Dynasty difficulties and the precarious nature of greatness

The Golden State Warriors are on the doorstep of a dynasty. Some would argue they’re already inside — taking two titles in three seasons with 73 wins in the off year — but I need a back-to-back on the record before I’m ready to hand over that highly subjective and arbitrary title. (You are correct. The Giants were never a dynasty. Don’t @ me.)

The Great Dynasty Debate is not especially relevant, because, like so much in sports, we all have our own definitions. I can tell you that when a columnist falls down an internet rabbit hole in pursuit of answers to dynastic questions (I’ll spare you the wikipedia quotes) what does start to pile up is the detritus of dynasties-that-never-were.

At the risk of adding insult to injury for Sharks fans, take San Jose’s franchise as an example. I’m a noted fair-weather hockey fan, but here are some things I do know: San Jose won the Pacific Division four straight seasons and six of nine. They’ve had probable hall-of-famers on the roster, as well as goalies with Stanley Cup hardware from other stops.

What separates the now infamously playoff-handicapped Sharks from a dynasty? Probably just a few minutes of bad hockey here, an injury there, a bad bounce of the puck for the cherry on top.

Sure, Doug Wilson could have made better decisions, or Patrick Marleau could have showed up to some of those critical playoff games, but the line between luck and genius is razor-thin. In a confounding twist, the Sharks’ most successful postseason came after a year where both the overall talent level and win total were down, by San Jose standards.

The Warriors spent most of their history sucking muck at the bottom of the NBA ocean. Then, the miracle of Steph Curry falling to them in the draft was followed by the savvy scouting decisions to take the almost equally under-drafted Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Golden State soon bucked conventional wisdom by making the finals three years in a row, and winning two titles instead of taking their playoff lumps, first.

Look a little deeper into that run, though, and you see a franchise undertaking a Philippe Petit-esque walk — tightroping from title to title, always aware of the danger of every breath of wind.

We all felt it when Steph Curry went down with a knee injury in early April; we talked about it all year as we watched the Dubs seemingly sit down and scoot along that rope on their butts. Now that they’re standing again, balance-bar in hand, many of us have regained a reckless feeling of invulnerability, but a stiff breeze could still have disastrous consequences — it always can.

After that first title came — won ahead of schedule, according to some — it only took until the midst of the very next season — as they pounded their way to a record-setting 73 wins — that people began to view Golden State as potentially dynastic. Then, the Warriors were shoved off of that throne by a certain King from Cleveland.

Now, with four perennial All-Stars in tow, it’s easy to picture a reign stretching over the remainder of the decade. It’s just as easy to forget how remarkable and unlikely the assembly of this group was in the first place.

To get Kevin Durant — a lynchpin to the absurd level of expectation the Warriors currently play with — the Warriors had to lose to Cleveland in the Finals. That only happened because Draymond Green earned himself a suspension, which infuriated fans at the time but in retrospect may very well have been worth it.

Whether or not you think Draymond’s presence in Game 5 would have changed things (it would have) it took legend-making performances by both LeBron James and Kyrie Irving to win that series. One miss from Irving or a defensive lapse by Kevin Love would have changed the outcome.

Even before that, the Warriors had to come back from a 3-1 series deficit against Durant and his frenemy Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder, which they were only able to do thanks to an unbelievable explosion from the aforementioned Klay Thompson.

Even before that, the NBA Players Association had to refuse to accept the league’s offer of “cap smoothing,” which would have avoided the massive salary cap jump that allowed the Warriors to be able to afford Durant in the summer of 2016.

Then there’s all the late-night text messages Draymond probably had to send to KD to convince him to move. Going back even further, if Sam Presti never trades James Harden, perhaps none of this ever happens and we’re talking about a Thunder dynasty.

The other side of the luck that leads teams like the W’s to dynasty is the crushing inevitability of Toronto’s fate. In a city (and country) with a charming love of basketball, the Raptors have done an awful lot of things right. Not unlike the San Jose Sharks, they have been competitive and talented, and they’ve fairly consistently made smart moves that should help them win.
But this version of the Raptors will never be champions. We can nitpick certain moves they’ve made, but there is one main reason: LeBron James is in their way. Ask Charles Barkley and John Stockton what it can be like to have the bad luck of your career coinciding with one of the three greatest players of all time. Ask all the people whose names I’ll never know because Bill Russell ate them for breakfast, lunch, dinner and a late-night snack.
The moment you think you have a complete accounting of potential pitfalls on the road to a championship, a new one pops up — the San Antonio Spurs had the pieces in place to play spoiler just as soon as they got Kawhi Leonard back, because surely he’d eventually return, but no. Apparently, even Greg Popovich & Co. are vulnerable to the capricious whims of the sports gods.

Warriors fans older than 15 and all the baseball fans who’ve witnessed the last few years in the Bay recognize how tough it can be just to be good, and sometimes that’s not even worthwhile — as a Sam Hinkie apologist, I would argue the best way to be great is to be awful first.
If good is tough, and it’s even tougher just to find the road to greatness, imagine how very near to impossible it is to set yourself up for a dynasty. That the Warriors have done it is a testament to the quality of ownership, the tremendous work of the front office, great coaching and greater players. It’s also a result of remarkably good fortune, and it’s precarious. Because, again, it always is.

Some time before Monday, when the Warriors continue their approach onto the USS Dynasty aircraft carrier, take a moment. Remember what it took to get here — the savvy signings and sick moves, the tough breaks and bad beats along the way — and appreciate what you’re getting to enjoy.

While you’re at it, make an offering to your sports gods for continued good luck. We may not know exactly what a dynasty is, but we know how quickly they can disappear.

Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional (or something like that) and lives with an aging Shih Tzu/Schnauser mix in Berkeley. You can hear him on the Bay Area sports radio station 95.7 the Game, usually on weekends. You can listen to his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else fine podcasts are free. You can find him on Twitter @thekolsky to share your personal feelings about this article or any other topic, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.

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