BOSTON — The NBA’s dynasties share certain commonalities that have helped them tip the scales from being run-of-the-mill championship teams to those remembered for decades.
Among them: Each has had a generational player in contention for Mount Rushmore at his position.
The 1980s had Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics defeating Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Los Angeles Lakers. Michael Jordan’s Bulls ruled the ’90s, then passed a flickering torch — a championship here and there, but never twice in a row — to the San Antonio Spurs with Tim Duncan.
Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant sneaked in a Lakers three-peat at the start of the 2000s.
And then there were … none. There were other all-time players—LeBron James, of course. And James’s Heat came close to the top tier by becoming champions in 2012 and 2013, but fell apart soon after.
Dynasties require more than that.
Patience. Money. Owners willing to spend. And above all, it seems, the ability to “break” basketball and change the way the game is played or perceived. That’s why there were no new dynasties until the union of Golden State and Stephen Curry.
Donning a white NBA championship baseball cap late Thursday, Curry pounded a table with both hands in response to the first question of the night from the news media.
“We’ve got four championships,” Curry said, adding, “This one hits different, for sure.”
Curry repeated the phrase “hits different” four times during the media session — perhaps appropriately so. Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala had just won an NBA championship together for the fourth time in eight years.
“It’s amazing because none of us are the same,” Green said. “You usually clash with people when you’re alike. The one thing that’s constant for us is winning is the most important thing. That is always the goal.”
Golden State has won with ruthless, methodical efficiency, like Duncan’s Spurs. San Antonio won five championships between 1999 and 2014. Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker were All-Stars, though Duncan was in a league of his own. Their championships were spread out — Parker and Ginobili weren’t in the NBA for the first one — but they posed a constant threat because of their disciplined excellence.
“Steph reminds me so much of Tim Duncan,” said Golden State Coach Steve Kerr, who won two championships as Duncan’s teammate. “Totally different players. But from a humanity standpoint, talent standpoint, humility, confidence, this wonderful combination that just makes everybody want to win for him.”
Unlike Golden State, the influence of Duncan’s Spurs is more subtle, which is appropriate for a team not known for its flash. Several of Coach Gregg Popovich’s assistants have carried the team-oriented culture they saw in San Antonio to other teams as successful head coaches, including Memphis’s Taylor Jenkins, Boston’s Ime Udoka and Milwaukee’s Mike Budenholzer. Another former Spurs assistant, Mike Brown, was Kerr’s assistant for the last six years. For San Antonio, sacrifice has mattered above all else, whether in sharing the ball with precision on offense or in Ginobili’s willingness to accept a bench role in his prime, likely costing himself individual braces.
Johnson’s Showtime Lakers embraced fast-paced, creative basketball. The Bulls and Bryant’s Lakers popularized the triangle offense favored by their coach, Phil Jackson. O’Neal was so dominant that the league changed the rules because of him. (The NBA changed rules because of Jordan, too.)
Even so, Golden State may have shifted the game more than all of them, having been at the forefront of the 3-point revolution in the NBA Curry’s 3-point shooting has become so ubiquitous that players at all levels try to be like him, much to the frustration of coaches.
“When I go back home to Milwaukee and watch my AAU team play and practice, everybody wants to be Steph,” Golden State center Kevon Looney said. “Everyone wants to shoot 3s, and I’m like, ‘Man, you’ve got to work a little harder to shoot like him.’ ”
The distinction defining for Golden State is not just Curry, who has more career 3-pointers than anyone in NBA history. The team also selected Green in the second round of the 2012 NBA draft. In a previous era, he likely would have been considered too short at 6-foot-6 to play forward, and not fast enough to be a guard. Now, teams search to find their own version of Green — an exceptional passer who can defend all five positions. And they often fail.
The dynasties also had coaches adept at managing egos, like Jackson in Chicago and Los Angeles, and Popovich in San Antonio.
Golden State has Kerr, who incidentally is also a common denominator in three dynasties: He won three championships as a player with the Bulls, the two with the Spurs, and now he has four more as Curry’s head coach.
In today’s NBA, Kerr is a rarity. He has led Golden State for eight seasons, while in much of the rest of the league, coaches don’t last that long. The Lakers recently fired Frank Vogel just two seasons after he helped them win a championship. Tyronn Lue coached the Cavaliers to a championship in 2016 in his first season as head coach, and was gone a little over two seasons later — despite having made it at least to the conference finals three years in a row.
Since Golden State hired Kerr in 2014, all but two other teams have changed coaches: San Antonio, which still has Popovich, and Miami, led by Erik Spoelstra.
In a decade of rampant player movement, Golden State has been able to rely on continuity to regain its status as king of the NBA But that continuity isn’t the result of a fairy-tale bond between top-level athletes who want to keep winning together. Not totally, anyway.
Golden State has a structural advantage that many franchises today can’t or choose not to have: an owner in Joe Lacob who is willing to spend gobs of money on the team, including hundreds of millions of dollars in luxury tax to have the highest payroll in the NBA This means that Golden State has built a dynasty in part because its top stars are getting paid to stay together, rather than relying on the fraught decisions of management about who to keep.
The NBA’s salary cap system is designed to not let this happen. David Stern, the former commissioner of the NBA, said a decade ago that to achieve parity, he wanted teams to “share in players” and not amass stars — hence the steep luxury tax penalties for Lacob. Compare Golden State’s approach to that of the Oklahoma City Thunder, who in 2012 traded a young James Harden rather than pay him for an expensive contract extension. The Thunder could’ve had a dynasty of their own with Harden, Russell Westbrook and — a key part of two Golden State championships — Kevin Durant.
And there’s another factor that every dynasty needs: luck.
Golden State was able to sign Durant in 2016 because of a temporary salary cap spike. Winning a championship, or several, requires good health, which is often out of the team’s control. Thompson missed two straight years because of leg injuries, but didn’t appear to suffer setbacks this year after he returned. Of course, Golden State has also seen some bad luck, such as injuries to Thompson and Durant in the 2019 finals, which may have cost the team that series.
The NBA’s legacy graveyard is full of “almosts” and “could haves.” Golden State simply has — now for a fourth time. There may be more runs left for Curry, Thompson and Green, but as of Thursday night, their legacy was secure. They’re not chasing other dynasties for legitimacy. Golden State is the one being chased now.
“I don’t like to put a number on things and say, ‘Oh, man, we can get five or we can get six,’” Green said. “We’re going to get them until the wheels fall off.”