The Warriors have permanently broken our brains. When Kevin Durant signed in Oakland and locked down the NBA title for the foreseeable future, the other 29 teams knew they had no chance; the smart move would have been for the entire league to start tanking immediately. Instead, although each successive season’s outcome became a foregone conclusion, the league went into full-on arms-race mode, with every would-be contender loading up on talent in hopes of matching up with the consummate super-team.
Golden State has also scrambled the way we think about the league’s balance of power. In a bygone era, that balance ebbed and flowed in a somewhat orderly fashion; a breakout season, shrewd trade, or long-term injury could move the needle. But mostly, good teams stayed that way until their franchise players retired, and bad teams gradually climbed the ladder as their lottery picks came into their own. It was a simpler, easier time that promoted stability, both within franchise rosters and also the league as a whole. Rivalries were entrenched, loyalty meant something, and the hierarchy was just porous enough to keep everyone on their toes.
By comparison, today’s NBA is chaos. Stars are increasingly unlikely to settle down, lest they risk stagnation or get mired in a rebuild. As evidenced by the adventures of Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, and Kristaps Porzingis, they are more willing than ever to throw their weight around to achieve their goals, even without what would have previously been considered real leverage. A team’s fortunes can shift overnight, and the Clippers or Knicks can abruptly scrap their entire rosters in the hopes of landing multiple marquee free agents in the summer. It certainly helps that players leave teams guessing until the last minute—almost as a matter of principle, even if they have no financial or competitive incentive to do so.
That’s why this deadline’s biggest news was non-news: Anthony Davis, a player who changes the complexion of gameplay as much as anyone not named LeBron James or Stephen Curry, will remain a Pelican until the offseason, at the very least. It’s unclear whether Davis and James, plus whatever scraps remained after a deal with New Orleans, would have made the Lakers into a contender. But it would have kept Davis from becoming a Celtic this summer, and assuming Kyrie Irving re-signs—not a guarantee, but still—a Davis-to-Boston move would have vast implications for the league’s competitive landscape. If this deadline felt anticlimactic, it was because we are now conditioned for things to change dramatically on a regular basis, and our standards for what constitutes a “blockbuster” are nothing short of apocalyptic.
The lack of excitement over what little did happen this week is a testament to how warped things have become. The Sixers, Raptors, and Bucks—three of the four top teams in the East—made moves that considerably elevated their chances of winning the conference. (Granted, in each of these cases, they were only able to land quality talent because their trading partners were in fire-sale mode, further evidence of the stratification gutting the league’s middle class.) But adding players who complement what’s already under way, and relying on midseason trades to up the competitive ante rather than banking on a boom-or-bust offseason? These franchises made a decidedly old-fashioned approach seem new and exciting.
The arrival of Tobias Harris in Philadelphia was met with some consternation, particularly among those who thought the Sixers should be aiming higher. Harris isn’t a game-changer like other members of this summer’s free-agent class; he’s not a multivalent unicorn like Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons, or an obvious game-changer like Jimmy Butler. But Harris is a 26-year-old, well-rounded All-Star wing—a nearly 40-50-90 scorer who defends well and slots in perfectly alongside the Sixers’ more exalted stars. Harris is also only the fourth most important player on that team, which makes his acquisition an impressive accomplishment. Even in the most farfetched offseason scenario, there’s no way Philadelphia (or any other team) could achieve what the Warriors have in terms of talent consolidation. Or, to put it another way: Just because Golden State boasts four, maybe five, maybe six Hall of Famers doesn’t mean other teams can expect to do the same.
The additions of Marc Gasol to Toronto and Nikola Mirotic to Milwaukee weren’t subject to this kind of harebrained scrutiny and skepticism, perhaps because they weren’t seen as referenda on those franchises’ long-term plans. At 34, Gasol may no longer be in peak form, but he’s still got through-the-roof basketball IQ, the passing ability of an elite playmaker, a deft shooting touch, and shrewd defensive instincts. He is a massive upgrade at the center position, even if it means pushing Serge Ibaka to the bench. This is important for a Toronto team that isn’t just looking to make a deep playoff run, and that is perpetually making the case to Leonard that he should stay with the team long-term. Getting Gasol may not be the splashiest move, but it serves as a sobering reminder that existing in a post-Warriors fantasy world—in all senses of the phrase—may not be the optimal path to a title.
The Bucks are being even more old-fashioned. Despite his breakout season with New Orleans last year, Mirotic is still underrated; as weird as the NBA has gotten, 6’10” forwards who can drain threes with aplomb, pull down rebounds, and competently defend still don’t grow on trees. And aside from Mirotic’s value in a vacuum, it’s very hard to overstate how much he will help Milwaukee. The Bucks have doubled—maybe even, ahem, tripled—down on shooting this year, and with Mirotic, they’ll be able to field a lineup in which every player is a long-range threat. His length and versatility fit with the team’s overall identity, and he can provide needed additional muscle in the paint. Landing Mirotic allows the Bucks to be even more themselves, which is bad for everyone else.
Pining for a “more stable NBA” smacks a little of conservatism and false nostalgia; at a time when players enjoy unprecedented power, making this argument is not a great look, since that power relies on their radical (if not absolute) freedom of movement. But it’s possible to be for player agency while simultaneously acknowledging that some semblance of institutional grounding is not a bad thing.
That’s the irony of the Warriors: Before Durant came on board, their team was an object lesson in doing things “the right way”: It was built via smart draft picks, player development, organizational culture, and incremental coaching. They set a lofty goal for themselves, and then achieved it in grand, satisfying fashion. Perhaps instead of going all in on the chase for the next Durant or James or Davis, more teams would do well to follow the example of the Sixers, Raptors, and Bucks. Swinging for the fences is a seductive strategy. But there’s no guarantee it pays off—or that you even make contact.