The Golden State Warriors are bad for basketball. Yeah, I said it. And the absurd thing is I might even believe it. I should clarify that I don’t mean this in the same way that people about the UConn women’s team, as if they’re bad for the sport because they beat the hell out of everyone and there’s no point in watching them since any outcome seems predetermined. (Although, considering that the Warriors are one win away from sweeping through the entire playoffs and that the Cavaliers are so desperate to win ONE game in this series that they keep throwing Deron Williams’s corpse on the court in the hopes he’s miraculously resurrected, maybe that applies here, too.) I just think the Warriors are so damn good that they’re giving the youth of America unrealistic expectations about what basketball should look like. They are polluting the pure and innocent minds of this country’s future, not unlike Elvis’s hip gyrations or Janet Jackson’s right boob.
Consider the following: In Game 2 of the NBA Finals, the Warriors had 20 turnovers, passed the ball to Zaza Pachulia at least three times, and still scored 132 points on a Cleveland team that needed a win much more than Golden State did. With the Cavs on the brink in Game 3, Pachulia was even more worthless, the Warriors turned the ball over 18 times, and Golden State won 118–113 after closing the fourth quarter on an 11–0 run.
As someone who was born and raised on methodical Big Ten basketball and was taught from the moment I could walk how to PLAY THE GAME THE RIGHT WAY, I can’t believe what I have witnessed. My experience has felt like watching a completely different sport than the one that I’m used to, the way I’d imagine tennis fans must feel when watching ping-pong. The Warriors play so fast and attempt so many outrageous shots that it’s beyond comprehension how any coach would allow a team to play that way … only most of those shots go in because the Warriors have the most talented roster in NBA history. For whatever reason, Cleveland’s been all too willing to embrace a similar brand of basketball, as the Cavs, who went 12-of-44 from beyond the arc in Game 3, are also running and gunning at a ridiculous rate. The end result has been a series of quasi-All-Star games in which the players actually care: There’s been little to no defense; the refs (for the most part) have swallowed their whistles; shots have been taken five seconds into the shot clock; and the concept of valuing possession has been nonexistent.
I know everyone wants to talk about Kevin Durant’s dominance, the roller coaster of emotions that comes with watching Kyrie Irving, Steph Curry emerging as a better rebounder than Tristan Thompson, whether LeBron has the clutch gene and/or is better than Michael Jordan, Kyle Korver’s dunk, and whatever else can be turned into a meme. But my big takeaway from these Finals as someone who tunes into hundreds of college basketball games per year is that there has never been a more distinct gap between the college and pro games than there is right now.
I’m going to do my best to avoid making this a college-versus-NBA debate because, as I have maintained for years, arguments over which brand of basketball is better are pointless. My intent isn’t to trash the NBA product, which I find thoroughly entertaining and of which I’d consider myself a fan. I just think there’s an interesting discussion to be had about how coaches at the amateur level are dealing with the Warriors’ budding dynasty.
At any given point in history, there always seems to be one NBA player who kids on courts all across the world want to mimic. Jordan is far and away the best example, as there was a famous Gatorade campaign that addressed the idea of kids wanting to be Jordan, as well as a hit song in the 1990s that was written with the phenomenon in mind. Like Jordan, other players who fit the description throughout NBA history — Dr. J, Magic, Kobe, LeBron, etc. — have almost always featured inherent physical advantages over their opponents. That’s important because while kids could lower a basketball hoop to 7 feet and try to dunk like Jordan when screwing around with their friends, doing so didn’t necessarily instill bad habits that would carry over to organized basketball played with a 10-foot rim.
When I wrote about Curry back in September, I made the point that he differed from past NBA icons in that his physical traits are underwhelming and therefore it isn’t completely obvious why he’s so good, which makes it easy for kids to convince themselves that they could be just like him. It takes otherworldly genetics to dunk on people in traffic with the power and grace of Jordan or LeBron, but anyone can chuck 3s with a hand in their face like Curry does. As these playoffs have unfolded, this line of thinking has applied to the Warriors as a whole. Even if you think that Durant has taken over as the player most often mimicked on playground courts, he provides the same sorts of highlights as Curry. Sure, KD boasts an obvious physical advantage (being 7-feet tall), but he primarily uses that to rise over defenders as he launches jumpers. Even Klay Thompson gives off the vibe that anyone can become a transcendent shooter and drop 37 points in one quarter by simply practicing enough.
Basically, the Warriors have perfected the pace-and-space approach, and now everyone wants to be them. That’s a problem, though, because while their dominance has spawned a wave of imitators — from other NBA teams (especially the Cavs and Rockets) to college programs (UCLA was the best example last season) to kids in driveways — the reality is that they provide a phenomenally shitty template for how basketball should be played. And for as much fun as it is to practice circus shots off the dribble from as far away from the basket as possible, all the habits that guys develop while trying to imitate Golden State are now transferring to actual games, with the results looking less like Curry at his best and more like LaMelo Ball at his worst.
Don’t get me wrong, I loooooove watching the style that the Warriors play. But I love it only because it works, and it works only because their team is exceptionally talented. Since James Naismith invented the sport in 1891, playing fast as hell and pulling up from 26 feet off the dribble with a hand in your face has always been an awful decision. But Golden State is starting to make people reconsider that universal truth, and I’m worried basketball at every level is going to devolve into a bunch of jabronis thinking they’re KD and Curry, turning games into track meets with nothing but contested 3s and uncontested dunks and hoisting garbage shots as soon as there’s a whistle so they’ll inexplicably get free throws that aren’t really deserved.
Are the Warriors actually bad for basketball? Of course not. I’m one of those idiots who takes sports too seriously and argues that basketball is an art form, and having beautiful art in the world can only be a good thing. Given that Golden State’s run of success seems to have no end in sight, though, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t worry about a potential trickle-down effect. What the Warriors have shown in these playoffs barely resembles what we’ve come to understand as basketball, and that’s something that should be celebrated. Yet it should also be recognized as unique, as there’s a reason that college basketball’s national championship game looked so different than these NBA Finals. And that’s because the truth remains that most basketball teams should still walk the ball up the floor, value possession, and set a thousand screens as they work to manufacture a good shot.
Unless, you know, they have four of the world’s top 15 players, including the NBA’s two most recent MVPs. Then they should do whatever they want.