The Warriors came up just short of history. An NBA Finals that was supposed to be a coronation turned into a Rocky movie, with the Cavs pulling out a championship in the most impressive road performance since Rocky bested Ivan Drago in Moscow and ended the Cold War. We can hold off discussing whether the 73-win Warriors could have beaten the 1996 Bulls, the 1986 Celtics, or the 1987 Lakers. As it turns out, they couldn’t beat the 2016 Cavaliers — and they barely outlasted the 2016 Thunder.
The natural temptation as we age is to build up the past to tear down the present. LeBron James has spent his entire career trying to break down those walls of dismissal, and the Warriors now face a similar challenge. The players we grew up with will always have an outsize presence in our imaginations, the same as the movies we watched and the records we listened to. There’s nothing wrong with nostalgia, but there’s no point in pretending the past was something it wasn’t.
The mark of an all-time great champion is that it can conceivably succeed in any future era. That’s why most of the discussion about the Warriors’ place in history is retrograde. They’re great, but not because they could have competed in the 1980s. Rather, those Lakers, Bulls, and Celtics teams are great because they could have competed in the 2010s. Basketball is constantly advancing, and only the greatest teams of the past would have any chance of keeping up.
The Warriors have been at the forefront of the small-ball revolution, which has taken over basketball in the last few years and is fueled by rule changes, increased understanding of the most efficient ways to play, and the changing skill sets of the players involved. But the ideology has spread across the league; the teams most equipped to challenge the Warriors exist in the present day, and not just because they don’t need time machines to actually face off.
Sports move forward, athletes improve, and the game progresses. The Olympic champions of the 1980s would struggle to succeed in the 2010s. When you consider improvements in training and technology, Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps are only nominally competing in the same sport. It’s the same in basketball. The players in the 1980s and 1990s had no idea how to use the 3-point line. It took players who grew up in the 2000s to fully understand its advantages. It’s probably not a surprise that second-generation professionals were the ones to do it. What would it say about the game if Klay Thompson’s team, with the benefits of 30-plus years of advancements, couldn’t keep up with his father’s? What would it say about us?
Therefore, whether the Warriors could match up with the great teams of the past is irrelevant. What is more interesting to ponder is how they would match up with the great teams of the future. The game is changing at a blisteringly fast pace, and we saw its evolution in real time over the last two seasons. The Grizzlies and the 2015 Cavs tried to club the Warriors to oblivion with caveman ball before eventually succumbing to the Lineup of Death. What the 2016 playoffs have shown is that the only way to defeat the Warriors is to mimic their successes. Whether it’s the Thunder sliding Kevin Durant to the 4 or the Cavs doing the same with LeBron, the model for future champions has been established. We have the blueprint.
The name of the game in today’s NBA is versatility. The best teams need waves of athletes who can defend multiple positions and switch screens with ease. Traditional roles will invert. The big men need the speed to guard on the perimeter and the touch to shoot from out there, too; guards need the length to be a factor in the paint, on offense and defense. It’s no longer enough to be great at one or two things. The best players need to be great at everything.
Look at the top of this year’s draft. Ben Simmons is a power forward who plays like a point guard. Brandon Ingram has the length of a center and the shooting ability of a wing. Dragan Bender is a 7-footer who’s just as comfortable on the perimeter as he is in the paint. Marquese Chriss got manhandled in the paint as a freshman, but he’s projected to be a top-seven pick anyway because of his ability to play at the 3-point line. That trend will only continue in 2017 and 2018, and who knows what the players in the 2025 draft, who grew up watching Steph and LeBron, will look like? Maybe LeBron James Jr. will be one of them.
The arms race at the top of the NBA isn’t going to slow down. The Warriors will make a strong push for Durant, the Spurs will make a push to get back in the discussion by going after Mike Conley Jr., and everyone will be chasing Al Horford. Down the road, multidimensional 7-footers like Anthony Davis, Kristaps Porzingis, and Karl-Anthony Towns look poised to swing the hierarchy back toward big men. Recent eras have placed a greater importance on guards and forwards, and their influence has taken over a game once dominated by centers. But what happens when most of our centers start playing like point guards and wings?
That’s the ultimate legacy of these Warriors, whether they win three more titles or never win another. They took what Don Nelson and Mike D’Antoni started to its logical conclusion, augmenting the greatest shooter of all time with lineups composed of 6-foot-7 wings who blitzed the rest of the NBA with a combination of shooting talent and defensive malleability. They have forced the league to adapt to them, and the result has been some amazing basketball over the past few weeks. Early Vegas odds have the Warriors as early favorites to win the title next season. If they’re going to pull it off, they’ll have to be better than this year’s iteration. Let that thought sink in. We’re in for an incredible future.