David Lee, the Golden State Warriors rarely used power forward in 2014-15, was on his way out the door when the NBA Finals ended in Cleveland. As a parting gift, Lee was given a hat, t-shirt, plenty of champagne, a parade and memories of being inserted into the NBA Finals. Lee gave the Warriors valuable minutes and production as they turned a 2-1 deficit into a Warriors 4-3 series lead and their first NBA championship in 40 years.
For most of the season, David Lee was a man without a country, the one player that did not fit in with the Warriors small ball scheme. David Lee had not changed but the game had, particularly the way his team played. The small ball, guard-centric Warriors didn’t have room for Lee anymore who is an under-sized power forward, a below average defender not quick enough to consistently have value in the style that Steve Kerr likes to run.
It was always going to be a difficlt proposition to trade Lee given his $16 million dollar salary but if the Warriors found a partner then perhaps the Warriors could get player(s) in return. Such was the case with the Boston Celtics on Tuesday when the Warriors were able dump Lee for Gerald Wallace who was no longer in the rotation for Brad Stevens.
Rarely does an NBA champion, one with the reigining MVP, enter an upcoming season as the second best team in the conference but that’s the way it is shaking out since the Spurs added LaMarcus Aldridge to their front court and David West to their rotation. The Spurs are forcing the rest of the Western Conference contenders to match up against them. In this, the Warriors small ball will face its toughest test. The Spurs have more than size, they have leadership and offensive skill. The Warriors lost offensive skill with the exiling of Lee only because they wanted to save money.
These are supposed to be the milk and honey days for the Golden State Warriors who are in a constant state of euphoria, happiness, celebration, pride and arrogance. But the Warriors are not special; every year a champion is crowned and champions go through the same annual song and dance after they are crowned. Always the dynasty question comes up. On the one hand, it’s a natural progression: one title begets more titles in the land of imaginary thinking. But the reality is more grim.
There is a Part B to this whole championship puzzle that has to be tackled and in some ways it is even tougher than the 67 win season and trumping the Cavs in the NBA Finals. Can the Warriors repeat? Can they stay on top, particularly in a grueling Western Conference with teams that will get better- and- will build their teams to counter the Warriors?
The San Antonio Spurs called the Warriors bluff. While the Warriors were basking in the glow of their achievements, the Spurs did the hard work and reeled in LaMarcus Aldridge and David West. They convinced Manu Ginobli to return. They re-signed Danny Green and offered a mega contract extension to Kawhi Leonard. They convinced Tim Duncan to take less money.
In the past 20 years only one coach has guided a Western Conference team to consecutive parades. Phil Jackson repeated three times, crazy as that sounds. Greg Popovich and Rick Carlisle did it 0 times. Zero. Clearly, it’s much harder the second time around. It’s hard to keep players hungry, to prevent apathy from settling in, to continue to do the little things when the basketball complex is anointing you as the next best thing to hit the league.
The league was always going to catch up and catch on to the Warriors. But, no one expected it to be this fast or this dramatic. No games have been played yet but the Spurs are better than they were last year when they were the defending champions. The Warriors are worse. The don’t have a skilled offensive player to put into a game to calm everything down, as was the case in the NBA Finals. Gerald Wallace is long and athletic but not known for his scoring. The last five years he has shot 28% or less on threes.
As the playoffs showed, the Warriors are a team in which rhythm is their secret weapon. They don’t have pure isolation players and are dependent upon ball movements, shot making and energy on defense. History is not on their side. Two teams have repeated since 2000. The Heat and Lakers and they had LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.
The Warriors got through this year so kudos to them but what they are facing in 2015-16 is even harder than everything that happened to them this year. Being the champion is a mental and physical strain most teams can’t overcome; they just don’t forget. They act like champions and it infects their minds. They refuse to accept they have to start from scratch all over again. That they must forget last year.
For the Warriors that means forgetting the year David Lee didn’t matter. At the end of the day, the Warriors saved lots of cash. But the absence of a huge tax bill doesn’t guarantee a title, not when the Spurs have put the Warriors on notice: you are the champions for one year and only for one year.