SAN FRANCISCO — The NBA’s player empowerment era, which launched when LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade’s Miami Heat in 2010, largely has been defined by quick-fix success stories.
When superstars move markets and combine forces, championships often follow. This isn’t a foolproof formula, especially now that so many high-level players are pursuing the same strategy. Look no further than the Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets, who entered the season as title favorites but won a combined zero playoff games because their thrown-together headliners couldn’t get on the same page.
This year’s Finals between the Warriors and the Boston Celtics is proof that instant gratification by way of trade requests and splashy free agency power plays isn’t the only way to win big in the NBA. The Warriors and Celtics took a deliberate approach to reach this summit, drafting and developing their cores while plowing ahead through challenging circumstances, from major injuries to playoff disappointments, that could have led them to scrap their blueprints.
“Patience,” said a Western Conference general manager, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could discuss rival teams, when asked why Golden State and Boston will take center stage at the Finals, which open Thursday in San Francisco. “It’s probably the trickiest element to winning now. The last few years have been a very impulsive time. Owners get impatient. GMs get impatient. Players get impatient. Agents get impatient. Fans get impatient. Giving into pressure from any of those can throw a team off course.”
For the Warriors, everything starts with Stephen Curry, the NBA’s longest-tenured active player with a single franchise aside from seldom-used Heat forward Udonis Haslem. The 34-year-old guard is in his 13th season, and his reliable presence has enabled Golden State to enjoy multiple eras of success with him as the centerpiece, much like Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs. Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, selected in the 2011 and 2012 drafts, have flanked Curry to form a homegrown Hall of Fame trio that have reached six Finals and are seeking their fourth title.
The bond among Curry, Thompson and Green has never wavered — not even after the 2019 Finals, when Durant left in free agency, Thompson suffered a serious knee injury and both Thompson and Green were due expensive contracts. What could have been an opportunity for ownership to dramatically retool the roster or for Curry to seek greener pastures was instead a blip on the radar. Thompson and Green signed new deals, and everyone agreed to hang tight until Thompson was back on the court, even if that meant enduring a 15-50 record in 2019-20.
That process repeated the next season, when Thompson suffered an Achilles’ injury shortly before the 2020-21 season. Again, Golden State’s stars stayed committed to one another and ownership kept the faith as the organization shifted its focus to empowering complementary younger players such as Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole. Even this season, injuries kept Curry, Thompson and Green from aligning until the playoffs. The three stars played just 11 minutes together over three regular season games before banding together to lead playoff series victories over the Denver Nuggets, Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks.
“There’s DNA that you can’t really teach,” Curry said after the Western Conference finals. “The pieces fit. How we play. What we do. You have to have the competitive spirit and fire to find ways to win games. We talked about it at the beginning of the Denver series. We had no clue how it was going to shape up, but you can build off the experience that we’ve had over the last 10-plus years.”
During their two down seasons, the Warriors plummeted so far in the standings that they accumulated three lottery picks: James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody. Golden State had the opportunity to package those youngsters for another high-level veteran who could help with a championship chase. The Warriors chose restraint instead.
“We took some criticism that we should trade all our draft choices to get one more great player,” Warriors owner Joe Lacob said Monday. “I was very adamant about it: That was not the path that we were going to go. We want to be great for a long time.”
Though Boston’s core is significantly younger than its Warriors counterparts, the Celtics have endured their fair share of trials and tribulations. Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are in their fifth season together, having been selected in the 2014, 2016 and 2017 draft lotteries. Their formative years featured plenty of winning — Boston has reached the Eastern Conference finals in four of the past six seasons — but also included an ill-fated stint with Kyrie Irving.
While Curry, Thompson and Green always seemed to enjoy a seamless fit, Boston’s trio presented a more complicated story. During the 2020 playoffs, Smart led a locker-room ruckus and went on a profanity-laced tirade following a loss. In key postseason moments, Tatum, Boston’s top offensive talent, repeatedly faded to the background, while Smart, a defense-first guard with a shaky jumper, often shot too much.
The heartbreaks mounted: The Celtics lost a Game 7 at home to James’s Cavaliers in the 2018 East finals. They were wiped off the court by Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks in the 2019 second round. They fell to the Miami Heat in the 2020 East finals. And they lost to the Nets in last year’s first round. As Boston’s late-game offense faltered during a slow start this season, Smart called out Tatum and Brown: “They don’t want to pass the ball, and that’s something that they’re going to learn.”
That string of setbacks prompted one existential crisis after another. Irving, who once said he had a “dream of putting my number 11 in the rafters one day,” bailed for the Nets in 2019. For years, critics argued that Tatum and Brown were redundant and that the pair of scoring-minded wings should be broken up via trade. As for Smart, he was flirting with being too honest for his own good.
“There were definitely some tough moments,” Tatum said Sunday. “Can we do it? You start to realize how hard it is to win. You start to question yourself. ‘Are you good enough to be that guy?’ But I think you just trust in yourself and trust in the work that you put in to get to this point. It can’t rain forever.”
The Celtics resisted the temptation to part with Tatum, Brown or Smart, instead choosing to make significant changes around them. Danny Ainge, the executive who had drafted all three, departed last summer. Brad Stevens, the only coach the trio had known, replaced Ainge, and Ime Udoka, who prized accountability and steadiness after years with the Spurs, took Stevens’s spot on the bench.
Stevens displayed a deft touch in his first year as an executive, shipping out underperforming guard Kemba Walker to acquire Al Horford, a much-needed frontcourt defensive anchor. At the deadline, Boston added backup guard Derrick White, who has provided vital contributions during the playoffs, while moving on from Dennis Schröder, whose ball-dominant style proved to be a poor fit. With Walker and Schröder out of the picture, Udoka entrusted Smart to function as a point guard, a role that hadn’t always come naturally to him. The 28-year-old responded by averaging 12.1 points and a career-high 5.9 assists while winning defensive player of the year honors.
“Some said a split,” Smart wrote on Twitter, alongside a photo of himself, Tatum and Brown celebrating their Eastern Conference finals victory. “We said a family.”
Stevens’s faith in his core and his savvy moves around the edges paid off handsomely; they allowed Boston to field an athletic and imposing starting five that delivered the NBA’s No. 1 defense. After a 25-25 start, the Celtics closed with a 26-6 record before getting revenge against the Nets, Bucks and Heat in the playoffs. Along the way, Boston dug out of a 3-2 hole against Milwaukee, came back from a 2-1 deficit against Miami, prevailed in two Game 7s and accumulated a 6-0 record after a loss.
That persistence, forged over five unpredictable seasons, has become the Celtics’ calling card.
“[The Celtics] have probably done it the way that it’s supposed to happen,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said after Game 7 of the East finals. “You build a team, and you have frustrating losses. You stay together, keep your core together, keep your culture together and then you eventually find a breakthrough. They have gone through the fire.”