CLEVELAND – What do you do?
This is what every coach, general manager and NBA owner has to wake up wondering. How do you build a championship team in an era when the name on the Larry O’Brien Trophy is all but engraved at the start of the season? Golden State knocked off Cleveland 118-113 on Wednesday at Quicken Loans Arena, and with the Warriors on the brink of a second title in three seasons, the question now isn’t how many years this team will win it all, but how many games will it lose along the way?
Welcome to the NBA, Golden State Edition. It’s soccer, if the Warriors are in one league and everyone else has been relegated to another. The modern era has never seen a team like this. They are the ’50s Celtics, the late-’70s Steelers, unbeatable at their best, slightly flawed at their worst.
Get ready, folks: The NBA season is going to become an eight-month coronation. A rebuilding team? Do it patiently. A team thinking about a rebuild? Heck yeah, now is the time to do it. A contender? Ugh. It’s not a good time to be a Toronto Raptor. It’s not a great stretch to be a Clipper, Rocket or Spur, either.
Cleveland? The Cavs will likely pay the biggest price. Another time, they could have been the super team. They have two high-level All-Stars and the best player in basketball. And against Golden State, they are fodder. The Cavs gave the Warriors their best shot on Wednesday. LeBron James (39 points) and Kyrie Irving (38) were brilliant. J.R. Smith added 16. The Cavs had a six-point lead with three minutes to go. They lost because the player last year’s 73-win team added – Kevin Durant – made shots only he can.
It’s demoralizing. It has to be. One by one the Cavaliers’ stars took to the podium. They were asked questions. They had no answers. “[Golden State] is a juggernaut of a team,” Irving said. Added James: “It’s probably the most firepower I’ve played [against] in my career.”
“They are definitely a different team than they were last year,” Irving said. “That’s definitely in full effect, that we’re all fully aware of. Going down the stretch, they’re a lot more poised, and when you have pieces like they have, they’re able to stretch the floor and give space to a great iso player at the top of the key and make big-time shots. That’s what they did.”
There will be calls for Cleveland to overhaul the roster after this. Why? The Cavs were 12-1 in the conference playoffs. Trade Kevin Love? Love is playing his best basketball in three years in Cleveland. He didn’t play great on Wednesday (nine points, 13 rebounds, six steals), but the bulk of his production came in the third quarter, when the Cavs turned a six-point halftime deficit into a six-point fourth-quarter lead.
Fire up the trade rumors. Love for Carmelo Anthony? That doesn’t make Cleveland better. Love for Paul George? Not sure what a rebuilding Pacers team wants with a 28-year-old forward on a max contract. Love’s value to the capped-out Cavs is likely far more than what they could get in return.
Bottom line: Cleveland’s screwed. The Cavs stole a title last year – and they should be thrilled they did. Because Cleveland is on a path that would make the Buffalo Bills blush. They are good enough to roll through the East for the next few seasons. But they are nowhere near good enough to beat the behemoth coming out of the West.
What’s scarier: Golden State could get better. The core of the team – those four 20-somethings just entering the prime of their careers – aren’t going anywhere. The skill level of Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green is matched by an awareness of what it is they are a part of. Recently, I asked Thompson if he thought about one day being the face of another team. He shrugged. “Yeah,” Thompson said. “It’s just winning is so much fun.”
For the next four years, Golden State is going to be the prohibitive title favorite. And that will make it an appealing free-agent destination. Every year a new crop of ring chasers hits the market. Last summer it was David West; he’s one win away from punctuating a 14-year career with a title.
Think other vets won’t follow suit? The Warriors are the closest thing to an automatic championship ring. Take Zach Randolph. He’s 35. He’s played 16 seasons. He’s made $174 million doing it. Might Randolph, reinvented as a sixth man in Memphis, be interested in taking a paycut to come off Golden State’s bench?
He might. He might not. But make no mistake: Someone will.
This is a great time to be a Warriors fan. It’s a lousy time to support anyone else. The NBA’s inability to smooth its salary cap and the players union’s unwillingness to see the benefit of it has created the current climate. We might get Cavs-Warriors 4 or 5, but the outcome will be no different. It’s title-collecting time for Golden State now. It’s participation trophies for everybody else.
More from The Vertical:
• What makes Warriors so potent? Kevin Durant now ‘a monster defensively’
• Summer agenda: Spurs have some work to do to stay near top
• Why the Warriors are willing to risk their title chase on Steve Kerr’s return