2023 Orlando Magic Playoff Lessons: Golden State Warriors’ two-path plan put them at odds

Jordan Poole and the Golden State Warriors abandoned their two-path plan as the present outweighed the future. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
Jordan Poole and the Golden State Warriors abandoned their two-path plan as the present outweighed the future. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports /

The Golden State Warriors were touting their two-path plan.

They took the years they were injured with Klay Thompson out of the lineup — and the injury season for Stephen Curry in 2020 — to restock their young talent. The idea was that they would reset around their veteran trio of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green but begin growing young players like the found money in Jordan Poole, second overall pick James Wiseman and acquired draft pick Jonathan Kuminga to grow the next generation of champions.

The Warriors would be winning championships now and developing champions for the future.

They seemed to have confirmation of this plan’s success when they won the title in 2022. The Warriors were back on top of the world and they seemed to have all their ducks in a row to continue dominating for the next decade.

Poole came up big throughout that playoff run, even if he took a lesser role than he did in the regular season. And Kuminga filled in as a valuable defender and athletic wing to help them win games. Even if Curry, Thompson and Green were the main drivers of that legacy title, the future looked bright.

So how did things fall off the wagon so quickly for the Warriors? Why has Golden State abandoned two of the former pillars of this two-track plan — trading away James Wiseman to the Detroit Pistons at last year’s trade deadline and then trading away Jordan Poole to the Washington Wizards to grab an aging point guard in Chris Paul?

The Golden State Warriors had a plan to build for the present and the future. It blew up in their faces and a two-path plan is not workable for teams at the top or really anywhere.

The answer is both simple and complex. The Warriors had to deal with the fallout of the preseason fight between Poole and Green and the lingering bad feelings that existed between them. The Warriors were never right, looking like two completely different teams at home and on the road — 33-8 at home and 11-30 on the road.

Curry was still brilliant and he powered the Warriors to the second round of the playoffs. Golden State is still a championship-contending team so long as Curry is creating the kind of gravity he creates. But the two-path plan for this Warriors team worked against it in the end.

Golden State tried to have its cake and eat it too. And while that is smart planning, there were probably missed opportunities trying to grow this team because they were focused on two paths rather than maximizing one.

The Warriors seemed to acknowledge that by abandoning the two-paths plan this offseason. They are all in on winning a championship this year, eschewing youth for veteran players like Paul. The idea being their championship window is open and what they had was not working for the present even if it helped for the future.

And that might be the larger point and larger lesson of the Warriors’ season.

In the NBA, there is always tension between the present and the future. It is hard to run on two tracks and losing that focus can eventually cause both tracks to implode.

When a championship window is open, teams typically spend their future assets to shore up their present — at times swapping deck chairs of big contracts to try to keep the team afloat. Teams that are not in that championship window or thinking about winning now often hoard their future assets at the expense of the present.

Knowing the right time to reset and close the championship window or not to spend too much on a closing window or knowing when to push the chips in to go for winning is part of the skill of a good NBA executive. Every executive is weighing this at all times.

It is increasingly difficult to run on two tracks. It divides focus and it pretty much has never worked in NBA history — maybe the 1980 Los Angeles Lakers drafting Magic Johnson to add him to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a good example. But more modern examples did not work.

The San Antonio Spurs tried to build a two-track plan with Kawhi Leonard. That might have worked had Leonard pushed his way out after Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili’s retirement. At a certain point, a team knows it has to hit reset completely. There is never really necessarily reloading.

When a championship window is open, a team has to be all in with every move to win. That is where the Warriors were at. Or where the Warriors realized they were at this offseason and at last year’s trade deadline when those young players did not grow and support the present.

Even on a smaller scale, a two-path plan can be a struggle. The Orlando Magic made that mistake when pushing their chips in too early in 2016 to acquire Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo. That plan never made much sense but it buried the Magic deeper in the hole.

Even under Jeff Weltman, trying to play two tracks blew up. The Magic in 2019 had a group of young veterans that they needed to nurture into a bigger playoff team. But they stood pat betting on their internal development of Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac especially. Neither took the step up to stardom — and perhaps that should have been evident.

Orlando eventually bottomed out and had to restart. At least the Magic made that decision before it was too late.

The Warriors ultimately made their decision.

Every team has to make this decision one way or another. The trick is always knowing the right time to make this decision. And walking two paths may not be a future except in exceptionally rare circumstances.

The Magic are seemingly on the opposite end of this spectrum right now, but they are facing a similar choice. Orlando has a young team and has carefully guarded its assets and development.

The team spent this offseason mostly staying out of the young players’ way. The Magic intend to put the ball in Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner’s hands. Despite having tons of cap room, the Magic opted not to spend it on any substantial players. Orlando worked mostly to shore up its depth around these young players.

But you can begin to see the Magic itching to make winning moves.

Everyone recognizes this is a team that could make the postseason. Orlando worked to let it happen naturally this offseason. The team did not push any chips into the middle of the table. There was definitely a sense this group was not quite ready for extreme win-now pressure. So Orlando did not put it on this team.

That day will come soon. And when that happens, the development phase of this rebuild will be fully over. The Magic were not there yet, so they are sticking to the track they are on.

They were not going to overload the roster with veterans to put undue pressure on their young players or get in their way.

Next. Playoff Lessons: New York Knicks grapple with the postseason. dark

So the Magic are traveling their path waiting for the right moment to jump tracks.