MikeCheck: Warriors On Verge of Altering ‘Greatest’ NBA Debate
By Michael Wallace
Grind City Media
OAKLAND – The debate was different this time a week ago.
Back then, LeBron James had just become the most prolific postseason scorer in NBA history and was set to make his eighth consecutive trip to the Finals. Among the national narratives at the time was that LeBron had essentially closed the gap on Michael Jordan, possibly even on the verge of moving into sole possession of the subjective title as greatest NBA player of all time.
But slam the brakes on that silly argument.
A far more pertinent and perhaps equally unresolvable conflict has emerged. Two games into these NBA Finals, we’re witnessing greatness for sure. But Kevin Durant, Steph Curry and the Warriors have effectively changed the subject, although hardly the topic.
What Golden State has done through two annihilations of the Cavaliers to cruise to 14-0 this postseason raises another historical debate as the Finals shift to Cleveland for Game 3 Wednesday. If the Warriors win the next two games to complete the sweep and become the first NBA team to run the postseason table, are they the greatest single-season squad we’ve ever seen?
It’s starting to look like it, at least in the league’s modern era. Let’s not waste time wondering if George Mikan or Bill Russell were versatile enough to stay with Durant in a small-ball lineup, or whether Jerry West or Earl Monroe could match up with Curry.
Those respective eras are simply too drastic to realistically compare. Back then, the shorts were shorter, the hair was longer, the shoes were canvas and TVs had antennas and knobs. Google it. But should these Warriors sweep the Cavs, or even win in five games, they make the strongest case yet to be viewed as the best team to grace the hardwood since Magic Johnson and Larry Bird entered the league.
We’ve never witnessed an NBA team with this much elite firepower. Just consider the obvious. Curry posted his first career playoff triple-double in Game 2 with 32 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds – and it was only the second-most impressive performance on his team that night. That’s because Durant’s 33 points, 13 rebounds, six assists, five blocks and three steals set the tone.
LeBron’s Cavs have Wednesday night at home to make this a competition. Otherwise, start the coronation. It’s the culmination of a postseason in which we’ve gone from believing it was nearly impossible for the Warriors to lose a series to now trying to fathom if they’d even drop a game.
This is no prisoner-of-the-moment outlook.
The Warriors have been doing this for months. They haven’t lost since April 10, and, counting the regular season, have won 29 of their past 30 games. Scratch that. They’ve been doing this for years, winning 67, an NBA-record 73 and 67 games each of the past three seasons. That’s a combined 207-39 mark. Let that sink in for a moment. The Grizzlies were one of six teams to make the 2017 playoffs with at least 39 losses this season. It’s taken the Warriors three years to lose a total of 39 games.
Embrace history, folks. We’re watching it now.
I ride with those who aren’t necessarily fans of the way Durant jumped aboard Golden State’s ready-made juggernaut. But it’s time to let that go. It’s time to accept the reality that these Warriors are going to lay up with a collection of Larry O’Brien trophies for some time.
Historically, they were already defensively superior to Dr. J’s and Moses Malone’s 1983 Sixers; equipped with the speed and athleticism to outrun Magic’s 1980s Showtime Lakers and possessed the skill, efficiency and range to outshoot Larry Legend’s 1986 Celtics.
Bully-ball is outlawed in the NBA, so the 1989 Bad Boy Pistons couldn’t lay a finger on these Warriors. Respectfully setting aside the best of the Spurs’ five championship teams, Boston’s 2008 Big 3 unit and the LeBron-led Heat titlists, that leaves only two squads in the best-ever debate with Golden State.
Those would be the 2001 Kobe-and-Shaq Lakers that went 15-1 and steamrolled through the postseason, and Jordan’s 1996 Bulls who were the centerpiece of Chicago’s six title teams in the 1990s. I’m not convinced the pre-Durant Warriors break through against either of those teams. But with Durant on board alongside Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and a solid bench, Golden State neutralizes many of the potential advantages those Lakers and Bulls would have enjoyed.
The pro-LeBron camp in the Jordan-James debate are convinced M.J. never faced a team as good as Golden State during his run with the Bulls. And that’s true. But it’s mainly because Jordan’s Bulls were these Warriors back in the day. Jordan was the best player in the league, on the NBA’s best defensive team and armed with a supporting cast of unique specialists.
Forget what these Warriors are doing to Cavaliers and the rest of the NBA. Golden State is also crushing the CBA, the transitioning Collective Bargaining Agreement that’s supposed to incentivize franchises and players to bypass the type of move Durant made last summer. But the Warriors and Durant effectively gamed the system and benefitted from once-in-a-decade timing.
It didn’t happen completely by design. It was equal parts fate, fortune, fortitude and foresight. And we may never see a set of events play out for an NBA franchise quite like this ever again.
Only fate could explain how Curry happens to be the 82nd-highest paid player in the league. He’s at the end of a four-year, $44 million contract signed as he was coming off chronic ankle injuries and considered a significant risk. Curry has only gone out and won two MVP awards on that deal. He’s made $12 million this season, about half of what point guard contemporaries Mike Conley, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, James Harden and Russell Westbrook each took home this year.
Front-office foresight was required to snag Green with the No. 35 pick in the second round of the 2012 NBA Draft. Green grossly outperformed his initial contract and signed a four-year, $85 million bargain of a deal in 2015. Redo that 2012 draft, and Green would be a top-five lottery pick alongside Anthony Davis, Bradley Beal, Andre Drummond and Lillard. In that scenario, Green would’ve also hit free agency a year later than he did and potentially clogged up more cap space at about $120 million over five years.
Fortitude defines the decision Jerry West made as a senior Golden State advisor when he vetoed a trade that would have sent Thompson to Minnesota for Kevin Love three years ago. The Warriors instead signed Thompson to an extension under the old CBA, a deal that spans two more cost-effective seasons.
Add up those fortuitous outcomes, mix in a few shrewd roster-clearing moves last summer, sprinkle in a $24 million league-wide spike in the salary cap and voila! There goes the fortune required to land Durant, the NBA’s most lethal scorer latching on to its most dynamic team. All four core players are under age 30. Keeping them together over the next four seasons may cost up to $1.3 billion in salary and luxury taxes, according to projections by Yahoo! NBA insider and former league executive Bobby Marks.
That’s the price for historical greatness, produced by a perfect storm of mitigating circumstances.
If Golden State goes all on these Warriors for the long haul, there’s only so much many of the other 29 NBA teams can do to stop another Bulls-like run of titles. For now, it just might be time to stock up on batteries, flashlights, bottled water, canned goods and future draft picks.
The reign that commences with two more wins just might last a while.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.