“From a Kingdom of Gold to One of Iron and Rust”
A popular belief stemming from the Greco-Roman historian and statesman Cassius Dio is that the rise of Commodus, the son of Marcus Aurelius, to the emperorship of Rome in 180 AD coincided with the beginning of the end for the Western Roman Empire. Calamitous events would follow for the next three centuries, but as far as Cassius Dio was concerned, Commodus was the first guy stripping floorboard on the renovation.
Setting the tone for subsequent leaders of a similar ilk, Commodus got very into the idea of himself-as-the-kingdom, a personality cultist whose proto-fascism set the stage for his own assassination in 192. Any time you get the chance to be the marker of the end of a quasi-familial dynasty, well, I guess you have to take it.
On the non-hereditary side, reigns of power take all shapes and forms (though, if we’re being honest, if it isn’t in sports, it usually ends in assassination). Many franchises have experienced periods of stupendous success followed by tumultuous lows, but right now, the Golden State Warriors are undergoing the very worst downfall in recent memory.
With their overtime loss Wednesday night to a team wholly unfamiliar with the idea of being a dynasty, the New York Knicks, the Warriors are now 5-21, ranking among the very worst starts in franchise history and, at this point, as the very worst team in the NBA. Even the 2000-’01 Warriors, who finished 17-65, had seven wins through their first 26 games. You hate/love to see it, etc.
It makes sense, of course, that the Warriors have hit a stage of fatigue perhaps unlike any other this season: of their championship-level core, they lost Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins in free agency; Shaun Livingston (retirement) and Andre Iguodala (trade) are gone; and they lost Klay Thompson (torn ACL) and Steph Curry (broken hand) to long-term injuries, the latter of which summarily sank their playoff hopes.
So bad are the Warriors right now, in fact, that their collapse stands among the most spectacular in major sports history. Typically, there are any number of reasons why a team falls off the face of the earth, but sometimes, a title-worthy squad just comes up flat. Surely, I’ve missed some notable examples, but below are some of the most precipitous downfalls ever:
These are some pretty gnarly falls from grace. While not necessarily a dynasty unto himself, our kid Philippides may or may not have laid the foundation for all of standardized competitive running in his last act on this planet; the late-stage Boston Celtics watched their dynastic conclusion occur at the hands of, you guessed it, the New York Knicks in the 2013 playoffs.
Even with the adjusted expectations that accompanied the roster overhaul, it is difficult to parse just how far the mighty have fallen in this case. With Draymond Green, Curry and the prospect of a returning Thompson after the All-Star break, as well as D’Angelo Russell, whom the Warriors acquired from the Brooklyn Nets in the Durant sign-and-trade, Golden State would have reasonably expected to at least contend for the playoffs, if not necessarily slot themselves in per usual.
Now, Steve Kerr is coaching a squad consisting of Russell, Green, rookie Eric Paschall and the pink residual that accumulates around your shower drain if you aren’t diligent, and Golden State is left far more State than Golden.
Commodus didn’t really do himself any favors during his tenure. Along with the standard-issue tendency to put his own face on a coinage he devalued himself, Commodus fed into his own mythology by, among other things, holding staged gladiatorial events that he would always win, boasting about his left-handedness in battle and having statues placed around town that bore his face atop the body of Hercules. Eventually, following a city-wide fire, he attempted to re-establish and re-name Rome after himself, which seemed to be the breaking point for the conspirators who killed him.
Though much less bloody, the decline of the Golden State Warriors is nevertheless jarring, a wild readjustment and shift in the reality of what the NBA has been for the last half-decade, during which they shifted the very nature of the sport. Theirs was a run in many ways unparalleled, and if they return next year healthy and with a presumptive lottery pick on hand, perhaps they can make another run at the throne. For the time being, though, the coffers are empty, the coins unmarked.