Golden State Warriors, NBA

The Golden State Warriors and the illusion of inevitability

I remember watching Game 7 of the 2016 Finals at a friend’s house, and as close as the game was throughout, I never really considered the possibility of Golden State losing. Even as Cleveland took a three-point lead with less than a minute left after Kyrie Irving’s pull-up jumper, it felt like a certainty that the Warriors would find a way to win. They had already gone 73-9 and come back from a 3-1 deficit in the Conference Finals and I refused to believe that had all been for naught. I had watched the Warriors pull out innumerable dramatic victories over the course of the past two seasons and it felt foolhardy to believe it would not happen again. It felt more than just likely; it felt fated. Of course, the thing about basketball — the thing my head knows that my gut refuses to learn — is that nothing is really destined and nothing is actually inevitable, in spite of how certain things may appear.

All season long, a Warriors’ championship seemed close to inevitable. They were the defending champions and had even added another All-NBA talent, though admittedly one who was recovering from injury and rarely looked like his former self. Even as the Bucks and Raptors played better and more consistently than the Warriors, there was this widely held belief that Golden State was capable of flipping a switch when the postseason came. This was what happened last year after a lackluster regular season and most expected it would happen again. In hindsight, it’s not that this next gear never existed, but that accessing it is a trickier business than just deciding you want to.

I wrote about the Warriors a lot this year, which makes sense considering their recent dominance, their tendency to devolve into a basketball playing soap opera, and the fact that I live in the East Bay, my apartment a short drive from Oracle Arena. And throughout all these writings is a sense that it’d be silly to expect the season to end with anything besides a Warriors championship. Overriding any concerns about their intermittent struggles was the conviction that it was hard to believe “the Warriors won’t win the championship next June until they walk off the court as another team celebrates around them.” That moment has come, but it’s still not easy to believe. When a team appears so indomitable for so long, it’s easy to believe there’s something more than just a combination of skill and good fortune at play, though I think that’s just because it’s less complicated than acknowledging the element of happenstance that lies just beneath it all.

There were a number of undeniably great moves the Warriors have made over the last several seasons that put them in a position to succeed as much as they have. However, the end results of each game are not algorithmic, not fully predictable. Basketball is a game played by human beings and weird things happen. There is a crack in every well-constructed edifice that allows the unforeseen to leak through. In the last two seasons, the bounces went in their favor. They were relatively free of injuries, and they rarely had to play a team approaching their own skill level. This year, though, such luck vanished as the Warriors roster came to resemble a MASH unit more than an actual basketball team, decimating a roster that was already severely lacking in depth.

Also, several legitimate contenders arose to challenge them, all of whom looked far more imposing than the Cavaliers teams the Warriors had to defeat in the previous two Finals. There were plenty of warning signs, tons of reasons to predict the end of this run, but we are creatures who value the importance of history, who feel more comfortable betting on the past repeating itself than on something unexpected occurring. In the aftermath it may be easy to justify what has happened, though the shock that accompanies the initial result still remains. But that’s part of the thing about this feeling of inevitability — it all feels certain until the moment it doesn’t.

When the Warriors won their first championship of this run in 2015, Joe Lacob spoke at the team’s victory parade in Oakland. In his speech, he proclaimed that their title “was no accident. Nothing about this was an accident. And it will not be an accident when we do it again.” I guess he’s right, at least to an extent. The Warriors’ recent success was surely not accidental, no mere fluke, but to imagine that he and the team’s management were able to exercise full agency in determining who would win the championship is a dramatic overstatement of their power and abilities. You can work hard and you can gather a highly qualified team to plan for every contingency, but attrition and injuries and bad luck happen and the mighty fall when they meet an equally talented foe ready and eager to take advantage of any weaknesses.

Next: Assessing the Pelicans’ Anthony Davis trade haul

The idea that success is dependent on luck does dampen the idea of victory. There are no asterisks in the NBA record book for a reason, but no team is immune to the vicissitudes of a long season, of a ball that often refuses to bounce the way one hopes. I guess the great irony of the idea of inevitability is how everything that combines to make something appear inevitable is ultimately contingent. All a team can do is prepare as well as possible and hope for the best.

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