Requiem for a Dynasty: Finals Loss Brings an End to the Warriors Era

Howard Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterJune 14, 2019

Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (23) sits on the bench next to center DeMarcus Cousins (0) and guard Stephen Curry (30) during the second half of Game 6 of basketball's NBA Finals against the Toronto Raptors in Oakland, Calif., Thursday, June 13, 2019. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
Tony Avelar/Associated Press

OAKLAND, Calif. — It will be said that a dynasty ended here Thursday night, that it crumbled into dust, as all great dynasties eventually do. But that's not entirely accurate.

The dynastic Warriors of Golden State—the team of Steph and Klay and Dray and KD, the era of Splash Brothers and Strength in Numbersdid not simply buckle under the weight of its own hubris, or under the duress of a greater team. This dynasty was methodically mutilatedmuscles torn from bone, ligaments shredded, limbs contorted, until there was nearly nothing left, just the barely recognizable skeletal remains.

The Toronto Raptors danced away with the Larry O'Brien Trophy after taking a 114-110 victory in Game 6 of the NBA Finals at Oracle Arena. The Warriors staggered away, a storied team in ruins.

Klay Thompson left on crutches, having torn his left ACL late in the third quarter. Kevin Durant wasn't even here for the end, having left Game 5 on crutches after rupturing his Achilles. DeMarcus Cousins half-limped out of the arena, his left leg weakened by a torn quad muscle that barely healed in time for the Finals and still isn't sound.

After five straight Finals, three championship parades and 105 playoff games, the attrition and exhaustion dragged this superpower back to Earth. Gravity defeated human will. The Death Lineup met the basketball grim reaper.

"Tough way to go out," Stephen Curry said afterward, one of the few foundational players to survive this uniquely dramatic and uniquely painful Finals.

The run, the reign, is over. No one wanted to admit it, but it's a near certainty now.

Thompson could miss most or all of next season. Durant likely will, too, and he'll probably be wearing some other uniform when he returns. He's widely expected to leave as a free agent next month. Shaun Livingston, a key backup throughout this run, is considering retirement.

After years of handwringing about the dominance of the Warriors, the inevitability of the Warriors, the unfairness of the Warriorsafter all the bemoaning about their audacity and arrogance, their "light years ahead" proclamationsit's over.

The Warriors as we knew them are no more. At a minimum, charitably, this is a transitional moment.

"Maybe it is," general manager Bob Myers told B/R late Thursday, his voice weary. "But it'd be naive to think they don't come. And it's OK. However it comes, it comes."

Klay Thompson's torn ACL not only all but ended the Warriors' chance to extend this year's Finals but will also keep him sidelined much of next season.
Klay Thompson's torn ACL not only all but ended the Warriors' chance to extend this year's Finals but will also keep him sidelined much of next season.Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

It had already been a difficult week for Myers, who choked back tears late Monday while addressing Durant's Achilles injury. The loss of Thompson, the loss of the title, the stress of another taut game, left him nearly dazed.

"I'm out of words," Myers said. "I don't know what to say. I'm spent. I didn't play. But I'm just emotionally spent. … But in so many ways, I'm proud."

Credit the Raptors, for their defensive tenacity, their intelligent ball movement, their steady superstar Kawhi Leonard, their deft blend of youthful exuberance (Pascal Siakam) and veteran cool (Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka). They were deeper, springier, more versatile. They earned this title, took it forcibly from a proud dynasty that refused to let go, right down to Curry's 27-footer that smacked the back of the rim with eight seconds left and the Warriors trailing by a point.

But it will be a series forever colored by the what-ifs surrounding Durant, who missed the first four games before his ill-fated return; and Thompson, who missed a Game 3 loss because of a hamstring strain; and even backup center Kevon Looney, who fractured cartilage in his chest in Game 2, sat out Game 3 and then played the final three games despite the pain.

"It seemed way over the top," coach Steve Kerr told B/R. "Guys get banged up every year, and you lose somebody here or there. But the devastation of a ruptured Achilles for Kevin, Klay going down in the midst of this incredible game with a knee injury. It just seemed too much. And yet our guys kept fighting. It was amazing."

Injuries happen. But there has never been an NBA Finals quite like this, with a superstar absent to open the series, yet looming as a momentum-changing threat, then returning at last, his team down 3-1, only to suffer an even worse injury. And now, an offseason of uncertainty.

"You never know what's next, good or bad," Myers said. "That's what makes it exciting. It's all different. It's always different. … I keep thinking I've seen everything. And nah, I don't think anybody has."

Nor has there ever been a Finals featuring two franchise stars who were noncommittal about their futures. Leonard is also a free agent next month and has long been tied to the Los Angeles Clippers. He could become the first Finals MVP to change teams just weeks after delivering a title.

Everything about this Warriors run has been unusual. This was the dynasty we never saw coming, the rare champion built on mid-range lottery picks (Curry at seven, Thompson at 11) and a second-round gem (Draymond Green at 35), all of them evolving into perennial All-Stars.

They played a beautiful game, predicated on selflessness, ball movement and defense, and became national darlings. A salary-cap fluke let them add Durant, and a lovable team of everymen morphed into supervillains.

With the addition of Kevin Durant in the summer of 2016, the Warriors transformed into perhaps the most talented group of the superteam era, one that appears as if it may be at an end.
With the addition of Kevin Durant in the summer of 2016, the Warriors transformed into perhaps the most talented group of the superteam era, one that appears as if it may be at an end.Tony Dejak/Associated Press

When Cousins, a multiple-time All-Star, signed on for a cut-rate deal last summer, the howls reached a fevered pitch (and never mind that he was months removed from his own Achilles rupture).

Even in defeat, the Warriors struck a defiant tone that to some ears surely sounded like arrogance.

"Everybody thinks it's kind of the end of us," Green said. "But that's just not smart. We're not done yet."

At the peak of the backlash, many reasonable people—fans, pundits, rival executives—wondered if the Warriors were ruining the league. The regular season felt almost irrelevant, the playoffs anticlimactic, the title a fait accompli. But the Warriors proved mortal, after all, and the league is still standing, with a new champion in Toronto, potential contenders in the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers, a rising force in the Denver Nuggets and the promise of new powers emerging this summer, with Durant, Leonard, Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving and Jimmy Butler, among others, all potentially changing teams or teaming up.

With the power shifting, and the Warriors in disarray, we just might be witnessing the end of the superteam era. Or, at least, a momentary halt.

Since 2008when the Boston Celtics united Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allenteams built on three or more stars have dominated the league, from the Miami Heat to the Cleveland Cavaliers to Golden State. "Superteams" have won seven of the past 12 championships. They account for 15 of the past 24 teams to make the Finals.

There are multiple teams with two stars but no clear superteams. The Sixers might qualify if Butler re-signs to stay with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. The Warriors might rise again once they get healthy. Might.

Stars still want to play with stars, but it's difficult to pull off. And Durant's injury will make it even tougher for a team this summer to manufacture one.

The superteam era might soon give way to an age of equilibrium, with multiple contenders in each conference but no identifiable superpower. While some may celebrate the death of a dynasty, consider this, too: Without the Warriors empire, the league has no standard-bearer, no pace-setter to chase, no king to dethrone. We might get more suspense but less intrigue.

Even as they fell short this June, the Warriors earned a place on the list of greatest NBA dynasties. No team had made five straight Finals since the 1960s Celtics.

"There's a reason it hasn't happened in 50 years," Kerr said, assessing the ruins of his roster. "So I couldn't be more proud of our guys for everything they've accomplished. It doesn't mean it's over, though."

The essence of this dynasty, Livingston said, was character"playing with heart, passion, togetherness. I think those three things for us really defined our run."

They earned every last tribute Thursday, from the pregame "Warrrriors" serenade to the final ovation to the multiple videos commemorating the franchise's last game in this arena. They'll open next season in the gleaming new Chase Center, on the San Francisco waterfront.

So, yes, change is coming on many fronts.

"Tonight we celebrate what we got to do in this building," Myers said. "Pretty amazing stuff. Stuff I would have never imagined. Some pain, some joy. When I look back on this, I'll remember just all of it."

Everywhere you looked, the Warriors' old "Strength in Numbers" slogan stood insistently—on the scoreboard, on T-shirts, on hand-painted signs. But the numbers kept dwindling, making a mockery of the mantra.

Every championship ends with confetti and Champagne. This was the first to end with thoughts and prayers.

The Warriors' air of invincibility has been shattered. But there amid the wreckage, a stubborn spirit persists.

"I wouldn't bet against us being back on this stage next year and going forward," Curry said.

Yes, he conceded, change is surely coming.

"But the story's not over yet."

            

Howard Beck, a senior writer for Bleacher Report, has been covering the NBA full time since 1997, including seven years on the Lakers beat for the Los Angeles Daily News and nine years as a staff writer for the New York Times. His coverage was honored by APSE in 2016 and 2017 and by the Professional Basketball Writers Association in 2018.

Beck also hosts The Full 48 podcast, available on iTunes.

Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.

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