CLEVELAND — After three titles in four seasons — two straight with Kevin Durant winning Finals MVP — it seems fair to begin questioning where Golden State sits in the conversation about the best teams of all-time. But the more compelling thing to analyze now might be whether the Warriors are better positioned to win at this level for a longer amount of time than the other modern-day dynasties the league has produced.
And in looking at the vast array of things that make Golden State so dominant — from the club’s versatility and balance on both sides of the ball, its unselfishness on and off the court and its largely magic touch from a managerial standpoint — that feels like a real possibility.
“Sometimes you come across those dynasties where you’re just outmatched, and it’s just their time,” Cavaliers guard George Hill said after his team had been swept on its home court.
Stylistically, it is so difficult — arguably impossible — for anyone to truly replicate what the Warriors do. Even before the addition of arguably the league’s best pure scorer in Durant, Golden State possessed a point guard with the sort of 35-foot range that most players would only see in a practice setting. In the same backcourt, the Warriors had another guard who was arguably an even more accurate shooter, with a release that is the quickest in basketball — so fast that he doesn’t even need to have his feet set before he shoots.
Put another way, this is the best shooting team the sport has ever seen. Golden State breaks defenses regardless of how well positioned or prepared they are. The Warriors were the best jump-shooting club in the NBA when left wide open this past season. And a closer look at the numbers shows the Dubs were also the best jump-shooting team in situations where a defender was draped all over them. Because of that, there really is no surefire way to guard this team.
More often than not the Cavaliers, like the Rockets in the round before them, sought to use switches on defense to blanket Golden State’s offense. But in Game 2 of the Finals, the Warriors countered that predictable gameplan (and then changed things up in Game 3 in anticipation of a counterpunch), by using dump-off passes to spring give-and-go opportunities, or to set up lobs for JaVale McGee and Jordan Bell, who were often left all alone in the paint.
The latter highlighted how the Warriors, in Bill Belichick fashion, have quietly been a chameleon of sorts by relying far more heavily on their bigs than most observers realize — even as they continue to be viewed as a club that relies solely on its dynamite 3-point shooting.
Because of that constant evolution and comfort playing with different styles, the challenge of dethroning the champs could become even more difficult for challengers like the Rockets, who are so heavily vested in a singular type of play that it’s too difficult to adjust to something different if that style stops working in the middle of a postseason series.
While the young average age of Warriors’ core would seem to be a plus in their quest to become the best team of all-time, they’re actually not all that unusual when it comes to how young they are when compared to modern NBA clubs that have won three titles in four years.
|Team||Year of Third Title Win||Top Four Players By Win Share||AVG. Age|
|Warriors||2018||Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson||28|
|Lakers||2002||Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Robert Horry, Derek Fisher||29|
|Bulls||1998||Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman, Ron Harper, Toni Kukoc||33|
|Bulls||1993||Michael Jordan, Horace Grant, Scottie Pippen, B.J. Armstrong||27|
|Lakers||1988||Magic Johnson, Byron Scott, James Worthy, A.C. Green||26|
If there’s something that makes this team different — and gives it better odds of winning for a greater amount of time — it’s that this group of highly talented players doesn’t seem as likely to be torn apart by the retirements, contract issues and jealousies that trouble other clubs in this spot.
The Lakers of the late 1980s began running out of steam when then-coach Pat Riley resigned, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar retired and then halted entirely when Magic Johnson abruptly left the game following his shocking HIV diagnosis. No one knows how many consecutive titles the Bulls might have won had it not been for Michael Jordan’s retirements from the Bulls. And the infamous infighting between Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant shortened what likely could have been a longer run of success with the two Los Angeles superstars in the early 2000s.
By contrast, the Warriors have already become the new-age San Antonio Spurs, as a number of their players have acted in the best interest of the team by taking much smaller deals than they could have. That attitude, illustrated by Durant, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala1 and Shaun Livingston, makes some of the long-term salary math more feasible in a league where these sorts of things can create strain on a star-laden club. (With Curry having just signed a five-year deal last July, and Durant saying he’ll stay with Golden State this summer, the next key player to look at is Thompson, who is slated to be a 2019 free agent. But even that may not be a concern, as he’s reportedly spoken with the Warriors about the possibility of taking a deeply discounted extension that would see him leave up to $50 million on the table.)
The players’ willingness to often take less than market value, even for bit pieces like Zaza Pachulia, has allowed the Warriors to improve the roster on the margins each year — sprinkling in specific attributes that the team lacks. With McGee in particular, Golden State took a minimal risk by signing (then cheaply re-signing) a player who had a less-than-stellar reputation around the league, but was incredibly long and athletic — two things the Warriors lacked in a traditional center. Fast forward to this year’s Finals, and the one-time castaway was pestering LeBron James, the best player in the world, anytime he sought to get to the basket.
James, whose own upcoming free agency could play a role in nixing the Warriors’ dominance the next few years, pointed out another advantage Golden State possesses: Brainpower. “Everyone’s trying to figure it out: How do you put together a group of talent, but also a group of minds, to compete with Golden State and compete for a championship?” James asked.
Ascending teams may not like the idea of waiting out Golden State’s reign. Aside from how young the team’s core is, the players who compose it don’t depend much on raw athleticism. It’s likely they will age gracefully, given how well they shoot from outside and play off the ball.
Injuries are a different story, and they can always come into play; particularly with Curry, whose presence has always been a deciding factor with this club. But short of that, the team is full of two-way talent and should be fine on D as long as it’s anchored by Draymond Green and long, versatile wings that make it possible to switch the way the Warriors do. (Still, Golden State would be wise to try to start the process of locating a younger, less polished version of Iguodala, given how different the Warriors looked at times without the 34-year-old this postseason.) The club has ranked in the top 10 defensively each of the past four seasons it reached the Finals.
Coach Steve Kerr has made no secret of the other factor that could eventually catch up with his team, which at times struggles with complacency. Specifically, he’s talked about the weight of expectations, and the toll that comes with taking every opposing team’s best shot for years on end. And this season, Kerr said, was the toughest playoff run he’s overseen with Golden State.
“I remember sitting in this room three years ago, and it seemed like a dream. This feels more like reality,” Kerr said Friday, perhaps a realization of the fact that titles are now expected as opposed to being hoped for. “And I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant. It’s just that the talent we have, and that’s the experience we’ve gained.”
There are any number of things that could turn out to be the Warriors’ downfall. But Golden State also has a handful of factors to hang its dynastic hat on for the time being.
— Neil Paine contributed research.