Warriors Derangement Syndrome

The NBA is on the verge of a collective nervous breakdown.

John Wall, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, and LeBron James.
John Wall, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, and LeBron James. Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate. Photos by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images, Ronald Cortes/Getty Images, Patrick Smith/Getty Images, Andy Lyons/Getty Images.

Ever since July 4, 2016—the day Kevin Durant announced he was leaving Oklahoma City to sign with the Golden State Warriors—the NBA has been plagued by whispers that it would become fatally boring. The Warriors will win the next four, five, or six titles. The only drama will be whether they’ll average 70 wins a season or 75.

Golden State is more or less living up to its end of things—the team coasted to a title in its first season with Durant and currently sits atop the league with a tidy 39–10 record. Barring injury, they are the prohibitive favorites to win the 2018 NBA title. Sure, someone else could win this year’s championship. It’s also possible the sun could take tomorrow off and we could wake up to find the forest moon of Endor hanging in the sky.

But while the NBA has become predictable in one sense, it is anything but boring. That’s because a condition known as Warriors Derangement Syndrome is ravaging the league’s top also-rans, with bizarre and fascinating results. A generation of NBA stars now faces each day with the understanding that the road to the NBA title will go through the Bay Area for the next half-decade (at least). In an era in which social media amplifies both individual personalities and organizational palace intrigue to unprecedented decibels, players and teams obsessively weigh their loyalty to each other against their investment in their personal legacies, and anonymous back-stabbing and surreptitious alliance building rule the day. To put it another way: Everyone is losing their minds, and it’s fantastic to behold.

It became clear this week that this epidemic is leaving no corner of the league unscathed. On Monday, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Michael C. Wright reported that relations had grown strained between the San Antonio Spurs and superstar wing Kawhi Leonard, who’s recovering from a right quadriceps injury and has appeared in only nine games this season. The story was a standard-issue cocktail of on-background, anonymous innuendo and on-the-record, less-than-convincing denials. “There is no issue between the Spurs organization and Kawhi,” declared Spurs general manager R.C. Buford, before conceding that Leonard’s “rehab hasn’t been simple, and it hasn’t gone in a linear fashion.” The next day, ESPN analyst Jalen Rose appeared on First Take and announced that “Kawhi Leonard wants out of San Antonio.” Rose said Leonard was losing faith in San Antonio’s ability to draw top-flight free-agent talent, a statement that could easily be construed as a shot at Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge, one of the league’s marquee free-agent signings of the past several years.

Rose’s words should be taken with a Boogie Cousins–sized grain of salt: He’s not a journalist and has a penchant for mischievous provocation going back to his playing days. But the fact that there’s even a whiff of smoke in San Antonio is extremely telling. The Spurs are the most stable and ruthlessly successful NBA franchise of the past two decades. Leonard, who is one of the NBA’s four or five best players when healthy, is the latest in a long line of Spurs greats that includes David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili, all of whom spent their entire NBA careers with the team. No one leaves the Spurs or even talks about being unhappy on the Spurs. The Spurs, we thought, were post-drama. But alas, these are the crippling effects of Warriors Derangement Syndrome.

Ordinarily a story as explosive as “Kawhi Leonard wants out of San Antonio” would chew through several days’ worth of news cycles. But within 24 hours of breaking the Leonard story, Wojnarowski dropped another bomb, this one about a team meeting in Cleveland in which the Cavs’ Kevin Love was accused by several unnamed teammates of either faking or exaggerating an illness. The story was attributed to anonymous sources, a designation that’s been so ubiquitous around the Cavs in recent years that it probably deserves a share of the team’s 2016 title. (Less than a week earlier, several Cavs players had conducted a bizarre “anonymous” press conference in which they told reporters from three different news outlets they were concerned the team’s struggles were unfixable.) But the Love story was a new height of weirdness. Who leaked this, and why? Was it LeBron James, media specialist, trying to sprinkle some narrative breadcrumbs ahead of his impending departure? Was it Love himself, trying to force a trade out of Cleveland? Was it coach Tyronn Lue, trying to spin the team’s recent struggles as a matter of locker-room discord rather than in-game strategy?

“Who leaked it?” wasn’t even a question in the case of the Washington Wizards’ latest fiasco. The Wiz, who started the season with Eastern Conference title hopes, are currently stalled in the middle of the pack and recently suffered blowout losses to the lowly Charlotte Hornets and Dallas Mavericks. After the former contest, point guard John Wall divulged details of a players-only meeting to the Washington Post: “A couple guys took [the meeting] the negative way and it hurt our team. Instead of taking it in a positive way like we did in the past and using it to build our team up, it kind of set us back a little bit.” Responding to Wall’s comments—in the same Post story, no less—the team’s other star, Bradley Beal, observed, “It was tough. I try to keep all our stuff as personal as possible but I think in a way not everybody got a chance to speak whenever they wanted to.” Players-only meetings can serve a lot of purposes. Using them as rehearsal spaces for media squabbles is a pioneering use of the form.

As the Feb. 8 trade deadline approaches, it’s clear the symptoms of Warriors Derangement Syndrome will only intensify. The most pivotal player in the league is still in Cleveland, and the impending free agent might not stick around after this season. The only way for the Cavs to keep LeBron James is to surround him with enough talent that he thinks he has a chance to beat the Warriors, a prospect that seems dimmer by the day. One of the speculative destinations for LeBron is San Antonio, a prospect that might be feeding into Leonard’s grumblings: Get me LeBron, or get me out of here. Another potential landing spot is Houston, which acquired point guard Chris Paul in the offseason—one of James’ closest friends—and is widely regarded as the league’s second-best team.

But the Rockets, too, have been acting a bit nutty as of late, commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. Day by unsuccessfully seeking out a post-game brawl with Paul’s former team, the Los Angeles Clippers. Then, just this past weekend, the Rockets dealt the Warriors a rare loss, prompting Houston center Clint Capela to declare the Rockets “better” than the Warriors, a pretty stupid statement to make about arguably the best team in history, particularly when your own team has a lengthy history of flaming out in the playoffs.

Meanwhile in Golden State, things are more or less humming along. The Warriors are leading the league in every meaningful offensive category, Kevin Durant is emerging as a fashionable MVP favorite, and four of the team’s five starters have been named to the All-Star Game for the second consecutive season, a first in NBA history. That last fact has left Russell Westbrook feeling aggrieved, with the Oklahoma City point guard saying it was “outrageous” that his teammate Paul George got left off the team while there were “four people from one team.” Westbrook, Durant’s former teammate, is Warriors Derangement Syndrome’s “patient zero.” Since his affliction, he’s averaged a triple-double for a full season and won his own MVP award. And if he wants a championship ring? Maybe Durant will let him borrow one of his.