Terrific look inside Golden State’s approach to rebuilding their team while still competing for a championship. So many great gems in here.
Inside the Warriors’ restructured front office at the end of a validating NBA Finals season
Preseason. Los Angeles. An overall meaningless night to the viewing public in what was then known as Staples Center. But the stakes were high in regard to the Warriors’ 15th and final roster spot for the 2021-22 season. The decision was between Avery Bradley and Gary Payton II. The franchise legends preferred Bradley, the known commodity. The front office wanted Payton, a gem they felt they’d discovered. Another option: Neither. Leaving the spot open would save millions in luxury tax penalties. The internal debates were lively.
The competition tilted Bradley’s direction when Payton had hernia surgery a month before training camp and wasn’t able to get on the court. He was running out of time to win the spot. To secure an NBA job, Payton needed to make a statement. He convinced the training staff he was well enough for the green light in Los Angeles, however brief.
Payton entered late in the first quarter. He had a putback, dunk and layup within his first 121 seconds on the court. Two more dunks came a bit later. So did a block and a steal. His night — and entire preseason audition — only lasted 11 minutes. He didn’t even play in the preseason finale. But the impact of his performance swept through the organization like juicy gossip. Payton’s style isn’t subtle.
At one point during Payton’s stint, Steph Curry stood up from his seat on the bench, turned towards the crowd and locked eyes with Bob Myers, the president of basketball operations, seated about five rows back, next to a beaming Joe Lacob.
“Steph turned and gave me an, ‘All right, all right … ‘” Myers said while sharing the story this week, his head nodding and shoulders shrugged, hands in the air, mimicking Curry’s gesture. “I gave him one of those looks, like: ‘See, we’re not idiots. We know a little bit.’”
The rejuvenation of the Warriors — back in the NBA Finals, where they’ll face the Boston Celtics in Game 1 on Thursday night — means a whole lot for a whole lot of people at every level of the organization. Job security. Future earnings. Legacy building. Reputation defining. Career affirming. Winning sprays credit in every direction. Everybody eats. That includes the restructured, bolstered front office.
For the Warriors’ basketball operations collective, this has been a season of vindication. It’s been doubted, scrutinized and derided since Golden State lost the 2019 NBA Finals to the Toronto Raptors. This run to the championship stage is validation for a sharpened process, a string of new hires, some recent draft picks, their roster additions, their way of doing business. Most of all, for the ambition of their highly scrutinized two-timeline plan, which supposed the Warriors could simultaneously draft, protect and develop the future while pursuing a championship in the present. Even their star players were skeptical.
“If it was up (to the veteran players), we would’ve all loved to have (added) a ton of experience,” Draymond Green said recently on his podcast, The Draymond Green Show. “They thought totally different. Ultimately, we went with that side of things. They were 100 percent right. So you have to give them credit for going out on that limb with the highest payroll in the NBA and saying, ‘No, we think we can get it done that way and that’s the route we’re going to go.’”
The credit for finding Payton begins with Kent Lacob. The younger son of the team’s CEO cut his teeth scouting the G-League. The Warriors use Santa Cruz as a front office proving ground. Ryan Atkinson was the GM down there. He’s since been promoted to a more prominent role within the Warriors’ front office, replaced as Sea Dubs GM by rising front office voice David Fatoki.
Kent and Atkinson put Payton on the radar of Nick U’Ren, the Warriors’ director of basketball operations. Myers always wants a few G-League names ready if a roster spot opens. He relies on that crew’s expertise in the minors. When the Warriors traded Marquese Chriss and Brad Wanamaker at the 2021 trade deadline, they had a floating 14th roster spot that needed to be filled. That’s when Payton’s name first landed on Myers’ desk.
“What kind of guy is he? What do you think he does best? Basic stuff,” Myers said. “Then ultimately I’ll go with the recommendation. I can’t pretend to say I’ve watched as much Payton as Kent has. That’d be dumb. That’d be arrogant and wrong.”
It was a win for every layer of an expanding front office. From the Santa Cruz brain trust to U’Ren in the San Francisco front office, to head coach Steve Kerr, who was convinced by U’Ren, Kerr’s former special assistant, that Payton was worth keeping.
“They can question anything they want,” Myers said of his players. “I want them to. But this idea that they were upset or we bucked what they wanted … It’s an interesting story, but it’s never been uncomfortable. Nobody in the course of the last 10 years, as far as I can remember, I don’t remember a conversation where it was ever uncomfortable. They’ve held up their end of the bargain. But in the same way, so have we. I don’t want that to sound defensive. We haven’t done everything right. But we’ve done some things where it’s given us the benefit of the doubt a little bit.”
Klay Thompson tore his Achilles the day of the 2020 NBA Draft. The Warriors stuck to their established draft board and took James Wiseman at No. 2. But Wiseman, a center, couldn’t replace what they’d suddenly lost in the injury to their star guard. It created a frantic moment of roster reform. The Warriors had a valuable $17.2 million trade exception that was set to expire a few days later. They had a vacancy on the wing and one chip to cash that would vanish soon. Use it or lose it.
Joe Lacob spends aggressively. It’s an ownership quality that separates him from many of his peers and opens up the menu of options for his front office. He not only green-lighted acquiring Kelly Oubre Jr. with that trade exception but also was pushing for it. After going 15-50, Lacob had no interest in another losing season. Even though adding Oubre would incur a massive luxury tax penalty, Lacob wanted to fill the gaping hole on the perimeter. Oubre’s talent and defensive acumen felt like the closest they could get to replace Thompson. But the Warriors’ decision-makers would learn that not every problem can be solved by spending money.
“Fit is always a factor,” Steve Kerr said. “Bill Belichick has a great quote that he uses in general: ‘You’re not building a roster, you’re building a team.’”
Oubre didn’t quite work out for the Warriors. There was some internal belief that perhaps he could’ve been used wiser. Oubre always performed better as an undersized power forward in a smaller, speedier lineup. Just look at the season he completed in Charlotte. Kerr mostly started him at shooting guard. But Kerr had also been handed Wiseman, a rookie center whose developmental needs were both prioritized. So going small wasn’t an option.
“The hard part about that (Oubre) decision was there wasn’t enough time to make it,” Myers said. “Preparation is important. That decision was hastily made because of Klay’s Achilles. I guess if I were to criticize it, it’d be the knee-jerk part of it. But it also could be viewed as a positive because it shows Joe’s willingness to always try.”
The bigger problem: Neither Oubre nor Wiseman fit with the motion, pass-heavy, flowing scheme Kerr runs and both Curry and Green have come to prefer. The front office had gone talent hunting and strayed from what had so often made the Warriors successful in the middle part of the past decade — pairing David West’s passing with Ian Clark’s cutting and Zaza Pachulia’s brute force with JaVale McGee’s lob crushing.
“We never had to live on the margins,” Myers said. “We’re now on the margins more than ever, even though we are in the Finals. Those (Kevin Durant) teams had a huge margin for error. We don’t have that anymore. So how do we create an edge? Analytically you can find them. Player development you can find them.”
Zoom out. Go back to the dreadful 2019-20 season. During that time away from the spotlight, coming on the heels of that dynasty run, the Warriors’ front office finally had time to take a forest view of its operation and examine how best to reorganize and modernize.
Part of the issue with the Oubre addition was the lack of statistical vetting. He doesn’t pass or move much on offense. The tracking data and numbers told that tale, highlighting the unlikeliness of his fitin this particular system. But that warning wasn’t heeded prior to the trigger being pulled.
“When we were on that five-year run, it was really about trying to keep it together,” Myers said. “I spent a lot of energy on keeping us whole. Once that fractured with Kevin leaving, Klay being hurt, Steph getting hurt, it was no longer about the playoffs that season. So let’s spend our time and energy on our process. Meaning analytics, coaching staff, development. I’d say we started thinking deeper.”
What they discovered was an archaic habitat that had lost two valuable old-school voices — Jerry West and Travis Schlenk — while also failing to inject a new-school approach within a league increasingly obsessed with analytics.
They hired Onsi Saleh away from San Antonio on the recommendation of reputed Spurs executive R.C. Buford. Saleh is the Warriors’ new cap guy. Before, the team’s general counsel doubled as the cap guy.
“The Spurs are much more formalized in their meetings and much denser in how they process,” Myers said. “So it’s great to have Onsi. He’s been awesome as far as cap information. Strategic planning. He’s beloved by all our coaches. Super bright. Law degree.”
Pabail Sidhu leads the refurbished analytics department. Mike Dunleavy Jr. and Kirk Lacob have been at the forefront of platforming Sidhu and better integrating his work into the organization’s decision-making. They’ve let him hire a bigger department and plan to let him expand it further.
Sidhu has created his own formula that is used by several departments. It helped the Warriors generate their free agency board last offseason. Their new analytics approach identified Nemanja Bjelica and Otto Porter Jr. as targets who “popped” under this new paradigm.
“A lot of people didn’t celebrate our offseason, in terms of minimum signings,” Myers said. “We actually thought we got what we wanted. A lot of that was backed in analytics and fit. That was a new thing for us.”
Assistant coach Mike Brown uses Sidhu’s formula to generate a defensive metric that rates each player. If they have a bad week, it dips downward and Brown publicizes it to the team. It’s been a strategy that several players believe has raised internal accountability and, in turn, defensive effort.
Kerr, admittedly not an analytics-friendly coach, has come to love expected field goal percentage as a postgame metric. Sidhu’s system judges a player’s typical percentage based on a certain zone, the nearest defender and other varying factors to determine the likelihood of any given shot attempt.
That resulting number, instead of the traditional field goal percentage, gives a more accurate representation of the type of shots created and the health of the offense on any given night. Kerr once referenced the stat during a pregame media session before a game against the Jazz. A Utah media member asked Kerr which tracking system he uses. SportVU? Synergy? One of those other complicated systems?
Kerr expressed confusion.
“Uhh,” Kerr said. “Pabail.”
Sidhu works closest with Atkinson on the Warriors’ coaching staff. Atkinson was on the list of analytically friendly assistant coach candidates the front office presented to Kerr last summer.
“One of the reasons I hired Kenny was his feel for analytics,” said Kerr, who formerly had Sammy Gelfand as his analytics guy before Detroit poached him in 2018. “To have Kenny as the liaison between the coaching staff and the analytics department has been massive. Kenny is really well-versed on that stuff. He’s a believer. This year has been the first time I think we’ve achieved the right balance.”Jordan Poole slicing and dicing against Dallas. (Jack Arent / NBAE via Getty Images)
The Warriors initially hired Mike Dunleavy Jr. in late 2018 to be a pro scout. He lived in New York City and — a 15-year veteran who was the son of an NBA coach — had generated a life-long, league-wide Rolodex. He also happened to live in an area of the country where league intel flowed and the Warriors lacked an insider.
Myers once represented Dunleavy as an agent. Their close friendship clearly played a pivotal role in his hiring and quick ascent up the ranks.
“In this job, you really need confidants,” said Kerr, once a general manager in Phoenix. “You really need someone you can confide in and lean on. I know Mike has meant that to Bob. Mike’s also really bright, played the game, knows the NBA.”
After attending several Eastern Conference games, Dunleavy gained an immediate taste for the profession. He asked for more responsibility. The college basketball season hit its stride and they sent him out to scout. The Warriors spread their executives around the country to watch conference tournaments. Dunleavy was assigned the 2019 Big Ten Tournament. That’s the weekend he became a vocal Jordan Poole believer, convinced the skill, shooting touch and creativity could translate to the NBA if cultivated and developed correctly.
Dunleavy wasn’t alone. LaMont Peterson and Reggie Rankin, the Warriors’ two lead scouts, were on board, and Larry Harris, the assistant general manager in charge of the Warriors’ draft process, became a Poole advocate.
Poole wasn’t without question marks. John Beilein, his college coach, wasn’t the most complimentary of his former player in the pre-draft process. Beilein had become the Cavaliers’ head coach. Cleveland had the 26th pick. The Cavs passed on Poole and selected Dylan Windler. That circumstance gave the Warriors draft room pause. But their consensus big board had Poole as the highest-ranked player when they were on the clock for pick No. 28.
Joe Lacob might be more involved in the draft process than any other owner. He attends workouts, involves himself in interviews and forms strong opinions. He has the power to overrule. But everyone involved insists he listens and empowers those he’s hired.
For example, Lacob was fond of Corey Kispert as an option for the No. 14 pick the Warriors owned in the 2021 draft. But he was prepared to defer to his scouts and the room’s consensus, which had Trey Murphy III as the higher-ranked selection. It didn’t end up mattering. Moses Moody fell to 14. The Warriors had Moody in their top 10.
Myers operates similarly. He and Lacob ultimately make every personnel decision and shoulder the public credit and blame. Still, they maintain a collaborative approach.
“I’ve always taken the tact of ‘I speak the least and I speak last,’” Myers said. “I don’t want to influence your decision. I don’t want to browbeat. I want to give you a full platform to say whatever you want. If I start out in the meeting saying who I like, it’s undoubtedly going to influence what you say.”
The Wiseman, Moody and Jonathan Kuminga draft picks are too early to judge. Kuminga and Moody look like early hits. Wiseman hasn’t been healthy. His rookie season was rough and Kerr, on the coaching side, admits he could have “done better trying to fit James into a more comfortable situation.”
Next season, Wiseman’s third, is massive. The Warriors’ front office always tries to give any draft pick at least three seasons before coming to any strong conclusions. Good thing, too, because Poole didn’t break out until his third season.
Poole’s rapid rise has been one of the most vital factors in reigniting a dormant dynasty. Grabbing him 28th is a defining win for a front office that now includes Dunleavy in a prominent role. Dunleavy, even amid Poole’s early career struggles, was one of the more vocal behind-the-scenes believers Poole was worthy of patience.
His breakout season changes the perception of the Warriors’ recent draft history. Their four-year run of late first-round picks, which include center Damian Jones and wing Jacob Evans, looks so much better now with the growth of Poole and Kevon Looney.
“Probably not a popular choice at the time,” Myers said of the Poole draft. “We had to have conviction. Some people would say we shouldn’t do this because he’s not rated very high in the mock drafts. That stuff is powerful, to be honest. Getting an immediate F is never great. We hear it.”
Dunleavy left New York City in 2019 and moved to the Bay Area, committing full throttle to a front-office role. He’s around the team regularly. He travels on many road trips. He’s a leading voice for many of the daily on-the-ground decisions, as compared to Harris, who runs the scouting leg of the front office from Dallas. Dunleavy’s promotion means the Warriors now need a new scout based on the East Coast. Jonnie West, director of pro personnel, is based in Los Angeles and handles the West Coast.
In comparing the structure to previous versions of the front office, Dunleavy’s advancing role is akin to Schlenk’s. He’s right under Myers from a personnel decision-making standpoint, next to Kirk Lacob, who dabbles between the basketball and business sides. His trajectory seems to be as his father’s likelier successor, running the entire franchise.
Dunleavy wasn’t the only recent hire with playing experience. In 2020, the Warriors convinced Shaun Livingston to join the front office. He currently sits right in that upper layer, next to Kirk Lacob, Dunleavy and Harris.
Livingston’s job is crucial. He’s a connector between the veteran core, the coaching staff and the executive branch. There isn’t another human in the building who can navigate those waters as seamlessly.
“Shaun can say to Bob, ‘Hey, if you do this, this is how Steph’s going to feel and this is what Draymond’s going to think,’” Kerr said. “It might not determine the actual move that’s made, but it could determine the process. It could determine whether you do something or not.”
Myers said they sought Livingston’s perspective when weighing whether to add three teenage lottery picks to this core. Livingston was 19 when he joined the Clippers and spent his first couple of seasons behind Marko Jarić and Sam Cassell. Livingston’s advice: Bet on talent and trust your culture to guide them through an inevitably rocky road. Livingston is an immense part of that culture.
“I would say his value is in his presence, his maturity, his experience,” Myers said. “We use that for everything. We’re talking about player development. What’s the best way to develop Kuminga? That means he’s talking to Kuminga. But he’s also talking to Jama (Mahlalela, director of player development) and he’s talking to Steve and saying, ‘This is how I’d utilize him. This is how I’d prepare him. This is what I’d tell him.’ If Kuminga or Moody or Wiseman is great in three years, he will have a big hand in it.”
That’s often how it works for a front office. Validation or condemnation is delayed for weeks, months, years, depending on the gravity and ramifications of the move. But the end of any season is always a valuable checkpoint.
And the Warriors are back in the Finals. Many didn’t believe they would get back here, and the front office was often singled out as one of the reasons. But they are on the verge of a fourth championship, they have a thriving core still proving to be elite and a collection of young talent that bodes well for the future.
It seems Myers is correct. They aren’t idiots. They do know a little bit.
“The organization is significantly bigger,” Joe Lacob said. “We’ve added a lot of depth all the way through. People have gotten more experience and maturity. These guys are going to grow. They’re going to get jobs in other places. Just like our coaches. You expect some of that. But it’s the same principles and we run it the same way. I’m still here. Bob’s been here 10 years. Steve has been here eight. Kirk has been here with me for 12 years. It’s the same organization. We just keep adding firepower, which is how any good organization should run.”