Golden State Über Alles
For NBA fans (and even for people who don't watch basketball), 2015 was the year of the Golden State Warriors. It has been pretty astonishing to watch.
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
This week, VICE Sports looks at the topics, people, and things that made news in 2015. You can read our collection of year-in-review stories here.
2015 is the year of the Golden State Warriors, for reasons that are simple to enumerate. They won more games over the regular season and postseason than any team that didn't start Michael Jordan, and brought the NBA championship back to the Bay Area for the first time in 40 years. Steph Curry won the MVP and is now the most popular player in the league. Riley Curry was the REAL MVP and is the most popular person in her house. The Warriors have followed up their championship campaign by getting even better: their 29-2 start is the best ever through 31 games. But the Warriors have laid claim to the league in a way that goes deeper than mere success. This may best be understood in microcosm.
On Monday, my beloved, doomed Sacramento Kings were somehow up four on the Warriors as the first half wound down, which is to say it had been a very odd game. Steph Curry's brother, who is on the Kings and is named Seth, had just taken a three from the far sideline. The ball caromed harmlessly off the rim, and Klay Thompson, Steph's partner in the best shooting backcourt the world has ever seen, tapped the ball out toward the top of the three-point arc. Steph, who had begun to cut up the court after challenging his brother's shot, altered his trajectory, cutting diagonally across the court to collect the rebound.
As he reached the ball, there were 25.6 seconds left in the half, meaning there was less than a second between the shot and game clock. Standard basketball strategy would dictate that the Warriors hold the ball in order to ensure that they take the final shot before halftime. But instead of slowing down as he caught the ball to prepare to dribble out the clock, Steph sped up. Ben McLemore, whose path had carried him to the other end of the court, moved to cut off the Warriors point guard and herd him toward the left sideline. Steph immediately decelerated as he crossed half-court, using a behind-the-back dribble to propel himself back toward the center of the court, and separate himself from McLemore, whose momentum carried his body, uselessly, towards the sideline.
Before McLemore could recover or anyone else could react, Steph suddenly rose to shoot, from four feet behind the three-point line, with the easy and supremely relaxed form of someone taking a practice shot after the whistle. A 28-foot off-the-dribble three-pointer with 21 seconds on the shot clock and 23 seconds on the game clock is a bad shot for virtually anyone who has ever played basketball. But it was not a bad shot for Steph Curry, who was already backpedaling from the basket and had almost reached half-court when the shot went in, hitting the back of the rim and dropping with only the barest of ripples through the net. It was his fifth three-pointer in less than three minutes. The Kings were still up by one and there was a whole half of basketball left to play, but I knew that the game, for all practical purposes, had just ended. The Warriors had won, and the only thing left was to negotiate the margin of victory (19 points, but who's counting?).
If NBA teams take on the identity of their best player, and if most players are represented by their signature move, then the 2015 Golden State Warriors are this: Steph Curry abruptly, almost casually rising for an unreasonably deep three. Because his shooting form is the same from 10 feet as it is from 40—bending his knees only slightly and flicking his wrist while still on his way up—he makes the act of shooting look frictionless and perfunctory. Where other players launch the ball, Curry simply releases it, as if magnets and mirrors somehow do the work of actually guiding the ball toward the rim. No player makes all, or even most, of his three-point shots, but Curry's three seems so inevitable that it's always mildly jarring when one clangs off the rim, like a virtuoso violinist's bow scraping atonally across the strings. Likewise, we've grown so accustomed to Warriors winning this season that their two losses seem like rounding errors.
It's not just Golden State's dominance but the confident insouciance with which they question the metaphysics of basketball that makes it feel like they are somehow breaking the game.
The Warriors have spent all year posing, with their of play, a list of basketball koans. Depending on your worldview and temperament, this is exhilarating, frustrating, alarming, or some combination of those. Why shoot 2-pointers when 3 is bigger than two? Why hedge or trap when you can switch instead? Why can't a whole lineup be made of playmakers? If your shots are being contested, why not take a couple of steps back and turn them into uncontested shots? There are reasonable rejoinders to all of these questions, but they don't seem to apply to the Warriors. It's as if the common law of basketball, compiled by years of history and precedent, has suddenly been overruled by giddy fiat.
And so there are moments during almost every Warriors game where they just look... dissonant, and you'd say they're making a mistake, except for the fact that it keeps working. Playing 6'7'' Draymond Green at center, most memorably opposite the 7'1'' Timofey Mozgov in last year's NBA Finals. Steph Curry, the league's greatest offensive threat, setting back screens for teammates. Klay Thompson launching contested jump shots without even bothering to set his feet. The second unit dumping the ball down low to Shaun Livingston, their gangly backup point guard, when they need a bucket in the post.
The Warriors' reign atop the league has been so total and so unconventional that some around the league have begun to wonder aloud whether there is a dark side of their dominance. It's often said that the NBA is a league of fad and fashion, players who come up mimicking their favorite players' moves, teams that try to photocopy the blueprints of the winners. The Warriors, like Curry with his three, make what they do seem so simple that it looks spuriously easy to copy. It isn't, of course: the Warriors have more than one inimitable component, and their roster is a triumph of chance and chemistry. That's not going to stop teams from trying. There are a great many long rebounds coming.
Depending upon your tastes, watching teams failing to imitate the Warriors could be uniquely excruciating. It's easy to imagine teams whose small lineups turn them into defensive sieves that are unable to protect the rim or rebound on one end, and which are built only for lazily chucking ill-advised threes on the other. There's an inherent sense of drama in a player driving into a thicket of defenders or fading away from double-teams at mid-range; there might not be much compelling about a barrage of missed threes.
But there's no sense in worrying about the shadow of a legacy that hasn't been completed yet. The Golden State Warriors are here and now, formidable but not quite invincible, masterful but not yet inevitable. The rest of the league, of course, is not content to live in a world ruled by the Warriors, and 2016 will bring fresh attempts to pull their kingdom down. The trick will be to see if the Warriors can keep dancing away from the gallows.