Because I’m dumb, I had a Golden State championship story prepared to post after both Games 5 and 6. Obviously, Golden State did not win. However, I don’t want to waste the content, so here’s what I would’ve had to say had the Warriors won Game 7 and the NBA Finals. One last note: the original Cavs post-mortem was titled: LeBron isn’t Special Anymore. Shows how much I know.
Here’s how special the Golden State Warriors are: before them, the last team to win a championship with three leading scorers aged 27 or younger was Michael Jordan’s 1990-91 Chicago Bulls. Only four other teams have ever done that in league history: the 1950 Minneapolis Lakers, the 1956 Syracuse Nationals, the 1977 Portland Trailblazers and the 1979 Seattle Supersonics. To be good enough to win a championship and young enough to win several more is extremely rare. Not only have the Warriors done it, they’ve done it twice.
Yes, they are the only team that has ever done so. They’re the only team to do quite a few things. They’re the only team ever to win 73 games, or make 13 three-pointers per game (or 12, for that matter). They just won the championship with the league’s highest offensive rating a year after doing so with the league’s highest defensive rating. No one else has done that either. This one isn’t official but we can safely assume they hold the record for making the most opponents look like a hungover frat playing ultimate frisbee as well.
This is all to say that the Warriors are very, very good and that this whole thing is going to continue for quite some time. Now it’s just a matter of figuring out how long.
Barring something unforeseen like LeBron actively engaging in free agency, the Warriors are going to enter next season as the title favorites. Their six highest paid players are all under contract, and Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli can be retained through match rights on any restricted free agent offer sheet they sign.
In all likelihood, that means those eight will be back. Mo Speights should be gone, but that’s a manageable loss. If they want to play with cap space this summer, that would mean dumping three out of the Barnes/Iguodala/Bogut/Ezeli/Livingston group which they probably won’t do unless Kevin Durant says he’s coming. The most plausible scenario is that they don’t make any long-term moves this summer.
The one thing to watch out for is if they decide to don’t want to pay Barnes and/or Ezeli. They have assets like Kevin Looney, their 2016 first rounder and their 2019 pick to dangle for one-year replacements. Think players like P.J. Tucker on the wing or Tiago Splitter up front. This is a far more realistic eventuality than anyone’s giving it credit for. Barnes is going to get overpaid, and aside from having to actually pay him that money, the Warriors probably don’t want to invite the chemistry problems that would arise from him making more than Curry, Green or Thompson. There’s a real chance that he’s gone. Even if he is though, we can assume that next year’s roster is very similar and that barring injuries, this same Warriors group is competing for their third straight championship.
The first true inflection point comes in 2017. That’s when Iguodala, Bogut, Livingston and yes, even Stephen Curry, all expire. If the Warriors plan to remake their team as the mid-90’s Bulls did after Jordan’s retirement, that’s when it’s coming, and doing so would actually be relatively easy. Thanks to his well-below market value contract, Curry’s cap hold will be only around $20 million next summer. The only two other players guaranteed for the 2017-18 season are Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, and together the three would cost around $55 million.
That’s only half of the projected $108 million cap. All the Warriors have to do to get there is let Barnes and Ezeli walk this summer, or trade them next summer. Even if they kept both at $20 million per season, which is absolutely overkill, they’d have eight figures to throw around. In the likelier scenario that one is gone either this summer or next, they’d have the space to add a max free agent.
Could you imagine Blake Griffin running the fast break with Curry and Thompson? That’s in play. So is Serge Ibaka as the long-term center, giving them an unheard of combination of shooting and defense. If Durant’s back on the market they’ll have a chance. They could go the safer route and add several younger players around their big three, or they could use their space to absorb contracts from other teams. They could probably give Stan Musial’s ghost the max and still field a contender. In any case, next summer is when the Warriors remake their roster for the next few years of their run.
The one risk here is Curry’s own free agency. Sure, stars rarely leave three-time defending champions, but the Charlotte whispers won’t go away and it’s entirely possible that he could get bored enough with being on such a great team that he wants a new challenge.
I wouldn’t bet on it, so as long as the Warriors can keep Curry, they’d be a three-time defending champion with one All Star at 28-years-old and two more at 26. They’d have the resources to put whatever players they want around them. They’re ahead of Jordan’s Bulls in both regards. They wouldn’t have to worry about retaining one of their own again until 2019, when Thompson’s contract expires. Draymond follows in 2020, and though it’s way too far out to predict, there doesn’t seem to be a pressing reason for either to leave.
There are going to be other contenders. Oklahoma City and Cleveland aren’t going away. The Spurs will always loom. Minnesota is going to grow up sooner or later and so are the Sixers.
But the Warriors just won a championship with their best player injured for most of the playoffs. They came back from a 3-1 deficit against a team with two All-NBA players. They’ve beaten LeBron James in the Finals twice and he’s only getting older, not to mention it’s highly unlikely Draymond gets suspended for another Finals game. If there were ever a year for this Warriors group not to win the championship, this was it. But they did it. So until a compelling reason is offered otherwise, I see no reason why they’d lose next year, and assuming they take advantage of their 2017 free agency, they’ll have a chance to lock up even more championships after that.
There’s really no end in sight here. Would it be the eventual free agencies of Green or Thompson, hoping to get out of Steph’s shadow? Or could Steve Kerr’s back injuries force him into an early retirement?
Those are all stretches. Realistically, this team is going to contend in perpetuity. Hell, shooters age so well that Curry and Thompson could be All Stars for another decade. Draymond has played fewer NBA minutes in his entire career than LeBron has in the past three seasons alone so it’s not as if he has a ton of mileage on him either.
Way too much can happen to make long-term predictions with any sort of conviction, but on paper the Warriors are positioned better than any team in NBA history to win a whole lot of championships. They’re younger than the Bulls were at this stage. They have more roster flexibility too, and to be blunt they’re probably just better. Six championships isn’t a pipe dream. It’s an expectation. Seven is just as reasonable.
So yea, Stephen Curry might get hurt. Steve Kerr might retire. Draymond might wind up in some Siberian gulag for offending the Czar. But for the first time since their reign ended, the Bulls have real reason to worry that their status as the best post-merger team in NBA history is in jeopardy. If things stay as they are, the Warriors are going to snatch that title for themselves.