Warriors' biggest issue? A little something called 'dynastic fatigue'

A weekly dive into the NBA’s hottest topics.

Take One: Can the Golden State Warriors defeat human nature?

In the past month, the Warriors have been blown out at home twice. Be it a product of health or drama or complacency, their patent perfection has eluded them this season. They’ve struggled to string together consistent defensive performances, and while their offense is as statistically dominant as ever, it sputters and starts, suffering both from existential crisis — to isolate Kevin Durant or whip the ball all over the floor — and waning discipline.

Put simply, the Warriors are experiencing dynastic fatigue. Since head coach Steve Kerr took over, Golden State has played a total of 83 playoff games, essentially squeezing five seasons into four. The impulses they shirked — individual credit, days off, plays off — were motivated by factors that are no longer relevant to them.

This season hasn't been easy for the Warriors. (AP)
This season hasn't been easy for the Warriors. (AP)

At the practice after cameras caught Kerr appearing to tell his staff he was “sick of Draymond’s [expletive],” he acknowledged the challenge himself.

“If you look historically at any team trying to win multiple titles in a row, get to the Finals year after year, there’s a different vibe,” he said. “As you go, the journey gets harder. There’s more adversity. We saw it last year quite a bit. We were able to pull things together and win the title. We’re seeing plenty of adversity this year, and I tell the players every year, there’s a reason you pour champagne on each other when it’s all said and done, because it is hard. It’s a difficult thing that we’re trying to accomplish, and it gets more difficult as you go.”

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo illustration)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo illustration)

The only problem? The Warriors sweep of the Cleveland Cavaliers last year was followed by the most business-like championship celebration in NBA history — no catharsis, no vindication. They shook hands and smiled. A couple of the younger players bounced around. Steph Curry walked into the tunnel and remarked that he didn’t like how quiet it was. How would that celebration sound this year?

By winning so dominantly, they’ve actually lost a great deal. Motivation, no matter what your life coach or Michael Jordan tells you, is a finite resource. Andrew Bogut’s return to the Warriors was its own admission: the hallmark of loss is nostalgia. He is from a time when the team had dreams to live out, people to prove wrong and ancient cliches to bust.

Now, the Warriors’ once-revolutionary style is the NBA standard and they find themselves on the tail end of the dream. There’s little left to win save for the embarrassment of losing. You don’t sign Kevin Durant to a 73-win team to not win out. In fact, you sign him to guard against the complacency that befalls every dynasty. Warriors owner Joe Lacob wants to bust the inevitable life cycle, to keep the wins pouring in forever.

Durant may never be more useful to the Warriors than he will be in this playoff run, to fill in the cushion where inner satisfaction and joy once thrived. The Warriors’ mettle is the decidedly unromantic chief plot of the playoffs: Can the might of their collective firepower render their spiritual malaise irrelevant? Their only opponent, as ever, is themselves. But for the first time in a long time, we’ll be watching a fair fight.

Take Two: Why disparage Devin Booker when you could enjoy him instead?

One of modern sports’ peskiest byproducts is the rush to stick an asterisk on young talent. Donovan Mitchell takes too many shots. Jayson Tatum has too much help around him. And now, Devin Booker — who has scored 109 points in his last two games, both Phoenix losses — doesn’t have enough.

But you know what usually happens to ubertalented, young high-volume scorers on bad teams? They eventually turn into seasoned high-volume scorers on good teams.

But Booker, 22 years old, is growing into a particularly delicious target to pin as a selfish stat-stuffer. He eschews the unwritten edicts that require performative brooding in the face of every loss, even — no, especially — after strong individual performances. Last year, he celebrated a 70-point game in a loss. In the midst of a 30-point blowout loss to the Jazz on Monday, he gunned for his 60th point and fell short. Drake wore his jersey on stage. Then he wrote a line about him. Superstars gush over Booker. Impressive people find him impressive, but sooner than we would like them to. Also, his middle name is Armani.

I understand the doubters. Assessing young talent is a matter of making reads, and Booker has displayed very little of the pluck that separates stars from wannabes. He could afford to make an extra skip pass or two, or show more than a passing interest in defense. But rare is the player who invests in doing the hard thing when there’s no payoff, and Phoenix wasn’t sniffing the playoff race no matter how low Booker crouches.

Soft obligations have no shot against human nature. The question of whether a budding star is willing to do the little things should be deferred until the little things can actually add up to big things. Until then, let Book cook.

Take Three: Chris Bosh is finally getting the recognition he deserves

I like that it always boils down to Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals — what Miami Heat president Pat Riley, during Bosh’s jersey retirement ceremony in Miami on Tuesday, called “the biggest rebound in the history of the franchise.” Even though Bosh didn’t get to retire on his own terms, it’s fitting that he was honored for the thing that, in the service of anchoring a modern, aggressive defensive scheme, was perceived as a weakness.

Not that he ever cared. He played up and shot threes at a time when big men who did so were considered soft. He seemed different from everyone else. The only difference was that he was never afraid of being himself. Despite the screams that turned into gifs, and the tears that made for some truly cringeworthy memes, his all-out passion remained relentless. He played into his animated features and lanky figure, never too self-conscious to worry about looking awkward — something to aspire to.

During his speech, he stepped up from the podium and for old time’s sake screamed one last time in the face of an enraptured crowd at the American Airlines Arena. They screamed back.

Take Four: Let the Clippers clip

In the NBA, relishing small victories is an easy way to invite mockery. No franchise understands this more intimately than the Los Angeles Clippers, who not only spent most of their existence in a decrepit state, but did it in the shadow of the Lakers. It started in the Lob City era, when they hung a division title banner in the same rafters that, on alternate days, would feature 16 championship banners next to the retired jerseys of bona fide legends.

On Tuesday, after a victory against the Minnesota Timberwolves that clinched a playoff spot for the Clippers, coach Doc Rivers popped open a bottle of champagne in the locker room and started tallying off the early-season doubters: ESPN, Las Vegas oddsmakers, Charles Barkley.

A bit much? Sure. But not every team is trying to win a championship every year. The Clippers, who were unified in their playoff quest, don’t deserve snickers and jeers for celebrating the achievement of their goal, as rudimentary as it may seem. You don’t have to be that guy.

There is no shame in taking pride in small accomplishments, and the logic that it does has never made a lot of sense. Progress comes in stages. Celebrating your high school graduation doesn’t decrease your chances of going to college. In fact, acknowledging progress can create positive feedback loops. Sometimes what a franchise needs more than anything else is to recognize its upward trajectory. And in the West, making the playoffs in the midst of midseason trades and injuries is indeed an accomplishment. Just ask the 2018-19 Lakers.

Take Five: A brief note on Tom Izzo

I’m not saying it’s a good idea for a coach to point a finger in a player’s face and repeatedly yell at him on national TV. It’s not an impulse that needs to be valorized. But it also doesn’t need to demonized. Ask yourself this: In the midst of mass condemnation in an era when players don’t shy away from telling the world how they really feel, how many professional athletes or coaches have criticized Izzo’s behavior? Professional athletes operate in a different world, driven by high stakes, adrenaline, endorphins and, most importantly, an acceptance of — and sometimes even an invitation for — conflict.

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