The oddest thing about the 2016 NBA Finals so far has been this: A 73-win team that lost just twice at home in the regular season absolutely dominates the first two games on their own floor, yet all anyone can seem to talk about is how the other team isn’t good enough or—even worse—how they don’t seem to “want it” bad enough. Yes, that must be it. If they only wanted it more, they’d be able to overcome a team that is clearly better than them in every single aspect of the game. If only.
The Golden State Warriors are seemingly built on four principles: play suffocating defense, push the pace, keep moving on offense, and if you’re open, shoot. They are also a confidence perpetual motion machine—the better they play, the more confident they get, the more confident they get, the better they play, and so on. This has worked fairly well so far. Through two games of the NBA Finals, they are a +48, winning Game 1 by 15 and Game 2 by 33. If things continue this way, they will win Game 3 by 72 and Game 4 by 156. Move the line, Vegas.
There’s more. Thus far, unanimous MVP Stephen Curry has been a literal non-factor, scoring 11 points in Game One and 18 in Game Two. He’s received more attention for his celebrating (and his, um, fans) than he has for his shooting. It is likely that he once again will not be NBA Finals MVP—prepare the fainting couches!—and he won’t have to be. He played 36 minutes in Game 1, 25 in Game 2. Rest for the finals? He’s resting IN the finals.
The Warriors do not have weapons, they are a weapon. Before last season, much had been made of the “Big Three” method of chasing a title, and the Cleveland Cavaliers dutifully built theirs, trading No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Kevin Love once LeBron James had agreed to sign up for a second tour. Then the Warriors happened, and you know what they say about best-laid plans.
The Warriors do have a big three of their own in Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. But that’s just the way we see them because it’s how we’re used to seeing teams now. It’s structure imposed from without, not from within. And while those three are amongst the Warriors’ top four finals scorers—Shaun Livingston is third, ahead of Thompson—they actually have five players averaging double digits, with Leandro Barbosa as the fifth. It’s cool that the Warriors can destroy teams when Curry and Thompson are on. It’s important that the Warriors can still destroy teams when they’re not.
Before Game 2, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said they’d have to play faster, and all that changed was the margin of victory. After Game 2 he said they’d need to figure out the Warriors’s smaller lineup. Note that “figuring it out” and actually doing something to stop it are two entirely different things. Also, how exactly does one “figure out” this? For a team that doesn’t guard the pick-and-roll well, this Warriors team is a nightmare. (Spoiler alert: this Warriors team is a nightmare for everyone.)
It’s impossible to say now whether the Warriors represent an evolutionary leap forward or just the perfect team built around the perfect player at the perfect time. Curry is an unusual dominant star in that his shine is not one that diminishes others’, even more unusual for a prolific scorer. So when he’s out of the game, or if his shot isn’t hitting, the Warriors don’t miss a beat. They turn to Klay, or Shaun, or Draymond, the ball still moving, the open shooter still shooting. Curry may be the key to their system, but he isn’t the system itself. There is no need for Plan B when Plan A works no matter who’s in the game.
This egalitarian approach is not entirely new, of course, of recent teams it most resembles the Spurs, only built around the perimeter instead of the post. It’s even more like the ‘60s Celtics, who used their own transformational player (Bill Russell) as the centerpiece of a new style that flummoxed everyone. They won 11 championships in 13 seasons.
you don’t just build a team like the Warriors, you grow and nurture it
The Warriors are on the verge of their second in two and are making it look far easier than the first time. Only three have come back from a 2-0 Finals deficit, and it seems highly unlikely these Cavaliers become the fourth—winning four of the next five would require something more than a miracle. There is no reason to believe that, barring injury, they will not be able to keep doing this.
Other franchises will attempt to build their own Warriors, and they will fail. They will fail because they won’t be good enough, or because everyone won’t buy in, or because they will emphasize one part of the whole over another. They will fail because their players will have preconceived notions of what stardom is, or because of an insistence on instilling a system not suited for the players expected to run it. They will fail because you don’t just build a team like the Warriors, you grow and nurture it, strengthen strengths, and purge weaknesses. It’s evolution moreso than intelligent design. Is it the system or the players? Yes.
Of course, things happen. There are injuries, there are those players who—no matter how well they fit a particular system—feel there is more for them elsewhere. Maybe a Luke Walton leaving changes things, maybe Harrison Barnes getting a max offer shakes the core. But that’s all in the future. For now, there are at least two games to go with the perfect team playing near-perfect basketball. Watch. We may never see this anything quite like this again.