The NBA Finals concluded on Monday night with the requisite confetti, strobe lights, championship hats, trophy presentation and group hugs by the winning team, just as if the Golden State Warriors had done something other than what everyone expected of them.
Maybe relief was really the operative emotion. Had the Warriors accomplished anything less than winning the title, even while matched up against the force of nature that is LeBron James, the players might have never been able to live it down. Combined with losing the Finals a year ago despite holding a three-games-to-one lead, a trip and fall against the Cavs this time would have branded the Warriors as artists forever known as choke.
That’s a little harsh for a team that has proved its greatness with a 207-39 regular season record in the last three years, and now the second championship during that span, but the best NBA teams have to accept being judged in June and only June.
“People did expect us to win, [but] people don’t realize how hard it is to go out there and do it,” Klay Thompson of Golden State said. “You look at our record, and say, ‘16-1, it was easy,’ but it wasn’t.”
Well, it should have been a little bit easy. Here’s a team that won 73 games last season, suffered the Finals defeat in seven games, and then added superstar free agent in Kevin Durant just to make sure things went smoother this time.
“If KD was the consolation prize [for losing], thanks for that loss, and we’re champs this year,” Draymond Green said.
But does it feel good to win with a stacked deck, or is it just a relief not to lose with one? Every team in the league would do the same thing if given the opportunity, so it isn’t as if the Warriors should be criticized for building a super team. They played by the rules, will pay the luxury tax on their bloated payroll, and adding Durant certainly doesn’t look like a bad move right now. But, again, to quote noted basketball expert Bob Dylan, how does it feel?
“They assembled a great team,” said James, who merely averaged a triple-double in the Finals. “We were able to get them last year, and they went out and got one of the best players that this league has ever seen, so they did a good job of – a great job – of recruiting … and obviously it paid dividends.”
James won’t be the one to knock the Warriors for the strategy. There’s still a glass house in Miami that he built on the foundation of constructing a roster from the top down with superstar mercenaries. The Cavaliers, who set an NBA record for payroll at $128.5 million this season, and will owe upwards of $50 million in luxury tax on that, will also attempt to add even more talent in the escalating race to put a true all-star team on the floor.
“I know our front office is going to try to put our franchise in a position where we can compete for a championship year in and year out,” James said. “Teams and franchises are going to be trying to figure out ways they can put personnel together, the right group of guys together, to hopefully compete against this team.”
By comparison, the 76ers are using an organic approach to becoming competitive. They had to strip their roster to nothing in order to acquire core assets through the draft, but they didn’t buy Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons. That will be part of the next step, however, whenever it is time to add high-priced free agents to the mix. The Warriors are proof that no one can legislate how much talent a team should be allowed to have. The salary cap was supposed to be a governor on that, but it sure isn’t doing the job.
Increasingly then, this is the era of the super team in the NBA, or at least the naked attempt to create one. In the Finals, Durant averaged 35.2 points, shot 56 percent from the field, including 47 percent on three-point attempts, made 93 percent of his free throws, and averaged 8.4 rebounds and 5.4 assists. Think he helped at all? Teammate Steph Curry averaged 26.8 points, 9.4 assists and 8.0 rebounds and didn’t get a single vote for series MVP.
Durant was criticized for leaving Oklahoma City to ease his way into a championship with the Warriors. He’ll turn 29 this year and maybe he earned the right to be a little selfish. After his rookie year, he saw his entire franchise pick up and bolt Seattle for the promise of a greener pasture, so don’t try to sell him on the moral distinctions.
“You call us a super team, but it’s been a lot of super teams that haven’t worked,” Durant said. “I heard all the narratives throughout the season that I was … hopping on bandwagons, I was letting everybody else do the work, but that was far from the truth.”
Durant did his own work, and when you combine it with the work of Curry, Green, Thompson and Andre Iguodala – the five who averaged more than 20 minutes per game in the Finals – it was a super team. It was a great basketball team in every way. But as the confetti fell and the lights swept across them and the fans roared and cried and the players embraced each other on the court, did it feel momentous and magical, or did it merely feel like what they signed on for?