clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Warriors were never revolutionizing basketball

New, comments

Golden State’s legacy is profound even after losing the 2016 Finals, but talk of them changing the entire fabric of the game was always overstated

The Warriors' core reveals something about the future of the NBA, but not what you'd think. Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

A month ago, it all seemed so clear. Big men were expendable. The next generation of NBA players would be weaned on half-court threes and cross-court passes. Fixed positions were a thing of the past. Defensive schemes would all but eliminate one-on-one matchups. And iso-driven hero ball would no longer torment the very soul of the sport.

After the Warriors pissed away a 3-1 lead in the Finals, though, the future of basketball doesn’t seem nearly as certain. It wasn’t just Golden State’s assault on the record books that made its 2015-16 so exhilarating. There was the sense -- at times an outright declaration by some -- that we were watching the game evolve before our very eyes. The Warriors were so devastatingly successful that they would serve as a template for the rest of the league going forward.

In and of itself, the notion of one single team (or player) dictating the direction of the sport is remarkable. While basketball is a game of eras and epochs, you’d be hard-pressed to identify the kind of key turning point that the Warriors were supposed to represent. There have certainly been players who single-handedly altered the way the sport was played: Michael Jordan, Julius Erving, Kevin Garnett and George Mikan immediately spring to mind. But many of the NBA’s greatest players have been so singular that it’s hard to quantify their influence, or chart how their teams left a lasting imprint on the game.

That’s part of why the idea of teams copying the Warriors -- and institutions scrambling to keep up with the revolution in progress -- was always, to some degree, laughable. The Warriors may have had a readily apparent system, but it was one driven by truly remarkable individuals. In the grand scheme of the league, Stephen Curry has taken a backseat to GOAT-candidate LeBron James, but he’s still a deadly, transformative weapon who might be the greatest shooter who ever lived. The postseason has opened up a lot of questions about Draymond Green’s attitude and maturity level; that doesn’t do anything to diminish his multifarious talent. And when Klay Thompson gets going, he’s nearly Curry’s equal as a long-range threat.

That’s a long way of saying that to play like the Warriors, a team would somehow need to approximate all these pieces, which seems all but impossible. The SSOL Phoenix Suns, who in many ways predicted this Golden State team, would never have existed without Steve Nash’s telepathic playmaking and Amar’e Stoudemire’s pyrotechnic game around the basket. No less key was Shawn Marion, who covered everyone’s ass on defense, knocked down visually abhorrent corner threes and proved invaluable as a rebounder and finisher.

Small ball as practiced by the Suns or any number of Don Nelson’s teams down through the years, has always been more a philosophy than a fully-formed idea. If anything, this year’s Warriors -- who were seen as a triumph of team-oriented basketball -- were simply the latest manifestation of an approach predicated on irreplicable players and unpredictable synergy.

The Warriors weren’t a clear-cut formula; no squad is going to contend for a championship by simply jacking up 30-footers and making the extra pass when necessary. They were what happened when an outrageously good roster fell into the hands of a coach smart enough to let individuals’ games shape the overall approach.

This wasn’t a triumph of ego-less, team-first basketball. If that’s your bag, take a look at the mega-accomplished San Antonio Spurs and how abruptly their postseason ended. Rather, the Warriors’ success was predicated on the importance of letting players be themselves, gelling together naturally, and then based on these observations, tailor a system to their strengths. When the team stumbled in the playoffs, it wasn’t some sort of reflection on the Warriors’ system. With a diminished version of Curry and Green making a mockery of everything he’d accomplished during the regular season, there was no Warriors system.

The Warriors have served up a vision for the sport, albeit one more nebulous than previously thought. It’s not about finding or manufacturing a Curry clone, but for being able to pull talent like Curry, Thompson and Green (all drafted, all steals) and then intuitively piece them together. Instead of prescribing a course of action, the Warriors should put more pressure than ever on coaches and front offices to be astute and creative in the way they do their jobs. Imposing a top-down system on a roster demonstrates a lack of imagination and will invariably fail to get the most out of players, no matter how good they are. It’s worth noting that when the Thunder outplayed the Warriors, it had as much to do with Billy Donovan’s retooling of their strategy as it did the one-two punch of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

The Warriors didn’t teach the league anything useful about what to do or how to do it, or even who should do it. Rather, they were an example of how an organization, from top-to-bottom, can view the construction of a team. Their failure to win a title in no way invalidates what that team stands for, provided we correctly identify that for what it is they stood for.

Regardless of whether their exact tactics or overall strategy succeeded against Cleveland, it’s hard to say that a 73-9 team is an exercise in futility. If they had won that impossibly close Game 7, the Warriors would now be taken literally like never before. And if that were happening, the future of basketball would be thoroughly misguided.

* * *

The Warriors angered the basketball gods