BOSTON — The NBA’s dynasties share certain commonalities that have helped tip the scales from being run-of-the-mill champion teams to those remembered for decades.
Between them: Each has had a generational contender for Mount Rushmore at their position.
The 1980s had Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics battling Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Los Angeles Lakers. Michael Jordan’s Bulls ruled the ’90s, then passed a flickering torch, a championship here and there but never twice in a row, to Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs.
Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant snuck into a Lakers hat-trick in the early 2000s.
And then there were none. There were other all-time players: LeBron James, of course. And James’s Heat came close to the top tier by becoming champions in 2012 and 2013, but fell apart soon after.
Dynasties require more than that.
Patience. Money. Owners willing to spend. And above all, it seems, the ability to “break” basketball and change the way the game is played or perceived. That is why there were no new dynasties until the union of Golden State and Stephen Curry.
Donning a white NBA championship baseball cap on Thursday night, Curry slammed both hands on a table in response to the media’s first question of the night.
“We have four championships,” Curry said, adding, “This one hits different, for sure.”
Curry repeated the phrase “hit different” four times during the media session, perhaps fittingly. Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala had just won an NBA championship together for the fourth time in eight years.
“It’s amazing because none of us are the same,” Green said. “You usually bump into people when you’re similar. The only thing that is constant for us is winning, it is the most important thing. That’s always the goal.”
Golden State has won with ruthless, methodical efficiency, like Duncan’s Spurs. San Antonio won five championships between 1999 and 2014. Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker were All-Stars, though Duncan was in a league of his own. Their championships were spread out (Parker and Ginobili weren’t in the NBA for the first), but they posed a constant threat because of their disciplined excellence.
“Steph reminds me a lot of Tim Duncan,” said Golden State coach Steve Kerr, who won two championships as Duncan’s teammate. “Totally different players. But from the point of view of humanity, the talent, the humility, the confidence, this wonderful combination makes everyone want to win for him.”
Unlike Golden State, Duncan’s Spurs influence is more subtle, which is appropriate for a team not known for its brilliance. Several of assistant coach Gregg Popovich have brought the team-oriented culture they saw in San Antonio to other teams as successful head coaches, including Memphis’ Taylor Jenkins, Boston’s Ime Udoka and Milwaukee’s Mike Budenholzer. Another former Spurs assistant, Mike Brown, was Kerr’s assistant for the past six years. For San Antonio, sacrifice has mattered above all else, whether it’s accurate sharing of the ball on offense or Ginobili’s willingness to accept a bench role in his prime, which likely earned him individual accolades.
Johnson’s Showtime Lakers embraced fast-paced, creative basketball. Bryant’s Bulls and Lakers popularized the triangle offense favored by his coach, Phil Jackson. O’Neal was so dominant that the league changed the rules because of him. (The NBA also changed the rules because of Jordan.)
Still, Golden State may have changed the game more than any of them, having been at the forefront of the NBA’s 3-point revolution. Curry’s 3-point shot has become so ubiquitous that players of all levels are trying to be like him. much to the coaches’ frustration.
“When I come home to Milwaukee and watch my AAU team play and practice, everyone wants to be Steph,” Golden State center Kevon Looney said. “Everyone wants to shoot 3s, and I’m like, ‘Man, you have to work a little harder to shoot like him.’ ”
Golden State’s defining distinction isn’t just Curry, who has more career 3-pointers than anyone in NBA history. The team also selected Green in the second round of the 2012 NBA draft. In an earlier era, he probably would have been considered too short at 6-foot-6 to play up front, and not quick enough to be a guard. Now, teams are looking to find their own version of Green: an exceptional passer who can defend all five positions. And many times they fail.
Dynasties also had coaches who were experts at managing egos, like Jackson in Chicago and Los Angeles and Popovich in San Antonio.
Golden State has Kerr, who by the way is also a common denominator in three dynasties: He won three championships as a player with the Bulls, both with the Spurs, and now has four more as Curry’s head coach.
In today’s NBA, Kerr is a rarity. He has managed Golden State for eight seasons, while in much of the rest of the league, coaches don’t last that long. The Lakers recently fired Frank Vogel just two seasons after he helped them win a championship. Tyronn Lue led the Cavaliers to a championship in 2016 in his first season as head coach, leaving a little more than two seasons later, despite reaching at least the conference finals three years in a row.
Since Golden State hired Kerr in 2014, all but two other teams have changed coaches: San Antonio, which still has Popovich, and Miami, coached by Erik Spoelstra.
In a decade of rampant player movement, Golden State has been able to rely on continuity to regain its status as king of the NBA. But that continuity isn’t the result of a fairytale bond between high-level athletes who want to keep winning. together. Not totally, anyway.
Golden State has a structural advantage that many franchises today cannot or choose not to have: an owner in Joe Lacob who is willing to spend a lot of money on the team, including hundreds of millions of dollars in luxury taxes to have the biggest payroll. high. in the NBA This means that Golden State has built a dynasty in part because its top stars are paid to stay together, rather than relying on difficult management decisions about whom to keep.
The NBA’s salary cap system is designed so that this doesn’t happen. David Stern, the former NBA commissioner, said a decade ago that to achieve parity, he wanted teams to “share players” and not hoard stars, hence the hefty luxury tax penalties for Lacob. He compares Golden State’s approach to that of the Oklahoma City Thunder, which in 2012 traded a young James Harden rather than pay him a costly contract extension. The Thunder could have had a dynasty of their own with Harden, Russell Westbrook and, a key part of two Golden State championships, Kevin Durant.
And there is another factor that every dynasty needs: luck.
Golden State was able to sign Durant in 2016 due to a temporary salary cap increase. Winning a championship, or multiple championships, requires good health, which is often out of the team’s control. Thompson missed two straight years with leg injuries, but didn’t seem to suffer a setback this year after his return. Of course, Golden State has also had bad luck, like injuries to Thompson and Durant in the 2019 Finals, which may have cost the team that series.
The NBA legacy graveyard is littered with “almosts” and “mights.” simply golden state has — now for the fourth time. There may be more races left for Curry, Thompson and Green, but as of Thursday night, his legacy was assured. They are not chasing other dynasties for legitimacy. Golden State is the one being hunted now.
“I don’t like to put a number on things and say, ‘Oh man, we can get five or we can get six,'” Green said. “We are going to hold them until the wheels fall off.”