how the Golden State Warriors never really left

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<span>Photograph: Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images</span>

Photograph: Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

It’s no less pretty the thousandth time you see it. On an early-February evening in San Francisco, Stephen Curry threads into the heart of the Sacramento defense, spins in place, then whips a one-handed pass the length of the baseline through a tangle of turned heads. By the time it reaches Klay Thompson, the crowd builds to a murmur. A rhythm dribble, a three from the corner, a little blood-pumping bounce on his surgically restored left leg. The shot drops and the noise roars forth: same as it ever was.

At first glance, the Golden State Warriors are telling a straightforward story this season: the club that rewired the NBA is back. After Curry and co ripped off three championships in four years from 2015 to 2018, their good fortune soured as quickly. In the 2019 finals, Kevin Durant ruptured his achilles tendon and Thompson tore his ACL; Durant left the club in free agency that summer. In the fourth game of the next season, Curry landed hard on his hand – not the record-setting right, small miracles – and missed nearly the entire year with broken bones and nerve damage. After spending a year rebuilding his knee, Thompson tore his own Achilles in November 2020: another full season lost. Now the team is mostly whole (Draymond Green, Golden State’s canniest passer and firiest defender, has started practicing again as he heals from a back injury, and Thompson has missed the last couple games with illness) and perched near its accustomed spot, second in the Western Conference with a 43-19 record.

Perhaps owing to everything that’s happened outside of arenas in the interim, even those fans who groused over the Warriors’ dominance last decade have largely welcomed its return. The team scans as metaphor, the comeback beats dovetailing nicely with its hopeful, cooperative vision of the sport: Basketball for a Better Day. “I got goosebumps on the other side of the court just watching. Big smiles and all that,” Curry said after Thompson took the court again in January, and a chorus of players and fans online said the same. But that reading, of After rewinding to Before, obscures a more meaningful one. This is a team still struggling through, in key ways, still chasing what it once had. They’re showing you don’t have to get it all back to make it worthwhile.

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Slip some truth serum into the Gatorade bottles of Golden State’s Big Three, and they’d all tell you they prefer their former selves. Thompson has been solid, chipping in three triples a game, but he’s not yet the form-shooting android who once registered 37 points in a single quarter. At 31 years old, Green has reached the juncture where his cast-iron heft is as much a burden to be managed as an asset to be deployed. And Curry, the most prolific long-range marksman of all time, is suffering the first stretch in recent memory that might be called a slump. During the month of January, he shot 38.5 percent from the field; over 11 seasons of his career, he has done better than that from three. “Steph is human, I think people forget because he seemed inhuman for so long,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said near the end of that month. “Shots just aren’t falling.”

Still, the Warriors’ stock of individual talent has only ever been part of the team’s story, and as the big names have scuffled or missed time, the system has picked up the slack. “I’m a little more egalitarian in my approach,” Kerr told Insider in 2018, explaining his preference for a ball-movement-and-cutting approach over the feed-the-star sets favored leaguewide. “Maybe because I was a role player myself, I feel there’s a power in everybody touching the ball and everybody sharing in the offense.” When they’re humming, the Warriors seem controlled by a chess hustler working a speed game against an outmatched tourist. Defenders wall off fakes and feints in the far reaches, and all of a 19-year-old rookie is sailing to the rim on an open file.

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Kerr’s MO has obvious game-by-game benefits: even weathering a chilly Curry, the Warriors score seven more points per 100 possessions than their opponents, the third-most efficient mark in the NBA. But its real value is as a long-term investment. Golden State has made a custom of turning unwanted players—low draft picks, well-pedigreed disappointments—into reliable and enthusiastic contributors. The team drafted Jordan Poole with the 28th selection in 2019, the kind of pick often thrown in as who-cares trade fodder; holding down a starting role until Thompson’s return, he averaged 17 and a half points a game. Gary Payton II was nearly out of the league before the Warriors took a flier on the point guard in October; he has become one of the league’s most bothersome defenders, capable of ripping a ballhandler on one possession and snuffing the shot of an MVP center the next.

The most successful of the reclamation projects has been Andrew Wiggins, a onetime top overall pick who, over six seasons in Minnesota, stayed stuck in a state of potential. He had long arms and a born scorer’s springy athleticism, but at one point in 2019 devolved to one of the worst shooters in the league, and the Timberwolves sent him to Golden State midway through last season. Afforded space by Curry and trust from Kerr, Wiggins has morphed into what he was long projected to be, a glyph of rim-rattling, shot-blocking, jumper-canning bounciness. He’s set career marks across the board this year—including, to be sure, in smiles—and in January was named to his first All-Star team. Kerr called the announcement “one of the proudest moments I’ve had as a coach.”

To be appreciated beyond their own city, great teams have to thread a needle. They need to be excellent but relatable, to win without that winning seeming like a simple unspooling of superior talent. At their peak, the Warriors failed at this (and this alone). A fluke of the salary cap had let them sign Durant in 2016 and slot the four-time scoring champion next to the best shooting tandem in history. They went out and collected championships until they got too hurt to do so.

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Now? Now, the Warriors are thrillingly, lovably fallible. (Durant would’ve been a sure firewall against the 19-point comeback they surrendered to the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday evening.) In a mid-February game against the Lakers, they trailed late; a loss would have been their third straight. Curry had missed six of seven three-point tries, and without Green, Golden State couldn’t do much to slow LeBron James. But Klay Thompson caught some of the old fire, tracking to open spots and firing as soon as the ball touched his hands—16 fourth-quarter points in all and three triples in the last four minutes. With 45 seconds left and the Warriors protecting a one-point lead, Curry dribbled out near the midcourt logo. In years past, this would have been time for the calling card: a stepback three, a shimmy started before ball touched net.

Instead, Curry hesitated and then opted for plan B, slipping into the lane and scooping a steep layup over the arms of the back-line defenders. The shot hung on the rim before dropping, and while it did so Curry stood on the baseline with his head tipped back, watching the ball. He wasn’t celebrating but hoping for a good end to a tough night. Who can’t relate to that?

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