The Golden State Warriors have changed everything.
The Warriors' 129-120 victory vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday in Game 5 of the NBA Finals finished a 4-1 gentleman's sweep of the defending champions and capped an unparalleled three-season run.
When considering regular-season wins (207), statistical success, and the two titles, we live in a new era. After a fun regular-season filled with a very spectacular MVP race, a competitive Eastern Conference and a host of narratives, we come to this reality. It took the Cavaliers, armed with two All-Star caliber players and LeBron James, arguably one of the two best players in NBA history, to hand the Warriors a lone playoff loss.
You're bringing scoring punch from Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum? No chance.
You're bringing James in what some called the best season of his career? We almost needed the brooms.
The Warriors are easily the most talented team in the NBA, possibly the most talented ever. What's more, there doesn't appear to be an end in sight. The core is in its prime, so this looks like the start of their run. They sacrifice for each other, which sometimes gets lost in evaluations of the Warriors. Not only do they have all this talent, most of which they drafted, but they have developed and empowered that talent into this juggernaut.
People often fail to recognize how well the way the Warriors play. They move without the ball. They share the ball constantly. They all are committed on defense, even their poor defenders. If many elite offensive guards gave as much effort and focus as Stephen Curry, a flawed and limited defender, does, their teams would be leaps and bounds better. They have sacrificed, but that sacrifice comes easy because of that shared commitment to those principles.
"I think the way we play, the way the ball moves gets overlooked," Andre Iguodala said this week. "I think defensively, where we are, year to year, gets overlooked as well. There's not much clashing with player types. Everyone has their role, and they're really good at their role, and it makes for the whole picture, I think that's rare to see.
"Usually you have a few guys who need the ball a lot. For us, we had Klay Thompson score 60 on 11 dribbles. But then we also have a guy who can get 60 but would need dribbles. But they'll never clash. They'll continue to do their job, and be in their comfort zone. It's hard to share the wealth but with the way our team is set up, it's easy to do that."
Given the way Golden State has ransacked the NBA playoffs, there is a valid concern about the league. It looks from here like the Warriors could win the next 3-4 titles. Every day, social media is filled with "How would you build a team to beat the Warriors?" questions and hypotheticals. Most involve starting from scratch to make a superteam, an extremely difficult prospect because of the constraints of the collective bargaining agreement and salary cap. Others ask about adding one player to a contender, like the Cavaliers or Spurs, which also bend the definitions of plausible reality.
There's doesn't seem to be a plausible scenario for catching the Warriors by adding talent.
So then what? Tank the next three years in submission to our new alien Warrior overlords? That's what they want, and some teams will do that. Lakers coach Luke Walton said the Warriors' dominance will effect their pursuit of star players.
No, teams will still compete, and this is the bright side, because it's going to force teams to be better.
Not with talent, but with how they play.
The NBA is a copycat league. And after the Warriors' win in 2015, we saw an influx of smal ball, and the league will continue to drift in that direction. But that's not what this is about. Because the 2016 Wizards went small and it didn't matter. They didn't share the ball or play well, and they missed the playoffs. Plenty of teams this past season went small and it didn't matter. They didn't play well enough.
For years, the league has battled the lack of development of kids coming from the one-and-done college system, not because of their college experience, but because of the bad habits picked up in AAU.
"When we now have 20 members of a 60-person two-round draft coming directly from one year of college, I think then from a training standpoint we really got to rethink this process," NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said before the Finals began. "And as I've said before, I don't think we should just focus on 18 to 19, I think we got to look younger, at the whole AAU system."
The best way to influence basketball at all levels is the influence of elite teams winning titles. There is reason to be concerned about the next generation of guards chucking 30-foot 3-pointers off the dribble to imitate Stephen Curry. That's worth being worried about, because no one has Curry's range outside of 4-5 players on the planet and even for those guys, it's pretty risky.
But a new generation also will watch a Golden State team that isn't fraught with frustration from guys over not getting the ball, whose role players constantly move, whose best on-ball player, Curry, is constantly setting off-ball screens. Whose big men create rebounds so teammates get open 3-pointers. And a team where every single player defends at a high level within their role. The real gap -- beyond talent -- between the Cavaliers and Warriors is the Warriors have an eight-man rotation of guys who play both endsr, and the Cavaliers have guys who can effectively play on one end, outside of James (and, amazingly in this series, Kevin Love).
It's not just the next generation that's going to learn that, though. How many teams have we seen over the decade with incredible talent, who just didn't play with the elements Golden State does? The Wizards with Beal and Wall, drowning in mid-range, slow-it-down sludge under their previous coach. The Oklahoma City Thunder, playing your-turn-my-turn with a predictable crunch time offense. That Thunder team was awesome, but it could be more. The Clippers, who play without joy, that one facet which you cannot substitute for and one that opens all the doors for Golden State.
The league is in a new era, and it's one reason why so many old school coaches are having a hard time adapting. But some coaches are going to get it. They're going to see what playing like Golden State can do, and they're going to instill those ideals. Teams like Oklahoma City and Houston have invested the kind of money into their infrastructure, training and analytics departments that Golden State has ... but a lot of teams haven't. They'll recognize the need to get on that level.
Players who have seen that they could be stars, and even have a chance at winning titles playing a me-first, ball-dominant style are going to rethink that. Do you want Carmelo Anthony's career ... or Klay Thompson's? If you want to achieve great things, you have to sacrifice.
For two years, everyone tried to replicate Golden State's talent. You're not going to find another shooter off the dribble like Curry; there never has been one. You're not going to find another small-ball stretch-four who can play five like Draymond Green with his defense and passing; there never has been one. You are never finding another Kevin Durant; there never has been one.
But a team that moves, with star guard play, with willing defenders who know their role and contribute? That you can replicate, and that gets you closer, which is the point.
Imagine an NBA where most stars felt like they had to make the most of what they have, and the most of what their teammates have, just to not get embarrassed? Because that's where we are. Forget beating the Warriors. If you want to get a game vs. Golden State, you have to play better than you ever have as a team.
There's a way to challenge Golden State. It's possible. That road is most often seen through the lens of talent, but it may actually be through team play. It's going to take a village to beat the Warriors. The Warriors have won their second title. They've also raised the bar on what it's going to take to win in the NBA. That's going to make teams better, which makes the games better, which makes the league better, which makes the sport more enjoyable for fans. It's hard to see through the dense haze of a post-Warriors competitive apocalypse, but there are flowers growing through the ashy ruins of what the Warriors have left in their wake.
It just might take a while to see them under the shadow of Golden State.