This day has been coming. It’s been coming ever since July, ever since Kevin Durant buried the lede in a 351-word Players’ Tribune bombshell, ever since the rich got richer, the poor got relatively poorer, and the power structure of the NBA was altered for the foreseeable future. We’ve spent 10 months trying to convince ourselves otherwise, trying to convince ourselves that anything is possible, that games aren’t played on paper, that blah, blah, blah. We’ve spent 10 months telling ourselves that the inevitable wasn’t inevitable. And yet, of course, it was. It is.
We’re through two rounds of the NBA playoffs — well, some of us are — and neither the Cleveland Cavaliers nor the Golden State Warriors have lost a game. They’ve rolled over four overmatched opponents, the Cavs flattening suggestions of vulnerability along the way, and in all likelihood will soon roll over one more each. Sure, the Rockets could shoot 45 percent from three; sure, Gregg Popovich could coach the greatest playoff series ever; sure, John Wall or Isaiah Thomas could go crazy. Possible? Yes — barely. Probable? Hah. Yeah, right.
No two clubs have ever been this dominant over the opening two rounds of the playoffs. It’s the first time in league history that two teams have started the postseason 8-0. The scary part is that it might not be the last. The Warriors are just getting started. Durant will likely sign a monster long-term deal with Golden State this summer or next. Stephen Curry will, too. Draymond Green is under contract through 2020. Klay Thompson is in the Bay Area at least through 2019. Back in the East, as long as LeBron James is in Cleveland with a respectable supporting cast — Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are both signed through 2020 — the Cavs will be darn near untouchable as well.
The impending run of dual supremacy has wide-ranging implications for the NBA, the most fascinating of which is the thorny question it puts to the other 28 teams that make up the so-called pack. In many cases, that question is no longer, How do we dethrone LeBron? or How do we beat the Warriors? The 2017 playoffs, up to this point, have driven home the idea that those questions might not have plausible answers. So the most pressing question might actually be, Should we even try?
It’s a radical thought, and a gloomy one, too. And, to be clear, it’s blasphemous to genuinely suggest that this year’s NBA finals matchup is an inevitability. It’s myopic to suggest that next year’s is as well. They’re not. There are non-zero chances of upsets. There are non-zero chances of major injuries. So obviously the Spurs should try to win a title. Obviously the Rockets should. Obviously the Wizards and Celtics should.
But the question is not whether to try to win a championship. The question, rather, is when. Championship windows are finite, and the Cavs and Warriors have made it clear that, barring unforeseen circumstances, they will shut windows mercilessly for years to come. So when it comes to roster building, player acquisition and the like, is it even worth trying to keep that window open? Or, if it’s not already ajar, is it worth trying to open that window now, with the knowledge that doing so could throw away multiple years of contention? Or is it better to wait out the storm that is LeBron and the Warriors, biding time until the skies — the path to a title — clear up?
These questions might sound ridiculous, and may eventually look foolish, but they’re questions that so many general managers and front office executives must confront this offseason, provided the next few weeks go to plan. It no longer seems prudent to construct a roster to beat James. He has not lost an Eastern Conference playoff series since 2010, and doesn’t appear to be in danger of losing one anytime soon. Instead, the savvy move might be to construct a roster to win when he’s gone, or at least past his prime. As Kyle Lowry said of the Cavs after Game 3: “They’ve got LeBron James and nobody’s closing the gap on him.”
These questions pertain to Lowry’s Raptors as much as anybody. General manager Masai Ujiri is in a prototypical pickle. Toronto could resign Lowry and Serge Ibaka and run it back with the same core. But if it does, what’s the end game? Lowry’s prime won’t outlast LeBron’s. DeMar DeRozan won’t be the best player on a championship team in his 30s. The Raptors could realistically finish second in the East next year, which in most years translates to “the Raptors could realistically contend for a title” … but not this year. And probably not next year, nor the year after. Not while LeBron is in their way.
So if the ultimate goal is a title, “running it back” is running the franchise into a dead end. It’s delaying a rebuild, and, in the long run, delaying the pursuit of that ultimate goal. But the other option — blowing this whole dang thing up — is heartbreaking. To let Lowry and Ibaka walk and to slowly dismantle the core would be to end the best era in franchise history with nothing more than a few playoff series wins to show for it. It would be to concede defeat. It would be to tell a passionate fan base to brace itself for decline, for years of losing, for boredom. In Toronto, there is no way to win — for now.
But the Raptors aren’t alone. More than half of the league faces similar dilemmas stirred up by either LeBron or the Warriors. Here’s a sampling, broken up into three categories:
Run it back? Or blow it up?
Los Angeles Clippers — The Chris Paul-Blake Griffin-DeAndre Jordan trio is not even remotely close to grazing the Warriors. So what’s the point of keeping that (aging) trio together?
Oklahoma City Thunder — OKC has a bonafide superstar, but is light years away from contention, and likely won’t be able to lure a second superstar. So should it try to build around that superstar now? Or rebuild around him, and hope he doesn’t walk in free agency?
Portland Trail Blazers — Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are entering their primes, but their supporting cast couldn’t get them anything better than the No. 8 weed in the West this year. They’re going to need a lot more help to challenge the Warriors, but the Blazers don’t have the cap flexibility to acquire help. Do they consider trading one or both of the star guards?
Atlanta Hawks — In all seriousness, what’s the point of re-signing Paul Millsap? What is this version of the Hawks’ ceiling?
Indiana Pacers — The Pacers have wasted Paul George. Any attempts to atone for their sins are futile. Is now the time to start over?
Chicago Bulls — Is Jimmy Butler the franchise cornerstone? Well, if he is, it’s time to surround him with some younger talent instead of veterans who’ll help Chicago compete* in the short term, but not in the long run. Or maybe the better option is to decide that he’s not and detonate this whole experiment?
*for the eighth seed
Contend in 2018? Or hold off on making the big splash?
Boston Celtics — The Celtics are in a fantastic spot, but still a tricky one. They’ll likely add a starting-caliber player in the 2017 NBA draft (thanks again, Nets!) to a roster that finished first in the East. So do they pursue Gordon Hayward in free agency, or Butler or George via trade? With one of the three, perhaps they could challenge Cleveland. Or does GM Danny Ainge stay patient, continue to develop young players like Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and this year’s draft pick, and keep the Celtics in position to make their big move for a superstar in 2018 or 2019 to align their championship window with what LeBron might allow?
Washington Wizards — The Wiz locked up Bradley Beal to a max extension, and will soon do the same with John Wall. Those two have tons of short-term and long-term value. But how do you build around them? Do you splurge to keep Otto Porter around? Handing a third massive deal to Porter would limit Washington’s flexibility going forward, and would perhaps impede the acquisition of a third true star in 2018 or 2019.
Utah Jazz — Everything changes if Hayward leaves, but if he re-signs, how do the Jazz attempt to take the next step? Do they bring back or bring in players like George Hill (31) and Joe Ingles (29)? Or do they bide their time and go after younger players that could help them take the next step three years from now?
Wait out the storm? Or start winning now?
Milwaukee Bucks — The Bucks are on the cusp of rising into the East’s top four, but that rise doesn’t have to happen immediately. There’s no difference between a sixth-place finish and a third-place finish in 2018. The goal should be a top-two finish in 2020.
Philadelphia 76ers — There’s been so much losing in Philadelphia in recent years, but you know what? That’s fine, because the best-case alternative was losing less, but still losing to LeBron (and probably not even getting that close). And that’s still the best-case alternative for at least another year, too. So the Sixers should feel no pressure to spend on an overpriced free agent toward the back end his prime this summer. They can take the same philosophy they took into last season into this one, and wait one or two more years to really make their move. In a way, The Process has coincided perfectly with LeBron’s reign.
Los Angeles Lakers — Magic Johnson could be tempted to trade for a superstar — something he apparently doesn’t feel the Lakers currently have — but what’s the rush? What does giving up a couple of young pieces for Paul George really do for you? It certainly doesn’t position you for a run at the Warriors in 2018 or even 2019. So why make that trade now rather than two years from now? Or why not just wait for free agency?
There are, of course, reasons to win games next year, even if the winning will almost undoubtedly fall short of a championship. Winning is fun. Losing sucks. Owners and general managers have fans to appease and money to make. And there are scenarios where either the Cavs or Warriors hit a snag and become susceptible to a revolutionary. However unlikely those scenarios are, they exist.
Plus, rebuilds are far from guarantees of success. More often than not, they fail and lead to re-rebuilds — and to a disgruntled fan base, lost jobs, and so on. The safe play is to stay the course.
The high-risk, high-reward play, however, is to lose, with the hope that losing will beget future winning — and not just winning, but postseason winning. Championship winning. For most, if not all, NBA franchises, that should be the goal. But with the Warriors and Cavs so clearly superior at the moment, and with the chance of continued superiority seemingly very high, a championship probably isn’t a realistic short-term goal. Remember, one flukey upset wouldn’t even be enough. Every single NBA team has both juggernauts standing in their way.
Losing, therefore, is likely the beneficial long-term play. The next three draft classes could be loaded, and could offer premium rewards for tanking. As distressing as this is to hear, a majority of the 30 NBA franchises would be better off going down before they attempt to rise back up.
Delaying a run at a ring and timing that run to maximize opportunity are much easier said than done, and some owners and executives won’t feel comfortable with the unpredictability. They will stay the course, and portions of their fan bases will be happy they do. But the Warriors and LeBron have presented the league with a conundrum that it has not faced in a while, if ever: If dreams of seizing power and mutinous plots are so far-fetched, is it even worth pursuing them? The answer in most cases, however outlandish it may seem, is no.