What does it take to turn one NBA championship into a dynasty? Star talent obviously matters. Chemistry plays a key role, as some teams implode before a multi-year run can truly begin. And then there are the elements beyond the court such as management and ownership.
One piece of the dynasty puzzle often gets overlooked, though: Pure luck. This is not to say that every title deserves an asterisk, but rather to put in perspective just how difficult it is to capture one ring, let alone multiple in a short span.
The Warriors, now heading to their sixth NBA Finals in the past eight seasons, are a prime example of what happens when a franchise checks off all of the controllable boxes and finds some luck along the way. Golden State has seen important players go down with injuries over the last decade, but instead of derailing the dynasty, those health issues have actually kept the team’s window open.
That luck started with the best player on the roster.
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Stephen Curry’s bad ankles become blessing in disguise
Early in Curry’s career, before he became a two-time NBA MVP and established himself as the greatest shooter in league history, he was an exciting but injury-plagued guard. He was forced to undergo ankle surgeries in 2011 and 2012, and there were fears that he would follow the unfortunate path of Grant Hill.
Those bad ankles saved the Warriors in multiple ways. First, they scared off the Bucks in trade talks. Milwaukee was considering adding Curry in 2012, but the team’s doctors believed the ankle injuries were too significant to overlook. Second, Golden State was able to sign Curry to a four-year, $44 million extension before the 2012-13 season, giving the front office incredible flexibility.
Curry transformed his body, learning how to rely more on his core and hips than his ankles. He later emerged as the most deadly offensive weapon in the NBA, and the Warriors were able to build around him — hello, Kevin Durant! — because his deal was so cheap.
David Lee out, Draymond Green in
During the 2013-14 season, Lee started in 67 of his 69 regular season appearances, averaging 18.2 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. There wasn’t any doubt that he would be the team’s starting power forward under first-year head coach Steve Kerr.
Then, Lee suffered a hamstring injury during a 2014-15 preseason game, opening the door for Green to join the starting lineup. Green was viewed as a “tweener” coming out of Michigan State because he didn’t fit perfectly into the traditional role of a guard or forward, but he quickly silenced any doubters with his play.
Green never gave Lee his spot back, posting 11.7 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks in 79 starts. His ability to log minutes as an undersized center helped unlock the Warriors’ “Death Lineup,” and they went on to win the 2015 NBA championship. That “Death Lineup” only improved when Durant signed with Golden State in 2016.
The Warriors traded Lee to the Celtics in the summer of 2015, and he was out of the league just two seasons later.
Kevon Looney concerns
He may not be the first name that comes to mind when you think about the Warriors, but Kerr has always understood Looney’s value. He referred to the big man as a “foundational” piece of the franchise in 2019.
Before he solidified himself as a consistent contributor, though, there were concerns about how long his body would hold up.
“People were putting the injury label on me,” Looney told NBA.com earlier this month. “I take pride in being a tough guy and doing all the dirty work. So, to be a guy that was not healthy messed with my mentals.”
Golden State president of basketball operations and general manager Bob Myers admitted that Looney’s injuries, most notably the issues with his hips, did factor into the front office’s decision to decline his option ahead of the 2017-18 season, which allowed Looney to become a free agent the next summer. The Warriors retained Looney on a one-year deal, then signed him to a team-friendly three-year, $14.5 million contract in 2019.
Looney solved his problems by dramatically altering his diet and training routines. All of his hard work paid off this past season, as the 26-year-old managed to play in all 82 regular season games for the first time in his career. He was one of only five players to hit that mark (Deni Avdija, Saddiq Bey, Mikal Bridges and Dwight Powell).
Had Looney been healthy as a younger player, there may have been a more robust market for his services and a road out of the Bay Area. Fortunately for the Warriors, he stuck with them through some rough patches. His terrific work on both ends of the floor has given the Warriors a huge boost in the 2022 NBA Playoffs.
Developing others while “Splash Brothers” recover
With Curry limited to five games in 2019-20 and Klay Thompson out for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 campaigns, the Warriors missed the NBA Playoffs in back-to-back years after reaching five consecutive NBA Finals. And yet, even amid Golden State’s struggles over the previous two seasons, there was progress.
Rather than bundle all of their assets together for a win-now trade, the Warriors integrated role players into their system and let them develop. Jordan Poole’s rise, in particular, has stood out, as the former first-round pick has gone from a total mess as a rookie to an explosive scorer in Year 3.
“I’m thrilled with the growth and maturity,” Kerr said of Poole in April. “Where he was two and a half years ago compared to now, it’s just dramatic. And he’s earned every bit of it. Regardless [of his role], he’s learned, listened and improved.
“His improvement is not by accident, though. Nearly everyone in the organization calls Poole the hardest worker on the team. That is why the transformation he has had over the past two and a half years has been so dramatic.”
When the Warriors got their core trio back together, there were growing pains, but the fact that Kerr didn’t ditch his system when the losses were piling up made the merging of past and present a much less daunting task.
Each Golden State player has done his job and pushed the Warriors to the NBA Finals, extending a dynasty that appeared to be over in 2019. Oh, and a little bit of luck didn’t hurt, either.