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BACK FROM THE DARK, WARRIORS CHOSE DYNASTY OVER DEATH KNELL
Four wins from a special place in NBA history, Golden State is teaching a vital sports lesson: Don’t pout or tank after undue adversity, just adapt and try to win a fourth championship in eight years
This must be the work of technological disruption, right? How else do we explain the revival of the Golden State Warriors, darlings of the Bay Area’s innovation tanks, and their return to the NBA Finals? They were supposed to crash like We Work when Kevin Durant fled, when Klay Thompson’s body crumbled, when Steph Curry’s jumpshot betrayed him and when Draymond Green’s big mouth was further enabled by a TNT deal.
By now, assembled superteams should have been settling in for dynastic stays, either LeBron James’ gang in Los Angeles or Durant’s in Brooklyn. Or tankers finally would rise from the dregs and conquer, such as The Process in Philadelphia. But the Dubs? Weren’t they doomed to fade away? Wouldn’t owner Joe Lacob, on the hook for the gleaming arena he built with his own fortune, tear down the roster for another crappy American sports rebuild? Wouldn’t Steve Kerr graduate to politics and save a nation? Wouldn’t Curry heed LeBron’s pleas and join him for more rings? Wouldn’t Draymond drop his pants and moon everyone before retiring to a permanent media career?
No, instead, the Warriors gave us exactly what a great franchise should give us. Rather than surrender and push a reset button, as so many teams do in the name of money and cowardice, they decided to stare down their obstacles and try to win another championship. And they’ve done so not via Silicon Valley b.s. — which Lacob referenced, more or less, in saying his basketball creation is “light years ahead” of the competition — but with the traditional basics of sports success: perseverance, Hall of Fame talent, front-office acumen, coaching mastery, selflessness, experience, cohesion and a beautiful system that thrives even with fresh parts. Three years have passed since Durant and Thompson broke down during the 2019 Finals. The Raptors, Lakers and Bucks have won titles since. An international wave has taken over the sport: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid. Dreads flying, Ja Morant is the new sensation. Someone named Darvin Ham will attempt to resuscitate Old Man LeBron and the now-dysfunctional Lake Show.
Yet here are the Warriors, who descended to an unimaginable 15-50 season as the pandemic was arriving, back in the Finals for the sixth time in eight years and aiming for their fourth Larry O’Brien Trophy. The core isn’t operating with the same superpowers of years past, but Curry is still capable of point flurries and shimmies as the elder statesman and engine, Thompson is healthy again and playing with a vengeance, and Green is still the lightning rod who controls the scrum while saying and doing things that backfire on him — of course, after he predicted the Celtics would win the Eastern Conference crown, they lost to Miami in Game 6, opening the door to Heat motivation throughout the Finals. Of utmost importance, they’ve melded splendidly with newcomers Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole, who were brought in by general manager Bob Myers and developed by Kerr, a duo unparalleled as the gold standard of 21st-century sports management.
Rare is the group that climbs a mountain, falls on its ass due to unfair circumstances, then scales the rocks again. In that context, the Warriors are a unique team in history and perfectly reflective of these complicated times. To survive now, we all must adapt, improvise and overcome. Unlike the other three NBA franchises to reach the Finals as often as they have in an eight-year span — the Jordan Bulls, Showtime Lakers and Bill Russell Celtics — they’ve fallen into an abyss. Their rise from the dead doesn’t put the Warriors on the same dominance plateau as their forerunners; they did blow a 3-1 lead to Cleveland in the 2016 Finals, thanks to Green’s groin grab of James and ill-fated suspension. But an unusually arduous path makes the entire journey more rewarding in a sense.
“We’re reflecting and celebrating this moment for sure, because you can’t take it for granted, nothing’s ever guaranteed, and we understand how hard it is to win. We’ve said it until we’re blue in the face the last two years,’’ Curry said after the Warriors bounced Doncic and the Mavericks in the Western Conference finals. “The fact me, Klay, Draymond, from 2015 to now, six of eight years having a chance to compete for a championship … the feeling leaving the 2019 Finals and realizing, like, we had been on an amazing journey, then got hit with a lot of adversity, some speed bumps. But we never lost the faith we could get back here. I think internally we are all extremely proud. It’s definitely sweet based on what we went through.”
“Pretty amazing. Six times in eight years — I don’t even know what to say. It’s incredibly meaningful given everything we’ve been though as an organization the last couple of years,” said Kerr, who also was part of the Bulls and Spurs dynasties and is blessed with Finals DNA like few others. “It just takes an enormous amount of skill and determination and work. Really proud of the guys for being resolute in terms of getting their work in every day on the court, in the training room, knowing that it was the only path back here, and not knowing if we could do it. It's just an incredible sense of accomplishment for our group.”
Another title would validate their run as a true dynasty, which remains in doubt until they beat Miami or Boston, and complete their bridge walk back from hell. The Warriors know they can’t lose to either of two battered, exhausted opponents and be considered an all-time team. You can’t lose three of six Finals and reach the pantheon. As Thompson said, “I think we still have to prove that we want to go down as some of the greats. And the greats have won in multiple (periods), and we have yet to win in the 2020s. So it’s right there for us.”
They are four victories from a special distinction. It would come with hiccups, not unlike those of the Bulls, who sandwiched two three-peats around Michael Jordan’s desire to play baseball and two missed chances. If Durant and Thompson hadn’t been injured, the Warriors would have won in 2019 — their third straight title and fourth in five years. Had Durant stayed, who knows how many championships they’d have? But he left, and the injuries were killers. This predicament was the truest test of Myers and Kerr, who needed new and cost-effective pieces to complement Curry and Green and, eventually, Thompson. The trade for Wiggins was shrewd, as exhibited in the Dallas series when he helped subdue Doncic with his defense and demoralized the Mavs with a memorable dunk. And Poole? Unearthed with the 28th pick in the 2019 draft, he has shown dynamic flashes of becoming a third Splash Brother. Jonathan Kuminga, drafted No. 7 last year, is providing meaningful minutes while everyone waits for big man James Wiseman, drafted No. 2 in 2020, to regain his health.
No one sulked. No one quit. The belief remained that the Warriors still were the Warriors with measures of good luck. “I’ve always said all along, no one has proven they can beat us yet when we're whole. That's still the case,” Green said. “Never doubt what we're capable of. All year, you could kind of see like, man, this team is capable of putting a great run together. Like I've said over and over, I’m going to keep saying it: No one has proven that they can move us off that spot. That's the mindset we come into this thing with. We understand what it takes to win a championship. We understand the process.”
With a 9-0 postseason record at Chase Center, which never will rock like displaced Oracle Arena but is starting to vibrate a bit, the Warriors have every reason to make quick work of their Finals opponent. Given a week to rest before Game 1 in San Francisco, they should beat either team in five, even if Jimmy Butler and the Heat polish off the Celtics and continue to tell us how Green motivates them.
“Tell Draymond I said, ‘Thank you,’ ” Heat veteran P.J. Tucker said after Butler’s 47-point masterpiece in Game 6. “It's funny. We laughed. I thought it was funny because he knows better than anybody we still got to play the game. Got to play. There's no guarantees of anybody winning in this league on a night-in and night-out basis. ... It's kind of weird to be a player and pick another team. I don't know.”
“Draymond broke the code,” Miami’s Udonis Haslem, in his 19th and final NBA season, told Yahoo Sports after the Heat’s 111-103 victory. “You ain’t supposed to say some s— like that. That’s disrespectful. He know better than that.”
Actually, Green doesn’t know better. But his bluster and penchant for self-sabotage won’t matter beginning Thursday. Curry won’t say it, but he sees the chance to elevate his legacy into the sport’s upper reaches, with his fourth championship — same franchise, no hopscotching — equaling James’ quartet of rings with three teams. Thompson’s comeback from two devastating injuries, added to four rings, puts him in the Hall of Fame after his disappointment when left off the NBA’s all-time top 75 list. Green needs more diamond-studded ammo for his studio spats with Charles Barkley, who has zero rings. Kerr, who has three rings as a coach and five as a player, is looking at a ninth — four behind one of his mentors, Phil Jackson.
And wherever Lacob does his bragging — at NBA owners’ meetings, in private clubs — he can repeat with authority what he told the New York Times in 2016. “We’ve crushed them on the basketball court, and we’re going to for years because of the way we’ve built this team,” he said. “We’re light-years ahead of probably every other team in structure, in planning, in how we’re going to go about things.”
Is he wrong?
When Tom Brady divorced Bill Belichick in New England, it left the NFL without a current dynasty. No team has won back-to-back World Series since the Yankees won their third straight in 2000. The new recruiting landscape of college football — the era of legally buying players, behind the guise of compensation for names, images and likenesses — might end Nick Saban’s compilation of national titles at Alabama. Maybe the NHL Lightning will win a third straight Stanley Cup and continue Tampa Bay’s recent run of sports glory, but I’m sensing it’s Connor McDavid’s time in Edmonton.
Dynasties shouldn’t happen in this day and age. Sports is too volatile, too bloated by billions, too contaminated by megalomaniacs. For a man of slight build and an organization previously nondescript, Steph Curry and the Warriors have extended their force field to a second decade. It explains why they generate large TV ratings. It explains why Curry remains the sport’s most popular player, Thompson its most admired and Green its most polarizing. In explains why a divided America listens as one when Kerr rails about gun control.
In a league of exasperating restlessness and mobility, when everyone wants to be somewhere else, this team has written the book about staying power. If the Warriors win a fourth title, the questions will begin about a fifth. Rather than doubting them, how about appreciating them?
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.