The Golden State Warriors rampaged through the NBA this season, staking a claim to the title of best NBA team ever by capping a 67-win regular season with a 16-1 romp to the NBA championship. The Dubs’ dominance has sparked plenty of debate as to whether Golden State’s unprecedented collection of All-NBA talent, shooting skill, defensive steel and youth is actually bad for the NBA, insofar as they appear poised to wreck the competitive balance of the league for the next few years.
That’s not how Adam Silver sees it. What does the NBA’s commissioner think when he looks at the newly minted champion Warriors, fresh off a Finals that drew a whooooole lot of eyeballs? In brief: Get on their level.
From a mid-Finals conversation with Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post:
“Rather than focusing on the top of the league, we should be focusing on the rest of the league,” Silver told The Post before Game 4. “Rather than talking about how to break up or knock down a championship-caliber team, my focus should be on how we do a better job developing more great players in this league.”
Silver pointed out that the Warriors had succeeded through savvy drafting and player development before signing Kevin Durant, who became NBA Finals MVP. They chose Draymond Green with the 35th pick, Klay Thompson at No. 11 and Steph Curry seventh. Signing Curry to an extension early in his career allowed them the flexibility to keep their nucleus together with key role players.
“And yes, an incredible free agent was added to that squad,” Silver said. “All the focus seems to be on, ‘They’re too good’ as opposed to, ‘What is it we should be doing to create more great teams in this league?’ That’s what my response is.
“My answer is, let’s create more great teams, rather than completely focus on one incredible team and whether that’s seemingly unfair to the other team. I think it’s the nature of competition. Ultimately, it’s about raising the bar for all the teams in this league and celebrating excellence.”
That note — we should celebrate the Warriors because we should be celebrating excellence — is one that Silver hit during his annual press conference with reporters before the start of the 2017 NBA Finals two weeks ago. At that time, the concern wasn’t solely about the Warriors, but more broadly about how both Golden State and Cleveland had blown through their respective conferences en route to their third straight Finals meeting:
Q. You yourself mentioned that the two teams blew through the Playoffs. Was there any concern on your part about the lack of competitiveness throughout the Playoffs with the exception of maybe these Finals?
ADAM SILVER: From a league standpoint, you always want to see great competition. It’s what our fans want to see, it’s what we provide in this league. But having said that, this is real life. It’s not scripted, and it happens. So, sure, the fan in me would love to see more competition at times, but on the other hand, I’ve said it before, I think we should also celebrate excellence.
I think that people are also inspired, as I said earlier, by seeing such tremendous play, by seeing teams come together the way they have. I think their play has been inspiring. I think they have done it in the right way, and I also think these things have a way of working themselves out.
Silver may well be right about that. After all, as Bobby Marks of The Vertical noted earlier Wednesday, bringing back the team that just won the title could cost the Warriors $240 million in salary commitments and luxury tax payments next year, and $1.4 billion in total outlay over the next four years.
Maybe owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber are willing to pay that kind of a premium to keep the Warriors competing for championships over the next several years as they move into a new arena in San Francisco that figures to have the franchise printing money. It’s long been widely expected that the Warriors will re-sign Curry on a five-year, super-maximum salary extension that will pay the point guard more than $200 million; Lacob told Tim Kawakami of the Bay Area News Group after the Finals win that the team planned to do “whatever it takes to keep Steph here and happy.”
Kevin Durant said before the Finals that he plans to stay in Golden State, too, though how exactly his contract will be laid out remains to be seen. Andre Iguodala’s said in April that “there’s not going to be any issue” with keeping the Warriors’ core pieces together, and suggested last week that he, Curry and Durant would be speaking with the media covering the Warriors again during the first week of July.
Then again, maybe they won’t be — at least, not for the long haul, for many years down the line — and maybe what looks like a perennial juggernaut today will find itself prematurely splintered.
The same could be true for the Cavaliers, who have their core locked into contracts for next season, but who seem to need to find some way to bolster their bench to stand a better chance of topping the Dubs next year, and who have limited avenues through which to improve their talent base as a capped-out team with few draft picks to trade in the years ahead. If owner Dan Gilbert blanches at the notion of shelling out nearly nine figures in luxury tax payments — or if LeBron James, who holds a player option for the 2018-19 season, decides he’s done what he set out to do in Cleveland and that he’d like to continue his career elsewhere — the Cavs’ position atop the conference could become much more tenuous.
Or, maybe Silver’s right that the Warriors’ and Cavs’ strangleholds on their conferences “work themselves out” by other teams improving to the point where they can mount serious challenges. The San Antonio Spurs held a 23-point lead over the Warriors at Oracle in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals before Kawhi Leonard landed on Zaza Pachulia’s foot and sprained his ankle, and might be able to maneuver their way into some significant upgrades. The Boston Celtics got rolled in their Eastern finals matchup with the Cavs, but they’ve got the No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft to use to add another blue-chip talent or as a trade chip to help land another veteran helper, plus enough cap space to potentially land a top-tier free agent. Other teams, too, exist.
To catch the Warriors, though, those teams will have to build rosters capable of hoping to match their firepower and with enough defensive versatility to hope to slow them down. In all likelihood, that means fewer teams honing in on more stars as they become available; that’s why you’re hearing so much chatter about Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Gordon Hayward and any other All-Star who’s nearing the end of his current deal.
In theory, that’s bad news for the league writ large, and would seem to be at odds with Silver’s stated interest in fostering increased competitive balance. The commissioner, though, seems to suggest he doesn’t subscribe the notion that there are only a finite number of game-changers, and that they all come into the league that way.
“Are stars born, or are they made?” he asked Kilgore. It’s sort of a case-by-case question; guys like LeBron, Durant, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love came into the league expected to star, while more doubts followed the likes of Curry, Thompson and especially Green. And then there’s little-known-prospects turned stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo, or late-first-rounders turned stars like Jimmy Butler, or second-rounders turned stars like Marc Gasol and DeAndre Jordan. Some are born, and some are made. Some are more equal in impact than others, though, and a general survey of league history suggests that the “born” variety has tended to make the biggest impact at this time of year.
You can understand Silver maintaining optimism that smartly run, well-funded and insanely competitive NBA teams will find more than one way to skin this particular cat. You’re forgiven, though, if you’re skeptical that “make more stars” is going to be all that easy, and that any individual team that doesn’t already employ a few is going to be able to manufacture more quickly enough to mount a meaningful challenge to the monster that just hoisted the O’Brien.
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