Dominance in the NBA can be recognized not just in how much a team wins, but in how far its ideas spread. The Warriors remade the entire league in their image. By the end of last season, most teams with a hope of contention were either imitating Golden State’s systems, tailoring their rosters in direct response, or both. The highest levels of professional basketball were effectively styled to a single team.
There were echoes in Houston, where the Rockets acquired players for the explicit purpose of countering what the Warriors do best; in Boston, where the precedent set by the Warriors led the Celtics to stack their roster with wings; in Denver, where the Nuggets riffed on the kind of ball and player movement that the Warriors made trendy; in Milwaukee, where the three-point revolution continued apace; and even in Toronto, where the Raptors turned some of the Warriors’ own tricks against them on their way to the championship. The trends continue on and on, wrapping around to the teams that had no business trying to play like the Warriors but attempted it anyway.
Golden State became one of the most successful teams the league has ever seen, and by way of that success, one of its most prevalent. That era appears to be over. Whatever the Warriors are next season, they will be inarguably different. No lesser authority than general manager Bob Myers stated as such this week. "It's not going to be what it was,” Myers said in an interview with Kerith Burke of NBC Sports. “But there's also an excitement to that. There's a novelty to that.” Where there is novelty for the Warriors, there is novelty for the league. In leaving Golden State for Brooklyn, Kevin Durant has decentralized pro basketball as we know it. It may only be a matter of time before some other team sets its own paradigm, but the excitement of this particular moment comes from the vacuum that the Warriors leave behind.
For the first time in years, there is no presumed champion. In the West, there may not even be presumed conference finalists. We know so little about what the new NBA will look like, and we know least of all about what will be reflected back. In the absence of a single, definitive powerhouse like the Warriors, where will the league takes its cues? Which teams will set the terms of engagement? As Myers put it: “It's a new era.” The Warriors will be good so long as they have Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson. Yet their days of framing the league seem to have come to a close.
Welcome to the Why Not Us? NBA. As many as nine teams could have a real shot at the championship next season, which aside from the obvious competitive value, could be a boon for strategic diversity. In some ways, we’ve all learned too much about the way basketball works to revert to certain styles of play. Yet modern basketball is a bigger tent than it seems, allowing for far more than a bunch of off-brand Warriors clones launching up threes. The Clippers will have their own take on the superstar model, and the most formidable perimeter defense in the league with it. The Sixers will stretch positionless basketball to its limits next season, effectively swapping out a star wing (Jimmy Butler) for another star center (Al Horford). The Rockets will attempt a wild experiment in pairing James Harden with Russell Westbrook, two players who independently redefined what it meant to control an offense.
So many teams—from the Bucks to the Lakers to the Blazers to the Jazz—will have their say on the result of the season. With that comes some authorship in where the league goes next. Shaquille O’Neal was once so dominant that he could act as a job creator, keeping entire ranks of big, physical centers under the employ of other teams. Curry became comparable, in his own way, for the demands he put on his opponents and the personnel that would be required to stop him. That threat is still there, only muted by circumstance. It’s easier to dedicate the resources to stifle Curry when Durant isn’t around to break the scheme in two. There’s room for teams to be themselves again, rather than the foils the Warriors needed them to be.
Most compelling in all of this are the singular talents that set teams apart. No other team could fully replicate what the Warriors were doing because they didn’t have the same exorbitant roster and even before that, they didn’t have Curry. Yet the league’s best off-the-dribble shooter might be stylistically closer to Curry than any center is to Nikola Jokić, or any player at all is to Giannis Antetokounmpo. So many of the best players in the game today are playing in a way that would prove difficult to mirror. Still, some will manage to separate themselves and then teams around the league will do what they always do: crib from what seems to be working best. The NBA is so often called a copycat league, which is really to say that its teams learn from one another. In the next few years, those lessons could take the game in all sorts of directions, or in even more interesting fashion, strike some delicate balance between them.
The chatter among team personnel at the Las Vegas Summer League was as loose and varied as it’s been in the half-decade since the Warriors rose to power. There is an unmistakable sense of opportunism in the air, and a touch of imagination. It could lead anywhere. It could lead everywhere. Possibility is the point.