The Golden State Warriors are good. The defending champions have taken the rare step of continuing to improve AFTER they won a title, when the norm is to have some complacency after hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Through March 2, Golden State is 54–5 and on pace to break Chicago’s 72-win record.
So how did they do it? It didn’t happen overnight.
Unlike what the Miami Heat did when they went from decent team to juggernaut overnight by signing All-Stars LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade in the summer of 2010, Golden State’s rise has been piece by piece.
1. Don Nelson Started It All
This seems insignificant now, but Nelson not only could coach; he also knew how to acquire talent, and he was in charge of the team’s operations when they took Stephen Curry.
Nelson was originally with the Warriors as their head coach from 1988–95 and helped the team draft and develop star players like Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond, Chris Webber, and Latrell Sprewell.
He was then with Dallas from 1997 to 2005 and was instrumental in the team’s fleecing Phoenix for Steve Nash and then getting Dirk Nowitzki in a lopsided draft-day trade with Milwaukee for Robert Traylor. That’s two probable Hall of Famers in one offseason.
2. Stephen Curry
Nelson came back to Golden State in 2006 and coached the team through 2010, with his lasting contribution being that he drafted shooting guard Curry in 2009, with the seventh overall pick in the draft.
Drafting Curry—a 6-foot-3 shooting guard—wasn’t a no-brainer at the time either. For one thing, the Warriors already had smallish guard Monta Ellis on the roster. In addition, Curry would have to move over to point guard if he was going to make it in the NBA.
Obviously it’s worked out, though he didn’t have “MVP” written all over him at the beginning. Ankle injuries limited him early in his career. He played just 26 games due to injuries in 2011–12, and he didn’t become an All-Star until the 2013–14 season—his fifth year in the league.
By that time, the sharpshooter had already led the league in free-throw shooting once (93.4 percent in 2010–11) and was in the midst of leading the league in threes for three straight seasons (2012–2015).
Now he’s the reigning MVP and—barring a major catastrophe—should win his second straight award this season.
3. Klay Thompson, Draymond Green Become All-Stars
Thompson was taken 11th overall in 2011 out of Washington State. Though he had little fanfare, he had been an excellent 3-point shooter in college. And at 6-foot-7, he looked like he could be the big guard needed to team with the smaller Curry in the backcourt.
He’s now a two-time All-Star, and his long-range shooting keeps teams honest when trying to guard Curry.
Green was taken the following year, but the Michigan State alum wasn’t selected until the second round (35th overall) by the Warriors, who took Harrison Barnes with their first-round pick.
Although not all second-rounders make the team, Green did and by his second season had become a valuable member of the rotation.
This year the defensive specialist made his first All-Star team, while putting up averages of 13.8 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 7.4 assists per game.
4. The Trade for Andre Iguodala
The Warriors gave up a fair amount—two first-round picks, two second-round picks, and three players—in the deal for Iguodala, but it’s worked out well. Iguodala was the Finals MVP last summer, and the former All-Star’s unselfish attitude has made a huge impact on the team.
5. Steve Kerr Over Mark Jackson
Don’t get me wrong, Mark Jackson was instrumental in the development of this team as coach during 2011–14. But after a reported falling out with the front office, the Warriors dropped Jackson and hired Steve Kerr—who had no NBA coaching experience—to replace the popular Jackson.
Clearly the move has worked.
Kerr kept Draymond Green in the lineup—over David Lee—after Lee returned from injury midway through the 2014–15 season and convinced Iguodala to take a sixth-man role as the ultimate sign of a selfless leader. The result was a 67-win team in the regular season.
Then, facing a 2–1 deficit in the Finals against Cleveland last summer, Kerr reversed course and put Iguodala back in the starting lineup to create a small-ball lineup the Cavs had no answer for. Three straight wins later, the team won the title.
Amazingly, the Warriors main nucleus of Curry–Thompson–Green has improved this season and another title should be in the works. In addition, with the three of them still in their 20s, they could be a force for a long time to come.