The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With Michael Jordan’s ‘The Last Dance’ as a backdrop, Warriors reflect on fallen dynasties

Kevin Durant and Draymond Green teamed up to win two titles, but their friction precipitated the collapse of the Golden State Warriors' dynasty last summer. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Michael Jordan wasted no time setting up Jerry Krause as the man to blame for ending the Chicago Bulls’ dynasty.

In the first two episodes of “The Last Dance,” ESPN’s 10-part documentary that premiered last Sunday, Jordan didn’t hide his animosity toward the former general manager. Krause was painted as short, fat, ignorant of fashion trends, argumentative, jealous, cheap, desperate for credit, inconsiderate of team dynamics and overeager to be done with Scottie Pippen, Jordan’s trusted sidekick, and Phil Jackson, the team’s legendary coach.

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This wasn’t a revisionist caricature. Jordan, in one archived video, looked up at Krause’s office when asked to identify the biggest challenge of the 1997-98 season. The Bulls imploded the following summer — Jordan retired, Pippen left for the Houston Rockets, and Jackson eventually took over the Los Angeles Lakers — but they spent their final year together driven by a shared contempt for the boss. They wanted to win their sixth title, in part, to spite the guy who was preemptively packing their bags.

These internal dynamics were incomprehensible to some at the time and are regrettable in hindsight. Today’s viewers can’t help but wonder why Jordan didn’t get Krause fired, why owner Jerry Reinsdorf took all that winning for granted and why the Bulls didn’t keep running it back until someone dethroned them.

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Twenty years from now, the next generation of fans will raise similar questions about the Golden State Warriors, who won three titles and reached five straight NBA Finals but saw their dynasty crumble last summer. How did Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala — all of whom are probably headed to the Hall of Fame — only manage to win two titles together? Why was Durant so anxious to leave after three seasons? How did an organization with clear philosophical alignment at its highest levels succumb to internal strife?

The Warriors spent this week sifting through the rubble. Green put much of the onus on Durant during an interview with Showtime’s “All The Smoke” podcast, noting that the 2014 MVP became frustrated with Golden State’s offense during the 2017-18 season and that he had “one foot in and one foot out” throughout the 2018-19 season.

Green explained that tension bubbled over during an on-court argument in a 2018 game against the Los Angeles Clippers. Green and Durant didn’t agree on a late-game play, and their dispute led Green to question Durant’s commitment to the Warriors in advance of his 2019 free agency. To placate Durant, management suspended Green for a game after he refused to apologize — an unsatisfactory resolution for all parties.

Management ignored warnings about Durant’s brewing discontent, continued Green, who argued that he shouldn’t be scapegoated for Durant’s eventual departure for the Brooklyn Nets. If Durant had wanted to re-sign, Golden State could have traded Green or reworked the roster to appease him.

“I understand the business of basketball,” Green said. “If Kevin Durant wants to be somewhere and he doesn’t want me here, I’m out.”

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For Warriors Coach Steve Kerr, who was a sharpshooting guard on Jordan’s Bulls, incessant media attention complicates life for franchise players and superteams by exacerbating minor conflicts. In an interview with ESPN’s “The Jump,” Kerr said he believed Jordan retired in 1993 to play baseball because “he was fried emotionally from the scrutiny only he felt.”

Durant was put under the microscope when he left the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Warriors in 2016, and incidents such as his dispute with Green drove news cycles and social media discourse throughout his three-year stay in the Bay Area. There were strange twists and turns, including Durant’s decision to use anonymous accounts to defend himself in online debates and to impose an extended media blackout. Kerr said the modern media environment would have led Jordan to “act differently and adapt.”

“The public today, everybody would tweet about [tensions],” said Kerr, who looked exhausted at times by the circuslike atmosphere that followed the Warriors. “Those tweets would be retweeted, and then there would be shows about the tweets and the Instagrams. And then all hell breaks loose.”

Jordan enjoyed other advantages over Durant. The Bulls were built in his image, while Durant joined an organization constructed around Curry. Jordan and Jackson shared an intense loyalty after growing up together as champions, while Durant and Kerr had some disagreements, particularly on the Warriors’ offensive style.

Jordan was a natural locker room leader, while the more introverted Durant never emerged as Golden State’s loudest voice. Jordan was the most popular athlete on the planet throughout his prime, while Durant was resigned to the fact that he wouldn’t eclipse Curry among Warriors fans.

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Yet Durant had his own edges. He played for a deferential GM in Bob Myers, a former agent who has given out generous contracts to core players and once said Durant had “earned the right to sign whatever deal he wants.” He played with Curry, a two-time MVP who willingly took a step back to share the stage and the burden. He played on loaded rosters that breezed to the 2017 title, survived a stiff challenge from the Houston Rockets before claiming the 2018 championship and advanced to the 2019 Finals despite his untimely injury in the second round.

If not for his hamstring and Achilles’ injuries, Durant probably would have claimed his third title and third Finals MVP trophy last June. In that alternate history, he almost certainly would have been recognized as the best player in basketball, a title he has spent a decade chasing.

What’s more, the table was set for Durant to compete at a high level for years: Golden State offered a new arena, a great market, a rich ownership group, a thoughtful and experienced coach and a proven championship core. There was no Reinsdorf refusing to renegotiate contracts. There was no Krause needlessly poisoning relationships. There was no Pippen aching for a long-awaited payday. There was no Jackson butting heads with management.

There was, however, a superstar who never found peace. That was more than enough to bring down the Warriors’ house.

“[That’s] what happens with great success, great notoriety, great attention, and all the money, all the fame,” Myers told San Francisco’s 95.7 the Game this week when asked about the end of Chicago’s run. “It’s very hard. It’s why bands break up. There are so many dynamics. To keep it all aligned is work. You have to sacrifice. When you’re trying to win, you don’t get to do it all on your own terms. I’m not picking on the Bulls, because it’s human nature. Things have a lifetime, and then they end.”

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