Golden State And All That Glitters

The Warriors have been so dominant this season that the entire rest of the league has landed in their shadow. Maybe it's time to look at things from a different angle.
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There's something brazenly American about the notion that one shouldn't try at anything unless one can be the absolute, hands-down, no-questions-asked best ever at it. Some people describe this mindset using grandiose words like "exceptionalism," and others counter that such verbiage is really just a way of dressing simple arrogance up in a fancy costume. In any event, it's a thing, and a thing very much of this moment and this place in the America of 2016. There are hundreds of millions of people infesting this land, most all of them motes of dust in the grand scheme of things, yet most all of them share the same unwavering desire to be recognized as supreme ruler of all the other little specks.

Each NBA season features 1,230 regular-season games plus another 80-some postseason contests; every single one of those games decides its very own winner. But only one team is crowned champion in June, and the belief among NBA thinkers that only one team can truly "win" each year makes teams do strange things. The singular pursuit of the Larry O'Brien Trophy is why 30-11 teams fire their head coaches, why five-time All-Stars in their primes get floated in trade rumors and why "COUNT THE RINGZZZZZ!" gets played as a trump card in every Twitter debate.

It's also why this season is unlike any other in recent memory. No team of this generation has had quite the stranglehold on NBA supremacy that the Golden State Warriors have right now. At the All-Star break, the Warriors were on pace to finish the season 76-6; which would have shattered the wins record set by the '96 Bulls with a week to spare. They’re still holding steady today at an over-.900 pace with a decent shot at the elusive 73-9. All of which is to say that the Warriors are so much better than everyone else in the NBA—even the devastatingly good Spurs, who are flirting with a 70-win pace in their own right—that the outcome of this season has emerged as a sort of widely held fait accompli. The Dubs will be the champions, and the rest is just details.

In a league in which winning matters so much and is defined so narrowly, this has led to a sort of abstracted defeatism. On one hand, winning championships is always the goal for every team, and reasonably so. But, on the other, there's something uncouth about the idea that also-rans are totally without merit—and something ugly, as in the reduction of the world into Winners and Losers, or Makers and Takers. Perhaps we should consider bringing a modicum of skepticism to our basketball discourse and acknowledging that success is a spectrum, not a binary, and that an NBA season produces a lot more than one champion and 29 failures. For the teams who make a run at Finals glory and come up short, there's beauty in that chase, even if it's ultimately unsuccessful.

The NBA playoffs are about more than just crowning a champion. We wouldn't watch every night for two months if they weren't. We savored every moment of that epic Clippers-Spurs series in the first round last year, even though the outcome was mooted by the Rockets in the following round. We reveled in seeing Derrick Rose and LeBron James trade buzzer-beaters in round two. We sweated when the Warriors fell behind 2-1 in a postseason series not once, but twice, first against Memphis and later in the Finals against LeBron and the Cavs. The final outcome of the 2015 postseason was the Warriors taking the podium and hoisting Larry, but there was no shortage of reasons to watch along the way.

Those playoff series matter, and those memories endure. The Clips can and should take pride in ousting the Spurs. The Grizzlies and Cavs' players can tell their grandchildren that before the Warriors were THE WARRIORS!, they had them on the ropes. These little snapshots in time count for something; only the narrowest and least human assessment of their value could suggest that they don’t.

There's nothing wrong, exactly, with a league centered around one dominant team; in the 1990s, when the NBA was defined by the preeminence of Michael Jordan's Bulls and the doomed quest to depose them, the league was healthy indeed. What’s memorable about that era, beyond Jordan, is the struggle of various generational greats with the immovable object that those Bulls represented. One of the defining moments of Charles Barkley's career was when he returned home to face his daughter after a painful loss in the 1993 Finals and admitted, "Baby, I think Michael's better than me." Gary Payton is famous for volunteering to guard Jordan in Seattle’s wins in Games 4 and 5 of the 1996 Finals, an act that exemplified his competitiveness and worldbeating confidence. Karl Malone and John Stockton are legends, but they're remembered largely for their failures to beat Jordan and Pippen in the 1997 and '98 Finals. The other great Eastern Conference teams of that era, the Knicks and Pacers especially, each fought a series of epic battles in the hope of emerging as the Bulls' greatest conference rival.

We were able to enjoy all of those teams and their individuated struggles even though they weren't able to equal the mighty Bulls. They weren't the best, but they became admirable—if slightly less than legendary—in the pursuit, and in place of the glory they sought, they won respect. Hindsight deepens this, as it generally does, but the preemptive nihilism of this season—the idea that everything from here on is a race for second place—suggests that something has changed. The Warriors are currently -150 favorites in Vegas to win the Finals, meaning their title odds are considerably better than the rest of the field combined. The rest of the league’s top teams, at least if you believe the media buzz around them, are in panic mode. A TV announcer reported last week that if the Thunder “don’t at least get to the NBA Finals, [Kevin] Durant is gone.” A much-ballyhooed headline on shortly before the trade deadline read, “Maybe the Clippers should trade Blake Griffin.” If you want to know the Cavaliers’ mindset this season, it’s not hard to figure out—you can call David Blatt at home and ask him. 

The Warriors are not the only great team playing basketball in 2016, but the hysteria surrounding them has made it more difficult to appreciate the greatness of the teams around them. The Spurs, Thunder, Cavaliers, and Clippers are all on pace to win between 54 and 69 games, and all have proven capable of dazzling brilliance in spurts ranging from a quarter to a fortnight; the Spurs, for their part, have looked as good as they did in their most recent championship season pretty much all year long.

And yet. Because they can't win a championship, we presume, the Spurs might as well hand Tim Duncan a fruit basket, send him on his merry way, and start building for the next era. Because the Thunder have no shot, they should concede that Durant will inevitably end up leaving this summer to join the more worthy Warriors. The Cavs might as well have traded Kevin Love and the Clippers should have ditched Griffin—if there is no way to a championship with this roster, this worldview goes, then it’s time to get to work on the next one. Living in the moment, and appreciating the games that it gives us, isn't good enough anymore.

There's a great irony here. For several years during the late 1990s, as Jordan's career wound down and we prepared for him to walk away, there was concern that the league would never survive without him. The thinking was that the NBA, being a star-centric league, needed the clean narrative of Everyone Versus Jordan. A league with one signature star wasn't just a good thing, in this view; because it was working at that moment, it was presumed to be the only thing that could ever work. We’ve cycled through other iterations of the NBA since then, with some proving more dramatic and memorable than others, but a certain narrowness of perspective has been a constant—if only one team has a realistic claim on a ring, then that is the only team that really matters.

We don’t have to do this. There are several months of basketball left before some team raises the trophy again, and that is ample time to enjoy the ride. All of it. Over the next month or so, the Warriors are likely to dominate the NBA spotlight as they enter the final leg of their chase against Jordan’s Bulls, and rightfully so. There’s nothing wrong with appreciating the Warriors as they go on playing what’s quite possibly the best basketball any of us have ever seen. But there are other teams playing basketball—brilliantly, idiosyncratically, defiantly, and in ways that inspire beyond wins and losses. Even if they're not the best, they're still pretty damn good. We get to watch them, too, and we’d be foolish to pass up that opportunity.

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