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Time Will Determine Whether These Warriors Are the Greatest Team Ever

We’ll need a few more years to know where this team stands among the best of all time, but after making history with the highest win percentage in any title run ever, Golden State has put itself in excellent position to claim GOAT status

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

There won’t be a singular moment that defines the Warriors’ championship like there was last year. There won’t be a play that encapsulates their best player in the series, Kevin Durant. How will we remember the 2017 NBA Finals MVP? Perhaps in his transformation from wing to center; Durant is a player so utterly unique, a player who essentially took Steph’s, Klay’s, and Draymond’s powers, combined them, and became Captain Planet, unlocking a new level to the Warriors’ version of total football. The puzzle has been completed.

And the team? We’ll remember them the way we have all year — in broad strokes of excellence. The Warriors’ 129–120 Game 5 victory over the Cavaliers had fallen into a familiar rhythm by the second quarter. An eight-point Cleveland lead with 10 minutes remaining in the second was completely blotted out in a seven-minute stretch that saw the Warriors pull off a 23-point turnaround, a 27–4 run that happened almost instantaneously and with the greatest of ease. The game wasn’t over by then, but it definitely felt like it.

Maybe one day we’ll have a name for the kind of flow state the Warriors enter on those types of runs, and that butterflies-in-your-stomach feeling reflective of just how predestined it all feels. We don’t have a word for it yet, but we will soon. Golden State has just won its fifth championship in franchise history, its second in three seasons. And they aren’t looking back.

After going 16–1 in the postseason, the Warriors now boast the highest win percentage in NBA playoff history, and the team joins the 1983 Sixers (12–1) and 2001 Lakers (15–1) as the only teams to have gone through an entire postseason run with only one loss. They won 15 playoff games in a row. There is no amount of bargaining or rationalizing about the state of the league that can make that not impressive. Here’s a way to put the Warriors’ win streak in perspective: The historical likelihood of a regular-season team winning 16 in a row is 1.9 percent — in the NBA’s 70 years, there have been 1,483 teams to have played a full season of NBA basketball, and only 28 have accomplished that feat.

The Warriors dominated the postseason in a way we haven’t seen in a long time, which is more a plain statement of fact than an exaltation. Dominance itself has a certain subtext, and it’s usually more than just being better at putting the ball in the hoop than every other team in the league. Dominant teams often carry the extra burden of defining their era. Before Friday night, we could have turned to the two truly dominant teams of the past 25 years as (vastly different) examples.

The 72-win Bulls were at the forefront of the NBA’s cultural apex in 1996: That was the season Nike perfected the art of transforming shoes into spirit animals (see: the Air Jordan XI and Scottie Pippen’s signature Air More Uptempo); it was the year literal shock jock and proto-viral star athlete Dennis Rodman wrote an autobiography, headbutted a referee during a game, and (according to the Worm) tried to impregnate Madonna upon her request; it was the year Michael Jordan won his first title since his father’s death, lifting the trophy on Father’s Day. Their dominance felt reflective of the cultural weight the NBA had amassed; it felt like a byproduct of the league’s iconography in full bloom.

In 2001, the last time a team had so thoroughly dismantled the playoff competition, we saw dominance through the proverbial flipping of the switch. Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant spent an entire season at each other’s throats, waging the greatest war of subtweets never recorded. Their jockeying for supremacy was a microcosm of the early post-Jordan years, when the NBA was still looking for its next tentpole — and it threatened to tear the Lakers franchise apart. The team underachieved, winning only 56 regular-season games (in the 16 seasons since, only the ’04 Pistons and the ’06 Heat won titles with a lower regular-season win percentage). But by the end of their run — a 23–1 record from early April to mid-June, 15–1 in the postseason — they were lauded as among the greatest teams of all time.

It was the precariousness of the Shaq-Kobe union that made their brand of dominance palatable — inspirational, even. The Lakers’ reconciliation at the most opportune time became a watershed moment not only in the franchise, but in the communities it represented: Marriage counselors in Los Angeles used Shaq and Kobe as an example of how to overcome differences; motifs of sacrifice and altruism from the Lakers’ season became teaching devices in L.A. school districts, where a nation-city of Kobe fanatics was multiplying by the second. As a rookie, Bryant made a bold assertion: The Lakers would win 10 championships in his time with the team; after their previously unmatched 15–1 title run in 2001, his second ring in five seasons, Kobe was asked in jest if he wanted to bump that number up a few digits.

Remember those days? Dominance didn’t always feel as though it were reflecting a crisis. It didn’t always feel like it was threatening to devour the NBA as a whole.

While its express purpose may be to objectively award the ultimate champion of a season, the Finals — or any apex of professional sports — should also serve as a conduit for human drama. Take away drama and what’s left? Logic. Inevitability. Words we’ve used to describe these Warriors since before the season even began, and sentiments we’ve expressed since July 4, 2016. In other words, the 2016–17 Warriors sidestepped relativity; the burden of defining this current era rested on the shoulders of last year’s team. This year was simply about being better at basketball than any other team on earth.

In that noble pursuit, the Warriors became basketball’s monolith of excellence, creating a dulled experience out of taking the game to new heights. But as the Spurs — who have surveyed the Western Conference landscape from high in the standings for two decades — have learned, part of being the overwhelming constant is witnessing the depths to which teams are willing to plumb to overcome the giant in front of them. Killing drama for nearly the entire season is exactly what birthed Game 4, one of the most oddly compelling games we’ll see in our lifetimes. We witnessed an underdog play as perfect a half of basketball as is humanly possible; we saw a game unbound by its officiating, which had buckled under the pressure of gatekeeping history. Game 4 was a signal fire to the league — it’s not impossible. By Monday night, it had been washed away.

The 2016–17 Warriors’ season was dominance in absolute terms.

While it took a couple of hours to process Durant’s decision to sign with the Warriors on Independence Day, the opening line of my column on his league-breaking choice was set within minutes of reading his Players’ Tribune post: The greatest team of all time. Italics and everything. It was the first thing on my mind, and, 11 months later, with all that was prophesied coming to fruition, it’s all I can think about.

Are these Warriors the greatest team of all time? I believe they are. What a dangerous assertion to make. What an affront to the ’96 Bulls, the ’86 Celtics, the ’87 Lakers, the ’83 Sixers (not to mention the teams that reigned before the modern era), and the lore each of those teams has generated in the decades since their triumph. But I’ll stand by it. Time will be on my side. Immediately accepting another team into the pantheon is always a tough proposition, no matter how great we know that club to be.

After the 1995–96 Bulls took home the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy, famed Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan was asked where the team ranked all time. "These Bulls are in the top 10," Ryan said about a team that had won 87 total games in their title run. "But they are not in the top five. Expansion is a reality; the competition is watered down. And nobody has a bench anymore. Teams are lucky to have a sixth man of any consequence. So this team has a seat at the table. But they are not the greatest."

In a quarter century, the game has changed dramatically, and yet the rationalizations we make to reassert the past’s shadow over the present remain the same. As ever, the Warriors being on the verge of challenging historical monuments has brought former greats back into the discussion, and predictably, most of them think these Warriors are worth shit.

"We would have figured out how to play against this team and how to beat this team," 1983 champion Julius Erving said.

"We’d probably sweep them," five-time champ Magic Johnson said.

"Oh, we’d run through them," 2004 champion Rasheed Wallace said.

There is no winning or losing in these debates, because it boils down to self-reflection, a self-assessment of values. It’s a personal conversation with time that will continually break down until the language of disparate eras becomes indecipherable. But in the Information Age, perhaps these battle lines don’t need to be drawn at all. "Twenty years down the line, when the next great team comes up … hopefully [I’ll] give them praise, too," Steph Curry said on Friday before Game 4, echoing sentiments Draymond Green had expressed earlier in the series.

Steve Kerr was a little less debonair about it:

These days, the 72-win Bulls usually lead any GOAT discussion. In Ryan’s 2015 Finals preview column for the first chapter of the Trilogy, you could read between the lines that the 72–10 Bulls had moved up his list (although Ryan still asserts that the ’86 Celtics and ’87 Lakers are the two best teams of all time). Legacies take time to crystallize, but even then, our prejudices tend to favor our own youth.

"To accept a new myth about ourselves is to simplify our memories — and to place our stamp of approval on what might become an epitaph for our era in the shorthand of history," Kurt Vonnegut Jr. wrote in his 1974 New York Times review of Something Happened, Joseph Heller’s follow-up to his canonized debut, Catch-22. "This, in my opinion, is why critics often condemn our most significant books and poems and plays when they first appear, while praising feebler creations. The birth of a new myth fills them with primitive dread, for myths are so effective."

Catch-22 was an incendiary novel that captured the new American zeitgeist; Something Happened as a follow-up was its opposite — a slow-churning, fatalistic story that reflected the deep malaise of an era. The parallels to Golden State’s last two seasons write themselves. But it’s the primitive dread that Vonnegut writes of that speaks most to what these Warriors have done to the league.

For one thing, the Warriors creating a new standard for the league means a second stage for the superteam era. No longer can a player’s desire to join forces with other stars be an indictment on one’s competitive spirit if it is the only way to stop Golden State in a seven-game series. But as monolithic as the Warriors appear to be, even their window is finite. Golden State has the third-highest valuation of any team in the league at $2.6 billion, but keeping the four stars together amid an ever-expanding luxury tax will be difficult under any circumstances. Conservative estimates have the Warriors spending $1.3 billion on salary and luxury taxes alone over the next four seasons.

Bodies slowly break down, young talents inch toward their primes, new tactics reveal themselves as more and more of the court is used strategically. The Warriors’ dominance won’t feel the way it did this year forever — there are no promises that it’ll feel this way even a year from now. Greatness was a burden this season, but it will invariably catalyze the future. For as long as the Warriors remain whole, they’ll guide us to an answer for just how far the concept of NBA basketball can break from its past.