SAN FRANCISCO -- The worst record in the NBA. A star with back-to-back devastating injuries. Two play-in losses. This isn't exactly a traditional foundation for future success.
But this isn't a traditional franchise. The Golden State Warriors rose to prominence by bucking convention, and it paid off with three titles and five NBA Finals trips in five seasons. The aftermath, however, was bleak. It's safe to say that as Golden State struggled to 15 wins in the 2019-20 season, not many envisioned them regaining a spot in the NBA's elite any time soon. The idea of trading beloved franchise hero Stephen Curry was even floated around by various talking heads.
The Warriors had a different vision.
"The times when it was rough, we were losing, I think we still had a good group of guys. We were still able to keep that same culture in the locker room, even though we were losing," Warriors center Kevon Looney said. "That's tough to do, but I think we did a great job of that. We still played our style of basketball, still holding guys to a high level and a high standard."
Led by the determined, talented, experienced, homegrown core of Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Looney and head coach Steve Kerr, the Warriors -- just two seasons removed from boasting the NBA's worst record -- are heading back to the NBA Finals for the sixth time in eight seasons after a 120-110 victory over the Dallas Mavericks in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals on Thursday night in front of their clamoring Chase Center fans.
The atmosphere felt simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar. For the second half of the 2010s, the Warriors hoisting a Western Conference championship trophy became as routine as brushing your teeth. But after a two-year absence from the postseason that included serious injuries to their Big Three of Curry, Thompson and Green, getting back on that pedestal was a steep, arduous climb.
"I think for me, this time around, you just have a deeper appreciation for it and understanding that it's not promised," Green said of reaching the NBA Finals for a sixth time. "Things can change in the blink of an eye, so you have to take advantage of the opportunity when you are here."
Now that they're back where they feel they belonged the whole time, there's plenty of credit to go around.
It starts with the greatness and dedication of their stars. Despite Curry putting up the worst shooting season of his career, he's been phenomenal in the postseason -- particularly getting to the rim -- and earned the first-ever Western Conference finals MVP trophy as a reward. Green suffered through injuries and malaise in the 15-win season, then dedicated himself to improving his body and was the hands-down favorite for Defensive Player of the Year this season before a scary back injury sidelined him for two months.
If any player epitomizes the Warriors' rise, fall and redemption, however, it's Thompson. His story is well-known at this point. In the middle of perhaps his greatest playoff performance in a career full of great playoff performances, Thompson tore his ACL on a breakaway in the 2019 finals. He missed the entire 2019-20 season, then, just as he was about to make his return in 2020-21, he tore his Achilles, leaving him sidelined until the emotional "Klay Day" on Jan. 9 of this year. The infamous "Game 6 Klay" erupted for 30 points and eight 3-pointers to close out Memphis in the second round. On Thursday he poured in eight more 3s and 32 points to send the Mavericks packing and advance to the Finals.
"Just such a surreal feeling. It's hard to put into words really," Thompson said after Thursday's win. "This time last year, I was just starting to jog again and get up and down the court. Now to be feeling like myself, feeling explosive, feeling sure in my movements, I'm just grateful."
The synergy, brotherhood and competitiveness of that trio -- not to mention the talent -- has been the one constant from before the Finals runs until now. They're the heart of the Warriors, and their presence and leadership has showed their teammates -- both young and old -- what it takes to perform at a championship level.
"All the pieces fit. Our personalities fit. So much trust in each other," Curry said of his longtime partnership with Green and Thompson. "But we are all just so competitive at the end of the day. That's carried us."
As great as they are, Steph, Klay and Draymond couldn't do it by themselves.
The next group deserving of praise is the front office, led by president of basketball operations and general manager Bob Myers, who was thrust into scramble mode when Kevin Durant decided to play for the Brooklyn Nets in the summer of 2019. The Warriors were able to negotiate a sign-and-trade for D'Angelo Russell, whom they eventually flipped into Andrew Wiggins and the pick that turned into promising rookie Jonathan Kuminga. Myers also took a big swing at the 2019 draft, using the 28th pick to select Jordan Poole, who most draft analysts projected as a late second-round pick -- at best. Wiggins and Poole have been essential to the Warriors' resurgence, and the front office is directly responsible for their presence.
From there it was a matter of filling out the roster with vets -- but there's a difference between just any vet and a Warriors vet. Kerr's quick-hitting, cerebral, ball-movement oriented offensive style doesn't work for everyone -- just ask Russell or Kelly Oubre Jr. -- so Myers sought out players like Otto Porter Jr., Nemanja Bjelica and took a chance on journeyman defensive specialist Gary Payton II when most felt the final roster spot would be better utilized on an established veteran. All three quickly proved themselves capable of thriving in Kerr's system, and have played a crucial role at one time or another during the Warriors' latest run to the Finals.
And for good measure, the Warriors brought back franchise staple and former Finals MVP Andre Iguodala, whom Kerr often refers to as one of the best basketball minds he's ever encountered. He hasn't played much this season, but his leadership and corporate knowledge are invaluable, especially with the youth movement bubbling under the surface of the organization.
Next up, the Warriors' development team deserves an ovation. What they've done with Poole -- to help turn him from a G Leaguer to one of the most dynamic offensive players in the league -- is the success story every organization yearns for. Looney's not exactly a young man (though he's probably younger than you think), but his transformation into a non-jumping, rebounding machine is also a product of the work he's done with Golden State's assistant coaches. Kuminga and fellow rookie Moses Moody have made tremendous strides even in the short time they've been in the program, with each contributing valuable minutes as 19-year-olds during their first playoff run.
"I think the ability to set the table for pretty much anybody that comes in, be a part of the fold, find their way, elevate their game, take that next step wherever they are in their career," Curry said. "I think we pride ourselves on that more than what we do individually, because you've got a lot of examples of guys that have been elsewhere and come here and found success. To be able to do it on the biggest of stages, that's not easy to do."
Last but not least comes ownership, led by Joe Lacob and Peter Guber, who have been willing to part with ungodly sums of U.S. dollars in order to keep the core trio together while adding around the fringes. Most successful sports franchises start from the top down, and the Warriors are no exception.
All of these different brushstrokes have transformed a canvas that was nearly wiped clean three years ago into an unlikely masterpiece -- one that might just take home another NBA title. The Warriors, particularly their vets, understand that the job's not done, but that won't stop them from celebrating an accomplishment most didn't see coming -- at least not this quickly.
"We're happy to be here, but it would help our legacy a lot if we completed the mission and won the whole thing," Thompson said. "We can be happy tonight, and we will be, I'll celebrate tonight. But tomorrow when this Game 6 [of the Eastern Conference finals] comes on, I'm turning the page and I'm scouting, because we want to finish this thing off the right way and do it for Dub nation."