At the start of the 2019-20 season, when the Golden State Warriors were in the early stages of accumulating the NBA’s worst record, coach Steve Kerr tried to offer some perspective. He knew he had enjoyed an enchanted life in the Bay Area. Now it was time to teach and grow. He did not have a choice.
“The hardest part is obviously losing,” he said in an interview. after a morning shootout at the time. “But they’re a great group and it’s really fun to work with them. They have a lot of energy, they compete and they learn.
Jordan Poole was a Michigan freshman guard shooting 33.3 percent less than sturdy from the field as a rotational player. But he started 14 games and averaged more than 22 minutes per game overall because Kerr didn’t have many other options.
Klay Thompson was out for the season after knee surgery. Stephen Curry broke his left hand and would only appear in five games. Kevin Durant had left for the Nets. Draymond Green would miss more than 20 games with various ailments as the Warriors boarded an express train to the draw.
There was no guarantee that Golden State would be able to put together its championship pieces, a dream that became even murkier when Thompson ruptured his Achilles tendon in the fall of 2020, an injury that sidelined him for one more season. Nothing was assured. Golden State had shown how quickly dominant teams could fall apart.
Now, as they inch closer to winning their first playoff series since 2019, the Warriors are back – and in some important ways the team is reminiscent of the juggernaut that has qualified for five consecutive NBA Finals, between 2015 and 2019, winning three titles. Same high octane formula. Same stylish swagger. Only the team’s supporting cast changed, highlighted by Poole’s emergence in Golden State’s first-round playoff series with the Denver Nuggets.
At 22, Poole uses his lanky 6-foot-4 frame to shake up defenders and create space off the dribble. He scores from the 3-point arc, rim and from the foul line, where he led the NBA in free throw percentage this season. Shaped by the past three seasons and molded by mentors identifiable by first name, Poole has given a huge boost to a Championship-tested core.
“What’s fun is seeing Jordan for the first time,” Kerr said after Golden State’s 118-113 win in Game 3 on Thursday. “We have an interesting mix with all these veterans who have been there, and we have young guys who have a taste of what it’s like.”
Heading into Game 4 on Sunday afternoon, the Nuggets are in trouble. Without the injured Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., they have a short roster and virtually no chance. The Nuggets still employ Nikola Jokic, who did everything they could in Game 3, picking up 37 points and 18 rebounds, but no team has ever come back from a three-game to zero deficit in the NBA playoffs. Denver likely won’t be the first, not against Curry, Thompson and Green, who have played 367 playoff games combined.
On Thursday, the three of them boarded their collective time machine to the old days — before injuries and playoff drought and questions about whether they could regain their magic. Curry fled during transition and mixed in a no-look pass to Thompson for a layup. Green effectively sealed the victory by stripping Jokic and then shouting to the opposing crowd. Curry pretended to fall asleep. Translation? Game over.
“What a fun night at the office,” Thompson said. “The ball just flies.”
It was a scenario lifted straight from 2015. Even Andre Iguodala, now 38 and one of the oldest players in the league, had fun hovering for a dunk.
“Vintage Andre,” said Kerr, who wasn’t surprised his players seemed fueled by the Denver crowd. “These guys have been around the block a few times, so they’re not fazed by that stuff.”
And then there’s Poole, who is new to the neighborhood, having appeared in three career playoff games, all against Denver. He scored 30 points in Game 1, 29 in Game 2, and 27 in Game 3. In the process, he continued to absorb lessons from his more experienced teammates.
“Just being there with these guys at the end of the game and at that time was extremely special because you can see how locked down and focused they are,” Poole said, adding: “They just let it be me.”
Poole’s development has not been a straight line. When he was coming out of college, teams worried about his defense and shot selection. Mike Dunleavy Jr., one of Golden State’s assistant general managers, spotted him during the Big Ten tournament and saw the potential. Golden State selected him with the 28th overall pick in 2019.
Poole had his share of growing pains. Last season, he even dipped in the G League for 11 games. Now he has emerged as one of the most explosive options in the team.
“I’ve seen him do so much work behind the scenes,” Thompson said.
Poole created a unique problem for Kerr, who knocked Curry off the bench in the series as he builds up his minutes after a season-ending foot injury. Curry graciously accepted the role (for now), saying everyone is going to have their record. And Kerr has shown an increased willingness to play a small-ball roster that includes Curry, Thompson, Andrew Wiggins and Poole, with Green functioning as a centripetal force. It’s kind of a throwback to the famous Hamptons Five range which included Durant, and to the so-called Death Lineup that preceded that one. This third iteration just needs a nickname.
Poole was so good and so unflappable that his coaches and teammates resorted to nitpicking. Late in the fourth quarter of Thursday’s game, with the outcome still in doubt, Poole had an open eye on a 3-pointer. Instead of shooting, he walked towards the hoop where he met Jeff Green, a 6-foot-8 forward. Poole treated him like a theatrical prop.
“I probably would have preferred corner 3 in this case,” Kerr said. “But he came in and did a circus stunt.”
Curry said the win was something Poole, along with the rest of the squad’s young players, could build on. A bit of youth? A whole lot of experience? For Golden State, the puzzle is almost complete.