"Records are broken. Championships last forever."
This is what Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said last Saturday as the team recovered from a loss to the Boston Celtics, just their eighth of the season. It was their first home loss in 54 games. If you're a fan of any NBA team that's not the Warriors or the San Antonio Spurs — and especially if your team is getting nowhere near the playoffs — try to conceive for just a moment of your team losing their first game at home 76 games into the season.
Now come back from that hazy, wildflower-covered, late-summer afternoon in your mind and let's talk.
It's possible Kerr said this because he genuinely believes it. It's possible he said it because he thinks his players need to hear it. But it's also possible Kerr doesn't believe a word of it — because he shouldn't. This whole rings-over-records thing is, in this specific case, total bullshit.
After beating the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday night, the Warriors have 69 wins, and that's not just nice — it makes them one of only four teams to win 69 or more games in a season. Draymond Green has posted 13 triple-doubles this season. Steph Curry has notched six games with nine or more threes. No other player in league history has more than five in his CAREER. What Golden State is doing this year is historic, and it demands something more than just a championship.
After all, there have been 66 NBA champions, but there's only one team that won 72 games, and that's the 1995–'96 Chicago Bulls. After falling in overtime to the Minnesota Timberwolves last night (a loss which, incidentally, snapped Golden State's streak of wins when leading by 15 or more points at the half at 114), there is only one path for the Warriors to break the Bulls' record, and that's winning their last four games.
In those final four games, they face the San Antonio Spurs and the Memphis Grizzlies twice apiece, both at home and on the road, and this is where Kerr's sweet little pablum about focusing on the greater goal dovetails with the games directly in front of them. Facing two other playoff teams — one their likely matchup in the Western Conference Finals — in your arena and theirs the perfect opportunity to ramp up into playoff shape. After last night's loss, Draymond Green admitted that the team has been distracted by the attention focused on the Warriors getting 73 wins, that in the regular season, after 82 games, "you get bored with that."
Kerr has said they're not focused on breaking the Bulls' record, but Green says with the media attention on it, it's inevitable that they're thinking about it. Kerr wants them focused on what it's going to take to win in the postseason, and Green says they're bored with the regular season. Before the home losses to the Celtics and Timberwolves, these different perspectives existed in tension with one another, but the stakes of needing to go 4–0 right now — against a pair of playoff teams — are drawing them together.
The biggest problem with the way people have viewed the Warriors' stretch run is the notion that you could trade the all-time wins record for a championship in some kind of transactional way. Would you give up 73 wins, or even tying the Bulls at 72, for a guaranteed championship? Yes. In the time it takes Steph Curry to shoot a jumper.
But that's not how it works. Golden State could batten down the hatches right now, rest their players, go 2–2, end up with 71 wins and still not win the championship. Or they could gear up, go 4–0 while the Spurs and Grizzlies turtle up and still not win the championship. There's no quid pro quo between wins and rings, and that gray area of weighing work in the immediate future with reward in the more distant future – without an understanding of how one leads to the other — is where many of us live our lives more or less all the time. We can control the parameters of some things, but the really big things (job interviews, first dates, vacations, weddings, childbirth) might benefit from planning and preparation, yet are in no way beholden to it.
Kerr and the players have no doubt wrestled with this mightily as the stretch has approached. How do you strike that balance? How do you exist consistently in that place where you acknowledge the historic heft and possibilities of where you are right now, yet equally weigh and recognize the goal that still lies down a twisting and difficult path ahead? In this way, the recent losses to Boston and Minnesota might be a gift, a galvanizing force that won't allow the team to go 3–1 or 2–2 and still get written into the record books.
Technically, Kerr is right: championships last forever. But they also can't win one right now, and that future is far from assured. How this Golden State Warriors team will be remembered is not precisely up to them. They are, ultimately, not the ones who will get to write history, but with the path to 73 wins clear and immediately in front of them, they can at least be the ones who get to make it.