Let's start at ruin.
Last night, the Golden State Warriors beat the Cleveland Cavaliers to win the NBA Finals; culminating a near-perfect playoff run and historic regular season where they established themselves as the best offense in NBA history. And there seems to be nothing to suggest they won't do the same thing next year. And the year after. And the year after. They have two of the five best players (Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry). The best and most versatile defense player (Draymond Green). Arguably the best all-around shooting guard. (Klay Thompson). The league's best sixth man (Andre Igoudala). Maybe three of the five best shooters to ever touch a basketball (Steph, Durant, and Klay). And Javale McGee's rat tail. Sans Igoudala, each member of their nucleus is in their athletic prime. They are a legitimately great team; one that would be great in any era and competitive with any team (the '96 Bulls, the '87 Lakers, the '86 Celtics, etc) on the short list of greatest teams ever.
The seemingly obvious inevitability of the Warriors becoming a dynasty — and Kevin Durant's decision to sign with them last summer — has caused many to lament that this has ruined the NBA, as no other team would seem to have any shot of beating them in a series. If you are one of these people, please connect with me some time today or tomorrow, because I'd like for you to come to Las Vegas with me. Since you're very obviously able to predict the future, I'd like to see those skills applied to poker and blackjack. (I'll even pay for your flight!)
The truth is that none of us have any idea how the next few years will play out. Maybe someone gets injured. Maybe someone gets less hungry. Maybe someone wants a bigger contract and their own team to lead. Maybe they get worn down from facing everyone's best shot for three consecutive years. Shit, maybe someone's wife wants to move to New York. We've seen it happen before. The Blazers' dynasty derailed by Bill Walton's foot. The Celtics' dynasty by Larry Bird's back. Just thirteen years ago, the Lakers had Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Fucking Malone, and Gary Fucking Payton and got blown off the court by the freakin Pistons. The 2008 Celtics — the juggernaut with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo — won exactly one championship. The seemingly unstoppable and unfair Miami Heat superteam ended their first season together and last season together with Finals losses. Even in this playoffs, the Spurs were a Kawhi Leonard ankle away from beating the Warriors in game one of their series. And if not for four minutes of bad basketball at the end of game three, it's very possible that the Finals are 3-2 and headed back to Cleveland today. On paper, the Warriors should dominate for years. But games aren't played on paper, so we'll see. (Well, H-A-N-G-M-A-N is played on paper. But basketball isn't.)
But, let's say that the NBA is, in fact, ruined. (It's not. But for argument's sake, I'll play along.) That a cocktail of free agency, ring chasing, a pervasive collective lack of a competitive spirit, and something about millennials—I had to throw that in there cause they're blamed for everything else—has created this dynamic that exists today, where only superteams are competitive and stars seem to prefer playing together to beating each other. The two most obvious products of this cocktail are Lebron leaving Cleveland for Miami and KD leaving Oklahoma City for Golden State; two volcanic moves with seismic impacts on the NBA landscape.
Admittedly, I wasn't a fan of either move. Selfishly, as a fan I just prefer it when stars stay where they are, because it makes fandom easier and less messy. (Basically, I'm just lazy.) But that feeling dissipated when realizing that, considering their own legacies and places in the game's pantheon, they each made the right decision. Lebron had no reason to have any faith that the Cavs' front office would put together a team that would beat the Celtics. And after losing in such devastating fashion to the Warriors last year, KD may have very well thought he would be facing another five years of A) losing to the Warriors' budding dynasty and B) watching them beat him with the type of unselfishness, creativity, spontaneity, and efficiency that he'd never be able to replicate in OKC.
It's easy for us to attach a pretend and hypocritical romanticism to great players stuck in ungreat environments. Because it's not us and our legacies and careers at sake. But mainly because it doesn't actually exist. Well, it doesn't actually exist anymore. They both know that today, in 2017, in order to be considered an all-time great, the arbitrary criteria for this distinction requires you to win multiple NBA championships. It's not enough for you to be great. Or great with flawed teammates and/or front offices. Or great but cursed with the misfortune of playing against greater teams. Or great but unlucky. Your greatness has to be so great that it wills opponents to miss shots and your teammates to make them. Your killer instinct must be so ethereal and sublime that it leaves your body like a mist and chokes the life out of anyone who dares breathe in your presence. Your force of personality so all-encompassing that you can just look at a basketball and wilt it into clutch threes.
It hasn't always been like this. There was a time when greatness was just assessed on the grade of greatness and not whether the great player happened to be on a great team too. Despite losing the first eight times he reached the Finals, Jerry West is roundly considered one of the 15 greatest players ever. So great and so respected that he's literally the NBA logo. (Can you imagine someone who lost eight times in the Finals being considered for the logo today? Imagine how many shades of beet Skip Bayless would turn if that subject was even brought up.) And if that reference is too ancient, how about Michael Jordan? By his third year in the league, there was no doubt he was already one of the greatest ever, and it wasn't a crime to admit that even though the Bulls still sucked. The Celtics used to kick the Bulls' ass, and Larry Bird still called him "God disguised as Michael Jordan." Rings didn't validate Jordan's greatness. His greatness validated his greatness. Rings just meant his greatness was finally surrounded by the right pieces and he was lucky enough to receive the right breaks.
Unfortunately, Jordan's success altered what's necessary to qualify as great. Now, for those committed to protecting Jordan's legacy — and there are A LOT of those stanning-ass sentinel motherfuckers out there — the greatness argument begins and ends with rings; an edict that ignores the myriad and almost hilariously random set of circumstances that enable a team to win a championship. And, if you're great or even just very good and you don't win a ring, it's not because shit just happens. Or maybe just because you're Batman facing a team full of Batmans. It's because of some flaw in your DNA; some moral and metaphysical deficiency you must possess that's preventing your team from winning the last game of the season.
Lebron and KD read the same articles and blogs and tweets that we do. They hear the same conversations. They see the same segments and debates on ESPN. They know that their legacies and placements on the list of all-time greats depends on how many championships they win. KD knows that, as much as we want to pretend we value valiant and integrity-filled losing, we're a culture that eventually excuses everything if you happen to be a winner. (And eventually ignores all of that valiance and integrity.) His only crimes were that he stopped doing what we pretended to want him to do to do what we pretended to not want him to do.
Ironically, those who do believe the NBA is ruined often happen to be the exact same Jordan stans who use his career as some sort of proof.
"The NBA was waaaaaay more competitive when the Bulls won six championships in eight years, and never even played in a single game seven in the Finals."
"Sure, the Bulls had great players other than Jordan, a great coach, a great system, and a great front office, but he never would have teamed with other great players. If he didn't have all those great things already in place, he would have just stayed in Chicago. And totally never would have gone to the media or tried to get players traded and coaches fired."
They'll continue to get louder and louder and louder. And I'll continue to wonder if they can hear themselves.