Hubris: Watching the Rise and Fall of the 2016 Warriors
How does one cope with having everything except for the thing that supposedly matters the most?
I'm still in some mixture of shock and frustration after the NBA Finals. This year more than ever it felt like everything that had happened in the past 8 months was supposed to culminate into something solidly historic. Not that it wasn't already historic: 73 wins will stay on top of that baskeball-reference list for a while. But in these past 12 months, everything fell into place. Stephen Curry wins his first MVP, Coming out of nowhere with a rookie head coach, the Warriors win the 2015 finals. The Warriors draft Kevon Looney who, though falling because of his hip issues, was scouted having lottery-level talent. They set an NBA record 24-0 to open the season, matched with a 54 regular season home game winning streak. They had three All-Stars in the same season, the first time since 1976. Stephen Curry set the record for most threes in a season... on February 27th--in a game where he tied the single game record of 12 made threes--eventually shattering the record completely and ending with 402. After winning 73 regular season games, Stephen Curry becomes the first unanimous MVP ever in the NBA. The table had been set.
And yet here I am dissatisfied... and rummaging through my pockets, short on money? (Ok this metaphor is getting away from me...). Winning a championship never felt more earned than for the Warriors in 2016, especially for a franchise and its fans that have historically dealt with so much. There was proof that 2015 wasn't just some lightning in a bottle like We Believe was. But now with some distance from the Finals and some time to think... was it all that earned?
Don't get me wrong, the players, coaches, and franchise work their damn asses off to become the contender that they are now. And as fans, we've dealt with a loyalty that had been reciprocated with anguish and despair for so long. These feelings are well earned. But in the 8 months since the 2016 season started, a shift started happening and I never realized it until it smacked the right in the face once Game 7 was over.
In my entire NBA and Warriors loving life, I've approached watching basketball the same way: with cautious optimism, the perfect balance of hope and cynicism. It was the perfect way to build my guard up, but still gave me enough room to feel. Losses still hurt, but that meant there was more to look forward to tomorrow. Wins felt amazing, but there was always the inevitability of the fall. And this made sense because there was always cycle of ups and downs, an oscillation of emotions. We Believe in 2007 eventually became missing the playoffs with 48 wins and Baron leaving became drafting Stephen Curry became constant ankle injuries became the 2012 draft and back-to-back playoffs became coach drama became the 2015 championship. Cautious optimism helped make the highs feel higher and the lows not so bad. And then the 2016 season happened.
Thinking that 2015 may have been the peak of it all, I went into this season with my usual cautious optimism: fewer wins than last year (I may have predicted 62) but still hoisting up the Larry O'Brien trophy. Then, like a goddamn hurricane, the Warriors exploded with 24 straight wins through December to start the season, and that's when the shift started happening. The future went from looking like hazy hope to something tangible. Every big win, especially to Cleveland, Oklahoma City, the Clippers, and the ever evasive Spurs pushed this behemoth of a team towards immortality. Every loss that happened was brushed off; we could afford it, and it's not like it's June yet. 73 wins started as an idea, then quickly morphed into an expectation, and by April it became an reality. The Warriors were suddenly seemingly invincible, and I (along with much of the fan base) reflected this notion. "73 wins means nothing without a championship" you say? That's fine, because we were going to win it all anyway. There was no more cynicism, only arrogance.
Fast forward to May, and the Warriors were suddenly down 3-1 to the Thunder. Initially struck by denial after the first loss, I reverted back to old habits and it became easy to explain. This iteration of the Thunder, with an incredibly engaged Kevin Durant on both ends and bigs that can keep up with the Warriors guards, was the best team this Warriors team has ever faced. Finally, the Warriors started Warriorsing again. They willed themselves into a Game 5 win. Klay pulled them out of Hades' pit like Hercules did for Megara in Game 6. They exploded in the second half of Game 7 to cement their place in the Finals. If the Warriors looked invincible in the regular season, this series showed that nothing could (or should) pull them back down. There I was, going into the NBA Finals with my guard stripped all the way down.
And that's the difference between 2015 and 2016. Last season felt so surreal and unbelievable because the fall should've happened; reality finally exceeded the expectations. This season we were far too wrapped up in the expectation and believed it to be true before it happened, and that ultimately led to the downfall. I've never felt a devastation like this before, one where an arrogance is ultimately proven wrong.
And here's the thing, the fans' arrogance may have even been a reflection of the one the Warriors players exuded themselves. The team wanted those 73 wins as much, if not more than we did. Those basketball games felt so much easier for them that they had to manufacture motivation, whether it was blowing up the "lucky" narrative few pushed upon them or proving to those talkative retired legends that this era is better than theirs. There is no way that they believed they weren't as good as the the '96 Bulls, and after winning all of those games, they at least earned that right. And though it's their confidence that helped push them into the stratosphere of NBA elitism, it also triggered the extra gear the Cavaliers needed to beat them. Matt Moore mentioned on the Eye on Basketball podcast that it wasn't the previous losses to the Warriors, and not even Draymond's below the belt flagrant on Lebron in Game 5 that made the Cavs want to beat them, it was the fact that Klay said that they were better than the Showtime Lakers.
Now this suddenly reminded of a fun Adventure Time quotation Finn said that has always stuck with me: "We blew it man! My plan sucked--it sucked all along--but I was blinded by my hubris!"
And blinded we were, now blindsided by Lebron James and a Cavs team that, down 3-1 just as the Warriors were just weeks before, arrived hungrier and more focused. That honestly might be the most shocking thing about this ordeal: the Cavs flat out beat a team that at the very least have shown superiority. It's crushing, but at the end of it all, I realized I'm not upset at the Cavs. I hate that it came at the Bay Area's expense, but Lebron winning the first championship for his hometown team is a wonderful narrative, and hopefully it stops some of the unearned backlash to him returning. I'm also really happy for Kevin Love, whom I've loved since his Timberwolves days, and proved that he isn't washed up when he showed his tenacity and skill during Game 7. What I am upset about is how I allowed myself to get caught up in false inevitability when I damn well know better, and that nothing is ever easy--even when everything came easy for the Warriors for 92 games, and that honestly may have been the problem. There was no humbling adversity, and the Cavaliers winning the championship in 7 games was a sobering reminder of that.
In this past week, I realized that as a Warriors fan I stopped recognizing myself, and that probably made this Finals loss hurt more. Now, I've been shaken back to reality. I can finally go back to enjoying the real drama on the basketball court. I think I have that old, charming cautious optimism back: both despair and glory are right around the corner, and I fully expect that.
Thank you Warriors for being the team that I still and will forever love, in spite of when it's hard. I'm still so damn proud of y'all. Now let's get those 74 wins and championship next season.