The Golden State Warriors keep getting stronger.
Win a record-setting 73 games during the 2015-16 season before blowing a 3-1 lead against LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016 NBA Finals? No problem; they'll just add Kevin Durant and win each of the next two titles to establish themselves as a dynasty. Worried that complacency might set in after getting the brooms out during the 2018 NBA Finals? Here comes DeMarcus Cousins on the mid-level exception, ready to complete his Achilles rehabilitation before attempting to find his stride alongside four incumbent All-Stars.
The Warriors continue adding to their riches, exhibiting tremendous team-building acumen while taking advantage of the veterans who'd prefer to chase rings in the Bay Area. As dominant as they were last season, they might be even better moving forward, which begs the question of whether they're ruining the NBA.
To be clear, they aren't.
If shattering the illusion of competitiveness were so easy, the Association wouldn't have survived Bill Russell's run of excellence with the Boston Celtics. It couldn't have moved past the Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers owning the '80s before Michael Jordan won six titles in the '90s. The league has played witness to one overpowering force after another. The Warriors are only the latest in a long line of succession.
And yet, that "ruining the NBA" feeling still pervades. How is it fair that Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green get to play with Durant? And now they're adding Cousins into the mix?
But don't blame the Warriors for taking advantage of the opportunities bestowed upon them. Blame the NBA's other organizations for failing to avoid shooting themselves in the feet while engaging in a ceaseless—and thus far unsuccessful—pursuit of the defending champions.
Bad Decisions Across the League
Not every ill-advised decision from other teams directly led to the Warriors' dominance, but they all help paint the picture of struggle. Though some organizations have consistently drafted well and made strong personnel decisions—the pre-Kawhi Leonard-drama San Antonio Spurs, for example—even stellar ones such as the Houston Rockets can't avoid having pieces like Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute slip away.
Did former Brooklyn Nets general manager Billy King trading away every draft pick under the sun for access to aging veterans play a part in Golden State's rise to prominence? No, but it took one franchise out of the picture throughout the Warriors' rise. Ditto for the Cleveland Cavaliers drafting Anthony Bennett, the Dallas Mavericks dealing for Lamar Odom, the Utah Jazz not giving Gordon Hayward a five-year max extension back in 2014 and so many more unfortunate choices.
These moves make it that much more difficult to blame Golden State's front office. The NBA, as a whole, has had trouble getting its you-know-what together.
Just look back to the 2016 offseason for even more examples.
The Warriors landed Durant (two years, $54.5 million), Zaza Pachulia (one year, $2.9 million), David West (one year, $1.55 million), Ian Clark (one year, $1.01 million), James Michael McAdoo (one year, $0.98 million) and Anderson Varejao (one year, $1.5 million) that summer, per Sean Meagher of the Oregonian, but the rest of the field struggled to exercise restraint. With an exploding salary cap, a lack of cap smoothing and plenty of itchy trigger fingers, other teams handed out one bad contract after another.
During that summer alone, the following albatrosses came into being:
- Nicolas Batum: five years, $120 million with the Charlotte Hornets
- Hassan Whiteside: four years, $98 million with the Miami Heat
- Chandler Parsons: four years, $94 million with the Memphis Grizzlies
- Harrison Barnes: four years, $94 million with the Dallas Mavericks
- Ryan Anderson: four years, $80 million with the Houston Rockets
- Allen Crabbe: four years, $75 million with the Portland Trail Blazers
- Luol Deng: four years, $72 million with the Los Angeles Lakers
- Joakim Noah: four years, $72 million with the New York Knicks
- Bismack Biyombo: four years, $72 million with the Orlando Magic
- Dwight Howard: three years, $70.5 million with the Atlanta Hawks
- Kent Bazemore: four years, $70 million with the Atlanta Hawks
- Evan Turner: four years, $70 million with the Portland Trail Blazers
- Timofey Mozgov: four years, $64 million with the Los Angeles Lakers
- Ian Mahinmi: four years, $64 million with the Washington Wizards
- Marvin Williams: four years, $54.5 million with the Charlotte Hornets
- Miles Plumlee: four years, $50 million with the Milwaukee Bucks
- Jordan Clarkson: four years, $50 million with the Los Angeles Lakers
- Tyler Johnson: four years, $50 million with the Miami Heat
- Solomon Hill: four years, $48 million with the New Orleans Pelicans
- Dwyane Wade: two years, $47 million with the Chicago Bulls
- Jon Leuer: four years, $42 million with the Detroit Pistons
- Jamal Crawford: three years, $42 million with the Los Angeles Clippers
- Meyers Leonard: four years, $41 million with the Portland Trail Blazers
That list could be even longer if we weren't limiting it to the bad investments with an average annual value of at least $10 million. And that's from only one offseason.
Isolating any of those pacts is problematic, but the overall spending frenzy created a market that makes it even tougher for the other 29 franchises to journey down proper paths.
The Blazers, for example, are still mired in a dire cap situation even while attempting to build around the exciting core comprised of Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic. The Wizards have been unable to pair a quality bench with their high-powered starting five. The Knicks are, well, the Knicks—held back not just by free-agency woes (see: Tim Hardaway Jr.) but strange trades for limited players such as Andrea Bargnani.
Current moves could work their way onto this ever-growing list as time passes. The Chicago Bulls may come to regret matching Zach LaVine's massive offer sheet when they could've instead built a deeper core around Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. What if the 76ers hadn't traded up for Markelle Fultz last offseason? The examples drag on ad infinitum, and we haven't even touched upon the crapshoot that is the NBA draft.
But this can all be boiled down into a single point: When attempting to catch and surpass the Warriors, you need veritable perfection. Has any front office projected a sense of infallibility over the last half-decade?
Those Directly Impacting Golden State
The Warriors have benefited from both luck and the overall inability to build another long-lasting contender. And no, that first part isn't a way of discounting their remarkable achievements; the creation of every high-powered force requires some element of good fortune.
Golden State wouldn't have been able to sign Durant if not for Curry's ankle troubles, which limited his earning potential and caused him to sign an extension that paid him only $12.1 million for 2016-17. What if former head coach Mark Jackson had developed Green properly rather than leaving him behind David Lee in the pecking order? What if the cap explosion hadn't coincided with Durant's free agency? That convergence of factors matters quite a bit, regardless of the brain trust's forward-thinking approach.
Still, a quartet of decisions from other organizations paved the way for Golden State's ascension. We aren't saying you should blame these teams above all others—and the Cavaliers deserve some blame for their consistent failure to surround James with more complementary players, too—but they made the Warriors' path to perceived invincibility smoother.
David Kahn's Draft-Day Decisions in 2009
The NBA draft is an inherently unstable affair, but the Warriors have enjoyed good fortune time and again. Not only did they unearth the Splash Brothers with two picks outside of the top six, but they fell into a future Defensive Player of the Year in Green at No. 35. The rebuilding Bulls' decision to prioritize cash considerations over Jordan Bell helped, too.
But no draft-night moment mattered more to the growth of this superteam than 2009, when former Minnesota Timberwolves president David Kahn adhered strictly to his big board. We know the Knicks would've taken Curry with the No. 8 pick, directly after the Warriors snatched him up at No. 7, but the T-Wolves grabbing a pair of point guards right ahead of Golden State had far more serious ramifications.
With Blake Griffin, Hasheem Thabeet, James Harden and Tyreke Evans off the board, the Timberwolves had back-to-back picks and a dire need for backcourt help. They grabbed Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn with the Nos. 5 and 6 selections, respectively, leaving Curry to journey from Davidson to Oakland and kickstart the Bay Area rebuild.
Let's turn to some numbers that show how bad those choices became, regardless of the passing brilliance the Spanish floor general has shown throughout his tenure in the Association.
According to NBA Math, Flynn and Rubio have combined to earn 4.04 TPA during their entire careers (not just their time spent with the T-Wolves, which was minimal in Flynn's case). Their best seasons register at minus-49.1 and 87.54 TPA, respectively. Curry's career high came when he won MVP unanimously in 2015-16 (698.25), and his career tally stands at 3,379.24—already No. 31 all time.
Curry might not serve as the leading Warrior every night, but he's the team's centerpiece. Without his shooting abilities, Golden State's identity would be shattered. Without him, a downtrodden organization may well have remained downtrodden throughout the foreseeable future.
Serge Ibaka over James Harden in 2012
Perhaps no move in recent NBA history has undergone the relitigation process more frequently than the Oklahoma City Thunder's decision to trade James Harden to the Rockets. Coming off a loss to the Miami Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals, general manager Sam Presti dealt him, Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook and Lazar Hayward for Jeremy Lamb, Kevin Martin, a 2013 first-rounder (Steven Adams), a 2013 second-rounder (Alex Abrines) and a 2014 first-rounder (Mitch McGary).
Perhaps this was purely a cost-cutting move, since Harden's salary would soon explode. Perhaps the Thunder were prioritizing the rim protection Serge Ibaka provided over the high-scoring efforts of Harden—a seemingly sensible move, given the presences of Russell Westbrook and Durant. There's even a chance OKC valued Lamb, Martin and the other incoming assets more than Harden.
But that's irrelevant now. The deed is done, and it paved the way for the eventual breakup of the Durant-Westbrook tandem. Had the Thunder kept all three future MVPs—and yes, it's possible they may never have fully realized their potential while continuing to operate alongside one another—we could instead be looking at the Thunder as the NBA's leading dynasty.
Anyone remember where Durant went when OKC could no longer remain competitive enough to satiate his championship thirst?
New York Knicks Lowballing Steve Kerr in 2014
Steve Kerr deserves plenty of credit for the Warriors' juggernaut status, and not just because he helped build the system that's allowed for two-way success, maximized Curry's talents, converted Green from a backup to a superstar or helped milk ability out of everyone sent in his direction.
As B/R's Howard Beck wrote in a piece detailing the development of the roller-coaster relationship between Kerr and Green: "He's learned to better tailor his approach to each player, recognizing what Curry needs from him is fundamentally different from what Durant needs, or [Andre] Iguodala needs, or Green needs."
But Kerr came close to joining the New York Knicks instead, according to Marc Berman of the New York Post.
"The Post has learned Jackson's initial offer to Kerr was a lowball of three years, $13.2 million. That offer stuck for more than a week before the Warriors got involved Tuesday. Kerr wound up agreeing to terms with Golden State on a five-year, $22 million contract—not the $25 million that was widely reported.
"Had the Knicks originally offered Kerr five years, $22 million—$4.4 million a year — he probably would have closed the deal before Golden State could reenter the fray. Jackson only bumped the offer to four years in response to Golden State's offer."
Since then, Kerr has gone 265-63—some of those wins came while Luke Walton was filling in for him as he recovered from back surgery, but they still get credited to Kerr—and won three championships. For perspective, that .808 career winning percentage is higher than any single-season tally from the franchise's history prior to his arrival.
Meanwhile, the Knicks have cycled through Derek Fisher, Kurt Rambis, Jeff Hornacek and now David Fizdale as their head coach.
Dallas Mavericks Trading for Andrew Bogut in 2016
On the surface level, the Warriors trading Andrew Bogut and a future second-round pick to the Dallas Mavericks for a heavily protected 2019 second-round selection seems innocuous enough. Even though the defense-first center couldn't last a full season in Dallas before the Mavs dealt him away, it isn't as though they gave up for too much for his services.
Except by acquiring him, they helped the Warriors clear the cap space they needed to sign Durant.
Perhaps the Mavs were just eager to get their hands on a Golden State player after narrowly missing out on Andre Iguodala a few years earlier. They could be reasonably justified in pursuing Bogut to pair him with incoming free agent and ex-Warrior Harrison Barnes, and the Australian center was still young and talented enough to be viewed as a beneficial addition.
But the basketball world already knew the Warriors were landing Durant. This was clearly a situation in which Dallas held all the leverage, as this report from ESPN.com's Marc Stein and Tim MacMahon should make clear.
"The Warriors needed to shed Bogut's $11 million salary to create cap space to sign Durant to a two-year, $54.3 million deal.
"By adding Bogut, Dallas, which acquired center Zaza Pachulia from the Milwaukee Bucks in a similar salary dump last summer, would fill a need at starting center with a proven veteran on an expiring contract."
Sure, the Warriors would've found another home for Bogut if necessary. But by failing to extract a larger toll for the salary dump, Dallas still helped make Golden State's path to a superteam even smoother.
So, Who to Blame?
None of these teams are individually responsible for Golden State's rise.
Though the T-Wolves could've selected Curry ahead of the Warriors, every team makes mistakes during the draft. Similarly, the Thunder had no reason to believe Harden would develop into a game-breaking force for Houston, and they still nearly kept the Durant-Westbrook tandem intact.
So on and so forth.
But the lack of blame applies to Golden State as well.
Lest we forget, the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead to James and the Cavaliers after winning a record-setting 73 regular-season games in 2015-16. Of course they wanted to get better by adding another generational talent. Ditto for this past postseason, during which back-to-back championships might not have occurred without Chris Paul's balky hamstring allowing a Western Conference Finals comeback.
No team would turn down talent it can acquire while playing by the rules. And Golden State has indeed played by the rules, even if some of those edicts—cap smoothing, anyone?—have benefited the Dubs by mere happenstance.
Don't blame the Warriors for doing what any other franchise would in its place. Hate them, if you must. Respect them. Root against them. Enjoy the pure basketball perfection put on display when their offense is clicking. Hope other teams prove worthy challengers. But don't blame them.
If you need a scapegoat, the rest of the league is available.