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NBA Finals Aftershocks
What does another Warriors championship mean for some key players?
Not all championships are created equal. A first-time championship is a skeleton key for superstars. It lets them breathe rarefied air that only the best and luckiest have been able to savor. So much public discourse around player legacies is simply, “Did that player win a ring or not?” I find those discussions destructive and distracting, but the championship-based culture is undeniable. Just ask Charles Barkley; you can only rise so high in the general fan’s esteem if you keep coming up short of the greatest goal.
But this win is different.
After three championships in four years and with a fourth looking certain, the mid-playoffs 2019 Warriors stood poised to dominate the NBA for years to come. Then Kevin Durant went down screaming, and Klay Thompson followed soon after. Durant left to join his friends in Brooklyn, and the Warriors had two dark years with no Klay, an unmotivated Draymond, and a frequently injured Curry. It was far from apparent that they would ever be able to return to their pre-2019 form, particularly with their best players all on the wrong side of 30.
And yet here we are. The Warriors have completed one of the most scintillating comeback narratives in the history of the NBA, and they stand alone atop the basketball world again. I imagine this championship must mean more to them than any since that first one.
Let’s run through what this Finals means for some key characters.
Steph is unique in that a championship might not even be the most important part for him. Curry has finally banished one of the most annoying storylines of the last near-decade by earning his first Finals MVP.
I don’t particularly care about Finals MVP trophies, but too many prominent media personalities put an absurd amount of weight on a meaningless piece of hardware representing a stretch of four to seven games. Steph had, extremely unfairly, received some criticism for not having his own FMPV despite being a three-time champion (Durant won twice, and Iguodala won in 2015 for his defensive efforts on LeBron James in a decision that has aged like yak’s milk).
Curry has now won four championships. The only modern-era stars with more than that are Michael Jordan (six), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six), Kobe Bryant (five), and Magic Johnson (five). He was already considered a top-20 player of all-time, but with a fourth chip and a FMVP, he’s knocking on the door of the top 10…and he’s not done yet!
According to Basketball-Reference's probability model, Draymond had a 60% chance of making the Hall of Fame before this Finals. I’d argue that certainly underestimated his odds, but another championship, with Draymond still playing at an elite level defensively, has sealed the deal.
Draymond has consistently proclaimed himself the greatest defender of all time. That’s an impossible claim to verify, but at just 32 years old, Draymond is stacking up bullet points for his resume. His limited offensive game seems to be getting worse by the minute, so I’ll be watching him with a close eye next year to see if he bounces back (Green’s back injury from earlier in the year may still be impacting him, too).
This entire playoff run has also been great publicity for his podcast, which is exploding like Green himself after he picks up his fifth personal foul.
Klay has always seemed to exist outside the sometimes-contentious debates around Steph, Draymond, Kevin Durant, and even Steve Kerr. He’s a universally beloved basketball figure, the consensus second-best shooter ever. He’s not fighting for a place as one of the greatest ever, like Steph, but he was (hilariously) upset at not being named a Top 75 NBA player of all time. With his injury history and advanced age, he’ll have some ground to make up if he wants to be on the NBA’s Top 100 list in 25 years, but this is a solid first step. Reggie Miller made it to the Top 75 list thanks to a few viral highlights and a reputation; there’s no reason Klay can’t follow a similar path.
On a more personal level, though, it’s impossible to imagine what Klay is feeling right now. He went from being on top of the world to going 941 days without playing an NBA game. I once couldn’t play pickup basketball games for six months, and it took a legitimate toll on my mental health; I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for Klay, someone who lives and breathes ball, to go almost three calendar years without a game.
Coming back from that sort of hiatus and picking up right where he left off is the kind of happy ending we normally only see in fairy tales.
Wiggins has seen a remarkable career turnaround in Golden State. The former #1 overall pick spent his career in Minnesota as a subject of scorn and disappointment. He won Rookie of the Year and scored a lot of points, but any Wiggins conversation was framed around his supposed lack of a killer instinct or his inefficient scoring. He was seen as one of the worst contracts in the NBA when he was traded to Golden State along with a high draft pick for D’Angelo Russell.
But now, Wiggins is drowning in all the flowers thrown his way. He was an All-Star starter this season and received some votes for the All-Defensive Teams. He’s become a legitimately reliable three-point shooter, hitting 38% from three last year and 39% this year (after never previously hitting 36%). The Internet was ablaze with stories praising him for his defense on Luka Doncic and then on Jayson Tatum, two of the preeminent scorers in the league today.
I have a buddy who half-jokingly tried to convince me that this was the start of Wiggins’ Hall of Fame campaign. After dismissing the idea out of hand, I looked into the data… and it’s not entirely insane! He’s now played a crucial part in a world championship. He accumulated fairly large raw statistics in Minnesota and is still just 27. If he can make a couple of All-NBA teams in the future, garner a few All-Defensive teams, win another championship… I’ve clearly lost my gourd. But the fact that I even had to pause and think about it shows what a remarkable comeback narrative Wiggins has crafted.
Kerr is now a nine-time champion (five times as a player and four times as a coach). His unorthodox offensive philosophies prioritizing touchy-feely moments and sharing over letting star players dictate everything is counter to the current league-wide trend, but it has resulted in undeniable success.
Kerr has had his fair share of detractors over the years, but it’s now impossible to argue that he’s not one of the best coaches in NBA history.
He hit all the right buttons during this championship run, from running out players other coaches would have been scared of (Nemanja Bjelica, Gary Payton II) in crucial moments to benching a contentious star (Draymond Green) down the stretch of a critical Game 4.
Kerr has had a litany of health problems, and it’s hard to imagine him as the next Gregg Popovich, coaching into his 70s. It’s unclear how long he plans to stay at the team's reins. With an uncertain future, the present is just that much sweeter.
Tatum has achieved a remarkable amount of team and individual success in his young career. He’s a two-way player with deft shooting touch and enormous size whose ceiling is as high as anyone’s.
Tatum’s progress has been incremental but steady, and he’s never stopped getting better throughout his career. He can use the frustration of this year as motivation to shore up his few remaining weaknesses.
Jayson doesn’t need that much more to become a top-five player. Tighter handles, better passing, and better finishing at the rim are all things that can be improved upon with practice. Tatum will also need to become mentally tougher and make better decisions with the ball.
Next season could well be Tatum’s revenge tour. Or it could be the Warriors cementing themselves as a Bulls-like dynasty. Or, most likely, it’ll be something else entirely! I can’t wait to find out.