The chatter began early in June, before Golden State clinched its third NBA title in four seasons. The Warriors, led by Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, were proclaimed in some quarters not just as a consistently excellent and thoroughly entertaining team, but as a dynasty.
Whatever that is.
TV basketball analyst Jay Bilas thinks it’s frivolous to spend time wondering what amount of team success qualifies as a dynasty. “This is a barroom argument to me. You don’t get some trophy for being a dynasty,” Bilas says, lumping the topic with misguided comparisons of great players through history. “If it’s a dynasty we don’t need to discuss it.”
That circular argument makes sense in the wake of Bilas’ own equivocal definition of a dynasty, evoking one of the catchiest and most versatile observations in American judicial history. Writing in a 1964 case, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said of obscenity, “I know it when I see it.”
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Of course if identifying a dynasty is so open to interpretation, anyone can claim they’ve seen one. Like spotting Bigfoot.
Take the premise that Golden State’s current run of dominance constitutes a dynasty which, pending re-signings, shows no end in sight. Where does that status leave Villanova, winner of two of the last three NCAA championships? No one is saying Jay Wright has built a dynasty. Not yet. But if Villanova wins again in 2018-19, and many project the Wildcats as contenders, that would match the Warriors.
“In this day and age, if they can win three out of four then that’s a dynasty,” Dick Vitale, approaching his 40th year as an ESPN college basketball commentator, says of Golden State and Villanova. “A dynasty to me would be consistency of greatness on a regular basis. If you do it over a period of years, to me that is a dynasty.”
Vitale supports his argument by listing past dynasties whose bona fides seem unimpeachable, if only because they’re long-celebrated. He starts where any basketball aficionado would: with UCLA under John Wooden.
To refresh your memory, Wooden’s clubs won an unrivaled 10 NCAA titles over a dozen years (1964-75). While winning a record seven straight championships from 1967 through 1973, UCLA enjoyed a streak of 88 straight victories, notched three undefeated seasons and was 205-5 overall. Those Bruins so dominated college ball, it was a news story when they lost.
Since UCLA’s reign, only Duke and Florida won as many as two titles in a row. Mike Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils did get to seven Final Fours from 1986 through 1994, reached five NCAA championship games, and won it all in 1991 and 1992. Yet neither Bilas nor Vitale regard Duke’s mostly near-miss run, unmatched since, as worthy of membership in the dynastic pantheon. “When you’re talking dynasties,” Vitale says, “you’ve got to stand there with the gold trophy.”
Like North Carolina women’s soccer, with 17 national championships in 20 seasons from 1981 through 2000.
For Vitale, counting championships still leaves several dynasties besides UCLA: the Boston Celtics (eight NBA titles in a row and 11 of 13 from 1957 through 1969), and the best-that-money-can-buy New York Yankees, with 16 World Series crowns in a 27-year span from 1936 through 1962.
Throw in the Green Bay Packers, with five of seven NFL championships from 1961 through 1967, including the first two Super Bowls. Then there were the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens, who won six Stanley Cups from 1953-60, including a record five in a row, and 10 Cups in 15 seasons from 1965 to 1979; and the Chicago Bulls with six NBA titles in eight years from 1991 to 1998.
Considered in that context, it’s difficult to call Golden State a dynasty just yet. Much as the claim was debatable when San Antonio won three NBA titles in five years (2003-07) with Tim Duncan.
To be fair, most familiar dynasties were built over long stretches, rising and falling decades ago. With free agency and transfers dispersing talent and robbing rosters of continuity, terms of engagement have changed greatly since the Bruins, Bulls, Canadiens, Celtics, Packers and Yankees ruled their roosts. “People think they can go back to the way it was, but they can’t,” Bilas says.
The only arguable dynasties these days are Alabama football, with five championships and a 113-9 record over the past nine seasons, and Connecticut women’s basketball. UConn’s Huskies have won 10 NCAA championships since 2000, four in a row from 2013 through 2016. During their 17-year ascendancy they’ve enjoyed five undefeated seasons, won 111 in a row, and triumphed in 93.7 percent of their games.
Women don’t contend with one-and-done depredations, or many early departures at all. “It’s harder for a dynasty” now, says Roy Williams, whose program this year failed to produce a first-round pick for only the fifth time during his 15 seasons as North Carolina’s head coach “You’ve got to have talent and experience. With one-and-done you’re never going to have experience.”
Disruption of NCAA talent supplies continued in 2018; eight of the first nine choices in the just-completed draft were freshmen. Thirteen of the top 18 were come-and-go collegians. The first senior selected was Duke’s Grayson Allen, 21st to Utah, where he’ll play for former Blue Devil Quin Snyder.
“Duke and Kentucky have gone one-and-done more than anybody else,” Williams observes of programs that each had two freshmen chosen among the top 11 in the ’18 first round. “Villanova hasn’t done that at all. Who’s been more successful the last three or four years?”
Over that span Villanova captured NCAA titles in 2016 and 2018. Duke won in 2015. (UNC won in 2017.) Don’t think Philadelphia’s Wildcats stocked up on slow-developing talent; two of three selected in this year’s NBA first round were a sophomore and a redshirt freshman.
Last year NBA commissioner Adam Silver said the one-and-cooked rule was “not working for anyone.” According to Sports Illustrated, a recent internal league memo said the rule, a 2005 answer to one set of problems that spawned others, could be gone by 2021. If nothing else, that might redefine the path to a dynasty, in college if not the pros.