Growing up in Michigan, the Pistons meant everything to Detroit. It’s been over a decade since the team has been relevant, but the Pistons have always remained a source of pride from their win in the 2004 Finals over the Los Angeles Lakers. The series is still discussed today, not just because Detroit, with only one All-Star, upset a team led by Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, and Gary Payton, but because of the way they played. The constant speculation of in-fighting between superstars Kobe and Shaq was a big juxtaposition to the Pistons, who were seen as playing much more cohesively with a blue-collar approach.
A byproduct of this cohesion was their record-setting defense. It was not uncommon for the Pistons to hold teams to under 90 points in the playoffs that year, with a record eighteen games with such a stat. The Pistons even allowed under 60 points in one playoff game.
Today’s NBA looks much different. Scores like this haven’t been seen in a while and the league has returned to being superstar-focused, especially after the increasing phenomenon of “Super Teams.” Many fans are upset that the game has changed, and after four straight finals with the same teams, they blame the Golden State Warriors for “ruining the NBA.” With Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson possibly leaving next year, it’s time to reflect on the last five years of Warriors dominance, and why these assertions are unfair.
After the 2004 Finals, the NBA made a rule change that shifted the course of the league by banning the use of hand-checking. Defenders could no longer slow down players with their hands and against faster, more explosive players, defenders could no longer feel which direction the player would go. The result was that smaller players could score much more easily by gaining separation either on the drive or with shooting long-range.
From these changes, fans who appreciated the dominance of larger players like Shaq became upset to see the dominance of a smaller player like Steph Curry being able to shoot so many 3-pointers. Though he was not responsible for the rule change, his dominance is seen almost as exploiting a loophole, changing the strategy and the overall look of the league. Curry, as the poster-child for the three, became a symbol for a big change in the NBA. In 2016, he set a record for most threes in a season, hitting over 400 when nobody else had made 300 in a season.
Though the Warriors were initially dominant with their long-range shooting, other teams have adopted similar approaches. Their main rival until this year, the Cavaliers, set the record for most threes in a game, knocking down 25 in a game on March 3, 2017. Just this season, the Houston Rockets, who regularly attempt more threes per game than any other team, made 26 on December 19.
Some, like San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, have criticized the prevalence of the shot in today’s game, as it takes the “beauty” out of basketball. In some respects, however, the three-pointer can actually add to the excitement of a game. A buzzer-beating three, like Damian Lillard’s against the Thunder, or a dagger three to seal a game, can make arenas either erupt or go completely silent, depending on the home team.
But this is not to suggest that the old system of basketball is extinct. Many young talented players now, like Ben Simmons or Giannis Antetokounmpo, do not shoot the three well, signaling that the three may not be entirely the future of the game, especially since Antetokounmpo is regarded as the next best player in the league.
Another change from the early days of the NBA through early 2000s, that many use to explain the enablement of a player like Curry is the disappearance of physicality. Those who appreciated the fights of the 1980s and 1990s, with teams like the “Bad Boy” Pistons, would be understandably upset to see the lack of fighting now. After the infamous “Malice at the Palace” in 2004, when the Indiana Pacers’ Ron Artest jumped into the crowd and fought a fan, the traditional physicality and the prevalence of fighting was never really seen again.
Whether or not you view fighting as an essential part of basketball is a matter of personal preference, but with increased risk of suspensions and injury, fans would not be given the full experience of pure basketball and players achieving their full potential.
The Warriors, with relatively quiet players like Durant and Klay Thompson, often get called soft or sensitive too, especially after Durant’s burner account controversy. Even then, however, there is no reason to believe that the competitiveness of the players has gone completely soft. Trash talking is still a vital part of the game, especially in the playoffs, as we just witnessed with the Blazers-Thunder series.
For the Warriors, having louder, more physical players like Draymond Green or Demarcus Cousins contradicts this notion that they are a soft team. With Steph Curry, as a smaller, more unconventional-looking player, he is labeled arrogant as well. However, “arrogant” actions of his, like turning away from a shot before it goes in, contributes to the story of his talent, especially after players like Nick Young and Kemba Walker have tried to do the same thing and have failed spectacularly.
Finally, the biggest knock against the Warriors is that they are a Super Team and have ruined competition in the NBA. Through injuries and good drafts, they were able to acquire their original “big three” of Curry, Thompson, and Green. After going 73–9, they became the “most hated” team when Durant, who had lost the Western Conference Finals against them after being up 3–1 in the series with the Oklahoma City Thunder, decided to join the team.
Though this was Durant’s decision and the Warriors would be fools to pass on the “only unstoppable player in the NBA,” the Warriors as a team have become the villains of the league. After making four straight finals, with all signs pointing toward making their fifth, the Warriors are seen as creating an imbalance that makes the NBA boring. But if that’s true, why have the ratings for the NBA finals gone up in the last ten years? And if the Warriors should be blamed, then why didn’t other teams adopt similar strategies earlier?
Many point to the “big threes” of the Boston Celtics starting in 2007 or of the Miami Heat when LeBron James made “The Decision” in 2010 as starting this trend, but Super Teams have existed before 2007, and before the Lakers team of 2004, going back to the Celtics and Lakers teams of the 1960s through the 1980s, who collectively won 19 championships in that time. The difference with the Warriors is that this team was created after already going 73–9.
But even with a Super Team, evidence suggests the Warriors aren’t as unfairly dominant as many say and that the league isn’t ruined forever. After their 73–9 season in 2016, the Warriors have posted worse regular season records each year after adding Kevin Durant, and more recently Demarcus Cousins. As a “hegemon” of the NBA, adding Durant may have been necessary as other teams have been catching up by employing the same tactics and stacking superstars of their own. Cleveland added Kevin Love, Houston added Chris Paul, Oklahoma City added Paul George, the list goes on.
Instead of ruining the NBA, the Warriors have made the playoffs more exciting. The more superstars in a series, the more interesting stories there are. For those who hate the Warriors, relief will come as this offseason will likely break the team up. Still, the rise and decline of the Warriors as a team that took advantage of the lack of hand-checking, revolutionized the three-pointer, and intensified the storylines of the NBA is an important one. As a result of their dominance, the vilification of the Warriors only contributed to intrigue of the game in an already dynamic league.