Golden State played beautiful basketball from the start of the season through to their inevitable title. But will their brilliance hurt the league?
The dusky antechinus is a small marsupial native to south-east Australia. The males in the species live until their first mating season, when they breed and then quickly die from all the exertion. All that build up to a moment of accomplishment, the pinnacle of their existence ... and then nothing more but the dark embrace of death. The Golden State Warriors may have made the NBA into the dusky antechinus of sports leagues.
It’s a waste of time to debate that the 2017 Warriors are anything but one of the greatest NBA teams of all-time, if not the greatest team ever. Last year, they added Kevin Durant, the second-best player in the world behind LeBron James, to a 73-9 team that was one win away from an NBA title, and then proceeded to go 67-15 in the 2016-17 regular season and 16-1 in the postseason, beating James and the Cavaliers by an average of 13 points in their 4-1 finals win. It was beautiful and artistic and dominant basketball from the season’s opening tip through to the final minutes of their title-clinching win. Name the championship or dynasty team from the NBA’s past, and these Warriors match up very favorably against them. Modern basketball has hit its zenith in Golden State.
The question for the NBA is: what now? What does the league do now that its champion for the next two, three, five (?) years is as much of a foregone conclusion as this whole season was? We all experienced basketball perfection, but how many fans will have the interest to watch it unfold again and again and again, all domination and no drama? One of the globe’s most dynamic sports leagues reduced to a small, rotting marsupial carcass.
To be clear: the Warriors are indeed well set up to win a string of championships (while turning down White House visits long into an even two-term Trump presidency). The team’s unmatched core of Durant, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are all 29 or younger. Golden State’s window of title contention is not closing. In fact, it’s not even a window. It’s a massive bay door on an airplane hangar that they can, and likely will, stuff full of trophies. No NBA team, at least not as currently constructed, is within sniffing distance of the Warriors for 2018 or beyond. Vegas has the Warriors as early 4-6 favorites to repeat, with LeBron’s Cavaliers next at a generous 3-1. No other team is better than 12-1.
Despite a postseason that was widely panned for lack of competitiveness, the just-completed finals still brought in huge TV numbers. The finale earned the highest ratings for a Game 5 in the United States since 1998 – Michael Jordan’s last championship with the Bulls. But few believe the same level of interest will be there for more of the exact same next year. “The fan in me would to see more competition at times, but we should celebrate excellence,” the NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, said in his pre-finals press conference. “This is real life. It’s not scripted. It happens. It will work itself out.”
That’s not a plan to achieve balance. That’s not even hope. That’s just resignation to a Warriors-dominated future. But there’s really little Silver can do to change the direction the league is going. As long as top-tier players like Durant make far more money on shoe contracts than from their NBA deals, they can happily leave money on the table to be on a “super-team”. No one begrudges them that. It’s just hard to imagine that attendance and TV numbers will continue to be there for teams like the Atlanta Hawks or Toronto Raptors when their fans know that entering the season, outside of the plague hitting Golden State’s roster, their team has zero shot of winning a championship. None. And what’s the draw for casual sports fans to another Warriors v Cavaliers or Warriors v Whoever Finals again next year? Whether Golden State can score 200 points in a game or maybe make LeBron weep on live television?
The era of the Warriors, an era which is really only just now beginning, is not going to be kind to the NBA on the court or off. Unless they can at least be challenged so the next few years don’t feel like seven months of exhibition basketball culminating in another Warriors trophy ceremony. Still, great teams do fail. Here are a few scenarios that could see the status quo in the NBA change.
1) Rise of the Spurs
The biggest blemish on Golden State’s postseason resume this year is not their Game 4 finals loss to Cleveland when the Cavs shot the lights out. It was Game 1 of the Western Conference finals when, in Oakland, San Antonio blew the doors off the Warriors through the first half and built a 25-point lead before Zaza Pachulia undercut Kawhi Leonard, injuring Leonard’s ankle and ending San Antonio’s shot at an upset in the game and series. If the Spurs can build a super-team of their own – and rumors say free agent point guard Chris Paul is very interested in signing on – maybe they have enough to slow the Warriors dynasty. After all, they already have the right coach.
2) LeBron + whoever
LeBron plus four random people you see at the grocery store is enough to win the East. His presence alone on an NBA roster makes his team a super-team. But his current roster in Cleveland clearly isn’t enough to beat the super-team. And while we may all be resigned to a future controlled by our Warriors overlords, there’s no way LeBron James is. No doubt he’s already been on the phone with some of his super-friends – from Dwyane Wade to Carmelo Anthony and Paul George – to try to talk them into joining up. If the Cavs can add a fourth standout player to their team – alongside James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love – to match the star power Golden State has, maybe next year’s Warriors-Cavs Finals can have a different outcome. Or at least a closer outcome.
3) The emergence of a new super-team
Before adding Durant, the Warriors were a homegrown team. Steph Curry is a former seventh-overall pick, Thompson an 11th and Green a second-rounder. Those guys won a championship in 2015 and then went 73-9 the year after. Then the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the finals and they went out and got Durant. But building a winner can be done “the right way” with some good fortune. Maybe it’s the Milwaukee Bucks if they can add more young talent around the freakishly talented Giannis Antetokounmpo. Maybe it’s the Sixers if all the talent drafted via The Process can ever get healthy. The pre-Durant Warriors provide some hope to the rest of the league. That said, it’s unlikely any new super-team can rise to prominence in time to stop a Golden State dynasty.
The best bet to defeat the Warriors is, unfortunately, injury. Age won’t come for them for at least five years, but injury can happen at any time. Durant has shown that while his game is close to rivaling LeBron’s, his body isn’t as durable; he has only played an average of 53 regular season games over the past three seasons. While Curry has not had Durant’s injury struggles (although he was hurt during last yer’s playoffs), he has a slight build that can be battered over a long NBA career – or at least can be in the NBA of old where most of the action didn’t occur outside the three-point line. But even the biggest Warriors hater shouldn’t wish injury upon two of the best players in the game. Five years of Golden State sweeping every NBA finals is far better than seeing careers cut short.
So here we are: marveling at the greatness of the Warriors while at the same time wondering if they’re so good that they ruined the entire league. That’s some kind of dominance. And maybe giving up hope is actually the way past all this. The Warriors can’t beat anyone if all their opponents just forfeit first.