After the NBA season comes to a close, every team assesses what it needs to do to compete for a championship. This year, those assessments likely began during the second half of Game 1, and they all were likely variations on a single theme: We’re screwed.
The Golden State Warriors are historically good. They are also young, and some of their stars have hinted that they’re willing to be flexible regarding future contracts if that’s what it takes to keep the band together. “I see nothing preventing them from going to eight to 10 straight Finals,” ABC announcer Jeff Van Gundy said in a recent media conference call. “It will be a massive upset if they’re not there each and every year.”
What is a league to do? During halftime of Game 3, ABC’s Michelle Beadle discussed this very question with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. “It’s too early to declare dynasties,” he said. “My view is, players will redouble their efforts over the summer. Coaches will, too. They’ll see this style of basketball—which we all agree is incredible basketball—and they’re going to go back, just like all the great players have, and try to get better every year.”
This year’s finals have taught us that if every team’s best players suddenly become as good as LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love, they might have a shot at getting destroyed by the Warriors in a playoff series.
So, where does that leave us? What must Golden State’s closest “competitors” do in order to make things interesting?
LeBron James: Apparently, there are “rumblings across the league” that LeBron will make a move to Los Angeles when he becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2018. If true, this means one of two things. He will either join a promising young Lakers team that may add Paul George this offseason, or he will head to the Clippers to form an aging superteam with one or all of his banana boat buddies (Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony). If these scenarios were films in Robert De Niro’s recent oeuvre, the former would be The Intern while the latter would be Last Vegas.
Would either plan really bother the Warriors? The Lakers’ young players have a lot of growing up to do. Brandon Ingram has a slight chance—1 percent? 5 percent? 12 percent?—of turning into a Kevin Durant–like player. Kevin Durant is already Kevin Durant. If everything goes right for Lonzo Ball, whom the Lakers are expected to draft this month, his career may one day resemble Steph Curry’s. Steph Curry, meanwhile, is in the midst of the most Steph Curry–like career in NBA history.
Cleveland Cavaliers: If LeBron stays, the Cavs’ best hope is to follow Adam Silver’s advice and just get better. Good luck!
LeBron jumping ship isn’t the only worry for Cleveland—Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving are free agents in 2019. If the Big Three depart, my advanced statistical projections tell me that Untitled Tristan Thompson Solo Project will not fare well against the Warriors. However, the Cavs can remedy this with a simple, three-step plan.
1. Draft well.
2. Convince the Cleveland Police Department that the only way to rid the city of its ruthless criminals is to meld Craig Ehlo’s flesh with the latest in robotic technology. Assuming Robo-Ehlo makes light work of not only Cleveland’s violent street gangs but also the corrupt city government, the Cavs should convince him to sign a three-year, $60 million contract with a player option.
3. Build around draft picks and Robo-Ehlo.
Houston Rockets: Next season, every time you see Houston fly down the court and fire up a barrage of three-pointers and think, You know what, they could maybe hang with the Warriors, I want you to sit down in front of the TV, close the blinds, and rewatch Game 6 of the Rockets’ second-round series against the Spurs.
The Rockets don’t need talent. They need an exorcism.
Boston Celtics: Save for their miracle comeback in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics suffered a thorough depantsing at the hands of the Cavs. With the potential to sign the likes of Utah free agent Gordon Hayward, plus the rights to the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft—likely to be University of Washington guard Markelle Fultz—and another Brooklyn Nets first rounder still to come, the future is bright for the Celtics. They could also package a bunch of their assets to sign a huge star or maybe even two. Damn, I’m getting excited—these guys could knock off the Cavs next year! The Warriors, however, will have no trouble flushing the Celtics down the toilet whenever they please. Boston’s best strategy to stop Golden State will be to hope that astronomers have made grave miscalculations regarding the age of the sun and that it will explode many billion years ahead of schedule.
Washington Wizards: See above, except they don’t have a bunch of first-rounders from the Nets. The Nets should have 30 first-round picks each year, so they can trade them all and give more teams a shot.
Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Karl-Anthony Towns: The NBA’s three best young players all suit up for teams—the Pelicans, Bucks, and Timberwolves, respectively—that aren’t close to being contenders. Perhaps in four years they can all join forces to take down the Warriors. (Davis is an unrestricted free agent in 2021, and the Greek Freak and Towns are both still on their rookie deals.) Or perhaps they’ll join the Warriors for championships six through 10.
San Antonio Spurs: Now we’re talking. In Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, the Spurs were having their way with the Warriors. Kawhi Leonard looked to be the best player on the floor, and San Antonio’s role players buzzed around on offense and were scoring at will. But then Zaza Pachulia happened:
With Leonard gone, the Warriors erased a 25-point deficit, won the game, and have been cruising ever since.
But Kawhi will return. So will Gregg Popovich, the best coach in the league. Add to that the whispers that Chris Paul may be mulling a move to San Antonio, and the Spurs could be our best shot at upending a decade of Warriors dominance. Which means nobody has a great shot at upending a decade of Warriors dominance.
Our money’s still on the sun exploding. Bring on the red giant phase!