The entire point of sports, and the main reason it’s any fun, is to see what happens. From the moment last summer when the Golden State Warriors signed Kevin Durant to add to a team that already had three of the, let’s say, 20 best basketball players in the world, we knew what was going to happen. Or at least we assumed we did, and instead of the 2016-17 NBA season being like every previous edition and possessing the drama of the unknown, it became about something else. We tuned in and watched just to see if it might surprise us. It did not.
The Warriors rolled through all comers in a season-long prelude to a rubber match with the Cavaliers, and then they rolled through them too. With exceptions, it was not a fun NBA season nor a fun NBA finals. You can read (undoubtedly soon on this very site) plenty of analyses and exegeses of just how good these super-Warriors were and how high-quality their basketball, and I don’t care. The actual games, writ large, weren’t close and they weren’t dramatic. Instead of watching to see what would happen, this NBA season became an exercise in watching just in case the thing that should’ve happened didn’t. An off-chance is not a sustainable basis for sports.
Kevin Durant was the difference between this year and last, and what a swing it was. He won finals MVP by averaging 35.2 points (on 55.6 percent from the field, including 47.4 percent from three), 8.4 rebounds, 5.4 assists, and 1.6 blocks. To hear him tell it afterward, it was only with teammates of this caliber that he was able to play the kind of basketball he’s always wanted to.
“I just tried to stay in the moment the whole series, and I think that worked for me. I remember plenty of times throughout my career I continued to just look in the past and look ahead and not stay in the moment. In this series I just stayed in the moment.”
Durant and Steph Curry proved they could share the workload, and when both were hitting on all cylinders, as they were almost every night throughout the postseason, they were unbeatable.
It was a near-perfect team, not just loaded with scorers but constructed as if from scratch to hit every need. A good example is Klay Thompson, who didn’t have or need all that many shots, but instead make his biggest impact with excellent perimeter defense. Thompson said what all the Warriors said, that there’s more joy in coming together and playing great ball and winning a title than there is in dominating play yourself.
“I don’t feel like I sacrificed at all,” Klay Thompson said last week. “I’d rather be a part of something that could leave a legacy. There is more to basketball than getting yours, or being the guy. I hope I do this for a long time for the Warriors.”
There’s no reason to think they won’t be doing this for a long time. The Warriors are already heavy favorites in Vegas to repeat next year, at better than evens. That obviously measures more what sports books think bettors are going to think than it does what’s actually going to happen, but the conventional wisdom says next season’s only selling point will again be to see if the overwhelmingly unexpected can happen. How many years can that be what the NBA has to offer before we lose interest in hoping?
There’s no sense in getting mad at Durant, who wanted a championship, signed with the team most likely to get it, and got it, nor at the Warriors, who built a true superteam the only way possible in the cap era, by striking gold in three drafts in four years, giving them the flexibility to add another star. Lots of teams, after coming close, go out and get help in the belief that they were one piece away; that one piece isn’t often Kevin Durant. But it’s the same principle behind any free agent signing. If you have to sum up what happened this season, given what happened last year and how good LeBron James and Kyrie Irving still proved to be, it’s pretty simple: the Warriors needed Kevin Durant to win, and Kevin Durant needed the Warriors.
That’s how free agency—which the NBA gave in on only 29 years ago—is supposed to work. And if the difference here is a matter of degree and not kind, the degree is stunning. Durant is so good, he’s blown up competitive balance, and there’s really nothing the Cavaliers can do about it. This Cavs team is just about as good as a team can be, and they were overmatched. James became the first player in NBA history to average a triple-double in the finals, and they were still able to win just one game. Because of the salary cap—which ostensibly exists for parity, actually exists to maximize profits, and currently ensures that no other already-great team can add its own piece to compete with the Warriors—there’s nothing significant Cleveland can do to make next year’s finals any closer. Sports are supposed to be entertainment, and none of this is entertaining. This is no fun.
So if you want to get mad at anyone for this state of affairs, get mad at the NBA and at the owners. For the league to be about anything but the Warriors for the next few years, it would need to abolish the salary cap and the luxury tax, freeing teams to sign the players they want and can afford, without artificial limitations. Let GMs and the players themselves figure out the best way to challenge Golden State’s hegemony. And let the best basketball players in the world do what Durant did: go exactly where they want to go and get paid as much as they can, all in pursuit of having a realistic chance of winning. Because other than the Warriors, they don’t have that right now. It’s bad for fans, and that’s bad for the sport.