The New Goliaths

Previously a game won by physical dominance, basketball is evolving to favor versatility and shooting.
by June 09, 2016

At least for one more night, it was like old times.

LeBron James was doing what 22nd century players do when wormholed into the now: Blowing by Iggy on a crossover and dropping a running skyhook in his eye; swiping Bogut’s candy in the paint, then barreling full-court the other way with it; finishing off a Kyrie Irving alley with a jackhammer so explosive, it’s a wonder the concrete under Quicken Loans Arena is still intact.

The Cleveland Cavaliers’ 6-8, 250-pound superstar was in full force Wednesday night, helping lift his team to a 120-90 home win in Game 3 of the NBA Finals.

But the victory, cathartic as it was, doesn’t erase the fact Cleveland has still lost seven of its last eight games to Golden State. Or that, down 1-2, it still has a mountain as large as Donald Trump’s ego to scale. A single win, resounding though it was, can’t immunize Cleveland’s Big Three from being blown up this summer.

James, Irving and Kevin Love joined forces in the summer of 2014 with plans more ambitious than winning a lone title. They eyed a dynasty. With James at the core, they had the one guy on the playground bigger, faster, quicker, stronger, more skilled and more explosive than everybody else.

Though nobody had combined all those superlatives like James, this has been the general template, to varying degrees, for practically every great all-time pro basketball dynasty. At the core of each juggernaut, dating back to the 6-10 George Mikan and his Minneapolis Lakers, has been a physical force of nature—someone who appears to be decades ahead of the evolutionary curve.

So it’s reasonable James expected this to work in Cleveland, too. Except, of course, the Golden State Warriors happened, and in the process started drafting a blueprint for a new genus of NBA titan. Golden State has some very good athletes, including Andre Iguodala and Leandro Barbosa, but neither of them has the capability to destroy opponents on his own.

This team relies on collective statistics instead of individual specimens. As Stephen Metcalf wrote for The New Yorker, “The Warriors’ scoring efficiency—the number of points scored per possession—is so high, thanks largely to all the three-point shots they hit, that there may be nothing a Goliath of the old variety can do to keep pace.”


The Goliaths of Old

Hall of Famer Bob Pettit was the star of the St. Louis Hawks, the only team to defeat a Bill Russell-led Celtics team in an NBA Finals. Pettit considered Russell to be the NBA’s most dominant player of the 1960s not because he was anywhere near the most skilled but in part because, at 6-9 and 220 pounds, Russell could do things nobody else in the League at that size could imagine.

Russell, whom Track & Field News once ranked as the world’s seventh-best high jumper, boasted far more explosive fast twitch muscle fiber than his peers. Case in point:

Jumping over a defender after taking off from just inside of the free-throw line clearly shows the kind of “next-level” type athleticism and length that could help Russell star in even today’s NBA.

To Pettit, Russell was part of an evolution that would continue as long as the game itself.

“Everything in life is improved, why not basketball? The players are bigger, stronger, better coached, jump higher, shoot better and run faster,” Pettit wrote in his 1966 memoir The Drive Within Me. “In any sport which is measured by time and distance—for example, swimming, track and field—the records keep getting better. So it is safe to assume basketball players are improving just as swimmers and track men and they are better now than they have ever been.”

We’ve seen Pettit’s observation play out over the decades in the form of Julius Erving, whose next-level agility and explosiveness helped propel the Virginia Squires to three ABA championships. We’ve seen it in the form of Magic Johnson, whose overwhelming size and ability at the point guard position would be just as devastating now as it was 35 years ago.

Johnson’s reign was officially ended by Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, a pair ranking with Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook as the most athletic twosome in league history. The core of next juggernaut, led by Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, certainly combined athleticism and sheer size like few others.

Even the San Antonio Spurs would not have won five titles since 1999 without two physical freaks of nature: David Robinson at the front end of their reign, and Kawhi Leonard on the backend.

To this day, no true 7-footer has surpassed The Admiral in sheer foot speed:

Today’s Goliaths

Now Golden State is two games away from carving out the start of a legit dynasty all its own. Other teams, from the early 1970s Knicks to the ‘04 Pistons, have won titles in similarly collective fashion, but no team has ever dominated like this without a traditional Goliath in terms of size and/or quickness.

To get two more wins against Cleveland, Golden State can’t depend on Stephen Curry to perform acts of physical supremacy. Hell, he can hardly be counted on to complete a dunk attempt even after a blown whistle.

By themselves, even when fully healthy, the 6-2 Curry and 6-7 Klay Thompson simply are not going to blow by or through defenders. They rely on each other and their teammates to space the floor to a greater degree than superstars blessed with supreme quickness.

For two years, they have been able to out-smart and out-skill their opponents to become as deadly a backcourt as Bird-McHale-Parrish became in the 1980s. The main difference, though, is that famed Celtics frontcourt had superior size and length to help.

The Warriors don’t need their MVP to be a juggernaut to win. Curry hasn’t been for three games now, and Golden State is still up 2-1. Instead, Golden State players and coaches expect their depth, versatility and skill will ultimately carry the day, so long as they play hard enough. Cleveland is favored by two points to win Game 4, but if the Warriors consistently go hard from now on, can James really prevent two more wins? Even if he’s found his power forward groove, and even if Kyrie Irving and JR Smith keep showing up?

After Game 1, Metcalf wrote Golden State is “turning the once state-of-the-art majesty of LeBron—a.k.a. King James—into file footage from another era.”

For one night at least, James summoned enough Herculean might to press pause.