I'm not gonna lie: the NBA playoffs have bored me to tears, and the Finals are only making it worse. Two teams that lost one combined game between them just getting to this point have still been a terrible matchup so far. Two blowouts by Golden State have left Cleveland searching for answers they may never find, simply because Golden State is breaking the way games are defended. What does that mean for teams like the Nuggets, who in the next several years would have to find a way to get past Golden State in order to dream of a championship?
First, let's talk about what the Warriors are actually doing out there in a macro sense: maxing out efficiency with the best collection of players on the planet. Every championship team has great players - in a best-of-seven series it's very hard to win four games with inferior talent, so the levels have to at least be close. But stylistically the game has changed in the last 5 years. Isolation ball is simply not as effective and statisticians finally convinced coaches and GMs of that fact. Even the greatest teams in the past did not play this kind of selfless, give-up-a-good-shot-for-a-great-one ball, no matter what the old timers tell you.
I watched those Michael Jordan championships, and at the time it felt like a struggle of will. Defense was played far differently in the 90s, and the game was not spread out to the 3-point line nearly as much, which created plenty of opportunities for stubborn objects to be overcome by irresistable force. Some of the pleasure came in watching the resistance, though. The Eastern Conference brass knuckle fights on the way to the title were impressive. At its heart, the game was played to create one-one-one opportunities for showmanship and individual success. A pass out of the double-team to the open man was the counter-punch, not the goal.
Today's game is more open - looking for weaknesses rather than meeting strength with strength or creating opportunities for one man to defeat another on a ten-man court. No one and nothing can stop LeBron’s individual might, as his 8 consecutive Finals appearances and his latest stroll through the East have proven. The Warriors are the greatest 3-year team in the history of the league, and just getting better by adding the second-best player in the NBA to their near-miss championship squad. But there is no strength-on-strength matchup to be found in these playoffs.
No one defends LeBron, because it cannot be done in that manner with these rules. Curry is draining threes with air in his face and Durant is charging through apparitions on his way to the bucket. The singular, defining characteristic of the new NBA is that the best way to win is to make games more like shootaround. The path of least resistance is the best one, and with court spacing, phenomenal shooting, a lack of hand-checking and modified three-second defense it's incredibly hard to circumvent the perfected model of the style. And while LeBron devoured the East like it was an afternoon snack and is still personally feasting in the Finals, he cannot overtake what the Warriors have built this season.
Other teams are still trying different approaches. As teams spread out to cover the perimeter there is more space for open mid-range artists to operate, for instance, and the free-throw line provides a good living for teams willing to flop their way to the charity stripe. But most of these approaches are used because teams have neither the shooting nor the ridiculous talent that the Warriors deploy.
The game the Warriors play is pretty, but it's not competitive. It's live drills against game opponents, the kind of competition that the Olympics offer to Team USA. The Warriors are demonstrating the futility of defending an All Star team that can do everything on the floor and can get the most efficient shots - while also making the inefficient ones when the are forced into those. The Warriors play great defense as well, partly because they are not playing themselves, but they don't have to in order to win. That's concerning in itself.
What if another team does rise to the level of Golden State? Is that then competition, or is it an All Star Game, where no one defends because no one really can, and 43 minutes of game are played at a jog-and-shoot rhythm before a team prays for a couple of stops in the last few minutes of a game to come out on top? Is offensive synchronicity the future of the league, or its bane? The Warriors are showing me that combining the greatest three-point shooter of all time with the second-greatest player of his generation, a volatile heat-check shooter, a center who breaks the mold and destroys spacing on both ends of the court and some defenders who can mesh to stop more conventional lineups seems to invalidate the current competitive rules of basketball.
Since I don't believe another team will rise to Golden State's level of their own game while that team is in its prime, the first question for teams chasing the Warriors has to be: when should we plan to throw ourselves against that team in earnest? I'd be aiming three or four years out, personally, which puts really young teams with a star (like the Nuggets) in good shape. Teams that are close (Cleveland, San Antonio) can't really stall, especially since they have some older key players. Their hope is that the Warriors come up lame - the hope of Sham against Secretariat. If Steph Curry rolls an ankle or Kevin Durant pulls a Gallo then maybe that team's ceiling lowers enough to let a really great team steal a series from them.
The rest of the teams in the NBA still can't take that approach, because the Warriors without Steph still maul 90% of the league. This was one of the more entertaining regular seasons the NBA has produced in recent years, but the playoffs have been an absolute chore. Teams that might have been contenders in other years had no shot. Most teams would be better off focusing on the regular season for a bit. Ironically this is the sort of thing that George Karl was built for: creating fun (and winning) regular season teams that cannot actually threaten the best teams in the NBA.
But more NBA teams may follow that paradigm for a few seasons. They can win over some fans in their home states, get playoff games, advance steadily and bide time until the Warriors (and LeBron) hit the downslope. From the looks of it, that may be a long wait - but if the playoffs are going to be a snooze-fest then at least keep the regular season entertaining. When nobody wants what's on the menu for dessert, then that main course had better be appealing.
Denver fans are lucky: their team is shaping up to be a fun one to watch while the roster matures, with offensive output to rival the Warriors (in the regular season). For 80+ games a year it should be something to enjoy. If you really like dessert, though, then I’m sorry: it looks like it’s Warriors a la mode for a while.