer, the team picked Wiseman, who posted 19 points, six rebounds and two steals in his debut, followed by an even more promising first month in which the 19-year-old averaged 12 points and six rebounds and shot over 40% from 3. Two months later, the 7-footer suffered a torn right meniscus, which sidelined him for the rest of the season. The Warriors finished with a 39-33 record, which Thompson missed because of a right Achilles tear.

Entering that offseason, the high-risk drafting strategy remained in place, and the team selected Kuminga and Moody. It was unclear how — even if — Thompson would perform after missing two seasons because of major injuries.

At the start of the 2021-22 season, Thompson remained sidelined. “Did we think we were going to win the championship that year?” Lacob asks. “No, I can’t sit here and tell you that, but I certainly thought we were going to be good.”

The Warriors were more than good; they won 18 of their first 20 games, the kind of sustained steamroller that had come to define their run.

Curry, the reigning NBA scoring champion, dominated while becoming the NBA’s all-time leader in career 3-pointers. Wiggins, acquired in February 2020 as wing support for the injured Thompson, proved a perfect sidekick, earning his first All-Star appearance. Third-year guard Jordan Poole, a 2019 first-round draft pick who had started just seven games the season before, more than helped fill in for the absent Thompson — averaging 18.5 points across his breakout campaign. Green delivered an All-Star season despite missing 31 games between January and March because of a back injury. Then, in January, Thompson returned — and returned to form, averaging 20.4 points during the final 32 games of the regular season.

It was a revival. And a reversal.

For the team, development became secondary. Wiseman missed the entire season while rehabbing his knee injury. Kuminga, a rookie, ranked 11th on the team in minutes (16.9 per game), while Moody ranked 14th (11.7).

Behind their All-Star quartet of Thompson, Green, Curry and Wiggins, and with veteran contributions from Otto Porter Jr. and Gary Payton II, the Warriors stormed through the postseason, beating Denver in five games, Memphis in six games, then Dallas in five games. In the Finals, they faced a Celtics team built around stars Boston had drafted and developed in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown — and the Warriors dispatched them in six games, earning the organization’s fourth title in eight years.

Kuminga and Moody barely played, averaging nine and eight minutes, respectively, throughout the postseason.

Amid the glory of this surprising championship, a conflict began to emerge inside the organization, team sources said.

The improbable title had completely reset expectations: Maybe the team’s championship window wasn’t closed. Maybe this core trio wasn’t finished. Maybe, just maybe, this dynasty still has more left to give …

“It takes young players time to impact winning,” one team source said. The Warriors had time, then they didn’t.”

The tension centered around the three talented-but-untested players on their roster who needed minutes — and how best to manage them.

In the upper ranks of the organization, including the front office and ownership, conversations ensued, and a potential path forward crystallized in the form of the “bridge the gap” idea outlined by Lacob in an interview with The Athletic — otherwise known as the “two-timeline” approach.

“We now have some incredible potential that we can bridge to the future,” Lacob told The Athletic soon after the team had drafted Kuminga and Moody. “When you can do both those things at once, it’s magic.”

Among the coaching staff, sources with knowledge of the situation said there was apprehension — and skepticism.

A greener staff led by an inexperienced head coach, one source said, might’ve tried to forge ahead with the approach. But Kerr and his veteran staff of assistants, which included former head coaches Mike Brown and Kenny Atkinson, along with three-plus decades of NBA coaching experience from Ron Adams, possessed extensive NBA résumés. They knew full well, the source said, that it would be virtually unprecedented for the Warriors to push for another title while meaningfully developing the young players.

Lacob acknowledges that viewpoint. “There’s truth to that,” he said. “There’s also truth to the second point, which is that we had these three great players that wanted to try to continue to win right away. They’re a factor. The coaching staff is a factor in all of that. Then you have an owner — and, quite frankly, I’m very involved — who doesn’t want to ever be in the lottery, ever. We don’t want to be bad. We don’t want to go through a transition. I just can’t do that. So you put those factors together, and it was going to be a tough path.”


RIVAL EXECUTIVES AROUND the NBA looked on at Lacob’s “bridge the gap” approach with doubt, noting that no team in NBA history had successfully relied on its stars while developing younger players who would later inherit the team.

“Can you remember one player that the Chicago Bulls developed in the mid-1990s that helped carry them when Michael Jordan was gone?” one agent asked.

Others considered the idea — even if it came about with good intentions — to be indicative of an arrogance that permeated from the organization, given Lacob’s infamous public remarks in 2021 that the Warriors were “light years” ahead of the rest of the league.

“These rich dudes all think they have the magic touch,” one rival executive said. “Most get humbled by losing early in their ownership tenure. Joe Lacob came in with the same attitude and then won everything for 10 years. So it’s understandable he thinks he can do no wrong.”

The one “bridge the gap” attempt multiple executives cite was in San Antonio, where the Spurs were positioned to hand the reins of the franchise from star Tim Duncan, who retired in 2016, to budding star Kawhi Leonard, whom they acquired in a 2011 draft-night trade with the Indiana Pacers. But after an injury-plagued 2017-18 season, irreparable tension developed between Leonard and the Spurs. Leonard requested a trade and was sent to the Raptors, whom he led to a championship in 2019 over the Warriors.

The Spurs had won more than 50 games in 18 straight seasons, the longest streak in league history. They had a trio of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, just as the Warriors had Curry, Thompson and Green. Kerr had played under Spurs coach Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, winning a title.

“I think there was always a delusion in that building that they were the next Spurs,” said one source close to the Warriors organization.

Still, within ownership and the front office, the Warriors hoped to at least test the “bridge the gap” theory, if only to see if their young players could still progress. Better that than giving up on them too soon and watching them blossom elsewhere — a legitimate internal fear, team sources said.

It didn’t work. In 2022-23, the Warriors ran it back, pushing for another title behind their veterans. Kuminga ranked eighth in team minutes, Moody 12th.

Wiseman, finally healthy, scored a career-high 30 points in a December 2022 loss to the Brooklyn Nets, then sprained his ankle in a 3-on-3 scrimmage nine days later. He wouldn’t play again for the Warriors, who traded Wiseman two months later, in February 2023, to Detroit as part of a three-team trade. They received journeyman forward Kevin Knox and five second-round picks in return.

It was an acknowledgement as much as an admission — Wiseman’s timeline for development wasn’t aligned with the Warriors’ timeline to compete, and that the approach had largely failed.

“Steve has never been hesitant to play anyone,” one team source said. “It’s more about being ready to play the way that we play, which is unique. Steve’s job is to win games. If guys are ready and in a position to help us win, he’ll play them.”

Another team source said players who succeed in Kerr’s read-and-react system, which is built around Curry, require a combination of instinct, competitiveness and processing speed. When the Warriors were at the peak of their dynasty, the source said, the team could afford to gamble on players who weren’t ideal fits because the team was good enough to win anyway.

As the Warriors’ stars aged, though, the margin for error on player acquisitions dramatically decreased. Those acquisitions had to fit, had to fit immediately, and their young players simply weren’t ready.

“We were going to try to win,” Lacob says now. “We were going to try to squeeze these guys in when we can; if they take off, they take off, but you have to be realistic that it’s going to be more like Year 3 no matter what team you’re on. And you’ve got to play the right way. You can’t play through your mistakes as much.” It was, he says, a “tough situation.”

A few months after trading Wiseman, the Warriors selected shooting guard Brandin Podziemski, who played in 48 college games across two seasons at Illinois and Santa Clara, and forward Trayce Jackson-Davis, who played four seasons at Indiana. Both players, sources said, were considered more ready to contribute and better fits around the Warriors’ veteran core — and especially Curry.

From afar, and with the benefit of hindsight, one former Warriors staffer echoed a point made by a chorus of rival executives.

“I think [ownership] made a decision about four years ago that they were going to try and have it all, and it backfired,” the former Warriors staffer said. “They probably should have focused on players that just fit with Steph versus trying for the home run swings.”


THAT SENTIMENT REFLECTS what several people close to the team, as well as some rival executives, say about the Warriors when asked about their timeline.

“It was always built around Steph,” the former Warriors staffer said, “and there is only one Steph.”

And for now, the generational star continues to play at an All-Star level, averaging 28 points per game. His play sustains an internal belief that the Warriors can remain contenders.

Still, what for years seemed to rival teams like an inevitability of title contention is no longer. That mortality hits even the greatest of giants. “They are finding that without those three greats in their prime, they aren’t really any different than any other franchise,” said one rival executive.

Lacob has another view, an “ace in the hole,” he said.

“It’s the reason that I don’t think we will ever, ever try to bottom out.”

“We are the Golden State Warriors,” Lacob said, referencing their status as a free agent destination. “I believe in the culture. I believe that word gets out. I could go on and on. I’m not trying to brag. I’m just saying, that’s who we are.

“We’re never going to bottom out. I won’t settle for that. We’re not doing that.”

The cautionary tales to the contrary are endless — and close to home. Kerr won three championships for the Bulls in an era that defined a generation. But after their sixth championship in 1997-98, a season famously labeled beforehand as their “Last Dance,” the Bulls aged out. Michael Jordan retired. Coach Phil Jackson’s contract expired. And a dynasty that had become a global brand plummeted from 62 wins in 1997-98 to just 13 the very next year. The Bulls missed the playoffs the next six seasons. They haven’t made the Finals since.

After the Celtics won their third title in the mid-1980s, capping off a span of three championships in six years, the team struggled to transition. They reached the Finals in 1986-87 but not again for 21 years.

When Lacob and Peter Guber bought the Warriors in 2010 for $450 million, the team had made the playoffs only once in the previous 16 seasons. Golden State’s 2014-15 title snapped a 40-year championship drought. After spending most of their existence in obscurity, the Warriors rose to the NBA’s most elite tier.

“It’s possible we’ll get caught with our pants down,” Lacob said. “I can’t make everything work all the time. There’s no way to predict that. But the only thing is we’ll never sit around and accept mediocrity. We’re not going to sit around and let this happen to us.”


AFTER ALL THE tumult over the past five seasons — the career-threatening injuries, the suspensions, the fits and starts amid a wavering dynasty — the Warriors entered this season hoping to make another deep run after acquiring veteran Chris Paul. They hoped to lean on a tried-and-true lineup — built around Curry, Thompson, Wiggins, Green and center Kevon Looney — which last season posted a plus-21.9 net efficiency in 331 minutes and ranked first out of 102 lineups to play 100-plus minutes together. They hoped they could recover from a season poisoned by Green punching Poole, who was traded to Washington in the deal that landed Paul.

That hope proved more fantasy than reality almost from the beginning.

Twelve games into the season, Green put Rudy Gobert in a chokehold, earning himself a five-game suspension. Six games after his return, Green clocked Jusuf Nurkic in the face, earning himself an indefinite suspension, this time with conditions for his return. Meanwhile, Thompson and Wiggins were having their worst seasons in years.

By early January, the Warriors were a sub-.500 team. They faced a reckoning — and a shift, one in the form of acceptance: To depend on the core trio would, for the first time in a decade, not be enough.

Kerr looked down the bench. It was time to play their young players, both the projects from their recent past and the more experienced rookies from their present, and blend them alongside their veteran core. On Feb. 5, he benched Thompson late in a win against the Nets; 10 days later, Thompson came off the bench for the first time since his rookie year.

The results, so far, have been promising, especially for Kuminga. Since he had reportedly lost faith in Kerr in early January — which became public after a report in The Athletic the morning after that Jan. 4 loss to Denver — Kuminga has averaged 20.1 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists. Sources close to the situation said that, for now, the relationship between Kerr and Kuminga is strong.

“It definitely took Steve a long time to get on the boat, but it seems like he’s on the boat,” said one source close to the team. “Things are good now.”

But, the source added, how will Kerr balance playing time while reincorporating Payton (who suffered a left hamstring injury in early January) and, eventually, Paul?

“Is Kerr going to prioritize playing veterans over guys like Kuminga?” the source asked. “When Steve does that, no one ends up happy.”

The Warriors have used 17 starting lineups this season, but Kerr has found success with the one built around Curry, Wiggins, Kuminga and Green: They have played 246 minutes together this season, recording a plus-16.1 net efficiency, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That is the best among Western Conference four-man lineups to play at least 200 minutes together.

Meanwhile, Moody is averaging a career-high 17.3 minutes, having improved his scoring from 4.8 points per game last season to 8.2. Fellow rookie Jackson-Davis has four double-doubles, tied for sixth among rookies. And in a Feb. 2 win over Memphis, Podziemski tallied 14 assists and 0 turnovers, which tied for the most assists without a turnover by any Warriors player since individual turnovers were first tracked in 1977-78. The lineup of Curry, Podziemski, Wiggins, Kuminga and Green represents a significant blend of young and old. It also has a plus-26.0 net efficiency this season, second best in the NBA among lineups to play 100 minutes together.

Six days after Podziemski’s big game over Memphis, and just hours after reportedly asking the Lakers about the availability of James, the Warriors largely stood pat at the trade deadline, only sending guard Cory Joseph to the Pacers for a second-round pick and cash. Warriors general manager Mike Dunleavy said that Kuminga was “virtually” untouchable in trade talks: “As untouchable as guys can be in this league,” he added.

That same night, the Warriors trounced the Pacers 131-109. Curry made 11 3-pointers — including his first six attempts in the opening quarter — en route to 42 points. Rookie forward Gui Santos delivered a career-high 13 points in a career-high 21 minutes.

The Warriors won their next three games, giving them a five-game winning streak and seven wins in their last eight games entering the All-Star break.

“You can’t hit on everybody,” Lacob said. “We’ve got Kuminga, who’s exploding, and a bunch of other young guys who, I don’t know if they’re going to be stars, but they’re pretty good.

“I think we should be able to avoid that total rebuild.”

“I feel,” Kerr said recently, “like this is the best version of us.”

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