The defending champion Golden State Warriors are an unprecedented 20-0, with the league’s reigning MVP taking his game to an even higher level. They’re obliterating opponents and changing the way we think about basketball in the process. Already cemented as an all-time relevant team, dynasty potential is on the table. ESPN’s Zach Lowe mentioned that NBA executives are even confronting the idea of altering their contending windows in fear that they won’t have enough to topple Golden State. This is the most dominant unit in team sports since the 2007 Patriots before the injuries hit.
Still, there’s one question I can’t shake: What if this were LeBron’s Miami Heat sitting at 20-0?
For all that the Warriors have accomplished, it doesn’t feel as if they’ve escaped their niche and forged into the broader cultural zeitgeist. (I promise this the first and last time I use the word “zeitgeist.”) They dominate NBA talk on Twitter among hardcore fans and lead SportsCenter each time they play, but that’s different than being an every night topic among casual sports fans.
On the debut episode of Trust The Podcast, I compared the Warriors to Novak Djokovic, who just completed what some believe to be the most dominant stretch in tennis history. Of the 14 significant annual tournaments, he made the final in all 13 he entered, winning three of the four Grand Slams, a record-setting six Masters 1000 tournaments and the year-end event known as the World Tour Finals. There’s another way they compare though. Much of the conversation regarding Djokovic still revolves around how his mindboggling efficiency (sound familiar?) doesn’t resonate like Roger Federer’s elegant brilliance or Rafael Nadal’s legendary willpower. They’ve simply imprinted on general fans in a way he never will, regardless of his success.
The Warriors feel, at least at this point in time, in that same position. Their win streak is unprecedented, so much so that it’s triggered multiple profiles of the 1884 St. Louis Maroons. It’s more of an in-the-moment topic though, one that’ll cease after they finally lose. If they can pursue 72 wins, that’ll certainly create buzz at All-Star Weekend and the final month of the regular season, but imagine LeBron’s Heat making the same pursuit. Miami and the Shaq and Kobe (and Phil) Lakers simply hit a higher level of cultural relevance. Every game the Heat played felt like a referendum on their existence. If the Warriors are a storyline, the Heat were a full-blown saga.
-LeBron bumping Erik Spoelstra became a lingering controversy. The Warriors don’t even have their coach, and don’t know when they’ll get him back. If this were Miami, the question of “Should Undefeated Interim X replace Spoelstra?” would lead every talking head show.
-The story about Golden State “disrespecting” Utah after a close win (with Draymond Green saying “f*** that” in the locker room to a viewer’s tweet that credited the Jazz for “playing like champions”) went away in a matter of hours. A casual sports enthusiast who only watches on television might be completely unaware of its existence. Now swap out Draymond for Dwyane Wade in the middle of Miami’s 2013 win streak.
This isn’t to knock the Warriors, but rather to point out what a phenomenon the Heat were. Hollywood couldn’t have scripted a better sequence: LeBron freezes up on the cusp of a title, making their second season infinitely more compelling, in which Chris Bosh gets hurt, forcing them to go small, their arch-nemesis Celtics push them to the brink, only for LeBron to finally strike back and later claim his first championship. As an encore, they won 27 consecutive games and repeated in the best Finals this century.
There’s a void in the NBA without them, both for their star power and the role of the villain. LeBron himself is nowhere near as riveting back in Cleveland, and although plenty of people dislike the Los Angeles Clippers and Houston Rockets, it’s just not the same. A great villain has to conjure fear along with that animosity. Miami also had perhaps the most underrated element of an all-time great villain: they were gone before becoming stale and losing their aura.
I miss the Heat. More importantly, I miss that we didn’t get to watch this version of Stephen Curry rip them to shreds.