Why you should care
As Golden State tanks its way to a top draft pick, what does NBA history tell us about where the Warriors are headed?
In what has undoubtedly already been the longest season in Steve Kerr’s impeccable career, the injury-ridden Golden State Warriors have bottomed out. At 10-34, the Warriors rest at the bottom of the league. Below the dysfunctional Knicks. Below the Hawks and the rebuilding Cavaliers and Bulls. On Dec. 15, Golden State forced 29 turnovers and lost by 21 points. The last team to do that? The 2004 Phoenix Suns. Before that? The historically bad 1998–99 post–Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls. But more on them later.
“It’s almost impossible to do that,” Kerr told reporters after the game. “It shows you how poorly we played.”
After an era-defining run of dominance with three titles and five straight finals appearances from 2015 to 2019, the wheels have fallen off for Golden State. With Kevin Durant gone and Steph Curry, Draymond Green and newly acquired D’Angelo Russell battling injury, left behind is a young team full of fringe NBA players like Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III with zero continuity. Per Basketball Reference, just 21 percent of Warriors minutes this season have been played by players who were on the team last season. New Orleans boasts the second-worst continuity at 34 percent. The squad is so bad that they’re closing in on the worst single-season turnaround in NBA history. Golden State is on pace to win 19 games, 38 less than their 57-25 finish last year. Just seven teams have ever declined by more than 30 wins from one season to the next. Only two have dropped by 40 or more.
With most of their stars due back next year — plus a high draft pick — the Warriors are fast approaching a fork in the road. Will this fall from grace lead to ultimate destruction, à la the 1998–99 Bulls, or is this season a valley bookended by peaks? The Warriors may never reach their 2017 highs again, but they could learn from former dynasties.
After six NBA titles in eight years, Michael Jordan retired and the Bulls cleaned house. They hired a new coach, declined to re-sign Dennis Rodman and traded Kerr, Scottie Pippen and Luc Longley. Subsequently, Chicago drafted miserably. The Bulls dropped from 62 wins in 1998 to 13 in 1999, and won 45 total games the next three seasons. Their next winning season wouldn’t come until 2004–05. But that disintegration was more haphazard than anything Golden State’s savvy front office would ever allow.
The 2010–11 Cavaliers, owners of the worst single-season turnaround ever, have LeBron James to thank entirely for their collapse from 61 wins to 19. James signed with Miami in 2010, and Cleveland didn’t rebound until he returned in 2014.
“What makes Golden State’s situation different is that they’re just stuck in this sort of holding period,” says Turner Sports NBA analyst Steve Smith, who won an NBA title with the 2003 Spurs. “We know they’ll be good again, it’s just a matter of how great.”
More than the Bulls, the Cavs, the 1983 Houston Rockets (who collapsed after trading Moses Malone) or the post-dynasty Celtics, the franchise with the most to teach Golden State is Smith’s former employer, the San Antonio Spurs. The 1996–97 Spurs rank as the third worst single-season turnaround ever, dropping from 59 to 20 wins after star center David Robinson injured his back. With Robinson out, San Antonio embarked on what, at the time, was a record-breaking tank for 1997 first overall pick Tim Duncan.
Two all-time great players in Duncan and Robinson, plus the combination of vibrant culture building and expert international scouting, led to a string of successes that saw San Antonio win the title in 1999, then four more by 2014. For more than 20 years, San Antonio has been the NBA’s gold standard in franchise building. Its only rival? Golden State. If the Warriors can avoid total implosion, they have a chance to do their Western Conference rivals one better.
“Even those  Spurs weren’t close to as bad as the Warriors have been,” says Nick Wright, co-host of First Things First on FS1. “If Curry and Klay [Thompson] return to form, and [general manager] Bob Myers drafts a great player, Golden State will reach unmatched territory.”
As their increasingly expensive stars age, Myers and his front office must uncover hidden value through the draft, just as head coach Gregg Popovich and CEO R.C. Buford have done for decades in San Antonio. With four, at times five All-Stars on the roster, Golden State previously filled out its team with veterans who could be trusted in the playoffs. But each time Myers has had to pay a star, there’s less money to go around, and we’re left with a present in which a cellar-dwelling Golden State is desperately trying to determine which young players can be trusted in the future. Myers will look to score in the draft this summer, but there is no prospect even close to the caliber of a Duncan in the 2020 draft.
So, Bay Area fans may want to avert their eyes for a few more months, but lessons of dynasties past show there is a golden lining to the clouds.