CLEVELAND – Long before tipoff of Game 4 of the NBA Finals on Friday, TNT analyst and former Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson took a minor spill as he walked off the Quicken Loans Arena floor.
It was an ankle turn, of all things, one that sent him stumbling for just a bit before he found his way. But more than that, with the modern-day Warriors just hours away from winning their third title in four years by downing Cleveland 108-85 to complete the sweep, it was an odd and timely reminder of where these Warriors have been.
"Job well done," Jackson said on the postgame telecast. "They earned their rightful place in history."
It was just five years ago when Jackson was at the helm instead of Steve Kerr, back when Steph Curry’s ankles could never hold up and the notion of Golden State as the NBA’s next great team seemed about as likely as, well, LeBron James returning to Cleveland. To call their ascension unexpected is an understatement, and to call them anything other than a dynasty is a disservice.
Now that this back-to-back deed is done, the discussion about where this team fits in the scope of history will be in full swing. The Boston Celtics of the Bill Russell era will always be in a class by themselves, not only because of the unthinkable dominance but because the NBA only had between eight and 14 teams back then. Still, eight titles in a row (1959 to 1966) and 11 of 13 during that span is incredible by any measure.
Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls had their own irrefutable place in the league’s lore, with three-peats from 1991-93 and 1996-98. Take away Jordan’s retirement in between, and the prospect of eight straight was very real. The Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O'Neal Los Angeles Lakers should have done much more damage than their three-peat (2000-02), but their feud cut the shelf life short.
These Warriors, who were well on their way to this kind of run even before adding Kevin Durant two summers ago, now belong somewhere in that conversation. The sweep is a cherry-on-top achievement, as it's just the ninth time in NBA history that it's happened. And should James leave his home region again this summer in free agency – a prospect that seems more likely than not as July 1 nears – they will go down as the team that shoved him toward the exits.
But as anyone who has watched this Golden State stretch up close knows, this latest title season was hardly a carbon copy of the two that came before. The fatigue factor came into play like never before, with players and coaches alike admitting that their minds and bodies were taxed from the annual October-to-June routine. Kerr had predicted that much from the start, citing his playing days with those Jordan Bulls and remembering how hard it was to keep a championship-caliber edge as time wore on.
This one was different because they never fully recharged. They touched down for training camp in China feeling as if the championship parade through the streets of Oakland had been a week or two before, then privately fumed at how the logistics of the trip would wreak havoc on their ability to find their center again as a group.
They changed their approach from the previous two seasons, prioritizing health and the long-view this time around and paying a price for it in the end. The team that charged ahead to 73 wins in the 2015-16 campaign, that won 67 games in Durant’s debut season en route to a 16-1 playoff run, couldn’t decide how to handle the doldrums of another long season.
They lost 10 of their final 17 games during Curry’s late-season absence, lost homecourt advantage along the way while finishing 58-24, and seemed to lose their one-of-a-kind identity in those Western Conference finals where the Houston Rockets pushed them to the brink. From owner Joe Lacob to general manager Bob Myers, there was a key question being bandied about in recent weeks: Does this group still have what it takes to meet the championship moment from a mental standpoint, and what does it mean if the answer is no?
But the answer came with impressive conviction in the end, and now the rest of the NBA must yet again ponder what it will take to bring this reign to an end. The Warriors, with that once-wobbly foundation no longer in question, remain the kings of the NBA.