The end of an NBA era
This is not the end of the Golden State Warriors, so to speak. Despite losing, some would say surprisingly, to the Toronto Raptors in six games in the NBA Finals, Golden State will almost certainly remain one of the league's best teams. But the loss is still the end of a very specific version of the Warriors — a team that, no matter what opponents threw at them, seemed invincible — and the NBA as a whole. Five years is a long time to rule the league, after all.
All it took to end the Warriors' quest for three consecutive titles were devastating injuries to stars Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson and the transcendent play of Toronto's noiseless star Kawhi Leonard, who has ended basketball empires before. Though sterling performances from Raptors guards Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet to close out the series in Oakland came in handy, as well.
Until Toronto took Game 3 and Game 4 on the Warriors' home court — in convincing fashion — there seemed to be something inevitable about the NBA for the last five years. The league was more captivating than ever with its outsized personalities, off-season drama, and high level of play on a nightly basis. But, in the end, most fans knew the Warriors would come out on top. And, perhaps, if Durant had been healthy at the beginning of the series, or at least hadn't ruptured his Achilles' in the first quarter of his Game 5 return, or Thompson had not sat out Game 3 with a hamstring injury or, worse still, torn his ACL in what could have been a career-defining Game 6, that would have been the case again this year. It wasn't, though. And now, two of the Warriors' three biggest stars — both of whom face an off-season of free agency — are dealing with significant, long-term injuries.
The Raptors are the league's new champions and they deserve every bit of it (injuries are a part of the game). But the league, for the last half decade, has been defined by the Warriors, a marvel of a basketball team that completely altered the way the other 29 franchises approach the game of basketball. Of course this isn't the first time the Warriors have lost in the Finals; LeBron James heroically led the Cleveland Cavaliers to victory over Golden State in 2016, but that felt much less final, a setback on the path to domination. That off-season, the Warriors took a breath, signed Durant — much to the chagrin of fans everywhere outside of the Bay Area — and barely broke a sweat, avenging their loss. Then they ran it back in 2018, looking even more dominant.
Before Game 5, the biggest question the Warriors faced was whether Durant would return, or sign a lucrative contract elsewhere — perhaps with either of the New York or Los Angeles franchises. The superstar might still do that, but while the ruptured Achilles' he suffered in the first half of Game 5 was devastating for Durant, the Warriors, and the league, it does provide one bit of clarity. Wherever Durant signs this offseason, he'll likely miss most, if not all, of next season. Coupled with the news of Thompson's ACL, in the moment, at least, the Toronto series feels like the end of an era.
Steph Curry will be back, along with Draymond Green and, while he might not play until later in the season, if at all, it's still reasonably safe to expect Thompson to re-up with Golden State. But the Warriors were always more than just those three, even before Durant. They were a deep, well-rounded bunch, reliant on a juggernaut bench to pick things up when their stars needed a breather. This year, against Toronto, the team felt thinner, older. At one point, early in the fourth quarter of Game 6 when the game was tight, Golden State fielded a lineup consisting of Green, a hobbled DeMarcus Cousins, an aging Shaun Livingston, Quinn Cook, and Jonas Jerebko. It just wasn't the same team. The Warriors weren't just injured; at times they seemed tired, beaten down. The legacy of their greatness during this run will be etched in stone, but today, they're no longer beyond reach.
Now, as the Warriors face that uncertain future, there is a chance for something special to happen in the NBA — parity. It's never really happened before. The league has always been home to dynasties, sometimes even beholden to the whims of a single player, whether it be Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, or LeBron James. That hasn't made the league less exciting, nor has the Warriors' dominance. But now it's not clear from where the next dynasty will emerge, and that could create one of the most fascinating and unique eras in NBA history. Teams have gotten smarter and deeper, and talent is more widely dispersed throughout the league than at any point in recent memory.
In the Eastern Conference, the Raptors, of course, are the champions, but they could lose Leonard to free agency and some of their other stars, namely Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol, are declining as they age. The Milwaukee Bucks just won 60 games and employ this year's likely MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, but the playoffs showed they are probably in need of one more high-level offensive weapon. The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers have talent at every position, but haven't quite put it all together yet. Maybe the real potential heirs to the throne are the New York Knicks, who are reportedly still expected to target Durant and other free agents this offseason. But a lot needs to go right for that to happen.
The West is even more confounding. The always-improving Denver Nuggets nearly stole home court advantage from the Warriors this year already, a healthy Jusuf Nurkic could help Portland improve on their conference finals appearance, and the Houston Rockets might try, once again, to revamp their roster to get over the hump. The Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio Spurs, and Oklahoma City are all playoff teams who could be better next year, and, like the Knicks, LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers could swoop in and snag a prime free agent or pull off a blockbuster trade that turns them into instant contenders. There are a lot of decisions to be made, the now-nebulous futures of Durant and Thompson, notwithstanding — the free agencies of Leonard and Kyrie Irving chief among them, as well as the potential trade destination for Anthony Davis. All of them could tip the league's tenuous equilibrium.
Still, it's difficult to remember the last time it felt like so many teams had a chance in the NBA. I've already mentioned 14 teams, and that's before counting the Indiana Pacers, who are coming off back-to-back successful seasons, or the bright-looking futures of the Atlanta Hawks, Dallas Mavericks, Sacramento Kings, Orlando Magic, and New Orleans Pelicans, who will likely lose Davis, but gain phenom Zion Williamson with the first pick in the upcoming draft.
Before their first title in 2015, Curry and Co. had only made it as far as the second round of the playoffs. The subsequent era of dominance has been captivating for fans and undeniably changed the league and the sport forever. But, maybe, just maybe, the NBA is now headed toward something new again. An era defined more by questions than certainties.