The Golden State Warriors lost their crowns Sunday night in an epic Game 7 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Warriors missed three shots to finish off Cleveland, including two in Oakland. and failed to repeat as champions. Capping off the best regular season ever with a finals win would have been the stuff of legend, but Golden State will instead hold tight to its record and seek revenge in 2016-17.
The good news on a painful day for the Bay Area is that the franchise is poised to remain in the title mix for years to come thanks to a young core, smart cap management and a tactical edge that gives Golden State just enough margin to survive all but the most Herculean tests. This run wasn't easy -- the Warriors had to fend off elimination at the hands of the Thunder three straight times just to get to Cleveland, and in the end failed there. But title defenses are rarely simple things. And as any team that doesn't have LeBron can attest, making it to the finals is no small task.
Here's why the Warriors are well-poised to be back in the finals next year and stay in the conversation for the foreseeable future.
THE WARRIORS ARE RELATIVELY YOUNG
Unlike Western rival Oklahoma City (who is almost exclusively young), the Warriors do play some older guys: Andrew Bogut is 31, Andre Iguodala is 32 and Shaun Livingston is 30. Those are three of the seven most important Warriors.
The good news is that the other four top-tier Warriors -- Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes -- are all 27 or younger. These players are just reaching their age-expected primes. Of course, age isn't everything but it's an important element when trying to sustain a dynasty. The Warriors' most important cogs aren't fighting Father Time, trying to hang on to glories. The key pieces are still getting better.
The Warriors also have some young players who haven't needed to make an impact, including Ian Clark, James Michael McAdoo and 2015 draft pick Kevon Looney. Clark and McAdoo project as role players, but solid ones. Looney could end up an integral piece down the road.
THE WARRIORS' SALARY CAP MANAGEMENT IS IMPECCABLE
How can the Warriors afford so many stars? Because general manager Bob Myers and his team have done an excellent job structuring deals to fit together, anticipating future raises and timing the expiration of deals for maximum flexibility. Golden State does such a great job of this that the Warriors can actually fit Kevin Durant onto the roster this summer, if he wants to join them.
This doesn't preclude hard decisions, however. Barnes will be a restricted free agent in July. The Warriors are in the driver's seat, as they can match any offer sheet Barnes signs with another team. But with the salary cap and Barnes' maximum potential salary rising, keeping him may become an issue, especially as Barnes stands to earn more than Thompson and Green (to say nothing of bargain-bin Curry). Green even took a discount on his deal a year ago. Something tells me he didn't do that to allow the Warriors to give Barnes $20 million a year.
Festus Ezeli can also leave (and probably will, after seeing Steve Kerr's playoff rotations). Curry will become expensive the second he hits free agency. So, it will take some deft maneuvering to stay out the repeater tax and avoid Clevelandian luxury tax bills.
But Myers has shown the ability to keep the cap sheet in perfect order. There are few front offices you would trust more.
THE WARRIORS STILL HAVE A TACTICAL EDGE
Golden State started shooting more threes than anyone else in 2014-15. They won big doing so. Three-pointers had always been undervalued in the NBA, and the Warriors showed the world what happens when you value them properly. Other teams -- including the Cavaliers -- followed suit in 2015-16, opening up the floor and firing away. Yet, the Warriors remained ahead of the pack, not just in attempts, but in efficiency.
How? They have the two best deep shooters of all-time, and unless Buddy Hield is an epic marksman from Day 1 or C.J. McCollum turns into Ray Allen 2.0, no one is challenging them anytime soon. Curry shoots better from 28 feet than most NBA starting guards shoot from 23. Thompson has a perfect, pure stroke, along with such a quick trigger that he is almost unguardable when given just a tiny bit of space.
The three-point shooting dominance isn't the entire Warriors story -- far from it. As Paul Flannery brilliantly observed, the Warriors' positional revolution happens on defense, where Green's strength and Iguodala's versatility allow Golden State to thrive using small lineups. In addition, the Warriors have a high basketball IQ. Almost every rotation player is a good and willing passer. What the team lacks in post presence and dribble-drive ability, it makes up for in tireless motion and sharp playmaking. The Warriors can get good two-pointers without dumping it into the post or running straight downhill picks-and-rolls.
The three-pointer isn't the reason the Warriors are great, but it's an undeniable edge. Many have pointed out that the Warriors win some games despite losing shooting percentage, rebound, turnover and free throw battles because three is greater than two. There's some truth to that: on the regular season as a whole, the Warriors had a higher turnover rate than opponents and lower rebound and free throw rates. They still won 73 games. Why? Golden State was No. 1 in shooting efficiency and No. 2 in shooting defense. That overrides all.
But it isn't just threes. The Warriors were No. 1 in two-point shooting percentage -- the space and the passing open up easier attempts -- and No. 4 in two-point shooting defense. If there were no three-point line, the Warriors would still be dominant. But their incomparable three-point shooting (in frequency and efficiency) puts them over the top.
So long as Curry and Thompson are around and there isn't a bumper crop of equals coming up through the ranks, this tactical edge is here to stay. It may yet fuel the Warriors to even greater heights.
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