I hate admitting this, but aside from an instant-classic Game 1, I’ve never been more bored watching the NBA Finals. The Warriors won their third title in four seasons in a sweep, and LeBron James wasn’t even on the floor in the final four minutes of Game 4 because the Cavaliers were getting pummeled so badly.
Dynasties have defined the NBA every decade—Bill Russell’s Celtics to Magic Johnson’s Lakers to Michael Jordan’s Bulls—but it’s different with the Warriors: It’s felt like the road has been too easy, just like many fans and pundits feared it would be when Kevin Durant decided to join the Warriors on July 4, 2016. Every team faces its own kind of adversity—David West even hinted after Game 4 that Golden State had behind-the-scenes issues that the public has “no clue” about—but it doesn’t change the fact that the Warriors still tip the scales on the court. With Durant, they’re 8-1 against LeBron, and if it weren’t for an unhealthy Steph Curry and a suspended Draymond Green in 2016, they’d also have a fourth title.
I’ve done a lot reflecting about this apathy the Warriors have generated in the wake of their Finals dominance. There’s so much to love about this gorgeous game: the diversity in styles, from the Rockets’ analytics-driven product to the Spurs playing classic bully-ball, and the unscripted soap opera element, from Joel Embiid’s theatrics to Enes Kanter’s selfies. But when the final series isn’t competitive, even watching the greatest player of this generation battle the greatest team of this generation for four consecutive seasons can start to feel dull.
I kept thinking about how nice it would be if Durant were just as bored by the lack of competition and decided to pursue a new challenge. What if he instead led his own contender and started chasing LeBron’s crown as the best player in the NBA instead of being content with “second-best”? How nice would it be to watch Durant on the Knicks, alongside Kristaps Porzingis, in a league with greater parity in the playoffs? Maybe someday, but not this summer; Durant confirmed before Game 4 that he plans on re-signing with the Warriors. The Warriors are here to stay, as is the feeling from some fans that they’re ruining the NBA by turning every season into an inevitability.
But then I came to a realization: The Warriors’ dominance didn’t ruin basketball. It’s pushing the league to new heights. We’re just in the middle of the process.
The basketball gods have a way of providing the league with what it asks for. As soon as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson got old, Michael Jordan blossomed into the face of the league. Then the year Jordan retired, LeBron was drafted. A league dominated by guards is being balanced with a replenishment of new-age bigs that have guard skills in 2018, and it will be again in 2020. The Warriors may be too good, but coaches, executives, and players around the league have an unsatisfied hunger to defeat them. As LeBron said the morning after Game 3: Everyone is trying to figure out how to put together a group of talent and minds that can compete with Golden State for a title. Teams may take greater risks in the name of thinking bigger and aiming higher.
Houston was only the first scare. Despite losing Chris Paul to injury, the Rockets led Golden State at halftime in both games 6 and 7 of the Western Conference finals. The Warriors were without Andre Iguodala for most of the series, but had Paul been healthy, Houston may have had enough juice to deliver an upset. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey has said he’s obsessed with beating Golden State, and that feeling only became more intense by getting so close. It’s been widely reported that Houston plans to pursue LeBron, which speaks to how high the bar is. Morey would have to get extremely creative to acquire LeBron, but creativity is what will define this offseason.
The salary cap is expected to flatten after recent spikes, bumping up from $99 million to just $101 million. Plenty of teams will be strapped for cash. But limited cap space can lead to an uptick of sold draft picks, sign-and-trades, opt-ins that lead to trades, or any other funky deals outside the scope of a trade machine. It seems that’s what we’ll get. Front-office executives anticipate significant movement this summer, starting on draft night.
The offseason hot stove is already burning up just three days after the Warriors’ win. The Kings and Mavericks are open to moving down in the draft, according to multiple league front-office executives. Sacramento is in the asset-stacking business, while Dallas is trying to compete for the playoffs next season. The Clippers, who have the no. 12 and no. 13 picks, are one team pushing to move up, as I previously reported, and have interest in both Luka Doncic and Michael Porter Jr. The Bucks are one team to monitor, as they’ll use their no. 17 pick to bolster the roster around Giannis Antetokounmpo. League sources are split on what the Cavaliers will do with the no. 8 pick. Some think they’ll play it conservative and use the selection, rather than risk trading it to appease LeBron, only for him to leave. If they keep the pick, consider Alabama point guard Collin Sexton a strong possibility. Others think they’ll do everything in their power to build a team that can make LeBron stay or keep them in playoff contention even if LeBron leaves. LeBron recruited Paul George to Cleveland last summer before a draft-night blockbuster deal fell apart, and league sources don’t believe Cleveland’s interest has waned. James and George will discuss teaming up with the Lakers this summer, as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported, but perhaps that discussion will end up including other teams like the Cavaliers. Blazers guard C.J. McCollum also gets consistently mentioned as a Cavs target—as does Damian Lillard, though it’s hard to fathom Portland’s face of the franchise would be dealt unless he asks for a trade. But it’s fun to imagine a fantasy world where Kevin Love is a key trade piece dealt for McCollum, then George is sign-and-traded by Oklahoma City for the no. 8 pick and salary filler. But that’s just a fantastical plan, and LeBron could still prefer joining forces with the Rockets, building a superteam with the Lakers, or completing the Sixers. So much is riding on the King. But regardless of where he goes, his next team will need the talent and cerebral qualities necessary to defeat the Warriors.
Other contenders loom, regardless of what LeBron does. The Celtics will add a healthy Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving and have the assets to be creative in the trade market. Had those two played and had the Celtics beaten LeBron, we could have seen seven games of Boston–Golden State instead of sulking. The Sixers can pursue virtually any available star with their overflow of assets and the ability to create max cap space. Embiid and Ben Simmons will keep getting better, and if Markelle Fultz manages to solve his jumper problem, they will soon be a handful. The Spurs are facing their most challenging offseason of the past 20 years, but if they evade disaster, it means they successfully mended fences with Kawhi Leonard. And if that happens, they can create cap space to pursue LeBron or other free agents. You can never count out the Spurs.
A team with a young star—like the Jazz and Donovan Mitchell, the Pelicans and Anthony Davis, or even the Suns and Devin Booker—could make a franchise-changing move and suddenly emerge as a title contender. No one expected the Warriors to turn into a force when Curry’s ankles couldn’t stay healthy and Draymond Green was just a second-round reserve. The tables can turn quickly in the NBA. The next come-up team can be anyone.
The Warriors raised the bar for this decade, but dynasties come and go. Challengers across the NBA will now try to stack their rosters, and LeBron will aim to build a new superteam. Once worthy adversaries to the Warriors emerge, the basketball world will be treated with a historic level of competition.