OAKLAND — The Golden State Warriors are Tiger Woods. You know, without the sleeping pills and the Perkins waitresses (but complete with the knee injury).
OK, it’s not a perfect parallel, but follow me here: Both were so good for so long (relatively speaking) that they created the conditions for their own demise.
Before Woods drove his SUV into a tree in a fugue, he had at least one PGA tour win in every year going back to 1996, and usually four or five. He was well on pace to match the record for career majors. When he returned, the injuries that had already started to sap him of his power continued to pile up.
As he struggled to find both his health and his old mojo, the generation of golfers who’d grown up watching his prodigious drives, following his fitness routines and learning that golf could not only be an athletic endeavor, but a cool one, began to enter the professional ranks.
All one has to do is take a look to the south, to Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy to see how Woods revolutionized the game to the point where even when he got his body right, he was surpassed by those who grew up in his shadow. And golf is better for it. Basketball will be better — one could argue it already is — because of the Warriors.
Golden State burst onto the scene with a joyful, exuberant, democratic motion offense and a lock-down defense in 2014-15, guided by a first-year head coach, a 3-point savant in Stephen Curry, a surly tweener with an axe to grind in Draymond Green, a robotic-yet-oddly-quotable bending unit by the name of Klay Thompson, an end-of-his-prime defender in Andre Iguodala and a broken toy like Shaun Livingston. They proved that a jump-shooting team could, indeed, win an NBA title.
Over the last five years, the league took notice. Since that first championship, 3-pointers have increased 78%, leaguewide pace has quickened by 8% and non-lottery teams that once couldn’t figure out where a player like Green would fit are now looking for length and versatility in the draft rather than prototypical size.
While some teams, like the Houston Rockets — whose window has gloriously imploded with the deteriorating relationship between James Harden and Chris Paul — were overtly (and obsessively) built to beat Golden State, others emulated them. Vivek Ranadive, a former Warriors minority owner, pattered his Sacramento Kings after them, declaring Buddy Hield the next Steph Curry. The Jazz and the Nuggets have followed suit.
The only thing different about the Raptors was that they did it quietly. They focused as much on development — hello there, Pascal Siakam — as well as immediate returns. Not only did they emulate the Warriors, but they built a team that was arguably the deepest in the league in a year where Golden State’s bench was paper-thin (all apologies to Jonas Jerebko and Alfonzo McKinnie, who proved beyond a doubt that he’s a surefire NBA contributor, and may have other opportunities because of it). Maybe no one noticed because they were in Canada, but Golden State didn’t lose to a team that just got lucky.
Over Golden State’s five straight trips to the Finals, the core has played 106 extra games — that’s another full season, plus a Finals run — and had phenomenal injury luck along the way.
Oh, and they also managed to get one of the most transcendent shooters in the history of the game to sign a less-than-max deal because he had lightbulbs for ankles, and they got a four-time All-Star center to sign for pennies because they were the only team who could afford to let him sit half a year while recovering from an Achilles tear.
Golden State has been lightyears ahead, sure, but only because the gods have allowed it to be. At some point, the rent comes due, and it came due hard: Curry had a dislocated finger on his guide hand throughout the playoffs, DeMarcus Cousins went down with a torn quad minutes into Game 2 of the first round against the Clippers, and was hot and cold all Finals once he came back. Kevin Durant missed 33 days with a calf strain and came back — whether it was rushed or not will be litigated and re-litigated ad nauseum in the coming months — to tear his Achilles. Kevon Looney wore a sling, ice and a stabilizing compression undershirt for the last two games because he suffered a non-displaced costal cartilage fracture — for all intents and purposes, a broken collar bone. Iguodala dealt with a persistent calf issue, to boot.
With all that, they took the Raptors to six games, a team that emulated the blueprint that Bob Myers and Kerr drew up five years ago. There is no greater tribute to the golden age of the Warriors than that.
“We’ve built something special here and its never been quite appreciated, but we know what we’ve done,” Iguodala said.
Next year, Golden State could have two players on max contracts who won’t be able to play: Durant and Thompson. Their roster and salary cap structure was already untenable (and due to not a small bit of luck and timing, thanks to Curry’s ankle), but now, to try and compete in an NBA they revolutionized, they’ll have one arm and one leg tied behind their backs while playing blindfolded. And you know what they say about the one-legged man in a butt-kicking contest.
That said, the leg they’ll have to stand on — Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and Stephen Curry — is a pretty good-looking leg. One you could make a fine lamp out of, just maybe not a major award. They will move forward, likely a playoff team, but nothing like the juggernaut they were supposed to be this year. And that’s OK. For all the suffering Warriors fans have had to do over the last three decades, they earned these last five years, and hey, they got a little spoiled. That’s fine.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a situation where we have taken anything for granted,” Curry said.
The Warriors’ combined following on social media reached over 35 million followers this season, ranking second in the NBA to only the Lakers. All that attention made Golden State the most-watched sports franchise in North America, but it began to take its toll. From speculation on Durant’s free agency (and his attendant burner Twitter accounts) wearing on both him and the team, to death threats against Nicole Curran, wife of owner Joe Lacob, for daring to talk across Beyonce to get a drink order from her husband, Jay Z, during Game 3, to the drawing and quartering of the Warriors for what some felt was pushing Durant to play too soon after his calf injury, it finally became too much.
Maybe it’s time for a breather.
As anticlimactic as a triple-teamed Curry 3-ball followed by a scrum at midcourt and calling a time out that didn’t exist could be, as far as finishes go, Oracle Arena — the home of misery and finally triumph — still got one hell of a sendoff after an exhausting Finals replete with off-court storylines (bye bye Mark Stephens). It was better than what the old gal would have had to endure as its ignominious finale had Durant not helped save Game 5, if not in stats than in the form of a rallying cry. That alone earns him a statue at Chase Center, if not a year of rehab on the Warriors’ dime.
“A lot of different emotions, a lot of thoughts,” Curry said as he considered his last go-around at the arena. “No regrets at all about, again, what we have been able to accomplish and even how this series ended. So we had a lot of great memories in this building. I think it’s iconic in the sense of our entire history of this organization and how we got to this point. Whenever I drive by it I’ll have great memories of, again, what we have been able to accomplish in this building.”
Though Thompson will return, according to an ESPN report citing his father, and Golden State intends to offer both he and Durant five-year max deals, nothing is certain. The dynasty as we know it is over. Nine players are set to become free agents. That doesn’t mean something new won’t grow in its place, but for now, these Golden Warriors will pass into memory. Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile becasue it happened, because the Warriors gave a little bit of gold to a town — The Town — that desperately needed it.
“As we move across the bridge, we want to be able to continue that and create new memories,” Curry said. “So hopefully every fan that was in this building appreciates the journey and the ride. And every fan that was watching how Oakland held us down for 47 years, and turn the page to bigger and better things coming for this franchise.”