Golden State returns to first NBA Finals since Kevin Durant’s departure

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Become too engrossed in petty NBA debate, and you start acting as if these Finals are some kind of legacy duel between the Golden State Warriors and their former collaborator, Kevin Durant. Never mind that the Boston Celtics swept Brooklyn, Durant’s current team, in the first round of their path here. Never mind that Celtics-Warriors looks to be a toss-up that could produce a seven-game series. The Warriors are back, three years after losing KD, and in our stargazing culture, we need to have it out about what that means.

Instigators on social media already are goading Durant, who can’t resist clapping back. When Draymond Green and other Warriors revisit the past while celebrating the present, their words are parsed and made to seem like jabs at a teammate who helped them win two championships. The discussion is both nauseating and static: Whatever stance people took six years ago, when Durant left Oklahoma City to join Golden State’s budding dynasty, they cling to today. And even though Durant was the Finals MVP twice in leading the Warriors to glory, the consensus somehow remains that he rode blue-and-gold coattails to get his rings.

This Golden State run shouldn’t be used as fodder for Durant slander. Let the man — a top-15 player in history if he retires tomorrow — rest and figure out how to manage Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons. Focus instead on the latest tremendous thing the Warriors have done since Durant departed, pivoting quickly with an aging and ailing core and reopening their championship window by mixing their distinct culture and philosophies with lessons learned during their eight-year journey with Coach Steve Kerr.

When big-time players join new teams as free agents, they usually become that team in every way. They alter the on-court strategy, the way the roster is built around them, everything. And it often requires a roster teardown to get them. For Golden State, Durant was the most luxurious accessory ever paired with an outfit that looked dashing by itself. While he was the best player on those championship teams — and by far the most essential piece when it was Finals time — the Warriors weren’t so dependent that they couldn’t recover when he decided to leave. They simply said goodbye and came back to themselves.

The Warriors’ situation is unlike any other in modern NBA history. But to get back to the Finals with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Green comfortably into their 30s, they had to reshape the team in a manner more impressive than the way they were originally built. It’s a victory of team culture, organizational alignment and superstar patience. It’s a tale of resilience, highlighted by Thompson returning from a 2½-season absence as he recovered from Achilles’ and ACL surgeries, basketball’s most problematic injuries. And it’s all tied together by an ownership group that kept its promise to spend big and pay huge luxury-tax bills, even when the team wasn’t acquiring box-office talent.

What to know about the 2022 NBA Finals: Warriors vs. Celtics

The most important decision came the day Durant made it know he was going to Brooklyn. The front office was determined not to lose Durant for nothing. To execute their plan to bring in Durant and Irving, the Nets couldn’t re-sign restricted free agent D’Angelo Russell, a one-time all-star who had plenty of suitors. Golden State figured a sign-and-trade swapping Durant and Russell was a sensible move. Russell was a questionable fit in a backcourt with Curry, but the Warriors made the move thinking long term and signed Russell to a four-year, $117 million contract.

Before the trade deadline the next season, they dealt Russell to Minnesota for Andrew Wiggins, who has been the perfect complement. No longer burdened with franchise player expectations, Wiggins has turned into a more efficient player and has been invaluable with his athleticism, defense and youth. He is just 27, and he’s one of the healthiest starters on a team with considerable mileage. Now he’s part of a team that can accentuate his strengths and part of a culture that pushes him properly.

In addition to Wiggins, the Warriors received a 2021 draft pick from Minnesota that turned into rookie Jonathan Kuminga, a 19-year-old who has flashed all-star potential.

The commitment of owner Joe Lacob to keep spending can’t be underestimated. Sure, there was motivation to keep the team relevant: The Warriors were moving into Chase Center, their new arena in San Francisco, in 2019. But Golden State could have easily sentenced itself to low-end playoff contention if it made too many wrong moves. Now, though, it has Wiggins at the start of his prime to go with an even younger group that includes Kuminga, Jordan Poole, Moses Moody and possibly James Wiseman if he gets healthy.

Sally Jenkins: Beneath Steve Kerr’s self-control is a life’s worth of outrage and grief

In a radio interview two years ago, General Manager Bob Myers broke down the tricky trade for Russell after Durant committed to Brooklyn. It required multiple layers of cooperation that included Durant being okay with the deal. He balked at a straight-up trade for Russell, but Golden State sweetened the package by adding some minor draft compensation.

“So for that to happen, obviously one thing, Kevin has to leave,” Myers told 95.7 the Game in San Francisco. “Two, you got to get Brooklyn to cooperate and Kevin to cooperate in a four-hour window of time. You need D’Angelo to say, ‘Yeah, I’ll come.’ He had other offers. A lot of times that’s like a three-team trade; they just don’t happen.

“Somebody in that equation goes, ‘I don’t want to deal with this.’ Brooklyn didn’t have to do it, and Kevin didn’t have to do it. So when you have a situation like that and you are trying to hold all these things up, it’s very easy for somebody to say, ‘I’m tired of this; why would I do this?’ The hardest part, to be honest, was [Russell] wanting to come — not knowing that. For his situation, once Kyrie and Kevin said they were going there, he knew that his days there were done. So he was probably looking around the league. For him to say, ‘I want to go play there,’ that’s flattering for our organization.”

Russell played just 33 games with the Warriors, most of them without Curry, who broke his left hand early in the 2019-20 season. But Russell was able to show some new things in Kerr’s read-and-react offensive system, and he averaged 23.6 points, the most of his career, albeit for a team that ended up with the league’s worst record. He was destined to be an asset that Golden State would flip, but the Warriors continued his growth and made him attractive for Minnesota, which badly needed a point guard.

The Warriors aren’t just back in the Finals after losing Durant. They’re back having rediscovered themselves. This isn’t a new run to spite the one who ran away. It’s the continuation of a long, successful, adaptable journey.

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