They say it is lonely at the top, but who needs company when you can see your reflection in the Larry O’Brien Trophy. The Golden State Warriors have entered the rarified territory of being perhaps so dominant that their only real competition for the championship next season is themselves.
Examining the current landscape of the league leads one to arrive at a sobering realization: the NBA is more unipolar than any time in recent history. It’s a quandary that fans have never been forced to address in such a way. The most glorified chapters of NBA lore tend to involve dynasties and dominance, but always within the context of at least a bipolar basketball world order.
More Competitive Battles for Supremacy in Past Eras
The 1980s featured the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, and Detroit Pistons engulfed in heated battles for supremacy. The Chicago Bulls were relegated to second-tier status for years despite possessing the greatest player of a generation. Even when the Bulls finally ascended to legendary status in the 1990s, only in hindsight did their six championships seem assured.
Charles Barkley, Kevin Johnson, and Dan Majerle could never get the Phoenix Suns over the hump. Those bruising New York Knicks teams with Patrick Ewing, Anthony Mason, John Starks, and Derek Harper could only get through the Eastern Conference when Michael Jordan departed on his baseball sabbatical.
John Stockton and Karl Malone are arguably the greatest players to ever play their respective positions, yet they could never hoist that elusive championship trophy for the Utah Jazz.
The Orlando Magic had a young Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway, but couldn’t earn any hardware. The Seattle Supersonics had some formidable squads lead by Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, but fell to the Bulls like so many within that era.
Apologies to teams like the Portland Trailblazers and Indiana Pacers for not waxing poetic about their talented rosters (not to mention the Houston Rockets, who separated two Bulls three-peats with back-to-back championships of their own).
The point is that recent decades of NBA basketball have seemed so much more wide-open than now. Maybe it’s a testament to the greatness of Jordan’s Bulls, but those championships hardly appeared to be a given at the time they were being played out. The gap between historically dominant teams like the 90s Bulls, 80s Lakers, and 80s Celtics and the rest of the league never seemed as large as the current chasm between the Warriors and all 29 other franchises.
Warriors Have Separated Themselves from the Rest of the League
The widespread assumption last April was that the league was tri-polar. The top teams were the Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers, and San Antonio Spurs. Nobody would have been shocked back at the beginning of the playoffs if any of those three teams above had eventually won the championship.
A reassessment soon became necessary. Yes, the Spurs were beating the Warriors by more than 20 points in game one of the Western Conference Finals before Kawhi Leonard got injured, but the way the Spurs proceeded to get swept in that series after Leonard went down was disturbing. Nobody blames the Spurs for losing that series, but the way the Warriors utterly dismantled them after losing Leonard chipped away at the argument that the team as a whole was anywhere near what the Warriors were.
Let’s say hypothetically that Kevin Durant suffered the injury in game 1 of that series instead of Leonard. There’s absolutely no way the Warriors would have gotten swept by the Spurs minus Durant. It might have proved that Leonard was more crucial to the Spurs’ success than any singular Warriors player was to their squad, but we’re talking about ranking teams, not individual players.
Often commentators partake in revisionist history after something remarkable or unexpected happens, but make no mistake there were a lot of prominent people within the basketball community that picked the Cavs to win the championship when the Finals began. Most people could at least agree that the series would go seven games. The Warriors won in 5, and it took a historic offensive performance by the Cavs in game four just to avoid a sweep.
The series illuminated fans to a stark reality of 2017 basketball: the Warriors are far and away the best team in the league. Barring significant injuries, they’ll likely repeat as champions next season.
Whether or not this premise is good for the game in both the short-term and long-term incites passionate arguments from those on both sides, but we as fans can only view the league as is, and not how we wish it to be
Kyrie Irving Demands a Trade
This offseason has featured some significant developments (Paul George traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Chris Paul being acquired by the Rockets, Gordon Hayward choosing to take his talents to Boston) but the most shocking and still unresolved has been Kyrie Irving demanding a trade from the Cavaliers. Amongst the chatter that LeBron James would ultimately depart after his current contract expires, it completely blindsided those within the organization when Irving requested to play elsewhere.
Sources close to the situation indicate that it is because Irving is tired of playing with James and wants to be the alpha-dog for another franchise.
Beyond any potential dysfunction that this will create in Cleveland, especially if Irving isn’t traded (he has a guaranteed two more seasons on his current contract), this is a powerful indictment of the Warriors status around the league. It’s far fetched to believe that Irving would have announced any of this if the Cavs had either won the championship. If he believed they were championship contenders for next season why would he want out?
Apparently, he had been harboring similar feelings last offseason but kept his mouth shut for whatever reason. The obvious difference between this offseason and the last is the team basking in a championship.
Making Sense of the Irving Trade Demand
Here’s the optics of the Irving announcement: he’s miserable playing for the Cavaliers. Winning tends to cure all, and perhaps the 2016 championship delayed this trade demand for a year.
The timing of his proclamation is fascinating. The Cavs didn’t have much salary cap flexibility to tinker with their roster this offseason. Irving even commented that the Cavs were in a “peculiar place" as free agency unfolded.
Meanwhile, the Warriors mostly kept the same squad together. In the end, they added Nick Young, Omri Casspi, and Jordan Bell while losing Ian Clark, James Michael McAdoo, and Matt Barnes.
An already historically great team got objectively better on paper, and the rest of the league could only look on helplessly.
Irving probably realizes deep down that the current Cavaliers roster doesn’t have a significant chance to topple this Golden State team, judging from how both the Finals and offseason have materialized. Irving isn’t getting any younger and doesn’t want to essentially waste a season both not winning a championship and being unhappy.
There’s one winner in this league and 29 other losers. Maybe Irving figures that if he’s not going to earn a championship, he might as well fail at that endeavor in a situation where a team is building around him, and he can be their go-to guy.
Warriors Can Sit Back and Enjoy These Developments
The Warriors should be incredibly flattered by this Irving news. It seems unlikely that he would ask to leave a team that he believed was a legitimate championship contender. It’s psychologically powerful and is just as influential from a talent perspective. The second best team in the NBA could trade away their second best player who’s a 4x All-Star.
No deal is necessarily imminent. Maybe the Cavs will tell Irving to stay put until his contract runs out or trade him sometime in the future. There’s not necessarily a big rush to ship him.
Perhaps the Cavs are waiting to get the most lucrative haul for him and will bide their time until they become clear what the market is for Irving.
Very rarely do teams acquire a single player of equal value when they trade away a star. Usually, it’s like giving someone a $1 bill for three-quarters, and in this analogy, Irving is that crisp dollar bill. It’s impossible to predict whether the Cavs will decide to oblige Irving’s request or keep him and carry on with their plans to unseat the Warriors. If they do trade him away, it’s likely that they’re not going to get one individual player on Irving’s level, but instead an assortment of intriguing pieces to add to their lineup as well as draft picks.
Possible Outcomes from Golden State's Perspective
From afar, the Warriors should be very pleased by these developments, regardless of where Irving ends up.
Even if Irving gets traded to an Eastern Conference team, it’s hard to pick against James still getting the Cavs out of the East. The Celtics are closing the gap between the two teams with their Hayward acquisition, but James is still the best player on the planet with a supporting cast dependable enough to get out of the East. Irving would likely command a trade package adequate for James to utilize towards another Eastern Conference title.
If Irving goes to the West, it takes a star player out of the Eastern Conference. No team behind the Cavs would make a significant leap forward, and the Cavs will probably get a return for Irving that keeps them as Eastern Conference favorites.
Irving is requesting a trade to a team where he can be the best player. A team where Irving would instantly become the undisputed linchpin is likely not a viable championship contender anyway. Another indication that the Warriors can only be helped by an Irving trade, at least within the time frame of next season.
The Cavs can also pursue the route of adding a third team to any potential Irving trade, which would send other talented pieces across the NBA frontier. Three team trades are even harder to speculate on, but would ultimately impact more teams than just the Cavs and another organization.
If Irving doesn’t get traded, the status quo is prolonged, and the Warriors remain far and away the best team on paper in the NBA.
Regardless of where Irving lands, the gap between the Warriors and the second best team will be massive. The only detail undetermined is just how significant that divide will be once the 2017-2018 regular season begins.