For the first time since, I don’t know, perhaps Bill Clinton’s second term, the Eastern Conference’s top Finals contenders look thoroughly better than the West’s, at least through the first couple weeks of action. Some of this is due to injury, with the top-seeded Phoenix Suns struggling through their first-round series against the New Orleans Pelicans in the absence of Devin Booker, and some of it might just be timing, with the second-seeded Memphis Grizzlies providing some great television while also looking perhaps a bit too callow for a title run in 2022. But as we approach the doorstep of the second round, the Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks, and Boston Celtics have all looked considerably more fearsome than almost any of the West’s top contenders.
Almost any. The third-seeded Golden State Warriors look to send off the injury-ravaged Denver Nuggets in five games later Wednesday night, and it brings me no small amount of pleasure to report that the Warriors look like the Warriors again—specifically this era’s first, cool Warriors. The last time we saw a version of the Warriors that resembled this current configuration was spring of 2016, six very long years ago, when they were making an ill-fated but wildly entertaining run to defend their 2015 title against the Cleveland Cavaliers after winning a league-record 73 games in the regular season. When those Warriors won their 73rd game, Jayson Tatum was about to graduate from high school, and Ja Morant hadn’t yet turned 17. If the Warriors win a championship this year—and they absolutely can—it would be one of the most remarkable displays of resilient continuity in recent sports history, not unlike the San Antonio Spurs’ 2014 run to the title, which, incidentally, was the last championship before the ascendance of the Warriors dynasty.
This Warriors team obviously isn’t identical to the 2015 and 2016 gangs. Harrison Barnes is long gone, and Andre Iguodala—now firmly in the twilight of his career—won’t be topping any Finals MVP ballots. The mid-2010s Warriors teams became famous for their “Death Lineup,” a devastating small-ball fivesome featuring Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Barnes, Iguodala, and Draymond Green at center. The 2022 Warriors have a death lineup of their own, in which Thompson, Curry, and Green are joined by high-scoring guard Jordan Poole and versatile wing Andrew Wiggins. They also have an intriguing bench that includes both wily vets like Iguodala as well as rookie Jonathan Kuminga, a living, breathing pogo-stick who might be the most explosive athlete of this Warriors era and only sort of knows how to play basketball. It’s all a lot of fun.
Like the earlier Warriors teams this one is a joy to watch, with lots of movement, spacing, terrific defense, unselfish passing, and of course, lights-out shooting. And yet their significance also feels like it exceeds the product on the floor. The promise of a deep Warriors playoff run offers a sort of reset or palate-cleanser on what, in retrospect, feels like the defining event of the past 10 years of NBA basketball: Kevin Durant’s decision to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder and sign with the Warriors in the summer of 2016. Durant’s signing with Golden State was immensely polarizing at the time, with fans split between those defending Durant’s right to basketball autonomy and those who saw his defection to Golden State—the team that had only recently dispatched his Thunder from the Western Conference Finals—as a Rubicon-crossing moment for craven ring-chasing.
Durant spent three seasons in Golden State and won two titles (and two Finals MVPs) before decamping to Brooklyn, but in certain ways the events of July 2016 feel like something the league has never quite moved past. The Warriors were, frankly, too good in those years, which led to a series of Finals that were essentially drained of drama, where the only “hope” for any unpredictability was catastrophic injuries, which is a pretty lousy way to experience sports. (This came to bear in 2019, Durant’s last year with the team, when a Warriors team missing KD and Klay Thompson lost the championship in six games to the Toronto Raptors.) The Warriors’ sheer unbeatability in those years may also have directly or indirectly inspired other West Coast “superteam” experiments in Los Angeles, where both the Lakers and Clippers now find themselves navigating salary cap hell while frantically trying to find a path to a title for their aging, frequently injured stars. Finally, Durant’s own desire to prove he could win a title with his own team was widely speculated to be a primary motivation in his decision to leave Golden State and sign with Brooklyn and Kyrie Irving in 2019, which at the time of this writing has gone about as badly as anyone could have reasonably anticipated. Meanwhile, the legacies of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green—iron-clad Hall of Famers one and all—are still stalked by questions about how many rings they would (or wouldn’t) have won if Durant had never come to the Bay.
We now seem to be coming out of all this, as pretty much every major remaining contender has built their team through continuity and careful development and roster construction rather than all-in-now trades or splashy free agent coups. The Warriors, in fact, fit this perfectly, with three stars who’ve each been with the team for their whole careers and whom it’s nearly impossible to imagine in any other jersey. Provided they find their way past the Nuggets, they’ll play either the Timberwolves or Grizzlies in the second round, up-and-coming teams with exciting homegrown stars who are looking to lead perennial, also-ran franchises to the promised land. If you squint hard enough, it all looks a bit like 2015 again.