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Time Comes for Every Dynasty, Even the Golden State Warriors

It’s possible, likely even, that the Warriors will reassemble themselves after a lost season and return to being a dominant, revolutionary force. But once the wheels start coming off a great team, the canniest wheel-reattachment experts in the world sometimes can’t get them back on.   

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Warriors are bad now. This is a fact, and not open to dispute. They’re 2-9; 2-9 is a bad record. After Wednesday night, when they travel to Los Angeles to pass through the Anthony Davis Evisceration Experience, they will probably be 2-10; 2-10 is an even worse record than 2-9. They rank 30th in the league in defensive efficiency; having the worst defense in the NBA is a bad trait. They have a star player, Steph Curry, whose left hand is broken; Steph Curry’s hands are one of America’s greatest treasures, and it is bad when an American treasure breaks on your watch. They have another star player, Klay Thompson, who’s out with a torn ACL; it is bad when the second-best player on your basketball team is unable to play basketball for several months. They almost had a second star player out with an Achilles injury, which would have been very, very bad in its own right, but Kevin Durant left the team altogether and is now rehabbing with the Nets. Losing Kevin Durant permanently to the Nets is even worse than losing him temporarily to injury. Somehow, the Warriors did both.

Over the past half-decade, Golden State made five consecutive NBA Finals, won three titles, and reshaped the league in its image. Time is an even more merciless eviscerator than Anthony Davis, however, and one of the things time has eviscerated is the Golden State Warriors’ goodness. Time has made it so that they are not good at all anymore. They are bad.

It’s been a little surprising to see how calmly people are taking this. When the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead to the Cavs in the 2016 NBA Finals, the meme that resulted was galactic and enduring. (How big was it? You could imagine a threatened Crying Jordan insisting to the meme media that it didn’t belong in the Hall of Fame.) But somehow the complete implosion of the Warriors as a competitive idea has passed without much collective freaking out. Most of the articles I’ve read about Golden State’s current doldrums have focused on the many reasons Warriors fans have to feel optimistic. D’Angelo Russell can be traded for cap space! The team is probably bad enough not to lose the top-20 protected draft pick it was scheduled to ship to the Nets, and can therefore probably look forward to a lottery spot in 2020! Curry and Thompson, coming back from serious injuries in their early 30s, probably won’t be that much worse! The new arena is nice! Maybe Andre Iguodala will come back?!?

All this might be true, I guess? Structurally, the Warriors appear to be in solid, maybe great, long-term shape. And sometimes in the NBA, being in great long-term structural shape actually does lead to championships. (Though let’s go back in time to the spring of 2012 and ask Sam Presti how reliably this works out.) Regardless, the fact remains that the most revolutionary basketball team of the past decade is currently running a pick-and-roll-heavy offense while sitting on the league’s worst record and praying Draymond Green’s finger doesn’t fall off. We went from “Can a Curry-Russell backcourt win 50 games?” to “The Warriors don’t tank … but maybe they should tank?” in what, two weeks? The superteam of superteams abandoned Oakland for a lucrative new arena in San Francisco, then immediately began feeding its audience of blood-hungry app-baron front-runners a product made of warm cottage cheese and panicky help defense. I don’t know about you, but I could use a brief window to scream and light Facebook stock on fire before I accept this as an unimportant blip.

Of course, it might be the Warriors’ status as the team of Silicon Valley that makes it hard to look their badness fully in the face. Faith in the tech economy runs deep in this country, and the Warriors have always been a kind of tech product. If it’s shiny, disruptive, and based in the Bay Area, we assume it can’t be stopped. In fact, great teams that fall apart to this extent don’t come back at least as often as they do. But the Warriors have a technocratic sheen that makes them feel like winners at the organizational level, rather than merely one very skilled core of players.

If the Warriors are lucky, the wave of injuries will subside, Curry and Thompson will come back strong, the young roster will jell quickly around Green, the newly equitable draft lottery will land them a good pick, Tim Cook will finally fix the MacBook keyboard, and all manner of things shall be well. Everyone wants to compare this Golden State season to that one lost year in San Antonio that brought Tim Duncan to the Spurs, and that’s certainly a possible outcome here. If the Warriors are less lucky, however, then a more plausible comparison is—and I’m sorry for this, truly; if you’re one of the 97 percent of Warriors fans who I assume is a hardcore English Premier League fan, please know that I take no pleasure in what I am about to do to you—a more plausible comparison is Arsenal.

You might not remember this now, but in the late ’90s and early 2000s, Arsenal was one of the most terrifying clubs in English soccer. Under their calm, somewhat professorial manager, Arsène Wenger, the Gunners pioneered what was, for the era, a pathbreakingly data-driven approach to the game. They used sophisticated scouting and player-evaluation techniques to build their rosters, buying promising but undervalued players whom other clubs had overlooked. They devised a fast-flowing and screamingly entertaining style of play, one that made other clubs look old-fashioned and lumbering and that made them a high-scoring powerhouse. Their star player, Thierry Henry, was one of the greatest pure strikers of all time. From an organizational standpoint, they were run with impeccable attention to detail, one of the first clubs to recognize the commercial realities of the new global era of soccer; they famously redesigned their old crest in 2002 in order to copyright the design. They won three titles under Wenger. In 2006, fresh off a season in which they made the Champions League final but lost to Barcelona, they left their longtime home in North London, Highbury, for the state-of-the-art new Emirates Stadium, an executive-suite-rich starship that was supposed to secure their long-term financial footing and ensure their continued success.

Remind you of anyone? Like the Arsenal of the early 2000s, Golden State is a data-positive, tactically innovative scoring powerhouse with an unusually thoughtful and articulate coach. Like Arsenal, the Warriors set records for dominance (Golden State won 73 games in 2015-16; Arsenal went undefeated in the 2003-04 league campaign). Like Arsenal, the Warriors won titles behind a freakishly gifted shooter before moving to a new arena after losing the biggest game of the previous season. Like Arsenal, the Warriors made this move even though it left many of their longtime fans feeling abandoned; like Arsenal, the Warriors saw the new stadium as a necessary step toward modernization, one that would extend, rather than end, their run at the top. However, like Arsenal, the Warriors lost key players (Patrick Vieira, a brilliant midfielder who was also Arsenal’s emotional leader, left the club in 2005; he’s an eerily close equivalent to Iguodala) and struggled with injuries to their stars (Henry, like Curry, missed much of the season after the move). The Gunners went years without winning another trophy. More than a decade later, they still haven’t won another league title.

The point isn’t that these two teams are magically identical or that the Warriors are doomed to repeat Arsenal’s fate. (Though if history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce, I’m prepared to believe that neoliberalism repeats itself first as soccer and then as basketball.) The point, as almost always, is that you never know in sports. A team can appear to be on top of the world, to have made all the smart decisions, to be structurally predestined for success, and still not succeed. Once the wheels start coming off a great team, the canniest wheel-reattachment experts in the world can’t draw up a scheme that’s guaranteed to get them back on, because time exists to make a mockery of human plans. Golden State might be fine next year, but this is a desperately vulnerable moment for the most historically significant NBA organization of this era. The Warriors are bad! If the Basketball Hall of Fame actually existed to reward winners, there would be no players inside. It would just be a wall of clocks.