Greatest of all time? Maybe. Greatest for now? Unequivocally.
Sport does not stand still, it evolves. Today’s superstar is tomorrow’s never was. Yesterday’s innovation is today’s warm-up drill.
I try to avoid comparing a team’s or individual athletes’ accomplishments across generations because it’s not a safe bet to make. Case in point, with his casual attitude, off-the-field antics, questionable work ethic and hunger (and thirst) for life, present-day Babe Ruth would have been forced into the bullpen after three seasons as a starter and burned his arm out in a closing role, out of baseball in fewer than five years.
Injury-and-party-prone young Joe DiMaggio would have never found his way out of the Yankees’ farm.
Undersized and slow Joe Montana would have gone undrafted then languished away as a waiver-prone backup for three or four seasons before heading back to Pennsylvania to get a teaching credential and coach JV.
Even GOATs Jordan and Bird would be hard pressed to wrangle themselves free with such efficiency being hounded by fleet-footed seven footers scrambling around like Muggsy Bogues on the nightly in today’s NBA.
…Perhaps nobody’s career would suffer more in today’s terms than the iso-era Kobe, a player who truly benefited wholly from the era in which he was raised, where team defense was a bigger afterthought in the arena than cotton candy purchased in the third.
But this era Golden State Warriors, especially the 2017 squad, are transcendent. They don’t play the game where everyone else does. They play it from two or three decades in the future… or is it the past? I’m not sure.
The defense of Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and especially Kevin Durant is a phenomena. The combination of a swarm mentality, constant bumping and hustle and fundamentals leads to plays that make Bill Russell’s Celtics squad or the ‘92 so-dirty-they-seemed-to-be-carrying-shivs Knicks look like the red carpet to the rim defense of the present-day Los Angeles Lakers …
The rest of the league and the basketball-watching public is well woke to the Warriors’ shooting, but those who haven’t caught a game this year need to focus on one thing in the upcoming Finals: their work in the paint. With Durant comes an instant seven-foot wall of torment above the rim. Then pepper in another seven-footer with an eight-foot wingspan JaVale McGee, who suddenly looks less a journeyman and more series MVP probable. There is 6’11” unmasked Georgian terror Zaza Pachulia who’s got a bigger dome than the Pantheon, David West, another carpetbagger who’s found a seemingly permanent place to take his death stare out of his carryon, and the busy, mouthy, Saginaw-bred hornet Draymond Green — the team’s spiritual and physical leader d’ing up the opposition’s centers, grabbing defensive rebounds then running point — there is no inserting the typical comment of West Coast physicality (or lack thereof) hampering the Warriors’ game.
The result of the team’s infantry underneath is someone is always open for a shot. Always. There’s Stephen Curry, Thompson, Green and Durant who all hit from 30 feet-plus with the same regularity as a potato-to-fry smasher at In-N-Out.
There’s rookie Patrick McCaw, the Milwaukee Bucks’ 2016 second round pick out of UNLV who the Warriors stole for cash. McCaw, who got the start against the Spurs’ in Monday’s deciding Western Conference Finals game, seems to be infected with the ability to hit from outside and/or pump fake and drive the lane at will. When you get to face the best in practice day after day, something rubs off.
The Warriors shot 55.8 percent from the field against a depleted Spurs who were without the services of five-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge, but were notably missing MVP-worthy small forward Kawhi Leonard, all-time great point guard Tony Parker and former Warrior All-Star forward David Lee, all felled due to injury. Golden State has been only tested for one half this playoffs. During the first two quarters against the series opener at home against the Spurs they were lethargic and seemingly unmotivated, slogging to the basket and digging themselves quickly into a 21-point deficit. The Spurs’ Leonard went down with an ankle injury and the Warriors remained untouchable for the rest of the series.
…Which means the big challenge is yet to come. Certainly if the Cavaliers advance to the finals for the third meeting of these two squads in as many seasons — putting Warriors/Cavs in head-scratching Lakers/Celtics territory — it stands to reason that the greatest player in NBA history thus far, LeBron James (sorry Michael, Magic and Larry, James simply is …better) will be squaring his shoulders against the greatest team ever assembled.
LeBron James vs. The Meanest Machine is supposed to have some kind of dramatic impact of a very capable David vs. all the Goliaths, but will be something along the lines of bear vs. hornets’ nest, individual protester vs. corporate state, or, in the more familiar words of another sports columnist from a more easy-to-dissect day gone by, “will be as lopsided as the Titanic against the iceberg… as one-sided as a heart attack.”
The Warriors — remember their head coach Steve Kerr and his debilitating back problems is playing the role of the Gipper as the league’s most overqualified assistant Mike Brown is marshaling from the sidelines — are on some kind of historic march. Last year, it was the quest for the most regular-season wins — the fatigue factor from which might have stifled their roll during the postseason and foreshadowed a game-seven finals loss at the hands of the Cavs. This year, it’s about being the only NBA team to remain unbeaten in a playoff run. If they remain sharp, focused and constantly badgering, striving harder to step out of their own long shadow, they certainly can do it.
And if they do, it’ll be awhile before we see something of that stature again. But not never. Sport doesn’t stand still after all. It evolves.