The End of One Dynasty and the Start of Another, All in Northern California
Rarely do I write a blog post for the NBA playoffs given how long the NBA playoffs last and how the outcomes of the mind boggling number of games that are played in the postseason can seem inconsequential. However, I felt compelled to put a piece together before Game 3 of the Kings-Warriors 1st round match in San Francisco later this evening since I firmly believe we are seeing a passing of the torch but not in a way I had imagined, especially when you unearth the parallels between the Kings and Warriors.
Since the 2014-2015 season, no team has been more dominant than the Golden State Warriors. Four NBA titles in the last 8 seasons. Two of those four non-championship years were still remarkable as the Warriors made it to the NBA Finals with one of those years being the 73-9 season in 2016 that broke the 1996 Chicago Bulls 72-10 regular season record, a record I thought would never be broken in my lifetime. The Warriors went 15-50 in 2020 which can be seen as a blip on the radar. Plus you can blame it on COVID as we tend to blame everything these days on COVID! The Warriors followed up that season with a return to the playoffs, or shall I say the play-in tournament. I am still confused as to how the play-in tournament doesn't count towards regular season or postseason statistics/records but I don't make the rules.
The point I am trying to make is that it has been an impressive run for Golden State. Growing up as a Warriors fan in Fremont, California during the late 80s and early 90s and bearing the burden of my Warriors fandom to college at UC San Diego in the mid to late 90s where I was surrounded by Lakers fans who initally denied that Michael Jordan was better than Magic Johnson and had yearned for the 80s Showtime Lakers, I feel extremely blessed to have witnessed the Warriors rise to the top and the longevity of their success. I would argue that this current dynasty rivals the 60s Celtics, 80s Lakers, and 90s Bulls but I would still put all three of those dynasties above the 21st Century Warriors (not sure if that is a good way to label this dynasty but I will run with it!). Definitely this bunch of misfit toys like Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green have forged a core that I feel is better than the Kobe-Shaq Lakers or the Tim Duncan Spurs. Not even LeBron James has been able to stay with one team for more than 7 seasons and develop a rapport with any NBA player like the rapport among Curry, Thompson, and Green.
I had thought the Warriors dynasty was over after 2019 when they lost to Toronto in the NBA Finals. It's hard to feel bad about that loss since the rabid Toronto fan base was yearning for a championship and the Warriors simply broke down after 5 consecutive trips to the NBA Finals. It's hard on the body, no matter how athletic you are, to play 8-9 months of competitive basketball for 5 years in a row. Even the 90s Bulls had a two year reprieve when Jordan stepped away from basketball from 1994 - 1995. But then something special happened last year when the Warriors showed that they had plenty left in the tank by getting everyone healthy just in time for the playoffs and winning another title 4 years after the 3rd title in 2018. The Warriors have proven they can win in the pre and post Kevin Durant era which is why I feel this is the best NBA dynasty since the 90s Bulls.
However, like all good things, this dynasty must come to an end. Maybe I am prematurely saying "that's a wrap" for Golden State but we can't deny the age of the Warriors' core. Thompson and Green are both 33 and Curry is 35. When they won their first title in 2015, Thompson and Green were 25 and Curry was 27. Guess who is 25 years old right now and playing great basketball? DeAaron Fox of the Kings. Guess who is about to turn 27 years old 13 days from today and also playing great basketball? Damontas Sabonis of the Kings. Malik Monk and Kevin Huerter, two other key players for Sacramento, are 25 and 24, respectively. While I highly doubt that Fox will ever be the prolific shooter Curry has become (in fact, I don't think we will ever see a better pure shooter as Curry in our lifetime), Fox is still shooting lights out and is driving to the rim with authority. He is burgeoning with confidence and he is hungry. In some ways, Fox reminds me of Curry 8 years ago. Two "shorter" NBA players who demonstrate phenomenal leadership both on and off the court and both very loyal to the team that drafted them. In fact, Curry was in his 6th year with Golden State when he won his first NBA title and Fox is currently in his 6th year with Sacramento. I told you that the parallels run deep here.
And all of a sudden, the Kings are now playing great defense. Davion Mitchell, who backs up Fox at point guard, had an atrocious defensive real plus-minus ratio (an advanced metric that has proven reliable for quantifying one's defense) during the regular season but has played outstanding defense in this series. This kind of reminds me of Andre Iguodala who was the savior for the Warriors when he came off the bench to play superb defense on LeBron James in the 2015 NBA Finals.
As for Sabonis, his arrival kinds of reminds me of the trade the Warriors pulled off in 2012 when they shipped Monta Ellis to Milwaukee for Andrew Bogut. Having two "shorter" guards proved to be a defensive liability for the Warriors when Curry and Ellis (both under 6'3") shared the backcourt for Golden State from 2010 - 2012. Letting Ellis go was tough as he was one of the last remaining players from the 2007 We Believe season that ended a 13 year playoff drought for Golden State (much like the 17 year playoff drought Sacramento just ended). However, the arrival of Bogut gave the Warriors an interior presence they badly needed much like how Sacramento badly needed an imposing figure down low. I couldn't tell you the last time Sacramento actually had a dominant big man and maybe the last time was when they had Chris Webber 20 years ago. The hope was that Marvin Bagley (who was drafted in 2018) would be that interior presence the Kings were sorely lacking but he has proven to be a bust and most Kings fan are still bitter that Vlade Divac, the GM at the time for Sacramento, passed on Luka Doncic who has become a top 5 NBA player.
Well the Kings ship has finally sailed in with Sabonis's arrival last year who was traded to Sacramento for another "shorter" NBA player in Tyrese Haliburton. Both Haliburton and Fox are under 6'5" and under 190 pounds so the Kings, much like the Warriors a decade ago, had to do something about their lack of physicality. Athleticism is important too but you need size to win in the NBA. Shipping Haliburton off to an Eastern Conference team draws parallels to when Ellis was traded for Golden State in 2012. After all, Ellis wound up playing into obscurity with Indiana to end his career much like how Haliburton has become an after thought with his current tenure in Indiana. On the other hand, Bogut helped the Warriors win a title in 2015 and Sabonis can do the same for the Kings this year and beyond.
For those who are NBA history buffs like me, you might remember Sabonis' father Arvydas Sabonis. When the elder Sabonis was 22 in 1986, the Portland Trailblazers drafted him. At the time, Sabonis was considered the best player in Europe and some go so far to say that he is the best European player of all time. Sadly, the USSR would not let Sabonis leave Lithunia to join the NBA. Just like how we currently blame COVID for everything, you can blame the Cold War here. Sabonis finally made it to the NBA almost 10 years later and he played brilliantly for Portland but he was past his prime. One could only wonder how great of an NBA player he could have been if he had been born just a few years later. The one silver lining here is that Domantas Sabonis was born in 1996 during his father's first year in the NBA. The younger Sabonis is now carrying his father's legacy and I cannot help but root for him even though I am a Warriors fan first.
The stomp on Sabonis by Green during Game 2 of the Kings-Warriors series definitely feels symbolic and could represent a significant turning point for both Golden State and Sacramento. Here we have a player like Green who has been so integral to the Warriors success for the last 8 seasons but has also been notorious for his antics on the court. The way he reacted when he got tangled up with Sabonis and the ensuing suspension for Game 3 should not come as a surprise. Then we have a player like Sabonis who could feel galvanized to get the Kings to the promised land much like how LeBron James felt galvanized to finally win an NBA title for his hometown team in Cleveland when Green punched James in a place you don't punch a man during Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals. After all, Green was suspended for the following game and the Cavaliers won the NBA Finals. I think we see something similar here where the Kings win Game 3, lose Game 4 when Green returns, and then the Kings finish off the Warriors back in the raucous Golden 1 Center next week for Game 5. That is what we call a gentleman's sweep boys and girls and when we look back at this series several years later, there is a good chance this series can be viewed as how the Warriors dynasty ended and how the Kings dynasty started.
As someone who has lived most of his life in Northern California and has experienced so much agony following the Warriors futility after the Run TMC years of the late 80s and early 90s (Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond, and Chris Mullin for those who are too young to remember or just getting into basketball), I don't think I could have asked for a better way to pass the torch off to another team. After all, the Bay Area and Sacramento have strong connections. The drive is relatively short and Bay Area residents must pass through Sacramento to get to their beloved Lake Tahoe cabin. Sacramento residents looking for a city experience can get to the Bay Bridge in about an hour and some change if there is no traffic. Yours truly works in the Bay Area and lives in Sacramento. My neighbors were instrumental in bringing the Kings from Kansas City to Sacramento in the mid 80s, a move from one prairie to another! My brother's college roommates were from Sacramento and this was down at San Diego State. Fun times since that was 20 years ago during the Kings playoff run. Speaking of 20 years ago, pretty much most of the Bay Area became bandwagon Kings fans but I refused to do so since we already had a team in the Bay Area (a story for another time).
Going a bit deeper, Warriors fans understand the Kings fans' agony. The Kings had a chance to win it all in 2002 but the refs had other ideas during Game 6 of the NBA Western Conference Finals when the Lakers went to the free throw line nearly twice as often as the Kings did in that game. Then the Kings struggled for nearly two decades by not making the postseason from 2006 until now. Keep in mind that nearly 2/3 of NBA teams make the postseason every year. In fact, the probability of not making the postseason for 16 years is 2.5 out of one million assuming that each team has an equal chance of making the postseason. Kind of reminds me of that Dumb and Dumber quote that you still have a chance when your odds are 1 out of one million!
The Kings also had struggles in the mid 80s and early 90s by consistently whiffing on their top draft picks, much like the Warriors did during their dark years. The Kings almost left town for either Anaheim or Seattle about a decade ago but then Sacramento mayor and 5-time NBA All Star Kevin Johnson managed to keep the Kings in Sacramento. Golden 1 Center was built and the rest is history. How fitting it would be for the Golden State Warriors to pass the torch off to their northern California neighbor in a venue that shares the same first word in its name. And how symbolic would it be that instead of a real torch being passed off, it's a beam that is lit into the air once the Kings close out the series at home in Game 5. The Kings are younger and hungrier, much like the Warriors were 8 years ago. The parallels between both of these franchises and fan bases run very thick. Light the beam because it's the Kings' time.