Warriors the latest NBA champions to raise the bar in ever-changing league
The Golden State Warriors owe a debt. They are beholden to Mike D'Antoni's Suns—which Steve Kerr and assistant coach Alvin Gentry helped to run and to coach—for the overarching style of their offense. They modeled the Spurs for their ball movement and flexibility. They came to embody the ideals of the pace-and-space Heat, a team that only unlocked its potential by going smaller and getting out of its own way. Their defense, built on the work of skilled, switchable players, is a natural extension of that which won the Mavericks a title.
Your 2014-15 NBA champions are very much the product of all that came before. Yet it can be said, still, that the Warriors are the first team of their kind to win the title—if only because these Warriors are such a distinct mix as to be the first team of their kind at all. Roots are only that. Golden State took concepts and strategies and grew them to their fullest potential, culminating in a team that was far more than the sum of its influences.
This year's champions double as the avant garde. It's fitting, in a way, that Golden State won its Finals series against Shawn Marion—once an apositional anomaly for those revolutionary Suns teams—rendered obsolete on Cleveland's bench. The game keeps moving. It makes relics of the best players in the league, no matter how subversive their skill sets once seemed.
These days, that progress races at the speed of a Warriors fast break. The NBA Finals turned when Kerr and his staff saw an opportunity to run even smaller than usual at the expense of center Andrew Bogut. It was both a bold move and one very much in the Warriors' strategic character. It shouldn't be lost on us, though, that Golden State made a critical adjustment against a LeBron James team by taking its best rim protector out of the rotation entirely. The one defensive quality deemed essential to containing James ultimately proved negotiable. It was more important for the Warriors to be adaptable than to be conventionally formidable. There was no 7-foot stalwart ascending to contest every attempt at the rim. The balance of the defense was instead diffused among Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes, Klay Thompson, and Shaun Livingston. Together they formed a ceaseless barrier; although Iguodala could be screened, a quick switch collapsed the driving and passing lanes, characteristic of a defense in exchange. So deeply in sync were the Warriors that they removed the most basic structural flaw of team defense.
This team was imagined and constructed in such a way that a player like Iguodala, who didn't start a game for the Warriors all season, could be named Finals MVP. Plenty of contenders built rosters united by a particular aim or style of play. Only Golden State was able to project a championship-worthy end goal while maintaining multiple logistical courses to get there.
At various points in its postseason run, this team either relied heavily on Bogut or marginalized him completely; used Thompson as a distraction or an essential creator; switched up its rotation as to make Shaun Livingston something between a point guard, shooting guard, and small forward; went small by using Barnes as a primary post defender in one series and later by using Iguodala in the same capacity instead; relied on Curry and Green, as dictated by the coverage, to work as essential playmakers; and found important situational minutes for Festus Ezeli, Leandro Barbosa, and David Lee. Whenever the Warriors seemed trapped, they merely changed shape to resume a familiar dominance.
That, more than anything, was Golden State's most enduring quality. This was a jump-shooting team, a fast-breaking team, a team whose perimeter-dominant offense and masterfully pliable defense would never satisfy traditional standards. Yet the Warriors' entire season was a statement of authority by the best team in basketball irrelevant of style. After a regular season run of 67 wins forged by a historic point differential, the Warriors worked their way through the playoffs with just five total losses in four series. Not once did they face elimination. Golden State ebbed and flowed as all teams do, but offered proof of their greatness in how decisively they would regain control.
For the Warriors, that control was exercised and maintained in a fashion distinct from every other champion in NBA history. They borrowed. They riffed. They stole plays that worked. In doing so, they took grand concepts to great lengths and fulfilled their underlying promise. Behold, now, their golden composite: An undeniable marvel, now title-affirmed, on the crest of basketball's new wave.