“We’d probably sweep them.”
That’s what Magic Johnson said recently about the current Golden State Warriors. He’s, you know, Magic Johnson, one of the five greatest players of all time, a player whose entrance into the league could well be considered the dawn of the modern era of NBA basketball. You kind of feel like you’ve got to listen to him.
But he’s not the only one.
Rasheed Wallace, doing his best to show that Charles Barkley isn’t the only former player who doesn’t have a clue about the current game, claimed that his 2004 Detroit Pistons championship team would beat the Warriors because the Warriors don’t really play defense. His claim is that the Warriors defensive strategy is, “I’m gonna score more points than you.”
His teammate Rip Hamilton agreed, claiming they’d switch everything 1-5 and stifle the Warriors offense, and conveniently forgetting that the Pistons would also have to score on the other end. If I wanted, I could write a 2000-word article that was nothing but former greats dissing the Warriors - even though they, strangely, never did the same about last year’s Cavs team who these Warriors are clearly better than.
Never has there been a great team so disrespected as the current Warrior squad. Two titles in three years (losing the middle title only when they could barely put a healthy squad on the floor), combined with the best three-year regular season run in history, and somehow, the previous generation can’t see it.
It’s easy to understand why, mind you. The game has changed. No, that’s underselling it. There’s been a revolution, and these Warriors are the tip of the spear. It’s not just the threes. It’s not just the switching defense. These Warriors have upended the age-old notion that playing fast and playing pretty were incompatible with playing defense, and it’s breaking the brains of prior champions.
The game has changed, and the dinosaurs are being left behind. They see a team that plays fast and assume they don’t play defense, but that tells you more about them than it does about the Warriors.
Steve Kerr had a great response to all of these players making their claims, saying:
"They're all right. They would all kill us. The game gets worse as time goes on. Players are less talented than they used to be. The guys in the 50s would've destroyed everybody. It's weird how human evolution goes in reverse in sports. Players get weaker, smaller, less skilled. I don't know. I can't explain it."
But I’m not as pithy as Steve, so I’m going to take a different approach. I’m going to look at how this team would stack up against a selection of teams from the past who have staked their claim to be the greatest ever. Let’s look at the history, matchups, and context, as see who comes out ahead. And we’ll start with:
This team is at the top of every list, due to their record-setting ‘72 win season, but it’s not actually clear to me that they were even the best Bulls team. Although deeper than the ‘92 squad (Tony Kukoc was better than you remember him being), Jordan in ‘96 was not the same player he was in ‘92.
Some of his explosiveness was gone, and he was transitioning into his late-career game focused on mid-range turn-around shots.
And that’s why the Warriors would beat them. Those shots were almost impossible to defend in ‘96 because you couldn’t defend space, you had to be attached to a man. Jordan still had enough athleticism that players were afraid to play him too tight - he’d spin past you and be at the rim, and that gave him room for his turn-around fadeaways.
But the strong-side overload has drastically reduced the effectiveness of that kind of attack. The Warriors could put Iguodala or Klay right up on Jordan, playing him to take away the fadeaway, with Draymond or Durant lurking while the Warriors sharp rotations snuffed out the weak side outlets in an era where the best three-point shooter took three shots a game.
(A side note: We’re playing by modern rules. Defenses are better now. Don’t listen to the old-timers bemoaning how “soft” the game is. Hand-checking? You mean like this? Physical play? You mean like this? The game is as tough as it ever was, and faster, too).
Jordan was an excellent passer, but passing was a lot simpler in the clear-out-and-iso era. You’d wait until the hard double came, then find the open man.
Lastly, looking at this matchup, even if you think Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman are better than Curry, Durant, and Draymond, there’s still Klay Thompson. There’s still Andre Iguodala. Ron Harper started for the Bulls and it’s not at all clear he’d earn Shaun Livingston’s bench minutes.
(Side note #2: is anyone surprised Andre had 20 points in the closeout game? For years, Warrior fans have noticed how clutch he is. He’s a player who you expect to miss his FTs, unless they matter. Of course he was going off to close us out. Talk of the Warriors “Big Four” completely misses how great Iguodala has been when the team’s needed him to be great. It’s quite possible that his back injury was as consequential as Steph’s in terms of the team losing the ‘16 finals).
Warriors in seven.
As far as dominance goes, it’s hard to get more impressive than these guys. Although they mailed in the regular season, with Shaq slowly playing his way into shape, this was probably the best of the Shaq-Kobe Laker title teams in the playoffs. Kobe was fully delivering on his immense promise, and yet the toxicity in his relationship with Shaquille hadn’t boiled over yet. Their 15-1 record was the best post-season ever until the Warriors beat it this season.
The fly in the ointment for this Laker team is how weak the league was. The ‘90s produced more than their fair share of busts, and, while the ‘17 Warriors faced a league with as much star power as the we’ve ever seen, the ‘01 Lakers faced ... not much. The Spurs hadn’t started feasting on foreign talent yet. The Kings were still figuring out how their pieces fit. The greats of the 90s (Jordan, Malone, Stockton, Payton, Barkley, Ewing, Hakeem) had faded or were riding off into the sunset, and the greats of the 2000s (LeBron, Nash, Dirk, Carmelo) hadn’t really come on to the scene yet.
(Side note #3: Nobody who supported that Laker team can complain about KD coming to the Warriors. Kobe forced his way to the Lakers before he played a minute in the NBA - everybody knew what was going to happen when he was drafted, and he had threatened to go to college rather than sign with anyone else. Shaq bolted Orlando as soon as he could, and yes, some of it was the allure of Hollywood, but some of it was the Lakers reputation for building winning teams.)
On the court, this would be an intriguing matchup of styles. It would be fascinating to see the Warriors scheme to limit Shaquille. Zaza behind him, Dray in front? It would be a battle royale in the paint, with Zaza, Javale, and West all running through their full complement of fouls while Draymond and our guards used their quick hands and the newer defensive rules to try to strip the ball before the big fella could spin around.
The Warriors’ real advantage, however, would be pace. They would run Shaq into the ground. Never the most fit of players, Shaq would be gassed by the second quarter, and then the Lakers achilles heel would come into play: depth. This is a team that ran a 35-year-old Horace Grant out there for 31 minutes a game, and a 37-year-old Ron Harper for another 24. It’s easy to imagine the Lakers bullying their way to an early lead, but there’s no way those guys can keep up with the Warrior onslaught for 48 minutes - and it’s not close.
Kobe would get his, of course, but while Kobe’s shooting long twos, the Warriors would be taking threes. Kobe took three 3-point shots a game that season, and only connected on 30% of them. You can’t beat the Warriors when you waste possessions like that.
And, of course, there’s the chemistry issue. It’s not a coincidence that the Shaq-Kobe relationship imploded as soon as they lost a series with them both at full power. Kobe - the only Laker who could keep up with the Warriors - would be furious at Shaq’s inability to keep up with the pace, and that matters.
Warriors in five. A sweep is in play.
This is an under-rated team, historically. Probably because it feels like the Celtics imploded due to age and injury rather than being beaten, and then later they became cast as the villain Jordan had to overcome, I don’t know if this team has ever really gotten its due. Some have recently suggested that they’d be a tough matchup for the ‘17 Warriors.
The problem for these Pistons against the Warriors is, to invert a quote, “They’re too big, Ernie!” Rodman, who would be a center today, played mostly SMALL FORWARD for them. Bill Lambeer would be unplayable, and Salley and Aguirre would struggle chasing guys out to the three point line on every play: they just didn’t have the mobility.
Chuck Daley was a smart coach, after going down 2-0 he’d throw out lineups like Isiah-Dumars-Johnson-Rodman-Salley, which would maybe barely almost fast enough to keep up, but they can’t run those lineups for very long, and bigger units would get run ragged on back-cuts and curls out to the three-point line. The team just doesn’t have the wings to play as small as they’d need to.
On offense, having to play small would mean high-volume, low-efficiency Vinnie Johnson was taking the ball out of Joe Dumars’ hands too often, and they’d struggle to score enough.
It’s a function of the evolution of the league. The Pistons were built to clobber people inside, not to chase guys from one three point line to the other. They’d win a game when the league decided to avoid a sweep by allowing them to closeline guys cutting through the lane off-ball, but it wouldn’t be enough.
Warriors in five.
It’s hard to decide which Laker team to run against the Warriors here. ‘85 was probably the last year when Kareem was still Kareem - not as effective defensively or on the boards as he had been in the ‘70s, he was still an elite offensive weapon, and earned a finals MVP award. Magic, meanwhile, had gotten over the me-first and coach-killing instincts of his first few years and was in full flower as arguably the greatest distributor of all time.
The Lakers played with pace and shared the ball. With Magic, Kareem, and Worthy they had three #1 overall picks.
One intriguing aspect of this matchup is that the Warriors have better matchups for Magic Johnson than anyone in the era. At the time, there was nobody who could stay with his ball handling who Magic couldn’t turn around and take into the post whenever he wanted. You were either too small or too big to guard him.
But the Warriors have Draymond Green. And if they wanted to let Draymond float, they had Andre Iguodala (whose long arms make up for the couple of inches he lacks in height) and Kevin Durant (who showed his elite defense against guards in these last finals). The Lakers suddenly find themselves faced with a challenge of the likes they’ve never seen. Their half court offense was built on Kareem’s sky hook and Magic’s mismatches, and one of those weapons just no longer exists. Magic is still Magic, of course (LeBron without the athleticism, but with even better court vision - if such a thing is possible), but he’s facing the toughest matchup of his career.
The Warriors will struggle to contain Kareem’s sky hook, although at that point in his career he was a little slower with it, a little more deliberate, which would allow Warrior help defenders to swipe at it as he went up. Certainly short-armed Zaza doesn’t have a shot at defending him, although Javale might for the 15 minutes a game his asthma lets him run.
The series might come down to If Kareem is still a good enough passer to exploit the Warrior help defense - and the answer, I think, is no. Mid-70’s Kareem, absolutely, but by the mid-80’s, his game no longer had the dynamic athleticism he’d shown earlier in his career. You knew exactly where the shot was going to come from, and the sky hook, as pretty as it was, was kind of slow.
The Lakers other offensive advantage was being faster than anyone else, and they’ll get some fast break points against the Warriors - but the Warriors will get as many going back the other way.
And how do the Lakers defend the Warriors? If you hide Magic on Andre or Draymond, he gets back-cut to death - he can’t keep up with either of them athletically. A declining Kareem can no longer defend pick-and-rolls in space, and Kurt Rambis and an end-of-career Bob “Uncle of James Michael” McAdoo don’t have a prayer against Durant in space.
The evolution of the league really helps the Warriors, here, as well. The ‘85 Lakers took about 3.6 three-pointers a game, and made only 30% of them. The Warriors took 31, making over 38%. You simply can’t beat a team four times in seven games if they’re taking 28 more threes a game than you, and there’s nobody on the Lakers who had the skills to take more even if you somehow coached them up on modern offensive principles for a couple of months.
Warriors in six.
For a brief window, the Celtics were truly spectacular, and I wonder if they’ve faded slightly in the popular imagination. People remember Larry Bird as the guy with a bad back lying on the floor during dream team games, and not as the maniac who decided to shoot left handed for a game because he was bored, and still put up 47.
Bill Wallton (who won a title with as little help as anybody except maybe Rick Barry) added a powerful dimension to the bench. Unlike their Laker rivals, this team had players who could hit the three effectively in Bird, Jerry Sichting, and maybe even Danny Ainge, even if they didn’t shoot it anywhere near enough. They were also an elite passing team with the exception of their two starting big men.
They’d face some of the same positional challenges as other teams we’ve discussed. How much can Bill Walton and Robert Parish stay on the floor against the Warriors? On the other hand, if they play up a position with a McHale-Bird-Ainge-DJ-Sichtig lineup they’re dynamic and dangerous.
The challenge for this team is athleticism. As noted homer (hey, game recognizes game) Bill Simmons pointed out in his Book of Basketball, Bird was ill-equipped for the explosion of athletic forwards who were about to emerge in the coming decade. While Bird’s shotmaking would thrive in any era, there’s nowhere to hide him against the Warriors small-ball lineups. Durant and Draymond can do a lot more to bother Bird than Bird can bother them.
Meanwhile, modern defenses would render McHale’s plethora of post-up moves less effective. He was arguably the most skilled low-post player ever - less physically dominant than Hakeem, but with an unbelievable array of moves, countermoves, and counter-counter moves. But while Bill Walton was a strong enough passer to exploit doubles, I’m not sure that McHale was.
Without McHale’s high-volume, high-efficiency post-ups, does Bird just have to do too much, and just wear down over the course of games trying to keep up with KD, Andre, and Draymond? Writing this actually makes me a bit sad, but it’s emblematic of how much better the athletes are today. While we can squint at Jordan’s Bulls and see contemporary-level athletes, we really can’t with Bird’s Celtics. The Celts no doubt had the skill up and down the roster to compete with modern teams, but they didn’t have the horsepower.
Warriors in six
If a team can match the Warriors’ depth, it can’t match their skill. If it can match their skill, it can’t match their athleticism. If it can match their athleticism, it can’t match their shooting. Nobody’s ever seen a team like this.
It’s funny, in fact, to try to reconcile the different criticisms of this team. They’re ruining basketball because they’re too good - but they’d get swept by all these teams that didn’t ruin basketball? The truth is, if the Warriors held on to their Finals lead last year, you could have made the argument that they were the best team of all time last year - and they added a guy who will go down as one of the top ten of all time.
The disrespect is par for the course with Curry, who, after all, just accomplished this...
Curry just averaged more assists than Stockton in 97 or 98 Finals, more rebounds than KG in 2010 Finals, more pts than Dirk in 2011 Finals.— Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13) June 13, 2017
...and yet somehow didn’t merit seriously Finals MVP consideration (KD is entirely worthy, so I’m not criticizing the ultimate choice, but it was clear from watching the games who the Cavs feared more).
Which is a long way of getting to an important point:
Enjoy this team. There’s no way to know how long this run will last, and when it ends, you may never see a team this good (and that plays this beautifully, and this selflessly) again. That’s what it means to be the greatest of all time.
History is happening right now.