Can The Golden State Warriors Complete The Life-Cycle Of The Great NBA Dynasties?
The Golden State Warriors will go down in NBA history as one of the greatest dynasties the NBA has ever seen. That’s what happens when you win three championships while going on five consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, a feat not achieved since Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics in the 1960s, best the seemingly unbreakable 72-win record regular season set by Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls at their height, and set your own record for playoff win percentage, going 16-1 on the way to the 2017 title.
The Golden State Warriors dynastic story still feels incomplete though. Perhaps that’s down to the catastrophic injuries to Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, and a very worthy Toronto Raptors championship team, robbing them at the last of the threepeat that seemed so inevitable. Perhaps it’s the abruptness of the ending of a team that dominated the NBA so entirely during their prime with Durant’s departure and Thompson’s second injury. Perhaps it’s seeing Stephen Curry’s epic return in the 2020-21 season ultimately amount to nothing in terms of postseason success.
But whatever it is, there’s still unfinished business in Golden State. And it’s a feeling they’re not alone in facing amongst the great dynasties.
The final hurdle is the hardest
Achieving closure is the hardest phase of the life-cycle of great NBA dynasties. The Warriors are undoubtedly up there with the best at their peak, but they haven’t managed the longevity of Russell’s Celtics or Jordan’s Bulls, or even the Showtime Lakers.
Perhaps that is impossible in the modern era. Russell’s Celtics are an era apart, playing in a completely different league. Jordan’s Bulls are effectively untouchable, though the Warriors came as close as anyone to rivalling their success and glory. Twice they fell at the last – a title in 2016 would have crowned them as the greatest team of all time, but the combination of injuries, a questionable suspension for Draymond Green, and the greatness of Lebron James and Kyrie Irving conspired to finish them off. Then a threepeat in 2019 would have given them four titles in five years, something the Bulls never managed. But again those two devastating injuries put paid to that.
What the Warriors now have before them is that final hurdle. Another run and title or two in the late-prime of Curry, Thompson, and Green will complete the circle from a young upstart champion, to an unbeatable force in all their pomp and glory, to a group of ageing legends reminding the next generation what it actually is, and takes, to achieve true greatness. It’s the exclamation point at the end of the chapter in the NBA history book, elevating legacies to unassailable terrain, and the closure they seek in the wake of the abrupt and unsatisfying end to their run.
This hurdle has been cleared before
The parallel the Warriors most often trot out themselves is the San Antonio Spurs, who of course won five titles across 16 seasons. There’s good reason for that. After winning their first title in 1999, the Spurs hit their peak between between 2003 and 2007, winning three more in five years. They then spent another five seasons trying to get back to the NBA Finals, until they finally broke through in 2013 to lose a classic series against the Miami Heat superteam led by LeBron James and Dwayne Wade, before gaining revenge with that oh-so-sweet final title in 2014.
By the time Tim Duncan lifted that final trophy he was 38. Manu Ginobili was a month away from turning 37. Tony Parker was a comparatively spry 32. At the other end of the roster was Kawhi Leonard, in just his third season.
This is basically what the Warriors are trying to do now. They have Stephen Curry at 33, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green at both 31. Andre Iguodala is back, but 37-years old. Plenty of ink has been spilled over the balance between that core, and the other end of their roster featuring recent lottery picks James Wiseman (20) and Jonathan Kuminga (19).
But the Spurs never really had the dominant peak the Warriors had, nor the depths of what followed. They were always consistently a very good team who had some great years.
A parallel closer to home
There is another parallel closer to home in the not-too-distant past that might signify that what the Warriors are trying to do is not impossible. Warriors fans might not care to be reminded of the Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant Los Angeles Lakers, but there are some instructive parallels.
Consider this. A dominant team led by two superstars wins three titles. In their fifth year together they lose the Finals amidst open feuding between Bryant and O’Neal. Shaq leaves, traded for role players. The team craters, missing the playoffs. Bryant puts up some epic personal seasons but the Lakers bow out in the first round twice. Meanwhile Shaq wins his fourth ring in Miami. Finally after three seasons out of the NBA Finals, the Lakers return for three consecutive years, winning two titles led by Bryant, thereby completing their journey. The question always hangs over them, would they have won more if they’d stayed together?
There are differences of course. No-one could ever accuse Curry of any sort of feuding. Shaq was traded, where Durant chose to leave in free agency (though the Warriors turned that into the combination of Andrew Wiggins and eventually Jonathan Kuminga via the sign-and-trade for D’Angelo Russell). But Durant’s departure was shrouded in the “troubled chemistry” hallmarks of the end of that first Lakers team. And he’s got every chance of winning another ring in Brooklyn as Shaq did on his new team. Meanwhile Curry has just put up a season for the ages, as Bryant did when he was the solo star.
So how did the Lakers do it? Their second iteration was led by Bryant and contained Andrew Bynum, acquired with a lottery pick, Lamar Odom, who they’d received in the Shaquille O’Neal trade, and Pau Gasol. Indeed their leap back into prominence came when they traded Marc Gasol, Kwame Brown, picks and filler for Pau Gasol. While the younger Gasol went on to have a tremendous career in his own right, at the time that trade was straight-up robbery.
The Warriors are setting off on the hard journey back
So, two parallels. One, the Spurs model of drafting and growth. The other, the Lakers model of trading for an established star at a decent price to put them over the hump.
With Curry, and Green showing they’ve got plenty left, Thompson returning and some very promising young players, the Warriors are putting their eggs in the basket of the Spurs model as it stands. The path is less direct and probably longer, but it’s also probably the right one to start off this journey on.
That’s not to say the Warriors won’t certainly be keeping their eyes peeled for any Gasol-type trades. But look at the players theoretically available to them at the moment, and the prices being asked. There’s not a “Gasol move” out there.
Instead, patience is the name of this game. Build towards the next generation like the Spurs did and with all that dynastic DNA you’ve got a good chance of making it back to the top in the next few seasons. Meanwhile keep your powder dry, ready for any cut-price deal materialising that could help the team get over the hump.
Either way the Warriors are finally setting off on the hard journey back to the top of the NBA mountain. By the time they’re done they may well have something to add yet to their already historic legacy.