The Difference Of Decades

Forty years is a long time. Winning a second West Coast championship proved to be a herculean task for the Golden State Warriors. But now that the Dubs have clinched their first NBA title in four decades, our thoughts turn to the future, and specifically to the obvious question: Will the Warriors win their next title after a much shorter wait, or does the future hold another long period of wandering in the basketball desert for the Dubs?

The DFR logo with BasketballA few voices have made comparisons between the current NBA champs and their Warrior forebears from 1975. Those earlier titlists were known for playing an unselfish, team-oriented brand of ball, much like today’s Warriors. Young players featured prominently on both teams; in ’75 Jamaal Wilkes was the Rookie of the Year, while today’s Dubs got huge contributions from third-year players Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes. Both champion coaches had distinguished playing careers. Al Attles contributed to multiple Finalist teams before taking over as Warriors head coach and ultimately leading the ’75 team to the championship. Attles’ overall accomplishments have earned him a place in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Current coach Steve Kerr, while not quite the player Attles was, certainly has his predecessor beat in titles, having won five rings in his playing career to go with his latest jewelry.

All of this seems to indicate that Golden State is primed for not just another title, but possibly a long championship run. But it’s just not that simple.

For all those similarities between now and then, there are substantial differences that, perhaps, bode well for the Warriors’ future. The ’75 team’s MVP star, Rick Barry, was close to the end when he led his team to the title; today Stephen Curry is just entering his prime with an MVP trophy and a championship in his hands. With Green, Barnes, Klay Thompson, Festus Ezeli, and Finals MVP Andre Iguodala, today’s champs appear to have a much stronger supporting cast than Barry had in Wilkes, Clifford Ray, Phil Smith, and Butch Beard.

But the most important differences between the two eras may have less to do with the two teams and more to do with the changes to the NBA landscape.

The NBA was such a back-burner sports league in the mid-70s that the Warriors played their Finals home games not at the Oakland Arena (their usual home) but at the Cow Palace–because the Warriors got kicked out of their home arena due to scheduling conflicts. Even with the games moved to the Cow Palace, the Warriors had to open on the road because they couldn’t book the old barn for the series’ scheduled start date. Imagine a current NBA team not being able to play home games in the Finals on their own floor!

That level of unimportance plagued the NBA for the rest of the decade. At the end of the ’70s, CBS famously showed Finals games on tape delay at 11:30. The Association lived and played under a heavy cloud of disrespect back then.

How could one of the nation’s major sports leagues be so easily brushed aside back then? Most probably because of race. In the 1970s, the NBA was largely a Black sport. That ’75 Finals series matched two teams coached by Black men, Attles and Washington’s K.C. Jones–the first such match-up in major American sports history. Jones’s two best players were Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes. Barry was the only prominent White player in the Finals. And despite the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and the seeming rise to prominence of Black figures in television, entertainment, and venues in the ’70s, the United States then was still a very segregated society, and a league perceived to be as Black as the NBA remained on the margins of both the sports world and society in general.

That, of course, doesn’t apply today. While many forms of de facto segregation still exist, the broader currents in society are much more accepting of non-White persons, culture, and businesses. Thus, the NBA does not suffer the same marginalization it saw in the ’70s.

Indeed, the Association has risen to something near the number two spot in the American sports pecking order–and if you extend the sphere to worldwide influence, you can argue that the NBA is nearly a match for the NFL. With that ascension has come growth into a multi-billion dollar industry. No network will be showing NBA playoff games on tape delay anytime soon.

That big money status brings with it another factor that presumably argues for the Warriors’ continued success: stronger ownership. Peter Guber and Joe Lacob are not Franklin Mieuli. In today’s billionaire-oriented NBA, there is no room for dilettantes like Mieuli, who didn’t have the resources to compete at the highest level. Guber and Lacob have turned around a previously hopeless franchise and won a championship, and they did so largely by spending the cash to get the best players, coaches, and managers. All their moves since taking over the franchise–even the ones that got them publicly roasted–have worked out swimmingly.

More moves are surely on the horizon. Whatever you have heard about Green going home to Michigan to play for the Pistons, be skeptical until it actually happens. The Dubs will almost certainly step up and pay Draymond whatever he needs to stick around. And, within the constraints of the salary cap, expect the team to do some more paying: unlike those earlier days, Golden State has now become a desirable free agent destination. Don’t be surprised if the Warriors sign a major free agent this off-season (LaMarcus Aldridge? Marc Gasol?) to strengthen their championship roster. The Dubs can do that now; for most of the team’s history, such moves were impossible.

All of this seems to indicate that Golden State is primed for not just another title, but possibly a long championship run. But it’s just not that simple.

Today’s Warriors won their title during an NBA interregnum–as did their ’75 forebears. While their first West Coast title was bookended by two Celtics championships in 1974 and 1976, those were relatively weak Boston champions. More to the point, the mid-Seventies saw a dramatic fall-off by the Lakers. Los Angeles ruled the Western Conference for once and future eternities before and after that first Golden State championship; opportunities for the Warriors–or other Western teams, for that matter–to win titles hardly existed then. How long will the NBA’s two marquee franchises remain as far down as they currently are? How wide is Golden State’s window of opportunity before a few high draft picks and big free agent signings restore the league’s “natural order” of Lakers vs. Celtics in June?

See, that’s the thing: all the actions the Warriors can take to achieve continued success can be done by other teams, too. All those other teams in the Association have owners with pockets as deep and active as Guber’s and Lacob’s. They also get draft picks; and they too can sign free agents. The steps the Dubs can take to build a dynasty may be taken by other teams, before the new champs are even done polishing their Larry O’Brien Trophy.

So: another forty years in the desert, or a series of titles? Most likely, neither. The most probable outcome is another championship within the next few seasons; maybe two titles. But a ’90s Bulls-style run by Golden State’s current team is unlikely. Ultimately, this year’s championship may indeed be a singular accomplishment. Thank goodness then for Warriors fans that winning one title feels so good.


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