More so than any major American sport, the nature of basketball lends itself to predictable outcomes — only five players a side, fluidly and frequently alternating offense and defense.
For many fans, that’s exactly the sport’s appeal: generally, the best team with the most talented players prevails, and in that way, greatness is rewarded.
But what’s rewarding is seeing greatness tested and, in the process, proven.
Therein lies the paradox of competition: if the exact same Golden State roster defeated the exact same teams, but was more closely challenged, we’d recalibrate because the road was harder than expected, and concede value to the difficulty of the journey.
While top-dogs are undoubtably good for sport, the fastest way to lose suspense in an inherently competitive environment is the perception there isn’t adequate or fair competition.
Each great team of the past has, at some point, encountered legitimate competition, a patch of uncertainty, however brief.
The modern concept of the “superteam” originated in 2008 in Boston, when Celtics management flanked Paul Pierce with two other Hall-of-Fame locks (former MVP Kevin Garnett and preeminent scorer Ray Allen), upping the championship paradigm from two star players to three.
In turn, Vegas tapped them as prohibitive favorites, and the trio scorched to a 29-3 record, appearing to validate predictions that they would coast to titles.
But over the course of the playoffs, those Celtics were pushed to seven games in each of the first two rounds, and securing the 2008 championship ultimately required 26 postseason games, the most of any team ever.
That Larry O’Brien trophy would be the only the trio would hoist in their five years together.
It was harder than expected.
When LeBron James, along with Chris Bosh, formed their superteam in Miami, ushering in the era of player empowerment, the overwhelming sentiment from fans and some teams was disbelief, manifested by the widespread questioning — and attacking — of LeBron.
Like the previous “Big Three,” that team, too, initially thought the championship was a foregone conclusion. Not just one, either — “not five, not six, not seven…”
Months after opening their campaign with a pedestrian 9-8 record, and much to the schadenfreude of almost everyone outside the 305 area code, the so-called Heatles were surprisingly upset by the Dallas Mavericks.
Pushed along the way by Boston, Indiana, San Antonio, and, to a lesser extent, Chicago, the Heat claimed consecutive titles before the biggest of their three, out from under the withering micromanagement of Pat Riley, replicated the formula in Cleveland.
Both situations proved harder than expected.
LeBron’s decisions, and the ensuing backlash he bore and still bears, paved the way for Kevin Durant to make the best career decision for him. But, in a zero-sum league, the result in Golden State is entirely new.
Everything — the regular season, playoffs, each possession — for this Warriors team has just looked so easy, perhaps even easier than expected.
It’s tempting to overlook that the narrow upset of last year’s record-setting Warriors — an athletic feat that would headline any greatest-of-all-time résumé — required a hobbled Steph Curry, a serendipitous Draymond Green suspension, not to mention a string of herculean LeBron performances, plus some Kyrie Irving heroics sprinkled in.
A year later, in order to topple LeBron James, that same juggernaut went and added the world’s closest thing to LeBron James.
Their best-ever 16-1 record in the playoffs, when competition is at its supposed peak, will forever attest to how superior they were.
Beyond the ludicrous statistics, this Warriors team is different in that it seems to have no close challenger due, in no small part, to the historic excellence of Durant.
And there’s no sign its reign will cease anytime soon.
Never has a team comprised four players, all comfortably among the 20 best players in the league, under 30 years old and locked into contracts for years to come.
The 1996 Bulls, often esteemed as basketball’s pinnacle of excellence and for which Michael Jordan was 33, started an aging, post-ACL tear Ron Harper and someone named Luc Longley.
The third-best player for the 2001 Lakers, the last team to have two of the league’s undisputed five best players and who tore through the playoffs, winning 15 of 16 games (the first round was best-of-five back then), was probably either Rick Fox or Derek Fisher. Not quite Draymond Green or Klay Thompson.
Even going back a generation, when the Celtics and Lakers nearly monopolized championships, those teams had each other as challengers — and, in the 1980s, the Bucks, Sixers, Pistons and Rockets weren’t exactly slouches, either.
Even the human elements — the protracted adjustment period, play-style compatibility issues, and bedeviling flares of ego — that traditionally emerge from combining elite talents have been seemingly absent in Golden State.
There’s no question that dynasties and runs of greatness have been instrumental to the lure and lore the NBA — dynasties litter the league’s hagiography.
But against a Warriors team that, in its first year, handily dispatched its closest — and most anticipated — challenger and has no signs of breaking up anytime soon, for the other 29 teams, simply reing-up for another go at it leaves them woefully behind.
Some will point to the highest-since-Jordan TV ratings of the 2017 as evidence this level of dominance will lead to similarly high, future ratings.
But the intrigue for these Finals centered on a compelling unknown: how does this team stack up against LeBron James plus two All-Stars?
Now that the Warriors’ level of collective brilliance is known, and known to surpass everything we’ve previously seen, what’s the suspense in the sport?
The response isn’t for ownership to legislate a solution; they tried that post-Decision in 2011.
But short of more elite players combining forces — of whom supply is scarce and could require top talents to swallow unrealistic pay cuts in their prime earning years — or LeBron bolting cap-strapped Cleveland in 2018, there’s not much roster change on the horizon to challenge these Warriors. And further star clustering may metastasize tanking, as teams know they can’t compete.
Of course, stuff happens, and things turn on a trifle. And noise, even if manufactured, around the NBA won’t disappear — ESPN and Turner are still on the hook for the $24 billion TV deal.
And eventually the salary cap will force difficult choices about whether Golden State can retain the likes of Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston. And maybe perennial dominance will placate professional competitors, who may opt for difficulty over winning and apparent fun.
Or maybe casual eyeballs will prize years of unmatched greatness over all else.
But, as of today, it appears the Warriors will be together for as long as the players want to be, and as long as team owner Joe “Light-Years Ahead” Lacob — who netted $305 million in 2014-15 revenue alone (the most recent data available) — is willing to sign luxury tax checks.
For a league whose appeal is based around its stars, these Warriors will test if there’s such a thing as a team’s being too great, or, to put it more cynically, the league’s being too predictable.
Unless, of course, there’s actually truth to the long-held conspiracy that the NBA is rigged.
Where’s David Stern when you need him?