This NBA offseason has taken on a primitive shape. Teams are scrambling and scheming in response to what the Warriors have constructed. We have already traversed through a series of tumultuous offseason moves, but before the free-agency period even begins, it appears as if the rhetoric underlying every team’s offseason strategy is that any move is ultimately futile. It’s impossible to beat the Warriors.
But "impossible" is a dangerous word. There is an inherent sense of volatility in a championship run. A team’s aspirations are constantly balanced on a metaphorical seesaw, where even the slightest gust of wind — in this case, an injury, a suspension, a bad run of form, locker room disharmony, a possible departure, or a failed roster move — could push it one way or another. Sports success is fraught and fleeting. What we may call certain or guaranteed isn’t so. Even the most unbeatable team is beatable.
"It’s just the way the league is going. The league is in a frenzy because of the Warriors." — J.R. Smith, to The Washington Post on Wednesday
The Warriors immediately demoralized the rest of the league when they signed Kevin Durant last summer, and they did so again when they coasted through the playoffs. This offseason, teams have seemingly made moves with the assumption that the Warriors will be unbeatable for the next few seasons. In response, teams have had to come to terms with the decision to build for the immediate future (Wolves) or the long-term future (Sixers).
There seem to be two reactions to the Warriors’ expected dominance over the league. One is resignation, something that has manifested more in the public discussion of the league than in the words and actions of the players and franchises themselves. The quick-trigger response to any rumor or report that any team is trying to package assets or open up room for the available superstars like Paul George, Blake Griffin, or Gordon Hayward is that it won’t be enough to beat the Warriors. They’ll still lose in five games. What’s the point? The next step would be to explicitly advocate that teams don’t try to get better at all.
The other, and more likely, course for contending teams is defiance, making offseason moves in the hopes of defeating Golden State immediately. So far, Daryl Morey and the Rockets are at the forefront of this admirable rebellion. On Wednesday, Morey turned into Cap Space Michelangelo and maneuvered his way around the league, trading cash considerations for unheralded players in order to package them in a deal for Chris Paul, all while maintaining enough flexibility to add future pieces with their full $8.4 million mid-level exception, their $3.2 million bi-annual exception, or a trade exception. It’s rumored that the next addition to Morey’s grand summer sculpture will be either Carmelo Anthony (contingent on a buyout) or Paul George (contingent on Indiana somehow not finding a better offer, which seems unlikely). Morey, whose success has been predicated on discovering inefficiencies both on the court and in the CBA, has decided to place all his stock in building a counter superteam.
"Teams and franchises are going to be trying to figure out ways that they can put personnel together, the right group of guys together, to be able to hopefully compete against this team," LeBron James said after the Finals. "They’re assembled as good as you can assemble, and I played against some really, really good teams that was assembled perfectly, and they’re right up there."
Meanwhile, Danny Ainge looms, a billion assets in hand, apparently waiting to sequence moves to land one of Gordon Hayward or Blake Griffin in free agency and then trade for Paul George to complete his own superteam. "The formula to become an elite team hasn’t changed. What you’re asking is if Golden State has changed things so that you have no chance," Ainge told Zach Lowe after the Finals. As Photoshops of Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford alongside George and Hayward circulated the internet this week, the general response seemed to speak to Ainge’s point: It doesn’t matter. This team won’t beat the Warriors anyway.
The Cavaliers are the most direct threat to the Warriors because they have already upset them once, but that was BD: Before Durant. This offseason, they’ve been linked with both George and Melo, but have been unable to pull off any move just yet. Instead, they’ve let go of their own general manager and have yet to replace him at a time when the position is needed most. They’re still behind the Warriors’ curve by a growing mile.
Which leads me to wonder what it is that we want out of competing teams in the face of the mighty Golden Goliath. Somebody has to try, right? Houston, for now, is doing just that. "They are not unbeatable," Morey said in the aforementioned Lowe piece. "There have been bigger upsets in sports history. We are going to keep improving our roster."
The NBA naturally thrives off of competition. To get to this level as a professional basketball player, coach, or executive, there is an unquantifiable level of competitive drive you must possess. To remain at this level takes an even higher level of competitive endurance parlayed with natural talent. In short, professional athletes have worked their whole lives to ensure that the feeling of losing does not confront them. That’s not going to stop now. It doesn’t matter that we may believe their efforts will ultimately be in vain.
"They’re a different team. You guys asked what was the difference and I told you … they’re a different team." — LeBron James following Cleveland’s Game 2 loss in the Finals
Before the season began, the public’s predictions mirrored those of other media outlets: Everything would revolve around the Warriors. Twenty-five of 28 ESPN staff writers picked them to win the title before the season. Eleven of 15 NBA.com staffers chose Golden State as well, while four of five Sports Illustrated writers did the same.
They were all right. And for the next three, four, five years and even beyond, it seems the Warriors will become the safe, expected pick. This team is a favorite of unprecedented magnitude.
We have been flooded with an incessant amount of Paul George rumors since the moment it leaked that he would not be re-signing with Indiana after this coming season. Despite reports that George’s preferred destination was the Lakers, the Celtics were reportedly targeting him. So were the Cavs, the Wizards, the Rockets, and even the Spurs. All of those were separate reports, signs of teams willing to bank on their success with George and their culture to try and convince him to stay past a one-year rental. Why, you ask, would teams take that risk? Because some of the most efficient roadblocks to a developing dynasty are the unforeseeable outside factors any other team can’t control. And being ready to pounce when those roadblocks emerge on the Warriors’ road could be the most fortuitous course of action.
In 2000, a Laker team led by both Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal looked to be well on their way to more championship rings than what they could fit on one hand alone. But Bryant and O’Neal’s tumultuous relationship resulted in the latter’s departure. The Lakers would only win three titles when their roster had spelled out four, five, or six titles. Instead, the Spurs and Pistons, teams with different mantras than the star-led Lakers, stepped in and won four of the next five NBA titles.
Less than a decade after their three-peat, the Lakers found themselves in a position to grab another one after having won titles in 2009 and 2010. They returned nearly their whole team, and though they made it past the first round, they unraveled in the conference semis. Against the Mavericks, Ron Artest hit J.J. Barea and got ejected in Game 2. In Game 4, Andrew Bynum, who had called out the team’s "trust issues," was ejected for targeting Barea. The Lakers got swept. The Mavericks had gotten into their heads. They seized their opportunity and finished the year as NBA champions.
What will be the thing that derails the Warriors? The answer, even after all of this, still may be nothing — this is an unprecedented collection of talent, coaching, and management that have all sacrificed more ludicrous salaries, increased playing time, and stardom for the sake of committing to the larger cause of winning titles. And in a sense, the Warriors dynasty has already been derailed by outside factors. Draymond Green’s now-infamous groin kick in the 2016 Finals, which earned him a suspension and kick-started the Cavs’ historic 3–1 comeback, is living evidence for how quickly a series and a champion can change with one move, one play, and even one second.
Opposing teams know that history may be on their side. Stuff happens, but you can only take advantage of small openings if you’ve prepared for them. When it comes to waiting for the right time to pounce, patience is key, but only if it’s on the basis of preparation. Chances are that sooner or later, something will cause the Warriors to blink, and then another team will be able to do the impossible.