The Golden State Warriors have a lot of critics, and have since winning their first championship in decades back in 2015. The Warriors, led by Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, were said to be breaking basketball by emphasizing the three-pointer so much. Along with a couple other franchises that went all in on shooting, the Warriors were killing some of the more old-school institutions of the game, like the post-up, the mid-range jumper, and one-on-one battles.
When the Warriors beat the injury-riddled Cleveland Cavaliers to win the title in 2015, they got cocky. They had reason to be cocky, but wide swaths of America like their champions to be humble and gracious. With a mouth like Draymond Green leading the way, there was no room for humility or grace on the Warriors’ apple cart.
Breaking off a record-setting unbeaten streak to open the following season and winning a record 73 games didn’t change matters. The Warriors swaggered back into the NBA Finals, barking at the greatest player in the world and stacking up a reputation as a villain along the way. The Basketball Gods smited them with a Game 7 loss and a summer (and fall, and winter) of 3-1 jokes.
So they signed the second greatest player in the world, Kevin Durant.
Durant was to that point widely beloved by NBA fans for his smooth style and anti-acerbic nature -- Nike once had a marketing campaign trying to convince people Durant wasn’t nice.
He became a villain the second he signed with a 73-win team. Just about everyone outside of the Warriors fandom sided with Russell Westbrook, who played the part of jilted partner quite well, and will likely receive an NBA MVP Award later this month as a consolation. (Westbrook deserves the award on the merits, but there is little question that the Durant saga gave Russ the narrative push all MVPs require to some degree.)
As it became clear that the Warriors had assembled one of the greatest teams ever late in the regular season and through the playoffs, the anti-Durant catcalls have become louder. We have discussed the problems with making Durant a villain due to not achieving success the way others want. Nothing but time will abate the tidal wave of anti-Durant fervor, though, just as only time and appreciation quelled the anti-LeBron movement in 2010 and beyond.
That said, even those sore at Durant for taking “the easy path” and putting a dagger in competitive balance in the NBA cannot deny that the Warriors are historically great.
An undefeated postseason is unprecedented in the NBA. No team has ever done it -- not even back in the days when only eight teams made the playoffs. That the Warriors came one win away from doing it while playing four best-of-7 series is just incredible.
The Warriors had the best three-year regular season run in NBA history, and nearly capped it with a Fo’ Fo’ Fo’ Fo’ undefeated postseason. For whatever critiques of how overpowered Golden State became upon adding Durant, for whatever claim that he took the easy path, the Warriors still overachieved.
The claims that the Warriors needed Durant to overcome LeBron James and the Cavaliers aren’t quite right. Golden State beat LeBron in 2015, and came darn close in 2016. They didn’t need Durant to merely beat LeBron. They needed Durant to destroy everything in their path. They needed Durant to make beating LeBron look easy.
And he did. And they did.
Comparing teams across eras is even tougher than comparing players, because the context of the league matters so much. In my opinion, these Warriors would trounce any team from the 1970s, ‘80s, or ‘90s. We know how valuable three-pointers are, and the Warriors are better equipped than any team in history to take advantage. The ‘90s Bulls or ‘80s Celtics, Sixers, and Lakers would cause different sorts of problems for the Warriors — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Moses Malone in particular, and Michael Jordan would be as much a nightmare to defend as LeBron has been — but Golden State has what is almost a technological advantage. It’d be Sparta defending against ICBMs.
All we can really do is grade teams’ dominance against contemporary competition. No team — not the ‘60s Celtics, not the ‘90s Bulls — had this perfect a postseason, because no team has ever before had a perfect postseason. Those two teams had longevity and more than a fistful of rings, which the Warriors still need to achieve over time. But in terms of dominating the opponents in front of them, no other team can match what we just witnessed the Warriors do.
Call it unfair. Hate it if you want. But acknowledge the precedent. This team promised to be unbelievable, and by God it delivered.