No matter what Joe Lacob says, the Golden State Warriors will not be the lone carnivore unleashed in a slaughterhouse for the rest of time. They will stumble through booby traps planted by the Collective Bargaining Agreement, just like everybody else: Short contracts, an escalating cap, a flush marketplace, a system that increases payment as players age (with a supermax offer that’s atomic enough to make a team feel like it’s enduring nuclear fallout), and kidney punches from the luxury tax that may factor into the loss of key contributors across the organization are all designed to make sure a dynasty like this never happens again.
Those restrictions will affect every contender going forward, and after Golden State falls off, the resulting vacuum will be too large and expensive for any one team to fill by itself. We aren’t set up for parity, per se, but a more competitive aristocracy is around the corner. There will be super teams, sure—and always tankers who intentionally lag behind those that are valiantly obsessed with first-round elimination—but they’re more likely to cluster and be reasonably competitive amongst each other than filter into one overwhelming authority.
So far, the Warriors have navigated through this harsh environment and still hold a Saharan reach over every other team. They’re smart, realize the word “stagnant” means “coma” in NBA parlance, and have the momentum of a new stadium to help push them through understandably sluggish tendencies that will soon settle in, if they haven’t already. But decline will come. In between then and now, the Warriors are the Warriors for many reasons, but these two help define their status in a telling way: 1) Everybody wants to be them, 2) Being them is impossible.
About a dozen extraordinary events, some more coincidental than others, had to occur for Golden State to evolve into what it is in this financial climate. From Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green falling where they did in the 2009, 2011, and 2012 drafts, to the front office not trading any part of this transcendent trio when presented with intriguing opportunities to do so, to Andre Iguodala saying “that sounds like a great idea!” when Steve Kerr asked him to come off the bench, to the cap spike aligning with the world's second-best player hitting free agency, to DeMarcus Cousins playing for the taxpayer mid-level exception, the path to three championships in four years is complicated, lucky, and unrepeatable in any form.
Houston’s harsh summer illustrates just how treacherous life near the NBA’s summit is and will be for anyone who approaches it long after the Warriors are gone. The Rockets taught us that even/especially the best teams have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, that nothing is more powerful or relevant in today’s league than the variability of summer, which often exists as a ruthless reset button.
For the closest thing to proof of this new landscape on the horizon, look no further than the Boston Celtics. Blessed with sober, wealthy, and reserved ownership; savvy, experienced front-office visionaries; unparalleled historical standing; astute coaching; and, to help them get where they currently are, more first-round picks than they knew what to do with, the Celtics have every ingredient to sustain championship contention and replace Golden State.
Multiple All-Stars who complement each other in obvious ways, rapidly developing studs who effortlessly blend into the modern game, and still more/better tradable assets than any team in the league make them prohibitive favorites to fill the void and stay there for a very long time. But even with an inflating salary cap, replicating Golden State’s model is just about impossible underneath a CBA that incentivizes change. They don't have that option, and because of it will face their own set of challenges.
Every summer is Jenga. Next July it's player options for Kyrie Irving and Al Horford and Terry Rozier's restricted free agency. One year later, Gordon Hayward might already be in his contract year while Jaylen Brown seeks a contract extension. Even in a world where millions of dollars can be earned through various means, don’t count on their young talent to take a hometown discount. And beyond money, this roster will compete against itself for touches, minutes, and shots. There are seven starters (at least) on next year’s team. Who will spit out Brad Stevens’s Kool-Aid first?
There's no time to breathe. One misstep can crush years of planning and progress. (Keep in mind, this is where one of the smartest, most aggressive, and confident franchises finds itself. Everybody has specific problems related to their own stakes.)
The Warriors are enjoying one of the most successful runs in league history, but such prolonged dominance is not unprecedented. Before them we had LeBron's Heat, Kobe's Lakers, Duncan's Spurs, Shaq's Lakers, Jordan's Bulls, Isiah's Pistons, Bird's Celtics, and Magic's Lakers. Uniformity was a key trait in all those journeys to the front of the line. Curry's Warriors are an evolution from that lineage.
But once they're finished, a league so overrun with talent—beneath a CBA designed to prevent a Warriors clone from bubbling to the surface and crush budding dynasties like a bug—will resemble a permanent Game of Thrones battle royal. Whether it’s between flat super teams or talent scatters across the league because the financial structure incentivizes high picks to stay where they were drafted, whoever makes it to the top will hardly be there long enough to plant a flag.
Dynasties have always been fragile, but the post-Warriors NBA will go out of its way to ensure they become extinct.