Sports

Whatever Comes Next for the Warriors, Their Historical Greatness Can’t Be Denied

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) and guard Andre Iguodala (9) during Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., June 13, 2019. (Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports/Reuters)
If this is the end of an era for Golden State, it’s been an amazing ride.

Well, the rest of the NBA finally got what it wanted. After five years of utter dominance — briefly interrupted by the Cavaliers’ championship in 2016, which was really just Draymond Green’s gift to the city of Cleveland — the Warriors have lost in the Finals.

It was an incredible series, and the basketball gods pulled out all the stops to ensure that the greatest team in the sport’s history would lose: a torn quad for Demarcus Cousins, a separated rib for Kevon Looney, Kevin Durant’s heartbreaking Achilles tear, and of course Klay Thompson’s strained hamstring and torn ACL. The latter two players may never be the same and will miss at least most of next season.

On the opposing bench, the Toronto Raptors had every right to celebrate last night. This championship will always be remembered for Golden State’s crippling injuries; it’s highly unlikely that any team in the league would stand greater than a puncher’s chance at beating these Warriors at full strength in a seven-game series. But that shouldn’t detract from the Raptors’ accomplishment. Kawhi Leonard’s historic playoff run, and the heroics of a deep, talent-studded Raptors roster behind him, should be remembered and celebrated in their own right. Only four players in the history of the NBA have done what Leonard did these playoffs: play in at least ten games, average 30 points with a 60 percent true shooting percentage, and contribute 1.5 steals per game on the defensive end. The other three? Michael Jordan, Lebron James, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

And yet, there were several moments in game six that made Warriors fans believe the Dubs could somehow pull through. Thompson went into his famed “game six Klay” mode, pouring in 30 points on just twelve shots. Late in the third quarter, he went up for a fast-break dunk attempt, was fouled, landed awkwardly, and stayed on the floor, grabbing his knee in pain. Eventually, he was helped up and headed for the locker room, only to be told in the tunnel that if he did not take his free throws, he would have to leave the game for good. Thunderous roars rained down from the seats at Oracle arena as he limped back onto the floor. For roughly a minute, destiny was back on the Warriors side. But then he left again — for good, as it turned out — to be evaluated by the team’s doctors.

And against all the odds, the Warriors still somehow managed to stay in the game. Long-past-their-prime veterans such as Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston made huge shots. Draymond Green contributed a rare three. And perfect defense earned the team one final possession, down one with 9.6 seconds left. Coach Steve Kerr drew up a beautiful play that got Stephen Curry a sliver of space on the right wing. Curry rose, as he has hundreds of times before, for a lightning-quick, rafter-scraping shot. The fans at Oracle have experienced this so many times: a shot that somehow leaves you both with your heart in your throat and a quiet confidence that it would go in, living on the edge but never quite falling off. It’s Steph, after all, you think. He’ll make it.

But he didn’t, and after another minute of bureaucratic refereeing nonsense, it was over. Toronto had snuffed out the three-peat.

Many in the national press and the Bay Area portrayed this game as a kind of last stand for the Warriors. It was the last game ever at Oracle Arena, a beloved if dated concrete edifice that was regularly packed with fans, even during the dark times of Andris Biedrins and Monta Ellis. The Warriors will move to a beautiful waterfront arena in San Francisco next year, but even as an SF native who instinctively dislikes anywhere east of the Bay Bridge, I’m a little sad to see them leave Oakland. Oracle was one of very few places in the Bay Area where you could see a true cross-section of the region’s diversity, and it wasn’t nicknamed “Roaracle” for nothing.

So it is the end of an era in that sense, and perhaps in another, more immediate sense, too. The team is staring down the barrel of the impending free agencies of Durant and Thompson, and the very likely departure of Cousins. It doesn’t have the cap space to be able to sign replacement stars, so it’ll most likely have to offer the latter two players max contracts and pray they return as approximations of their pre-injury selves. Thompson will probably return; Durant has been very guarded as to whether he’ll walk or not.

But rumors of the Warriors’ demise have probably been overstated. Remember that the Durant-less Warriors split titles with an absolutely stacked Cleveland team and set the all-time record for regular-season wins. Remember that Curry won two straight MVP awards in 2015 and 2016, the second by an unprecedented unanimous vote. And remember that their front office is one of the best in the league; improvement on this year’s dismal depth is almost certainly coming.

The NBA transitions between season and offseason faster than any other league; the draft will be held in less than a week, and free agency begins in just over two. But before all of that madness, those who love basketball should take a moment to remember these thrilling Finals and the greatness of both these teams.

The Warriors of these past five years have done things no one previously thought possible. Curry is one of very few NBA players (Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, Lebron James, Dirk Nowitzki) who can claim to be among the best ever and to have transformed how the game is played. As unquestionably the greatest shooter of all time, he’s been central to the three-point explosion that has revolutionized the sport. Thompson has a great case to be considered the second-best shooter ever. Green is a generational defensive talent. And Durant, for all the noise around his decision to join the best team in the league, has delivered only spectacular play and a résumé that will one day place him among the best to ever grace the hardwood.

And those are just the individual talents involved. At its best, this team has somehow been more than the sum of its parts. Kerr’s mantra of playing with joy, if a little worn these past couple of seasons, made the Warriors an aesthetic delight. The ball would whirl up and down and around the court, good shots passed up for great ones, four future Hall of Famers putting team first. At a time when basketball is exploding in cultural relevance and popularity, the Warriors have given the world its most beautiful possible iteration. Through these five grindingly long seasons, their otherworldly style, passion, and grit was a gift. If this is the end of an era, it’s been a heck of a run.

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