An exclusive, behind-the-scenes look at how the rest of the NBA is coping with Golden State’s superteam reveals that—yeah, everyone else is pretty screwed. But across the star-studded basketball galaxy, rebel fleets are plotting the impossible. Herein, strategies to take down the Death Star… and fix an unfair league

By Howard Beck

illustration by NIV BAVARSKY

October 18, 2016

Bleacher Report

IRVINE, Calif. — Chris Paul cannot recall where he was, exactly, on the day the NBA spun off its axis.

“Might have still been in Spain. Ibiza. Somewhere,” the Los Angeles Clippers star said.

He does not care to remember, really, how he felt when he heard the news.

“I don’t think that deep into it.”

Paul’s tone is flat, his stare impassive. It’s as if nothing changed that day, July 4, when in fact everything changed with a single, stunning declaration.

“I am going to join the Golden State Warriors,” Kevin Durant announced in the Players’ Tribune, and nothing would ever be the same. How could it be?

The NBA’s pre-eminent scorer was joining the only 73-win team in league history, creating a superteam for the ages, obliterating all pretense of competitive equilibrium.

Two MVPs, Durant and Stephen Curry, flanked by two more All-Stars, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. So much talent, so much length, so much versatility. And the shooting! Oh lord, the number of three-pointers that Golden State might sink.

If the Warriors of the last two seasons were famous for their Death Lineup, this year’s team demands an even more fearsome moniker: the Death Star.

That disturbance in the Force you felt? That was the Warriors, becoming the ultimate power in the universe. Golden State may now have the greatest stockpile of elite talent in modern basketball history. Which begs a big question: Are the Warriors bad for the NBA?

For that matter, are we about to witness the least suspenseful basketball season ever?

No team in the West can match the Warriors’ firepower. No team in the East has the talent to challenge LeBron James and the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers. Barring catastrophe, all signs point to a third straight Warriors-Cavs clash next June.

“If you assume health, Golden State is absolutely a lock, and Cleveland is absolutely a lock—for sure,” said the general manager of a likely Western Conference playoff team. “If Golden State loses one player, they're probably still the best team in the West.”

For the first time in recent memory—or at least the memories of every coach, executive and analyst who spoke to B/R Mag for this story—the NBA Finals matchup seems predetermined. Just ask the Vegas oddsmakers, whose calculators practically melted down in the wake of Durant’s decision:

The NBA has a rich history of superteams, but none quite like this:

  • Kevin Durant: stretching nearly seven feet, with the shooting and ball-handling skills of a guard.
  • Stephen Curry: the greatest three-point shooter in history and the league's first unanimous MVP.
  • Klay Thompson: possibly the second-greatest three-point shooter ever and a stout defender at that.
  • Draymond Green: the league's most versatile power forward, who combines shooting, playmaking, defense and rebounding on a Hall of Fame scale.

All four rank in the top three at their positions.

All were named to the All-NBA squad last spring—making the 2016-17 Warriors the first team in NBA history with four All-NBA players from the prior season on the opening-night roster, according to a B/R Mag analysis:

None of the NBA’s greatest dynasties could make that claim—not James and his Miami Superfriends, not the 1990s Bulls, not the Showtime Lakers, nor the 1980s Celtics.

As former NBA coach Doug Collins told B/R Mag: “It’s almost like you’re looking at, ‘What’s going to happen to Golden State to prevent them from winning?’ Not, ‘What can we do to beat them?’”

Then there was this, from Houston Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni: “Hopefully, something doesn’t fit. I don’t know what that would be.”

This is what the Warriors have reduced their rivals to: wishful thinking.

That, and a thousand cliches that the season is long, that games are played on wood (“not paper”), about the limits of playing with a single ball, the vagaries of an 82-game schedule, the fickleness of the universe.

“You gotta play the games to find out what’s going to happen for sure,” said Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle.

That’s all fine, but a few reminders are in order:

  • The Warriors thoroughly dominated the last two seasons, winning 140 out of 164 regular-season games, back-to-back conference titles and a championship. They were minutes away from a second title.
  • And then they added Kevin Wayne Durant: six-time All-NBA selection, four-time scoring champion, third-highest scorer by average in league history, 2014 MVP.
  • Curry and Durant are the sixth pair of back-to-back MVPs to play for the same team, but they are the first such duo to unite while still firmly in their primes.
  • One team’s computer simulation predicted that the Warriors will win 83 games, which sounds comical and somehow reasonable at the same time.

Image title

The Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant, center, speaks with Stephen Curry, right, during the first half of a preseason game against the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday, October 4, 2016, in Oakland, California. At left is the Clippers' Chris Paul. (AP Photo)

“It ain’t changed nothing,” Paul said, a bit curtly. “It ain’t changed nothing. It’s another summer of free agency.”

In a matter of minutes, his impassive stare has given way to irritation and, finally, defiance.

“As you can see,” Paul said, “I’m not sitting here, like, fazed.”

This is where the NBA finds itself as the league braces for a new season and a New Warriors Order: respectful but rebellious.

All rational analysis points to a Warriors dynasty, a gilded age in the Golden State. Players get it. But they are all elite athletes, the best in the world at their craft, with the pride and self-belief to match. So they will not concede an inch, all facts and analytics be damned:

“There’s this thing that fans do, like, ‘Holy s--t, the Warriors!’ I don’t know that there’s a player in the NBA that says to themselves, ‘Holy s--t, the Warriors.’ We wouldn’t be where we are if we weren’t competitive and didn’t feel like, ‘OK, let’s prove yourself against the best.’ ”

— J.J. Redick

Defiance. Pride. Belief. Maybe a tinge of resentment. It’s all there. The hard part is, you know, actually beating the Warriors.


How to Beat the Warriors: A New Hope

Where do you begin? No, really, where do you begin if you’re a coach trying to slay this superstar hydra?

Do we double-team Curry and try to disrupt the Warriors’ rhythm?

Do we run an extra defender at Durant, lest he drop 50 points without blinking?

Can we risk double-teaming either one when both Curry and Durant are on the court?

Who the hell do we leave open? Thompson, who shoots 42.5 percent from the three-point arc? Or Green, who shoots 38.8 percent from there?

Do we go big when they go small? Do we play their pace, or try to slow down the game?

By the way, how’s our ibuprofen supply? Can someone go make a Costco run?

“Most coaches are going to probably look at, ‘Who do we play next?’” one Eastern Conference coach said, chuckling.

To J.J. Redick, the Warriors are like the video game Street Fighter:

So, really, where do you begin?

Start with the basics: You cannot let Golden State feast on transition baskets or points off turnovers, analysts and rival coaches told B/R Mag. And you absolutely must guard the arc.

“During the regular season, they outscored teams by something like 15 points a game at the three-point line,” said Collins, now an ESPN commentator. “You had to limit how bad they’d beat you at the three-point line. It’s a combination of your ability to make them maybe take some tougher shots or maybe shoot a lower percentage.”

That challenge just got infinitely tougher:

  • Durant is an elite shooter, one of three active players to post a “50-40-90” season (50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three-point range, 90 percent from the foul line). The others are Dirk Nowitzki…and Curry.
  • You could force Durant to drive, but he was the NBA’s second-deadliest shooter on pull-up jumpers last season, per NBA.com. No. 1 was Curry.
  • Based on effective field-goal percentage, the Warriors now feature four of the top 11 shooters in the league, among players with a minimum 100 three-pointers made last season, according to Basketball-Reference.com.

“The biggest thing is to be able to somehow just stay in front of them,” D’Antoni said. “Just stay in front and contest. That said, they’re best in the league at shooting quick.”

It’s not enough to guard the arc. Curry and Thompson have made a habit of pulling up on the fast break and launching from 26 feet, or 28, or 30.

“Durant can shoot that far out, too,” said a longtime scout, “at any point in the game.”

If the Warriors had a vulnerability before, it was in the final minutes of a close game, when Curry was the only one capable of breaking down the defense. Durant solves that problem.

Image title

Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant of the Golden State Warriors talk during their game against the Los Angeles Clippers on October 4, 2016, in Oakland, California. (Getty Images)

“I don’t know how much better they’ll be for the first 45 minutes of the game,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers. “They're gonna be a lot better the last three minutes of the game.”

A few coaches reasoned that defending the Warriors is a near impossibility, so you might as well take your chances, push the pace and try to outscore them by going shot-for-shot. It’s a dicey strategy to Collins, who called it “the great seduction.”

Therein lies the problem: The Warriors are better at playing fast and loose than anyone.

“Pretty soon they hit you with one of those spurts, because you’re playing that way, and now all of a sudden you’re down 17,” Collins said. “You can’t score like that. I know some of these coaches are saying we just have to outscore them. Who in the world can score like the Warriors can?”

No one can, probably, but a few teams might try.

Image title

James Harden of the Houston Rockets shoots over Stephen Curry at Oracle Arena on February 9, 2016, in Oakland, California. (Getty Images)

The Clippers are potent, with Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. The Rockets have scoring maestro James Harden, a wealth of shooters and a new coach in D’Antoni who loves to play fast and behind the arc. Portland has a flashy backcourt, with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, and Oklahoma City will ride the fury of Russell Westbrook. But no one can approximate the arsenal of Golden State.

Durant has broken the 40-point barrier 46 times. (“It’s almost impossible to keep him from scoring 30,” said the Eastern Conference head coach.) Curry has had five 50-point games in the last four seasons. Thompson once scored 37 points in a single quarter.

“It’s an interesting look, to be honest,” Kyle Lowry, the Toronto Raptors All-Star, said moments after facing the Warriors in their October 1 preseason opener. “It’s like, all right, what do you take away?”

This is a question with no easy answer, one of many. Such as: Do you switch every pick-and-roll to cut off driving lanes and prevent open shots? Does your lineup have the mobility and length to do so?

The Warriors’ small-ball unit, the so-called Death Lineup—with the 6’7” Green at center, next to Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, Curry and Thompson—was virtually unstoppable already, outscoring teams by 47 points per 100 possessions last season, according to NBA.com.

What happens when Durant is standing where Barnes once did? (“You barely scouted Barnes,” the Eastern Conference coach said.)

There is a belief among rivals—or maybe it’s just a new hope—that the Warriors will be vulnerable in the paint, because they parted with centers Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli to make room for Durant. Neither Zaza Pachulia nor David West, the two big men added by Warriors GM Bob Myers in the Durant aftermath, is a noted rim protector.

In theory, a powerful 7-footer with low-post skills could take advantage and force Golden State to abandon its small lineup. (“Who could really penalize them for going small?” asked one Western Conference executive.) Then again, there are very few big men who fit the description.

Maybe Sacramento, with DeMarcus Cousins, or Brooklyn, with Brook Lopez. It’s a short list.

In the search for Golden State glitches, former NBA coach P.J. Carlesimo suggested studying the Warriors’ nine regular-season losses last season, to find any common threads. But some of those defeats were simply a result of the Warriors’ schedule—the final game of a long road trip—or an injured star.

You could also study Golden State’s four Finals losses...but those lessons only apply if you have LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.

The only other team that came close to making the Warriors worry last spring was the Oklahoma City Thunder, who took a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Finals before getting buried under a hailstorm of three-pointers.

For years, the Thunder seemed uniquely equipped to frustrate the Warriors. They had two superstars—Durant and Westbrook—flanked by mobile big men, with length and athleticism across the board. They could attack Curry, blanket Thompson and still protect the paint.

Scott Brooks, who coached the Thunder from 2008 to 2015, said: “We beat them by being physical with them for three quarters and switching things up [defensively] in the fourth quarter. But we had the personnel that could do that. We had two guys that they could not stop.”

Now one of those guys is wearing Warriors blue.


How to Not Lose Every Game to the Warriors: The Enemy Strikes Back

Every argument against the Warriors eventually comes down to hope or hypothesis.

Maybe their defense will suffer without Bogut.

Yet Durant, when he’s locked in, is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. Plus, Pachulia and West are strong enough to defend the paint. And the Warriors’ best center just might be the undersized Green.

“Trying to guard Draymond Green was a problem for a lot of [teams],” Carlesimo said. “And when you combine him now with Kevin, that’s tougher than combining him with Harrison Barnes.”

Maybe they will be hurt by a lack of depth.

The Warriors did lose five key rotation players, but they kept their two best reserves in Iguodala and Shaun Livingston.

And traditional notions of depth simply do not apply here. Warriors coach Steve Kerr can rest two stars whenever he wants and still have two superstars on the floor. Every minute. Every game. Imagine sending your second unit out against Durant and Thompson. Or Curry and Durant.

Maybe they’ll have a shooting slump. Maybe their chemistry fails. Maybe Curry slips on a wet spot and twists his knee. Maybe Green sabotages them with another groin kick.

“That they get hurt or hate each other, for sure,” said the Western Conference executive. “We’re all rooting for that.”

One Eastern Conference team executive suggested something just short of groin-kicking: “The good teams with coaches that are bloodthirsty, they’re going to say, ‘Let’s go out and try to knock them around a little bit.’”

Last October, the West looked like a five-team race, with the Clippers, Rockets, Spurs and Thunder all poised to challenge the defending champion Warriors. Now? No team can claim to be in their class—but the Clippers and Spurs do have a shot, if the Warriors somehow stumble.

San Antonio has the NBA’s best all-around defender, Kawhi Leonard, and two talented bigs, LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol, to exploit the Warriors’ small lineups.

Image title

Draymond Green handles the ball against Kawhi Leonard on April 7, 2016, at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. (Getty Images)

The Clippers have Paul, still the NBA’s top playmaker, and the bruising frontcourt tandem of Griffin and Jordan.

In an ordinary year, these teams would be firmly in the conversation. This is no ordinary year.

“I think the Clippers and the Spurs have a legitimate chance to compete against [the Warriors],” said the Eastern Conference coach, before pausing. “To beat them, I don’t know about that. But definitely to compete against them.”

Everyone else is rooting for happenstance. In lieu of specific, reasoned arguments against Warriors hegemony, rivals keep citing the unknown. And past superteam mishaps:

  • The Lakers in 2003 added Karl Malone and Gary Payton to Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant but lost in the 2004 Finals to a less starry Detroit Pistons team.
  • The Miami Heat in 2010 brought together LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh but lost in the Finals to the Dallas Mavericks. (Miami did win the next two titles.)
  • Everyone raved in 2012 when the Lakers acquired Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to play with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. Until the Lakers imploded.

“Look, it’s not a guarantee,” the Mavericks’ Carlisle said. “Golden State won 73 games and they were up 3-1 in the Finals. At that point, who would have possibly bet against them? But this is a hard game. To earn championship rings, you have got to earn it. And there’s a lot to getting there and finishing the job.”

He continued:

“Will Golden State be a great team? I have no doubt that they will. Are they a shoo-in for an automatic championship? I’m not ready to say that they are, because it’s just not that simple.”

— Rick Carlisle

But this team is not like any of those, or any other superteams of the past.

No franchise until now has played two recently certified, in-their-prime MVPs. A B/R Mag analysis found that 28-year-olds Curry and Durant are the only pair of consecutive MVPs to team together before either turned 30:

Unlike the 2003 Lakers, these four Warriors stars are all in their prime—and no two of them hate each other as O’Neal and Bryant did.

Unlike the 2012 Lakers, these Warriors have complementary skills—and no one as immature as Howard.

There should be no power struggles. Curry, Thompson and Green heavily recruited Durant. They wanted him, with all his offensive pyrotechnics, on board.

And unlike the 2010 Heat, the Warriors did not have to tear down their roster to add an MVP. The Warriors’ core has been together for years, with a championship and two consecutive conference titles.

That makes Golden State the best team ever to add a player this great, period.

“This is, like, unbelievable,” said Jack McCallum, the former Sports Illustrated reporter, who has been covering the NBA since 1985. “This is something that I don’t think we’ve ever seen, adding that kind of player to that kind of team.”

This is like adding Hakeem Olajuwon and Reggie Miller to the 1990s Bulls—after Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen had won a title or two.

This is like adding Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers.

This is a whole new level of superstar gluttony. And it shouldn’t even be possible.


How to Break Up a Superteam: Return of the Rules

NBA owners were fretting, fuming. A big-market powerhouse, with a recent MVP and multiple stars, signed another MVP and proceeded to crush the competition. Worse, the team had a payroll that dwarfed most of the league.

The Philadelphia 76ers, powered by Moses Malone and Julius Erving, promptly cruised to the championship in 1983.

But by the time they did, the NBA had adopted a rule aimed at preventing more superteams: the salary cap.

The virtue of a cap was clear: If every team had the same spending limit, no franchise could hoard the best talent. Stars would be dispersed across the league, creating a semblance of competitive balance.

“Before the salary cap, you could pay guys anything that you could afford, and the feeling was that it would be bad for competition,” said longtime NBA executive Rod Thorn, who was general manager of the Bulls in 1983. “The big markets and the big teams would get all the big players.”

In their championship season, the 76ers had a $5 million payroll, about five times that of the last-place Indiana Pacers. Teams in New York and Los Angeles were also spending wildly, warping the market for everyone else.

The cap addressed that problem, and over time the league would keep adding new measures to promote competitive balance: Bird rights, named after Larry Bird, to ensure every team could keep its best players; and a luxury tax, to further rein in the top spenders.

The system was never perfect, but it generally had the desired effect. Superstars rarely changed teams as free agents. The best teams rarely had the means to add an elite player. And it was virtually impossible for a team with three stars to add a fourth.

Until now. Until the Warriors signed Durant.

Image title

Head coach Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors, Kevin Durant and general manager Bob Myers display Durant's jersey during an introductory press conference on July 7, 2016, in Oakland, California. (Getty Images)

NBA officials don’t like to admit it, but what happened this Independence Day undermined everything they constructed over the last three decades.

There are only so many stars to go around, and they are clustering in fewer and fewer places: four in Oakland, three in Cleveland, three with the Clippers...and zero in many other markets.

“I don't think it's good for the league, just to be really clear,” Commissioner Adam Silver said in July.

To those claiming a Warriors-Cavs rematch was great for business, the commissioner retorted, “Try telling that to the 430 other players who aren't on those two teams.” (Silver declined an interview request for this story.)

But it took a series of anomalies and unforeseen twists to make Golden State’s Death Star possible in the first place.

The Warriors only had room to sign Durant because of an unprecedented 34 percent spike in the cap—and because Curry is playing on a below-market deal signed in 2012 when he was a borderline star with fragile ankles.

“The spike was such a big blow to the league,” one team executive said. “Two or three teams got helped. Everyone else got crushed.”

Even then, Durant might never have left Oklahoma if not for a series of postseason twists.

What if Durant’s Thunder team had beaten the Warriors in the conference finals, instead of blowing a 3-1 lead? What if the Warriors, who blew a 3-1 lead in the Finals, had won the championship? Durant has hinted the outcome might have been different.

What’s more, we might never see a superteam like this again. Because anomaly or not, changes to the system are coming:

  • League and union officials have been discussing a new labor deal for months, and it is expected to include new competitive-balance measures. Call it the Durant Decree.
  • The primary fix expected by league sources? A mechanism to prevent another massive cap spike.
  • Also expected: a rule allowing teams to offer rich, multiyear extensions to their stars before they hit free agency—a feature that was wiped out in the 2011 labor deal.
  • Some team executives believe the new agreement might also include tweaks to the “max” salary formula to make it tougher to collect superstars.

“They’re going to go back and clear things up that enabled this to happen,” one general manager said.

A hard salary cap might fix everything—by making it virtually impossible to pay multiple stars their market value—but the players union has successfully killed every such proposal. Some teams want an NFL-style franchise tag, but that too is anathema to players.

Sources expect the new agreement to be finalized and announced well before December 15, the deadline for either side to opt out of the current deal.

As Silver said in July, “I think we do need to re-examine some of the elements of our system so that I'm not here next year or the year after again talking about anomalies.”

Or Death Stars.


How to Stage a Basketball Coup: Revenge of the Rest

What is fandom without belief? What is sport without suspense?

We root because we believe our team has a chance. We watch because the outcome is a mystery. Lose belief, lose the drama, and you lose everything that draws us to the game.

These are the existential questions confronting the NBA right now. No one—outside of the most ardent contrarians and true believers—thinks anyone but the Warriors has a chance this season.

“I can’t think of any time it was this overwhelming,” said the executive with the likely Western Conference playoff team. “For the casual fan, it’s bad.”

In a normal year, four to six NBA teams might have a realistic shot at the title when the season begins. The ’80s may have been dominated by the Lakers and Celtics, the ’90s by the Bulls and the 2000s by the Lakers and Spurs. But there have always been worthy rivals and some sense of suspense on opening night. This year is different.

No one interviewed for this story—no scout, no coach, no GM, no analyst—predicted any outcome other than a Warriors-Cavs rematch in June. (Indeed, several bemoaned that the league is now rife with mediocrity.)

Suspense? “The suspense is this: What days are [the Warriors] going to give these guys rest?” said the Eastern Conference coach.

This isn’t a short-term concern either. The Warriors’ four stars are all between 26 and 28 years old. They could be terrorizing the league for years to come.

But this is not the discussion you will find taking place inside any NBA locker room or on any practice court:

  • In Cleveland, James and Irving are plotting their championship defense, unmoved by the chatter out West.
  • In Toronto, Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are preparing to make another run at unseating James (whose teams have won six straight conference titles).
  • The Boston Celtics, bolstered by perennial All-Star Al Horford, also have their sights set on ending the reign of LeBron.
  • The Spurs—hey, they did win 67 games last season—also demand your respect. You can bet that coach Gregg Popovich is quietly concocting plans to make Durant and Curry squirm.
  • The Utah Jazz, Minnesota Timberwolves and Portland Trail Blazers are on the rise. The Pacers and Hawks have reloaded. Hell, even the Knicks believe they have a shot at respectability.

And no one was talking about Death Stars or preseason odds inside the Bren Events Center at UC Irvine, where the Clippers were holding two-a-day practices in early October.

“I have not mentioned them,” Rivers said of the Warriors. “We’re preparing us. We have to be the best of us. And if we’re the best us, we’ll just see who’s the better team.”

The Clippers were the last Western Conference team to knock the Warriors out of the playoffs, in 2014. They have three All-NBA players of their own: Paul, Griffin and Jordan. They have Redick, who led the league in three-point percentage (.475) last season. They have the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, Jamal Crawford. They’ve added solid role players, including an ex-Warrior, Marreese Speights.

“We can’t worry about the Warriors, man,” Jordan said, adding with a chuckle, “They’re not worried about us. ... Whenever we play the Warriors or anybody else, we just gotta try to kick their ass, and that’s it.”

If the Clippers needed any extra edge, Kevin Garnett—future Hall of Famer, recent retiree—is snarling and tutoring the big men, as a favor to Rivers.

“Not only deep, but we’ve got experience,” Griffin said. “We’ve got the pieces.”

Oh, and they’ve got former Finals MVP Paul Pierce, who is no longer a star himself but remains all-world in braggadocio:

“I think we have a superteam here—why is this not a superteam? … I like our chances versus anybody, being that we're a superteam.”

— Paul Pierce

In the months ahead, we might see new salary-cap restrictions, because of the Warriors. We might see star free agents flee the Western Conference, just to avoid the Warriors. Records might fall, coaches might be fired and defenders might just pass out along the way.

But it’s October, the standings are still filled with zeros and every NBA coach and player has wrapped himself in the most comforting of mantras:

“The fortunate thing,” said Paul, “is we still have to play the games.”

That’s the rallying cry of every plucky band of rebels in the league right now. Because, look: If Star Wars taught us anything, it’s that every Death Star has a vulnerability. The NBA can only hope the same is true here on planet Earth.

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck

B/R Mag is an experimental, multiplatform digital sports magazine from Bleacher Report. It is a work in progress, and our growing team welcomes your feedback.

Follow the new B/R Mag stream on the Team Stream app and #BRmag on FacebookInstagram and Twitter for sports storytelling worth your time, wherever you are.