73-9. 100 points. Results like these are generational, rarer even, in the NBA and English Premier League. When dealing with teams like today’s Golden State Warriors and Manchester City FC, “great” isn’t even a fitting adjective. It’s a euphemism, a less intense way of saying “divine” the same way people say “He” and “Father” when referring to capital “G” God.
I’d apologize for exaggerating, except I’m not. Trying to capture what these teams have accomplished in their craft is overwhelming. Even more absurd are analysts, simply doing their jobs, asking if these teams have improved after record-breaking seasons.
It sounds oxymoronic: how do you improve upon the best? How do you improve what is essentially perfect? Enter, that one Winston Churchill quote:
To Improve is to change, to be perfect is to change often
Something becomes obsolete when it stops changing and everything else around it does. In sports, that explains phenomena like breakout rookies hitting sophomore slumps and the difficulty of repeating championship seasons. For both players and teams, the trick to longevity seems to be changing the tools and tactics but maintaining the core approach. Like repainting a car, changing tires, and updating the dashboard tech, but keeping everything under the hood the same.
In players, this looks like Cristiano Ronaldo and Kobe Bryant adjusting their play styles for age yet still being the potent attack-minded players they are. In teams, this constant changing-but-not-changing process is even more complex. Here’s my two part breakdown of what “improvement” looks like for these transcendent teams:
SECTION 1: New Additions
Manchester City FC
Because of the talent pool and roster sizes, there isn’t a team sport in the world that sees players come and go quite like international football.
Any European club in serious competition can be expected to have a different starting lineup at the start of a league season, for cup competitions, and after the January transfer window. A big deal can be made of a club getting a backup player because many starters juggle club and national team duties year-round. For those reasons, getting the right players, not just the best available, is crucial to the success of a football club.
Man City manager Pep Guardiola spent hundreds of millions of British pounds in the past two seasons acquiring key players, most of which aren’t even guaranteed starters week in and week out. While City had players at each of those positions that many would consider quality in 2016, he knew depth and flexibility would be necessary to become the juggernaut that they are today. Each player ensures Guardiola has multiple options at every position, and they all slot right into his system while adding something unique. Some examples:
Riyad Mahrez, winger
Arguably their 3rd best winger, Mahrez gives City a valuable alternative to German wunderkind Leroy Sané—a mainstay in last year’s record-setting team that now sees a lot of the bench this season. Mahrez allows them to play extremely wide and fast in search of dangerous crosses like last season, and also adds a more deliberate and centered approach with both he and Sterling cutting inside to create scoring chances. He already has 4 goals and an assist in 12 league games this season.
Bernardo Silva, attacking midfielder
A dynamic playmaker in the center of the park that creates a lot of attacking space with tight ball control, slippery movement, and crisp short passing. His rotation into the starting XI allows an injury-prone Ilkay Gündogan to be used more efficiently. With 3 goals and as many assists in league play so far, he takes pressure off of the older Silva, Fernandinho, and Gündo, allowing them to be just as aggressive and creative with the ball as he is.
Benjamin Mendy, left back
A nightmarish attack partner for Raheem Sterling on the left side with the energy to fulfill his defensive duties as well, allowing City to sit experienced left back/midfielder Fabian Delph and use him when needed. With 5 assists thus far, he’s right behind Sterling (6) for the 2nd most assists in the Premier League.
Aymeric Laporte, center back
The young Frenchman’s composure and technical ability has shored up the defensive issues caused by a talented yet error-prone Otamendi in the back, maintaining City’s watery flow but providing firmness in a key area. So far he leads City, the pass-happiest club in England, in completed passes. That’s a lot of trust in a 24-year-old defender in his first PL season.
Golden State Warriors
The Warriors get hate for picking up players that seem to comically put them over the top. But they aren’t the best team simply because they have the best players. In truth, the smaller acquisitions of squad-rotation players is what keeps the Warriors fresh and ready for all challengers. The way they go about drafting players and picking up free agents is actually very reminiscent of elite football clubs.
Let’s start with the purchase of Kevin Durant. Yes, the Warriors picked up a former league MVP in his prime. But as we’ve seen, that doesn’t necessarily add 10 wins a year to their record. KD is valuable because he gives the Warriors another arm (true iso-ball option), serving as a failsafe when patented Warriors small ball occasionally falters. In this sense, he’s a superior version of what Mahrez is to City, a high-quality tool that fits in the system and can do something different when needed. And while the price tags and names won’t stand out as much, the following list of acquisitions have proven just as important as Durant has been to the Warriors:
Instant offense that could stretch the floor, a perfect add-on to the 2017-18 team.
A forward that can play undersized center and defend all positions on the floor, allowing for Warriors small ball to be effective and better defensively. Looney, the 30th pick in the 2015 draft, had the team’s highest defensive efficiency rating in the 2018 playoffs.
A lengthy small-forward who ran the floor, passed well, and shot the 3 efficiently. Despite injury issues, an excellent fit to the 2017-18 championship team
A longer, more agile option at center that balanced out Zaza’s more stationary rim-protecting play. A worthy member of the 2017-18 team as well.
A shooter that takes care of the ball and knows how to free up Klay/Durant when subbed on for Curry. The ideal backup PG for this team.
SECTION 2: One Team, Many Faces
Great teams have strong identities. Transcendent teams have many identities. Like the Hindu God-equivalent Brahman taking shape in multiple deities, it doesn’t quite matter who’s plugged in or out of the Man City or Warrior systems as long as the teams are true at their core. “Different animal, same beast” as Kobe would say.
This is the reasoning behind Steph Curry being the most valuable Warrior. Despite Durant’s individual superiority and Draymond’s revolutionary positional play, Curry is the Warriors’ soul. Their Brahman. This is also why Man City are just as potent with or without PFA Player of the Year runner-up Kevin De Bruyne on the field. Pep’s tactics are Man City, and they are instilled in every player. As long as the cores of these teams stay intact (Curry + Draymond, Guardiola + several great wide and central players), anyone is replaceable.
Obviously, the right replacements would be necessary, and not every replacement would be as good as the original, but imagine a player like Bradley Beal in the place of Klay Thompson. Think of all the different centers and offensive role players the Warriors have employed. And think of all the different midfield combinations Man City have without Kevin De Bruyne, whether in a 4-3-3 or a 4-1-4-1 formation. These teams have so many dimensions, I didn’t even have to go into detail about how deadly X-factors such as guard Shaun Livingston and goalkeeper Ederson are.
Whether it’s Brahma, Shiva, or Vishnu, you’re gonna feel Brahman. Likewise, it doesn’t seem to matter who stays or goes at City or Golden State as long as the people who are the team remain. As long as Curry stays healthy and Pep stays ambitious, the Warriors and Man City will continue to change –> improve –> perfect.
I never understood why some sports fans believe teams like the Warriors and Man City “ruin” their respective games. To have a team that good means a group of individuals had the right balance of confidence and humility to work together, the talent to outperform opponents, and the commitment to both the unit and themselves to be their best every day. These teams embody every chief life value we expect sports to teach society.
We love to complain about Man City’s Sheikh Mansour money and the unfair number of All-Stars on the Warriors. But if you took just 15 seconds to consider why a frail-ankled 6’3″ point guard is now a 2-time MVP, or why a red-haired Chelsea-reject is now the best midfielder in the best football league in the world, there’d be no room left for you to deny that this level of sporting magic is beyond money and talent.