Golden State Warriors: How the Franchise Turned Around


When thinking about the Golden State Warriors, what comes to mind? For most people, it’s Stephen Curry and his backcourt mate Klay Thompson. For others, it’s the rocking Oracle Arena, which is always filled to capacity with thousands of spirited fans.

The point is, when thinking of the Warriors, it’s hard to find anything negative (unless you question the firing of Mark Jackson, which I don’t). That wasn’t the case just a few short years ago.

Golden State’s roster was full of Development League players, their coach (despite having the most wins in NBA history) was obviously ready for retirement, the owner was seemingly nonexistent, and the admirably faithful fans — tricked by the short-lived success of the 2007 season — were finally frustrated and ready for changes.

Let’s go back to the summer of 2009. Golden State, disappointed by an abysmal 29-win season (coming directly after the 2007 “We Believe” squad and the 2008 season in which, at the time, Golden State recorded the most wins by a lottery team in NBA history) received the seventh overall pick in that year’s Draft after a relatively uneventful lottery.

Although a great player as a Warrior, the first step towards respectability came when Golden State relieved Chris Mullin of his general manager duties and promoted Larry Riley to take his place.

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Riley proved his worth by drafting Curry out of unknown Davidson College. For quite some time, it seemed Curry’s obvious talent would go to waste after a slew of ankle injuries derailed season after season. However, over the past two seasons, Curry has only missed a total of eight games.

Riley could not have drafted Curry without the help of mistakes by teams above Golden State in the draft. The Memphis Grizzlies selected Hasheem Thabeet second overall, and the Minnesota Timberwolves picked Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn (who is no longer in the NBA) with the fifth and sixth picks, respectively.

Although it takes a strong organization from top to bottom to create a winning atmosphere, the selection of Curry was the single most important aspect of the Warriors’ turnaround. Without him, Golden State would not have been able to draw certain free agents and coaches to further improve their team.

Riley wasn’t perfect, however. He traded the high-scoring Jamal Crawford to the Atlanta Hawks for veterans Acie Law and Speedy Claxton. He eventually ran himself out of the position with bad move after bad move.

The next big move came when long-time owner Chris Cohan agreed to sell the franchise for $450 million. It didn’t really matter who was purchasing the team, just as long as Cohan was leaving. He was one of the NBA’s worst owners and just the thought of not having to deal with him elated Warriors fans everywhere.

For a time, it looked as if Larry Ellison (one of the world’s richest men) was going to be the new owner of the Warriors. He seemed determined to spend beaucoup bucks to make the Warriors perennial contenders.

Could it be possible that Golden State could get this lucky? Could they go from a completely uninterested owner to one that is the fifth-richest man in the world? That’s obviously too good to be true, right? It was. For some reason, Cohan decided to decline Ellison’s offer (despite it being reported as the highest bid).

It seemed as if Cohan was still going to drive the Warriors’ franchise into the ground. But, we were all wrong. That is exactly where Golden State’s fortunes changed for good.

Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Cohan instead sold the franchise to Joe Lacob (minority owner of the Boston Celtics) and Peter Guber (CEO of Mandalay Entertainment).

That happened in the summer of 2010, and the Warriors would continue to struggle on the court for a few more seasons until the changes made finally took shape.

After Golden State struggled to a 36-46 record with Keith Smart at the helm, the Warriors’ brass decided it was time for another change. In June, Golden State fired Smart and hired longtime point guard and NBA ESPN analyst Mark Jackson.

Then, the Warriors were awarded with the eleventh overall pick in the 2011 draft. They used that pick to perfection as they stole Klay Thompson in the first round. Once again, they were aided by the team directly in front of them. This time, it was the Sacramento Kings picking before Golden State. They picked Jimmer Fredette — who is no longer with the Kings.

A little bit of luck goes a long way.

The improvements were not quick-hitting, however. The Warriors won only 23 games (their lowest win total since 21 in 2001-2002) in Jackson’s first year as head coach.

The struggles couldn’t be pinned on Jackson or the front office, though. In that 2011-2012 season, Curry played in only 26 games (the fewest in his career by far). After Thompson proved himself worthy of a starting role early in the season, Golden State decided to make another big move.

They traded Monta Ellis — the franchise’s face at the time — along with Kwame Brown and Ekpe Udoh for oft-injured Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson.

The Warriors quickly turned Jackson into a draft pick by agreeing to a deal with the San Antonio Spurs that also sent veteran swingman Richard Jefferson to the Bay Area.

Bogut would not play a single minute for Golden State during the 2011-2012 season, and the fans let Lacob have it for trading away the fan-favorite Ellis.

They booed Lacob uncontrollably during Mullin’s jersey retirement. The usually supportive fan base had finally cracked. They couldn’t take any more failure.

The Warriors’ front office may have also been encouraged to ship Ellis away as soon as possible knowing that if Golden State landed one of the top seven picks in the 2012 draft, they’d keep it. If the lottery gave them the eighth pick or higher, the Utah Jazz would snatch it away.

They did just that. Thanks to no surprises in the lottery, Golden State was allowed to keep their pick.

Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

In April of 2012, the Warriors promoted Assistant General Manager Bob Myers to General Manager, effectively replacing Riley.

Myers made Lacob and company look like geniuses (to Warriors fans, they are without a doubt!) by turning in a spectacular draft class in 2012.

With the all-important seventh pick, the Warriors snatched Harrison Barnes out of North Carolina. That was just the beginning of a great night for Golden State.

Here’s where the second round pick from San Antonio came in. The Warriors turned the cranky Stephen Jackson into the 31st overall pick. They selected center Festus Ezeli from Nigeria via Vanderbilt.

Five picks later, Golden State selected undersized power forward Draymond Green out of Michigan State. They also picked big man Ognjen Kuzmić later in the second round, but he hasn’t played much in the NBA.

Let’s recap: Golden State turned an undersized volume shooter (Ellis) and a few bench warmers into Bogut, Barnes, Ezeli, and Green (I’m operating under the assumption that Ellis would have led the Warriors to a few more victories and Golden State would have therefore lost their first round pick and subsequently changing the whole draft).

They also gave Curry and Thompson enough room to grow and improve together, which may have been the most important step of all.

All fans that booed Lacob owe him a big apology. While they’re at it, they should worship the ground he walks on. He’s the best thing that happened to the Warriors since Rick Barry led the franchise to a sweep of the Washington Bullets in the 1975 NBA Finals (that may be a stretch, but it’s pretty close).

Lacob and Myers weren’t done yet, either. They signed free agents Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry to respectable contracts in the same offseason.

Barnes, Ezeli, Green, Jack, and Landry were all key pieces in Golden State’s playoff run the following season. In fact, the Warriors gave the three rookies (Barnes, Ezeli, and Green) heavy minutes down the stretch of the regular season and even into the playoffs. That’s pretty rare.

Jackson even played all three rookies at once in the playoffs. I don’t know for sure, but I bet that’s only happened a handful other times in the history of the NBA.

Golden State finished with 46 wins in the 2012-2013 season and capped it off with a victory over the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the 2013 NBA Playoffs. Even after David Lee (who played his way onto the All-Star Team earlier that year) missed the playoffs after tearing his hip flexor, the Warriors handled Denver in six games and even gave the mighty Spurs a run for their money.

If it wasn’t for a historic collapse by Golden State in Game One (they led by 16 with four minutes remaining in  regulation and subsequently lost), the Warriors could have advanced to the Western Conference Finals a year after winning only 23 games.

What a difference a year makes.

Golden State’s entertaining style of play, their enthusiastic fans, and — most importantly — their success put them on the map. No longer would Golden State be a last resort for top free agents.

During the 2013 offseason, the Warriors were one of Dwight Howard’s top destinations. After he made it clear he would leave the Los Angeles Lakers, he narrowed down his choices to the Houston Rockets and Golden State.

Although Howard eventually decided to join James Harden in Houston, it signaled a changing of the guard in Golden State: top free agents would now consider the Warriors as a legitimate landing spot.

That proved true just days later as Golden State’s front office finalized a sign and trade that brought Andre Iguodala to the Bay Area.

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  • The Warriors couldn’t sign Iguodala outright because of salary cap restrictions, so Myers had to find a third team who would be willing to take a bunch of expiring contracts off of their hands.

    Myers had to work quick and found the Jazz were willing to take Andris Biedrins, Richard Jefferson, Brandon Rush, and a few draft picks (and Randy Foye from the Nuggets), allowing Golden State to acquire the supremely athletic Iguodala.

    On April 7th, 2010 (the night Don Nelson recorded his record-breaking 1,333rd win and just a few months before Lacob purchased the team) the Warriors’ started Curry, Reggie Williams, Corey Maggette, Anthony Tolliver, and Ronny Turiaf.

    Less than four years later, the same Warriors franchise started Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, David Lee, and Andrew Bogut to kick off the 2013-2014 season.

    Both Iguodala and Bogut struggled to stay healthy throughout the season, but the Warriors were still strong enough at other positions to win 51 games, finish 20 games over .500, and made the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time since the 1990-1992 seasons.

    Matched up against the division-rival Los Angeles Clippers in the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs, the Warriors stole Game One in Los Angeles, but coughed up home-court advantage when the Clippers narrowly won Game Three in Oakland.

    The home team won every other game in the series, and the Clippers subsequently sent Golden State home earlier than expected with a Game Seven victory.

    Soon thereafter, coach Jackson was fired despite having support from Curry and many other players. Fans once again questioned Lacob’s decision making, but this time they had a valid point: why fire a coach who led his team to two-straight playoff appearances and won 51 games (the highest win total by the Warriors in 22 years)?

    There were reports that Jackson did not get along with Lacob and other members of Golden State’s front office, but Lacob summed up the decision by telling Rusty Simmons of the SFGate:

    "There’s a right coach for the right time and the right situation. I think it’s our feeling, at this point and time, that he’s probably not the right coach for us, going forward – given all of the circumstances."

    Whatever the reason, Lacob and Myers put a lot of pressure on themselves to find the right coach of the future. Feeling the heat, Lacob and Myers flew to Oklahoma City to meet Steve Kerr, who was announcing a playoff series for TNT at the time.

    Kerr was negotiating a deal with the New York Knicks when Lacob and company requested a meeting, and once Golden State made their pitch, Kerr knew he had to turn down Phil Jackson and the Knicks.

    It was now official: the Warriors had replaced a 50-win coach with Kerr, who has zero coaching experience in the NBA. He did play for two of the greatest coaches in NBA history (Jackson and Gregg Popovich), so perhaps he will implement some of their systems into one Kerr can call his own.

    Kerr’s desire for a prototypical stretch-four made the Warriors seriously interested in Minnesota’s Kevin Love, but because of Golden State’s unwillingness to ship Thompson — along with Lee, and perhaps Barnes — allowed LeBron James to lure Love away from the Warriors and to Cleveland.

    Despite missing on Love, Lacob and Myers have built a solid team behind Curry. If the past is any indication, Kerr will pan out well and Golden State will continue to succeed in the tough Western Conference.

    Just a few years after occupying the cellar of the NBA year after year, Golden State is poised for a long stretch of success. It’s amazing what a few good Drafts and a dedicated owner can do.