weak in review

David Roth's Weak in Review: Growing Up in a Golden State

This season has belonged to the Golden State Warriors from its first moments, and it's been amazing. But the future doesn't belong to the Warriors alone.
06 March 2016, 8:56pm
Illustration by J.O. Applegate

Jon Barry was adamant, which is more or less what he gets paid to do. He was also pretty much just saying things, in a tone of voice generally used by wretched men to inform a customer service representative that some minor inconvenience is "unacceptable," but that, too, is just him doing his job as he understands it. What Barry was saying was valueless and oversalted, just some pure Nelson Muntz–grade gloat, and that, too, is Some Extremely Jon Barry Shit. None of that was remarkable, given Barry's job and his approach to it. What was remarkable was that he was not wrong.

It was an obvious thing he was right about, and an obvious and not especially helpful thing to say after Steph Curry hit a game-winning 37-foot three-pointer against the Thunder last Saturday, but credit where it's due. Jon Barry was right when he said that you have to defend there, that you can't just let Steph Curry have that shot. The one taken from the part of the floor that a real estate agent might call Upper Halfcourt, the 12th three-point shot he made that game. Definitely do not let him have that one.

This is what the Warriors are doing, to this NBA season and more broadly to the NBA itself. They are taking shots that no one has ever even thought to defend before, and those shots are going in such that the net curtsies a little as the ball passes through it but otherwise barely moves at all. "From areas of the floor where few other players in the league even need to be guarded," Seth Partnow wrote here earlier this week, "Curry is scoring roughly as efficiently as Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan does at the rim." This, it's generally agreed, is a fairly useful attribute for a basketball player to have.

Aside from how much it helps the Warriors win games and all that, it is also hilarious to watch, in a way that basketball seldom is—I have witnesses who can attest that my response to Curry's 37-foot game winner described above was a big, shocked, when-they-throw-the-marmot-into-the-bathtub-with-The-Dude laugh. What Curry does is so startling, so elementally new and weird, that a laugh is the most reasonable response. If you have ever wondered what babies are laughing at when you do the cover-your-face-then-uncover-your-face thing, and why they will laugh at it for 45 consecutive minutes, you can begin to understand it by watching Stephen Curry mercilessly butter-baste the best perimeter defenders on earth. The babies are seeing something they haven't seen before, and it's silly, and the oldest and hardest-to-trick parts of the brain know just what to do when it's presented with something like that.

OK, OK we get it. Photo by Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The first time the Golden State Warriors beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in the past week seemed more unfair than the second, which came Thursday night and was a more familiar assertion of dominance (if also one with a similar lesson: "Typically, you don't have to guard guys until about the hashmark," Kenny Smith said afterward. "Well, you really have to start your defense at half court"). For the record, while both wins were equally unfair, and exactly as unfair and exactly as inevitable as every game that the Warriors have played against every other team this year, the first one was crueler.

This is the spectrum we are on—how inevitable, how vicious, how like or unlike the usual inevitable and vicious thing is this most recent victory. How defiant was the victim, and how admirable. How easy is it to imagine things having gone some other way. The Thunder had a four-point lead with 14 seconds remaining and it wasn't easy. It was barely possible. But you already know all this, and so you already know the challenge that this presents. I can keep coming up with ways to describe the things that the Warriors do, the tidal surge of their transition game or the canny hyperspeed trying of every lock on offense and whatever other goofy whammy-bar run of adjectival praise you want—I've got a lot of them. I cannot make you care, and that's at least in part because awe is the enemy of engagement, and because it is difficult to care about something that only ever seems to go one way.

The Golden State Warriors are, and have been for some time, playing a different iteration of basketball than any other team in the NBA. There's a name for the game they play, and other teams trying to play it, although it's hard to look at the five-out offense being run by the dour and defeated Hawks and conceive of the teams as peers. There are teams playing different styles, and brilliantly, but there's something abstract about them. If the question in your mind when you watch the Clippers play the Thunder or the Spurs play the Cavaliers is whether any of those teams might beat the Warriors—even once, let alone four times out of seven—then the question is really how many years it will be until that question is something other than a thought exercise. But also that approach seems, in a basic way, wrong.

Or, less judgmentally, it asks the least interesting question. The basketball that the Warriors are playing—the flex and velocity of it, the protean warp and invention of it—is more awesome than it is involving. Monumental is not the right word for something this delirious and improvisatory and wild, but to a non-aligned fan it is a thing to be observed more than felt, a strange and funny TV show that can be honestly a little predictable in the way it wraps each episode up the same way. The Warriors do what they do, and they do it in a way that it has not been done—they are using more of the court and demanding more and different things of defenses than any team ever has, and then they are hitting 35-footers over outstretched hands anyway. This really is new, and for the time being it is unsolvable.

But if it starts to seem airless, zipless, or over-optimized in the moment, look on the other side of the ball. The NBA is a living thing, and the strange communal organisms in it mutate at a crazy rate if left alone to do so. It is fun enough to watch the NBA's best teams feel each other out and rough each other up; the San Antonio Spurs are a thing of beauty forever, whether they win a championship or not, and watching a team like the Portland Trail Blazers grow into itself is legitimately life-affirming from the right angle.

But to watch these teams play the Warriors is to see something else, and something more human and vital. The Warriors are playing in the future; they're playing a game that other teams seem years from figuring out. But to watch the NBA struggle with the Warriors is also to watch the future figuring itself out. The Warriors are the only team that has already arrived on the other side, but they will not have it to themselves forever. The rest of the league will get there, and will do it in the same way the Warriors get theirs on the floor—by trying everything, by stretching, by frantically plugging things into other things until things open up. That's the work of it, and the fun.