CLEVELAND -- Before the Hamptons, before light-years ahead, and before Jurassic basketball thinkers had to concede that a small team could actually win an NBA championship with jump-shooting, finesse and defense, nobody spoke of the Golden State Warriors as a squad with multiple Hall of Famers, let alone one.
The Warriors are celebrating their third title on Friday night after beating the Cavaliers 108-85, with a signature third-quarter run that buried their beleaguered opponent. For the Warriors dynasty -- and it's now a dynasty -- the sweep is yet another achievement. But it's easy to forget that, four years ago, they were a team that couldn't survive a first-round series against the LA Clippers.
Stephen Curry was an impish one-time All-Star, a novelty shooter who could delight with a 54-point outburst at the Garden, but nobody you'd ride deep into the playoffs -- certainly not on those ankles. Klay Thompson was potential trade bait for Kevin Love, which was just as well because who wants to pay a shooting guard with an indifference to defense and a limited game off the dribble a max contract?
In the summer of 2014, the Warriors' basketball operations brain trust sat in general manager Bob Myers' office to sketch out what the team's rotation might look like in the upcoming season. Alongside each player on the whiteboard written in dry-erase ink was a designated number of minutes. Next to Draymond Green's name was scrawled: "12."
Time moves quickly in the NBA, and even before the arrival of Kevin Durant, the Warriors transformed themselves from a collection of imperfect pieces into basketball's Bolshoi Ballet, a nightly exhibition of oohs and ahhs that won a championship in 2015, then followed it up with a 73-9 season. For the better part of the past two weeks, LeBron James has highlighted these accomplishments repeatedly for everyone within earshot, then reminded them that the Warriors -- a team he says has "four Hall of Famers" and is basketball's equivalent of the New England Patriots -- added an all-time great in Durant.
LeBron's suggestions are clear: The Warriors are simply better than everyone else -- maybe the best in history -- and the game's most transcendent player saw this disparity manifest itself again in the Game 4 clincher. The Warriors dictated the terms of each possession, a privilege James normally claims for himself. When Curry wasn't draining trick shots from distance, Andre Iguodala was making the Cavaliers pay for their negligence. When Green wasn't making the extra pass, the Warriors were tightening the vise defensively in the third quarter.
The cruel irony for James is that his bold stroke of self-determination in 2010 is largely responsible for the second-wave Warriors, who have decimated his Cavaliers to the tune of 8-1 in the Finals since Cleveland's improbable comeback in the 2016 Finals. The acquisition of Durant two summers ago was met with some of the same indignation that howled at the formation of the Big Three in Miami during the summer of 2010, but to a great extent, James provided historical cover. Unfair of the Warriors and Durant? Possibly. Unprecedented? Certainly not.
Historically elite teams can take one of two routes to greatness. The first is by way of a graceful, well-engineered system that maximizes the strengths and attenuates the weaknesses of every player. The San Antonio Spurs embodied this blueprint in 2013 and 2014, and the Warriors' design in 2015 and 2016 was a thing of beauty. They drew from the Spurs, from Mike D'Antoni, from the Chicago Bulls teams Steve Kerr played on in the 1990s, and even from Jerry Sloan's post splits. Ball movement, player movement, swinging the ball from strong to weak and then back again. For Golden State, it wasn't just a recipe for winning, it was a measure of great pride, an offense in which everyone participated and prospered.
The second strategy is to ride the brute force of singular talents, the guys who can get a shot whenever and however they damn please. Call it iso ball if you'd like, but it's the science of shot creation at the highest level, sometimes converting difficult shots and sometimes creating easy ones. This is the "system" in which Durant grew up, and how he won his MVP award in 2014. It's a system that, to a great extent, offends the Warriors' sensibilities, as it did when they watched film of James Harden from Game 1 against Houston, grateful that they aspire to a more team-oriented brand of ball.
Though the Warriors performed their share of ballet this season and playoffs -- Game 2 of the Finals was a recital for the ages -- this is often how the Warriors, particularly in Curry's absence, operate today. Durant has made the Warriors indomitable at times, as displayed to a dazzling degree in Game 3, but the marriage hasn't come without cost.
Aesthetically, the Warriors have lost a little something. Their purity was compromised, and there were occasional moments when the common trust that made the Warriors who they are faltered, particularly this season. The Warriors, who have been fueled by joy, looked a little less joyful in 2017-18. A team we were told was unbeatable won only 58 games, finishing well behind the Houston Rockets, who were less than 24 minutes from assuming Golden State's place in the Finals. "Flipping the switch" is something that system-free teams employ with the assumption that, come late spring, good shots can be manufactured by individual will.
Yet the Warriors have come to appreciate that systems can fail at inopportune moments, a reality that revealed itself in the historic closing minutes of Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals. They had a problem, and Durant has now solved it.
Though he will occasionally need reminders to trust his teammates, and Curry will need to retreat to the corner to allow Durant to pound the ball into the hardwood, and Kerr will have to plead from the sideline and Green from the high post for the ball to move, Durant has provided the Warriors with a fail-safe the NBA has never previously seen. And as a perimeter player with big-man length, he has seamlessly fit into the Warriors' defensive scheme -- one that reclaimed its mantle as the league's best when the stakes demanded it.
With Durant as a supplement to the most devastating offensive machine in the NBA, the Warriors have now perfectly fused these two schools, creating a rich confluence of system and talent. They can win big or small, fast or slow, with motion or in isolation, with the shot or with the pass, with the perimeter switch or with interior defense.
That was the plan in 2016, the result in 2017, and now the confirmation in 2018:
The Warriors simply have all the answers.
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