The NBA’s Golden State Warriors charged out of the gate this season, not taking a breath until they racked up 24 straight wins – a record start. They finally succumbed to the Milwaukee Bucks in game 25, perhaps out of sheer boredom from winning so much. At the halfway point of the season they were 37-4, putting them on pace for a 74-win season, which would eclipse the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls record of 72 wins. Since the NBA switched to an 82-game schedule in 1967-68 only three teams – the 1972-73 Boston Celtics, the 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks and the 2008-09 Cleveland Cavaliers – have won as many as 65 games but failed to claim the title. Barring a disaster, a second consecutive title in 2016 has to be considered a reasonable possibility.
But what about the long-term picture? Is this a dynasty in the making? That’s another question entirely.
The definition of dynasty is nebulous. Wikipedia says it’s a team that dominates its sport or league for an extended length of time. Others are much stingier with their accolades, claiming that there have been only a couple true dynasties in all of sports history. But whichever definition you prefer, clearly a team has to keep it going for a while just to be in the conversation. And in the NBA, keeping it going is tough. Players have short shelf lives – even LeBron James is visibly starting to decline now. The NBA’s salary cap system tries to level the playing field among the 30 teams, helping to ensure that teams with deep pockets can’t just buy their way to titles. And when they try it anyway, the league’s luxury tax system kicks in and helps bring them back to Earth. Players have fought for decades to win the right to change teams freely when their contracts are up – and contracts are getting shorter and shorter. The result is a never-ending game of musical chairs, where stability is a pipe dream.
Dynasty? A team is outrageously fortunate if it can win even two titles in a five-year span, let alone win enough to be considered a dynasty. Since 1970, only the LA Lakers (2000-02), Bulls (1991-03 and 1996-98) and San Antonio Spurs (2003, 2005, 2007) have managed to win three championships over a five year span. You have to go back to the 1960’s Celtics (10 titles over an 11-year span) before you get to what might be considered a real dynasty. So back to the Warriors – if they manage to pull it off again this year, what are their chances over the long haul? Of their core players, they have Draymond Green locked-in through the 2019-2020 season, and Klay Thompson through 2019-20. But everybody of consequence is signed at least through 2016-17, which means they have this year and next year to try to make it three in a row. If they reach that lofty milestone, they still may not qualify as a dynasty, but they’ll certainly have hit rarefied atmosphere.
The key piece of the Warriors’ puzzle is reigning MVP Steph Curry, and he’s set to hit free agency in 2017. He’s also likely, barring a disaster, to stay put in the Bay Area, so consider him as lock. Last year’s Finals MVP Andre Iguodala comes off the books at the same time as Curry, but at 34, it’ll be time to start lining up a replacement. Same goes with center Andrew Bogut, who will be 33. So the Warriors look to be all set for keeping their core intact long-term, but it looks like they’ll have to start succession planning for some of their key role players if they want to stay contenders over the long haul. And their timing couldn’t be better. A huge influx of new money is about to hit the NBA, due to a new national TV deal and other revenue sources. The league’s salary cap is projected to rise from its current $70 million to as much as $92 million this summer, leaving as many as 25 teams with enough cap room to sign at least one maximum salary free agent. And it all happens again in 2017, when the cap is expected to make another meteoric jump to about $110 million. It will be the seller’s market of all seller’s markets. NBA teams – which have to spend at least 90 percent of the cap on player salaries each year – will be lining up to throw wheelbarrows of cash at free agents. $10 million annual salaries are about to become commonplace, if not mundane.
With so many teams flush with cash, it will all come down to which teams are the most attractive destinations. The Warriors are one of the best organizations in sports, they play in a desirable market, and they have a championship core. “Join us and we’ll keep winning titles together” is a pretty easy sell. If the Warriors throw overboard everything that’s not bolted down this summer, they could have around $11 million to spend. That’s enough to help keep their championship rotation together – maybe for as long as Curry’s prime. But it won’t be enough for another star. Can they find a way to land a whale, and make the team even better than it is today?
They just might be able to, and it represents a nightmare scenario for the rest of the league. As detailed by Zach Lowe of ESPN.com, If they unload just a couple players like Andrew Bogut and Shaun Livingston, they could clear enough cap room to swing for the fences – where Kevin Durant is the home run. Remember, this is the team that managed to turn a bunch of spare parts into Iguodala in 2013, which set up their championship run. Also keep in mind that all teams will
If the Warriors manage to pull this off – clear enough cap room, and then pair Kevin Durant with Steph Curry, we could be talking dynasty for sure – no matter how you want to define it.