Golden State tried to balance development and winning and couldn’t do it, begging the question if it is even possible to build for the future while also trying to dominate the present
In 1538, Thomas, Duke of Norfolk, penned a letter to Thomas Cromwell where he used the phrase, “a man can not have his cake and eat his cake”. This line eventually turned into the well known saying “you cannot have your cake and eat it too”. It is a simple phrase that reminds us that trying to attain more than what is reasonable is a foolish endeavor. That engaging in two things that are incompatible will eventually lead to mistakes and disappointment.
Over the last couple of seasons, the Golden State Warriors have been trying to accomplish something of a seamless transition. To continue competing at the highest level for championships, while simultaneously developing a young core that can pick up where the current team left off and continue to deliver high-quality basketball. This is a classic example of a basketball team trying to have their cake and eat it too. And it is increasingly showing us that operating a franchise under two separate timelines is something that even a well-run franchise like the Warriors cannot accomplish.
Building for the Future, Maintaining the Present
Over the last 10 years, the Golden State Warriors are the NBA’s most winning team, amassing 524 wins in that span. During this run, the Warriors have won 4 NBA championships and have become the gold standard for developing a team organically. The core of this team starts with three players that have become household names: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. On top of striking gold three times in the draft with those players the Warriors also drafted and developed players like Harrison Barnes and Kevon Looney that have helped to contribute to the teams winning culture.
This culture was so strong in fact, that many have glossed over the stacking of the deck for a few years when the team acquired Kevin Durant and won 2 championships. But after Durant tore his achilles tendon in the Finals in 2019 against the Toronto Raptors, he decided to depart the Bay and head for Brooklyn. And this is when the Warriors decided that it was time to start thinking about the future. The trio of Curry, Thompson, and Green were getting older and entering their 30s and questions were beginning to be raised about Klay Thompson’s health after yet another knee injury. So the Warriors decided that it was time to start thinking about the future.
In the following season, the Warriors were without Klay, and lost Stephen Curry a few games into the year with a sprained ligament in his left foot. The team had also acquired point guard D’Angelo Russell as part of a sign-and-trade deal when Durant went to Brooklyn, and promptly traded him to Minnesota in a deal that netted the Warriors swingman Andrew Wiggins. In many ways, Wiggins was the first domino in the Warriors desire to get younger and still continue competing for titles. That year ended with the Warriors only winning 15 games and the right to the 2nd overall pick in the NBA Draft.
In the subsequent years and drafts the Warriors assembled what would be looked at as their players of the future with Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Poole, James Wiseman (the player they selected with that #2 pick), Jonathan Kuminga, and Moses Moody. You could see the Warriors' vision on paper. Wiggins was a two-way wing player that had excellent touch, Poole was a shoot-first guard that would initiate the offense, Wiseman would be their anchor in the paint, and the combination of Kuminga and Moody would provide rangy athleticism to complement the others. The plan seemed perfect, until the Warriors, like many dynasties before them, realized an inescapable fact: breaking up a core group is often messy.
Not Fading Away Into the Sunset
A successful player, much less a team, seeing the writing on the wall that it may be time to fade away is often one of the most difficult realizations in sports. When there are dynasties and Hall of Fame level players involved the separation is rarely ever seamless. A prime example of this was the last years of the late great Kobe Bryant’s career. Bryant was one of the best guards this game has ever seen and won 5 titles on his way to cementing his legacy in the NBA. But his last three seasons were defined by losing basketball and injury, resulting in the Lakers never winning more than 27 games in a season during that span. And because of his large contract, the team was limited in what they could do to improve the roster.
The Warriors trio is now coming to grips with the fact that they are aging and on the back-9 of their respective primes. We have seen this mostly with Thompson and Green, they are still effective players but have lost a step. Green, while still a tremendous defensive player, has seen his shooting efficiency dip in recent seasons. And Thompson, while still a very capable shooter, has lost much of his lateral quickness due to the injuries he has sustained that has made him a bit of a liability defensively. These regressions feel especially more significant when one considers that Stephen Curry has arguably gotten better as he has aged, adding post play to his repertoire while maintaining tremendous efficiency as a shooter.
Keeping in mind how each of these three players entered the league and made a name for themselves, it is easy to understand why they do not want to simply fade away into the background. Both Curry and Thompson are sons of former NBA players and as such face a different kind of pressure than some entering the league. Both players had question marks as they were drafted. Thompson was known as a prolific scorer, but many questioned whether his lack of elite athleticism would hinder his ceiling at the next level. Curry, meanwhile, was considered to be too small and not a natural point guard at the next level and was thought to not possess the proper physicality to succeed in the NBA. Draymond Green slipped all the way to the second round, because he was an older upperclassman (as opposed to a one and done player that the NBA covets today) and also was overlooked for a lack of size and athleticism to play the power forward position in the NBA. All three of these players were doubted or overlooked in some way, and that is what has fueled their success.
So when you take three players that defied their pre-draft expectations and became one of the most formidable dynasties of the modern era, there is a certain level of competitiveness there that does not go away. So when it became apparent that the Warriors were trying to execute a slow transition to their younger players there was resistance. This all came to a head this past training camp, when Green got into a physical altercation with young guard Jordan Poole. This set the tone for a very dysfunctional Warriors season that ended in a second round loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. And as we fast forward to this off-season, both Jordan Poole and James Wiseman have been traded and the Warriors have gotten even older by acquiring veteran point guard Chris Paul. Clearly the veterans are not ready to relinquish their spotlight just yet.
Riding It Out
The Warriors are often lauded for being one of the smartest and most forward-thinking teams in the NBA. They are a team that embraced analytics when it had the roster to do so and was also able to lure a superstar into a loaded team and make it all work seamlessly. If any team thought that they could build for the future while still contending for titles in the present, it was the Warriors. But basketball is a game of egos, and that applies to both the team’s veterans and young players. The conflict being that the more tenured players feel that they are still good enough to win championships, while the younger players feel that they are ready to get major minutes and contribute to building their own winning story.
In these moments, a team will often look to the past to determine their immediate future. It is simply impossible to ask a management group that has experienced the success that the Warriors have had to just move on from the players that brought them an abundance of riches (the team’s market value has skyrocketed since drafting Curry). In some sense, they must feel that they owe these players a little bit more time to show that they still have greatness in them and can still compete for titles without the specter of the next generation waiting its turn.
Beyond that, there are optics at play here as well. The Warriors ultimately want to be viewed as a team that takes care of its players, one that incentivizes players to want to play for them. One way to do this is to take care of your aging veterans that delivered championships to your franchise. This shows future free agents that this is an organization that does it the right way. We have seen the repercussions of a team not doing this and pushing out great players in the NFL with the New England Patriots. The Patriots always thrived on cutthroat New England culture and it has led them to being a team that does not attract free agents with an aging great coach and not much else. This is what the Warriors don’t want to become.
More than anything, this failed experiment shows that even the best organizations can make mistakes and miscalculations. It speaks to the fact that operating on two different timelines at the same time is simply not possible in a league that is so driven by player relationships and empowerment. In the end, it may have worked out well for James Wiseman and Jordan Poole. Wiseman is getting an under the radar second chance with the Detroit Pistons, while Poole will become the primary scoring option for a rebuilding Washington Wizards team that just traded away its two best players (Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis). The Warriors are a franchise that is often lauded for its winning ways in the modern era. But this experiment was a testament to the fact even the best run franchises cannot have their cake and eat it too.