The Golden State Warriors punctuated their dismantling of the Cleveland Cavaliers last Friday in a 108-85 victory, sweeping their NBA Finals opponent 4-0. It was the first sweep of the Finals since the San Antonio Spurs swept the Cavs in 2007 and proved the Warriors are still top dogs on the NBA playground.
And they aren’t going anywhere.
Kevin Durant, the back-to-back Finals MVP, has stated he has no intention of leaving the Warriors as a free agent this summer, and Klay Thompson has also spoken publicly about his desire to stick with the only franchise he has known. Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala, meanwhile, are locked up for the foreseeable future, lending stability to one of the greatest cores ever assembled so long as ownership doesn’t balk at the ballooning price tag, which owner Joe Lacob says it won’t.
The Warriors are Mt. Everest on the NBA landscape, a hulking behemoth with which even the league’s best player cannot contend. But even mountains crumble.
As much as these playoffs cemented the Warriors’ legacy, they also highlighted Golden State’s mortality. Had Chris Paul not injured his right hamstring in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, it’s very likely the Houston Rockets, not the Warriors, would have been the ones hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy overhead and bathing in champagne spray. And the Rockets are far from a super team.
Aside from James Harden and the aforementioned Paul, the Rockets are a pretty average bunch. Clint Capela, arguably their third-best player, is a rim-running big man who blends beautifully into a Mike D’Antoni game plan (think a much better Steven Hunter circa 2004-05) but isn’t a game-changer in his own right. Eric Gordon was fished out of purgatory in 2016 after five disastrous, injury-riddled seasons with the New Orleans Pelicans, signing a lesser contract than fellow Rockets’ signee and niche-filler Ryan Anderson. While we’re speaking of Anderson, he has trended downward for Houston since putting pen to paper. Trevor Ariza is a solid player but hardly a rare commodity. P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute weren’t highly coveted free agents in 2017. Gerald Green was contemplating retirement when his phone rang mid-season. The beat goes on.
Two stars and a gaggle of role players almost offed the vaunted Warriors. Food for thought.
Outside the looming shadow from Oakland, the Indiana Pacers provided another example of the benefits of competing in the now. Lampooned for their return in the Paul George trade last summer, they came one win away from upsetting the Cavaliers in the first round this spring with a roster featuring a one-time All Star and bit players. Had they succeeded in Game 7 and triumphed over The King, anyone could have emerged from the East.
These aren’t impossible formulas to replicate. It doesn’t take a bevy of superstars to be competitive, and other than franchises being parted out for scrap (Atlanta), teams shouldn’t be afraid to try. Too often in today’s NBA, making the playoffs as a seventh or eighth seed is treated like a scarlet letter. Too often, seasons are written off — sometimes by their own organizations — before a single game has been played. That’s an excellent way to cut a Cinderella story off at the knees.
If Indiana had given in to outside perceptions and played for lottery balls, their team would have missed out on the valuable exposure and experience that comes from pushing a LeBron James-led team to seven games. If the Utah Jazz, after losing Gordon Hayward, had detonated their roster, thinking a group with Rudy Gobert, Ricky Rubio, and a rookie taken in the late lottery couldn’t possibly be enough firepower in the West, no one ever witnesses the Jazz take out the better-on-paper Oklahoma City Thunder and advance to the second round on the wings of Donovan Mitchell.
Look, no one wants to end up on the dreaded treadmill of mediocrity, but that has as much, if not more, to do with incompetent management saddling a team with players whose growth potential has plateaued than it does with not landing high draft picks. Good teams know how to acquire and develop talent through multiple avenues; bad teams blindly aim for the lottery as a cure-all for their ills. Any team that installs a lateral-thinking front office, hires a creative and disciplined head coach, and acquires players dedicated to working hard and getting better will avert the treadmill.
Which brings us to the Phoenix Suns. This was not meant as an attack on them (or at least not a full broadside), but for several seasons now, this team could have been coached by a cash-strapped teenage girl, considering expectations for the roster never seemed to rise above babysitting the youth. This summer is different, though. The Suns have Devin Booker. They have Josh Jackson. And, barring an unexpected trade, they will add the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft to the fold. If these really are foundational players, there’s no reason for them not to start winning basketball games.
Booker could sign a max contract extension this summer, and max dollars come with commensurate expectations. Jackson should be on the warpath to prove he’s not second tier in his draft class. And whomever the Suns select June 21 doesn’t need to develop in a cocoon; he can contribute to winning basketball just as Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, and Ben Simmons did for their teams in both the regular season and playoffs.
That’s not to say the 2018-19 Suns will make the playoffs, just that unlike last summer, when trading for Troy Daniels was the splashiest non-draft move, earning a playoff birth with their young nucleus should be the organizational goal. Surround Booker, Jackson, and Future Star to be Named Later with the pieces Phoenix had no desire to seek out last year and see what all this tanking has been worth.
Just because the Suns aren’t ready to compete with Golden State next season is no reason to clip their wings. Let them punch above their weight. See if the youth can kick a hurricane in the eye (credit to sunsdial for that one). Put them in position to succeed, and while they cut their teeth against the NBA’s best, maybe fate breaks in their favor. Maybe the young team will be the surprise of 2019. Maybe they can be the improbable giant slayer. At least give them the chance to be.
Don’t wave the white flag just because the path before you is a difficult one. As the kids say these days, shoot your shot. Because for every George Mallory or Andrew Irvine who fails to summit the mountain, there invariably comes along an Edmund Hillary to render the impossible possible.