SAN FRANCISCO — Steve Kerr struck a cheery tone in an early September radio interview, still savoring the fourth title of his Golden State Warriors coaching tenure. The task of defending a championship, he said, “is actually really fun,” a claim he could make because he won three straight as a player with Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in the 1990s before repeating with the Warriors in 2017 and 2018.
Less than a month later, Kerr was singing a much different tune after video leaked of Draymond Green punching Jordan Poole during an October practice. The blindsided Warriors convened meetings involving executives, coaches and players to plot their next steps as their all-star forward remained away from the team. Kerr eventually announced that Green would be fined but not suspended, and he gravely admitted that the week-long episode was the “biggest crisis” of his nine seasons with Golden State.
Golden State is the latest team to realize that repeating as NBA champion has become an increasingly complex challenge. In fact, since the Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers became the first opponents to face off in four straight Finals from 2015 to 2018, the NBA has swung dramatically into a golden age of parity. A league long ruled by superteams and aspiring dynasties is now downright unpredictable, with four different champions crowned since 2019.
What’s more, no NBA team has reached the conference finals in consecutive seasons since Kevin Durant departed the Warriors in 2019, the longest such stretch since the NBA christened the conference finals as part of its postseason in 1970-71. This topsy-turvy reality hasn’t played out in the other major professional sports: The Houston Astros have reached MLB’s American League Championship Series in six straight years, the Kansas City Chiefs have reached the NFL’s past four AFC championship games, and the Tampa Bay Lightning has reached the NHL’s past three Stanley Cup finals.
The Warriors will be attempting to defend their title — and extend their dynasty by adding a fifth championship in nine seasons — amid a competitive landscape that has changed substantially since Kerr’s arrival in 2014. Stephen Curry remains one of the league’s best players at 34, but MVP talents such as LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo have found it difficult to sustain postseason success while battling with a deeper field of challengers.
“In years past, there may have been three or four teams that were a lock to be in the conference finals,” said TNT commentator Reggie Miller, whose Indiana Pacers reached the East finals five times between 1994 and 2000. “[This year, there are] 10 or 11 teams, under the right circumstances and everyone’s healthy, that could absolutely win it all.”
Schedules change and stars move
An explanation of the NBA’s recent year-to-year turnover should start with the coronavirus pandemic’s schedule disruptions. Thanks to delays created by the 2019-20 restart in the bubble, this summer marked the first time since 2019 that the Finals ended in June. The Warriors have enjoyed 124 days of rest since clinching their title, far more than the 2021 Milwaukee Bucks (91) or the 2020 Los Angeles Lakers (72).
The Lakers looked and sounded overwhelmed by their quick turnaround, while the Bucks also dealt with Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday playing for the United States at the Tokyo Olympics. Both teams battled injuries and ran out of gas before they could mount serious title defenses. Similarly, the Miami Heat was swept out of the 2021 first round after advancing to the 2020 Finals, and the Phoenix Suns collapsed in last season’s second round after reaching the 2021 Finals.
Counterintuitively, the evolution of the player empowerment era has been another key driver of parity. When James teamed up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Heat in 2010, he envisioned a long-term home where he hoped to win “not five, not six, not seven” championships. But James reversed course back to the Cavaliers just four years later, and four years after that he headed to the Lakers.
Other stars followed suit: Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Kyrie Irving, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook have played for at least three teams since 2016, and the guardrails restricting their movement have seemingly become less effective with each passing summer. Anthony Davis forced his way from the New Orleans Pelicans to the Lakers with more than a year left on his contract in 2019. Harden pushed out of Houston for Brooklyn in 2021 with two-plus years remaining on his deal. And Durant requested a trade this summer before playing a single game on a four-year, $198 million maximum contract extension he signed with the Nets in 2021, though that last effort has so far been unsuccessful.
“I’m getting older,” the 34-year-old Durant explained in September while expressing frustration at Brooklyn’s lack of internal accountability last season. “I want to be in a place that’s stable and trying to build a championship culture. I had some doubts about that.”
This accelerating superstar carousel has had its share of successes — James and Davis led the Lakers to the 2020 title, and Leonard and George landed the Clippers in the West finals for the first time in franchise history in 2021 — but the sheer volume of activity has produced plenty of instability too. The Nets’ hyped trio of Durant, Harden and Irving played just 10 regular season games together before breaking up; the Rockets were sent into a tailspin by the departures of Paul, Harden and Westbrook; and the Toronto Raptors never got the chance to defend their 2019 title because Leonard departed for the Clippers just 23 days after their parade.
Patience, often a key ingredient for a title team, has never been in shorter supply among the superstar class. Their preferred method of movement also has changed: Rather than waiting to become free agents to team up like the 2010 Heat, stars are having their cake and eating it, too, by signing long-term extensions and then leveraging their teams into trading them.
The shift toward trading for superstars has removed the cumbersome need for suitors to clear massive amounts of salary cap space, but it also has sapped organizations such as the Lakers, Nets and Clippers of the financial flexibility and future draft capital necessary to keep a championship window open for an extended period. When a star grows disgruntled, like Harden with the Nets or Westbrook with the Lakers, his team can find it hard to pivot.
“We will do everything we can, picks included, to make deals that give us a chance to help LeBron get to the end,” Lakers General Manager Rob Pelinka said last month, following a summer of Westbrook trade rumors. “If you include the 2027 and 2029 [first-round picks in a trade], all your picks are gone. If you make that trade … it has to be the right one. You have one shot.”
Breaking the bank
As stars have angled for every advantage, their organizations also have felt the pain inflicted by the stronger luxury tax system that was included in the 2011 collective bargaining agreement. That deal added stiffer financial penalties for teams as their payrolls increase past the luxury tax line and repeater taxes for teams that go over the limit multiple seasons in a row. These rules, intended to help level the playing field by making it financially prohibitive for teams to retain a high-priced roster for years on end, have succeeded in forcing some tough choices.
Looming luxury tax bills were a factor in the Lakers’ decision not to re-sign Alex Caruso in 2021, the Bucks’ parting with P.J. Tucker in 2021 and the Warriors’ inability to retain Gary Payton II this summer. Caruso, Tucker and Payton were valuable, defensive-minded contributors on their title teams, but their organizations concluded that something had to give.
Golden State’s total payroll in salary and luxury taxes reached a record $346 million last season and is projected to reach $359 million this year. After the Warriors signed Poole to a four-year extension worth up to $140 million and Andrew Wiggins to a four-year extension for $109 million in recent days, Golden State’s total player salary and luxury tax payments could reach $500 million in 2023-24, meaning further roster cuts probably will be necessary next summer.
After receiving pushback for this unprecedented spending spree, Warriors owner Joe Lacob responded by calling the luxury tax system “incredibly penal” and “very unfair” in a podcast hosted by Andre Iguodala. That drew a $500,000 fine from the NBA.
“The hardest thing of all is navigating this luxury tax, unfortunately,” Lacob said. “The league wants everyone to have a chance.”
Chasing an NBA title in the pandemic era has therefore become a layered maze, requiring teams to negotiate schedule disruptions, fickle superstars, a fast-paced trade market and onerous salary cap rules designed to fracture superteams. One ill-timed injury can spoil carefully laid plans, and off-court controversies can emerge with little notice. While the Warriors pick up the pieces from Green’s punch, the Boston Celtics are coping without Coach Ime Udoka, who was given a season-long suspension after having an inappropriate relationship with a female co-worker, and the Suns are playing through the fallout from a lengthy investigation of disgraced owner Robert Sarver that revealed an extensive history of racist and misogynistic comments.
The Warriors’ chief advantage, besides their deep pockets, is that they have already been through so much together. They rallied from a heartbreaking 2016 Finals defeat to win in 2017 and 2018. They picked themselves up after Durant’s departure and a pair of lottery trips to win again last season. Now, Curry and company will see if they can do it one more time.
“If there’s any team that’s built for it, I would definitely say it’s the Warriors,” said TNT analyst Jamal Crawford, a 20-year NBA veteran. “They’re the new generation Spurs. The Spurs in the 2000s and 2010s era were the rock-solid stability and the gold standard for culture. I think that’s what the Warriors have taken on now.”