After Monday night's epic game seven victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder, NBA analyst Charles Barkley was downright despondent. He looked as if his own team had just lost a game seven. In fact, he may have looked more disappointed than when his own Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns or Houston Rockets lost in the playoffs, years ago.
But how can that be? Isn't his act just a gimmick? A fun, harmless joke that gets viewers talking #NBAonTNT? Perhaps, but perhaps not. The sentiments of Charles Barkley, and other former players like him, may be evidence of a pervasive mindset in basketball that is only now being challenged. And for reasons outside of their control, the Warriors find themselves at the heart of this revolution.
The Golden State Warriors are a 15-man contradiction. They're not athletic, yet they consistently run one of the fastest paces in NBA history. They're soft, yet they possess an elite defense (anchored by three deserving all-NBA defenders), and a few of their big men keep drawing criticism for dirty play or unnecessary roughness. They're a jump shooting team, yet they are one of the better teams at scoring in the paint. They're not the most talented, and yet they just won the most games in NBA history -- as a defending champion.
This train wreck of logical thought isn't an accident. For basketball eons, the game has been played a certain way. And with apologies to the great teams and individuals of yesteryear, it was largely stagnant. There were fewer philosophical shifts in the game than we've had in sports, recently, and the game was always taught the same way. Without a genius strategy, the sport becomes a meritocracy for talent. The team that has more of it, wins. And talent, in a game featuring a ten-foot-high cylinder, was all about tall folks who could reach that rim, and other guys who could get those tall guys the ball.
Greatness was scoring. Greatness was carrying lesser teammates to a championship. Greatness was being larger than life. But that line of thinking fails to mesh with, y'know, teamwork and passing.
Not to say that great big men, or old super stars didn't pass. Far from it: Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were two of the very best to ever do it. But their greatness would be seriously in doubt if they weren't the big, huge, super star champions who battled for glory. But why don't Stephen Curry and the Warriors get the same credit from the Barkley's of the world?
Let's put it another way: why do some of the same people who respect Isaiah Thomas and Michael Jordan consistently fail to credit these Warriors?
It's all about the three point shot.
The Warriors are the most dyed-in-the-wool three-point franchise, ever. They owe that to Don Nelson, who constantly innovated ways to increase scoring unlike any coach in history. As early as the 1970s, Nellie Ball was tweaking lineups down in size, contrary to the rest of the NBA, as the mad genius coach realized that smalls had a fundamental advantage over bigs -- they were almost always faster, more agile, and better shooters. Necessity is the mother of all innovation, and Nelson's lack of top-end centers lead the coach to find new ways to even the playing field, even if it meant upsetting every basketball truism in the book.
There is a narrative to be written than the history of the modern NBA is the history of Don Nelson. In a way, today's league is simply the NBA as Nelson saw it four decades ago. Point forwards, as many shooters as a lineup could fit, and a small lineup that can run circles around the opposition.
But Nelson wasn't a championship coach: his teams were anachronistic sideshows. Small ball scrubs who would always entertain, but would never win a championship. They shot well and scored in bunches, sure. But they could never defend. They couldn't rebound. They couldn't be tough. They couldn't win in the playoffs. And yet here we are, watching the Warriors win the vaunted western conference for the second consecutive year behind some of Nellie's core principles.
It's not that some basketball guys hate the Warriors. It's that they can't comprehend a shocking new reality. The pillars they've reliably held onto for their entire lives were not just broken -- they were shattered, repeatedly, in increasingly loud fashion. The Suns, Spurs and Mavericks shattered an entire paradigm, old as basketball itself. The Warriors? They just dropped a nuke on the broken remains.
Most past-their-prime pundits are fortunate enough to fade into obscurity -- key word being fade. Charles Barkley, Oscar Robinson, Tracy McGrady and whoever else just got ripped into irrelevance in an instant, and it may still take years for them to realize it. The game has changed, and that's never a bad thing. But it has changed, and that means it's time our legendary teams and stars change with it.
Don't count on the Barkley's of the world to catch on. Just know that it isn't malicious. What you're witnessing isn't hate, or disrespect for our lovable Dubs. It is the death throes of basketball's first evolutionary epoch, finally come to an end. It isn't always pretty, but this is what progress looks like.