The Warriors have broken basketball. Time for a new super-team Though the Golden State Warriors play the game beautifully, their dominance could quickly become boring Game theory Jun 13th 2017 IT IS only a slight exaggeration to say that the 2017 championship in North America’s National Basketball Association (NBA) was won on July 4th, 2016. After setting the league’s all-time record for wins in a regular season in 2015-16, the Golden State Warriors had failed to defend their 2014-15 title, falling in a harrowing Game Seven to the Cleveland Cavaliers. But no sooner had the final buzzer in that game sounded than Draymond Green, the vanquished team’s versatile and voluble forward, picked up the phone and dialled Kevin Durant (pictured), a four-time scoring champion for the Oklahoma City Thunder and the NBA’s Most Valuable Player in 2013-14, who was about to become a free agent. Two weeks later, Independence Day barbecues across Oklahoma turned into makeshift funerals, as Mr Durant announced that he would take his talents to San Francisco Bay and form an unprecedented super-team. “If we win the championship [last year], I’m like 99 percent sure we don’t get [Mr Durant],” Mr Green told ESPN. “There are silver linings to everything.” The NBA is not entirely immune to upsets: the league needs to maintain some reason to bother actually playing the games, rather than simply asking a computer who will win. But with an average of nearly 200 scoring opportunities per match, which is a large enough sample for most inevitable random variation to even out, its outcomes do tend to be far more predictable than those in the other leading North American team sports. As a result, betting markets’ estimate of Golden State’s chances of winning this year’s title more than doubled, from 25% to 56%, the minute that Mr Durant signed. That might well have been conservative. On June 12th the Warriors completed their coronation by dispatching the same Cavaliers team that beat them last year with a 129-120 victory—and winning the best-of-seven Finals by four games to one. Golden State’s path to the title was not an entirely uneventful march. In their very first game of the season, they suffered a whopping 29-point loss. It took some time for Stephen Curry, the team’s mouthguard-munching superstar shooter, to figure out how to share the spotlight with Mr Durant. Mr Durant himself missed a month in March with a knee injury. Despite looking far stronger on paper than last year’s juggernaut, which won 73 of 82 regular-season games, the 2016-17 Warriors “slumped” to 67 wins in the regular season. Moreover, although the Cavaliers’ chances of a successful title defence pretty much vanished after Golden State beat them on their home court to take a 3-0 series lead, Cleveland still managed to make this year’s Finals interesting. They avoided a sweep with a 21-point blowout win in Game Four—the Warriors’ worst loss in a game in which their stars had played since February—and put up a valiant showing in the decisive contest. Cleveland led by eight points early in the second quarter. Following a dizzying 21-2 run by Golden State to end that period, they managed to trim the deficit to three at the start of the fourth quarter. LeBron James, who has a convincing statistical case to be the greatestplayer ever, showed absolutely no sign of slippage at the age of 32, despite the superhuman workload the Cavaliers have required him to bear in recent years. He became the first player in NBA history to average a triple-double in the Finals, with astonishing marks of 33.6 points, 12.0 rebounds and 10.0 assists per game while making a remarkably efficient 56% of his shots. And the lightning-quick guard Kyrie Irving remained as unguardable as ever, racking up more than 29 points per contest. But despite such valiant efforts, the Warriors boasted a weapon for which Cleveland had no answer: Mr Durant. During the stretches when Golden State’s offence was firing on all cylinders, their most recent addition seemed almost superfluous. They regularly beat the Cavaliers’ plodding defenders down the floor in transition for easy layups. They carved them up in the half-court game with such rapid, precise picks and passes that their three-point shooters sometimes seemed to miss because they had so much time to release the ball, with no one around them, that they could barely decide when to pull the trigger. The Warriors scored so many points so effortlessly that at times they made the contest look like a squad of professionals playing an exhibition game against a hopelessly overmatched, just-happy-to-be-there high-school team—except that those high-schoolers happened to have names like LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, and were the defending league champions. However, there were other periods, including much of the third quarter, when Cleveland’s defence stiffened up, the Warriors found themselves resorting to launching ill-advised three-pointers by closely guarded players, and their lead dwindled to single digits. And in those moments, when there were no easy buckets to be had, Golden State had the silver bullet it lacked in last year’s down-to-the-wire Finals: hand the ball to Mr Durant, and let him work his magic. He delivered almost without fail. Unlike the ballet-dancer’s game of the diminutive Mr Curry, Mr Durant does not need much artistry or innovation to rack up points. Most of the time, his recipe is simple: much like Dirk Nowitzki, he is an all-time great shooter who also happens to be nearly seven feet (2.13 metres) tall (he is officially listed at six feet, nine inches, but that appears to be something of a running joke). As a result, Mr Durant seems impervious to defensive pressure. He can simply shoot over whoever is guarding him and make it, from virtually anywhere on the floor, and—at least in this season’s decisive game—do so all the time. He drained 14 of 20 shots, five from three-point range, while appearing to be blissfully unaware of whichever unfortunate defenders the Cavaliers tried to throw at him. 15 of his attempts were contested, and he made 12 of them. Even Mr James, a more versatile player than Mr Durant, does not have the same ability to score at will. It just seems unfair. The Cavaliers are clearly the second-best team in the NBA right now: they boast Mr James still at the height of his powers, and blitzed through the Eastern Conference playoffs with a 12-1 winning record. But even at full strength, they were no match for the Durant-Curry wrecking ball. In part, that is because their supposed triumvirate of stars now looks more like a mere dynamic duo: Kevin Love, the power forward whom Cleveland acquired after Mr James returned to the team in 2014, resumed his offensive disappearing act, scoring just six points on two-for-eight shooting in Game Five. Mr Love at least proved a reliable rebounder, as usual, and the most advanced comprehensive statistics still regard him as an elite player. But the Cavaliers clearly need a big man who can do a better job of protecting the rim and preventing opposing offences from attacking the basket, as well as a wing defender who can relieve Mr James of the burden of guarding an opponent’s top scorer: Cleveland’s defence ranked just 20th in the league during the regular season. They would also benefit from an offensive strategy consisting of more than running isolation plays and the occasional pick-and-roll for Mr Irving and Mr James, and hoping that one of them can either find a way to score or pass the ball to an open three-point shooter. Cleveland is a formidable team, but they are unlikely to fare much better in a potential rematch against Golden State next season without substantial changes to their roster. Nor are there many other teams on the horizon that could conceivably pose a threat to the Warriors. The San Antonio Spurs compiled the NBA’s second-best record, but all of their top players save Kawhi Leonard are already in their 30s. The Houston Rockets could conceivably contend if they found a new star—or two—to pair with James Harden, but that possibility seems remote for now. And no other team in the league won more than 53 games in the regular season. As Golden State stomped through the playoffs, many fans complained that, for all of the beautiful basketball that the Warriors played, their games tended to be so lopsided they stopped being entertaining after the first quarter. The Durant-Curry super-team arguably should never have been created. Just as when Mr James compiled a trio of stars of his own in Miami in 2010, such monstrosities are an unintended consequence of the league’s maximum individual contract. But now that the monster exists—and although Mr Curry is a free agent this summer, he will probably re-sign with the Warriors, who can offer him more money than any other club—the only way to keep the NBA interesting is for another franchise to form a super-team of their own. Chris Paul, arguably the finest pure point guard ever, is also a free agent, and could conceivably have an impact similar to Mr Durant’s on Golden State were he to move to a contending team. It might seem strange to want the rich (in the non-Warriors division) to get richer, but that could be the only way to turn a snooze-inducing dynasty into a compelling, Lakers-Celtics-style rivalry.