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Fear and Loathing in the Warriors Era

Golden State has perfected the superteam template that LeBron James created. Its third title in four years may now send the King on a new quest to try to finally beat it.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With just over six minutes to go, LeBron James appeared to be in mid-thought on a Golden State sideline out-of-bounds play. Kevin Durant lofted the ball to Draymond Green at the left wing, and Green quickly shuttled the ball to Steph Curry, who took advantage of LeBron’s momentary catatonia by drifting to the left corner for an open 3. Eight straight NBA Finals, one of the most statistically impressive postseasons in history, and, suddenly, if not surprisingly, a 28-point deficit with nowhere near enough time. All Atlas could do was shrug.

With their 108–85 win in Game 4 on Friday, Golden State has officially locked in its dynasty. Even so, we likely won’t remember this Warriors season with any kind of specificity. It had none of the revolutionary bombast of 2014–15, none of the historic achievements and collapses of 2015–16, and none of the greatest team of all time reckoning that the 2016–17 team forced us to consider. Its narrative is a vestigial structure belonging to past Warriors campaigns, and, arguably, a culmination of the past decade of the NBA as we know it. They have exemplified the fear and loathing of the superteam era, built upon the template that LeBron created (and bludgeoned him with it), and have overcome the champion’s fatigue that comes for all dynasties.

Early in the season, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr mentioned the hurdles that a champion goes through after years of reaching the Finals, something reiterated in a postgame moment on the court between Kerr and Curry in Game 4. “I think that’s the hardest thing probably for people to understand, fans, media, whoever … is the fatigue, the emotional and spiritual fatigue that sets in when you’ve been going to the Finals,” Kerr said back in November. It’s what felled LeBron’s Miami Heat four years ago, what took down the Shaq-Kobe Lakers in the early 2000s. It looked as though the slog had begun to weigh on the team this year; the Rockets series was the most demanding seven games the team had faced since 2016. But that’s what Durant was for. The two-time NBA Finals MVP was a second wind, a step behind the rest of the team in spirit (and sometimes on the court). But that’s exactly where he needed to be for the team to keep their momentum.

On its own, the Warriors’ triumph was a mundane exercise that courted inevitability before the season even began, but when you win three of the past four championships, there is nothing keeping the successes of one campaign from that of the whole. With Golden State’s string of accolades now tethered to the history of the league at large, it furthers the notion that these Warriors will forever change how we think about basketball by the time their reign is over. But for now, we’ll probably remember these Warriors for likely pushing LeBron James out of yet another four-year mini era. James’s residency at the Finals is so rooted at this point that every moment seems to have a parallel. Familiar scenes align themselves with their precedents, like tiles in a mosaic. There’s time to retrace the steps.

My mind goes back to the way the last LeBron mini era ended, four years ago, in Game 5 of the 2014 NBA Finals, with a whimper. The Miami Heat saw James on the court in their uniform for the final time with 6:30 remaining in the fourth quarter, taken out of the game during a television timeout. The Heat were facing, to that point, arguably the best Spurs team of all time, buoyed as ever by their steady Big Three, with an ascendant star in Kawhi Leonard just starting to spread his wings on the biggest possible stage. San Antonio had found a way to stretch Miami’s blitzing defense so far that it snapped. The Spurs deployed a devastating closing lineup of Tim Duncan, Boris Diaw, Kawhi Leonard, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker, five live players who could all initiate offense on their own. “They put you in positions that no other team in this league does,” LeBron said then. “And it’s tough because you have to cover the ball first, but also those guys on the weak side can do multiple things. They can shoot the ball from outside, they can also penetrate. So our defense is geared toward running guys off the 3‑point line, but at the same time those guys are getting full steam ahead and getting to the rim, too. … Implementing Diaw into the lineup has given them another point guard on the floor.”

Sound familiar? There were no holes in the Spurs offense or defense; that five-man unit, which played the most minutes of any lineup in the series, had a net rating of 53.1. It was a proto–Death Lineup. It was one model for the Warriors offense Steve Kerr would soon conceive of with a charcuterie board in front of him only a couple of months later. A pass-happy scheme that Kerr had the luxury of updating, leveraging the talents of two of the best shooters in NBA history (a third was just two years away).

It’s been a long decade these past eight years. The King has played an average of 20 extra games since leaving Cleveland in 2010; he’s played 10 seasons in the time just about every other player in the NBA has taken to play eight. He was built for this, maybe more so than any player in history. James is 33 years old, but looks no worse for the wear in the 15 years he’s been in the league. Though he does look different. He has always been powerfully built, ever since he entered the league as an 18-year-old in 2003. Back then, LeBron defied gravity with the impudence of a royal heir. In his physical prime, he was built more like a jet, soaring by grace of perfectly molded aerodynamics; these days he is, in a word, broader — he is once again defying gravity, though this time not to mock it, but to express the impatience of a man who knows he doesn’t have much time left to waste. Time is fueling his sense of urgency. LeBron admitted after the series to have played the final three games with a bone contusion in his right hand after punching a writing board in anger following a 51-point performance that ended in defeat. To see LeBron take his foot off the pedal in Game 4 was a disappointment given how remarkable his postseason had been up to this point, but it makes at least a bit more sense now. There was no point in wearing himself out on a futile venture at his age; the future presents opportunities for him to fulfill whatever’s left of his destiny.

LeBron’s Decision back in 2010 was the Prometheus moment that created the realm of possibility in which these Warriors could exist. Golden State, in turn, effectively turned the lights off on this era, and turned the spotlight squarely on them. Durant has vowed to return to the team, which essentially clarifies the objective for the league’s elite over the next four or five years: field a team capable of beating Golden State at their own game. LeBron, this offseason, will have the opportunity to shift the paradigm again, given everything he’s experienced in the prime of his career. LeBron has spent more than a quarter of his life in the NBA Finals, but the Warriors have won as many titles in the past four years. If all the world’s a series, and LeBron has his pick of the players to join his quest for vengeance, then there is time for him to close the gap again. Beating these Warriors has become a life’s pursuit, and he’s seen those odds before.