Review of Dynasties: The Ten G.O.A.T. Teams That Changed the NBA Forever by Marcus Thompson
Marcus Thompson secures the sportswriting equivalent of a three-peat with his stellar third book on the greatest dynasties in NBA history.
At the heart of Graham Greene’s novel The End of the Affair is a meditation on the existence of God and whether hating or being angry at God somehow confirms the existence of the divine. As bizarre as it might seem to consider a novel by a 20th century British writer in conjunction with anything basketball-related, I found myself thinking about that novel as I read Marcus Thompson’s excellent third book, Dynasties: The 10 G.O.A.T. Teams That Changed the NBA Forever.
The reason that novel (specifically that aspect of it) jumped into my mind is because of the initial conceit with which Thompson begins his book. “When the love is so strong,” Thompson writes, “eventually it spawns hate. And as the hate rises, a phenomenon is created worthy of national attention.” Thompson goes on to describe, regarding basketball teams, that “the thing about this love-hate dynamic [...] is that it requires a certain level of greatness. It’s so much more than just an unlikable star or a team with an irritating style of play. It takes all-time greatness to inspire these ardent levels of emotion.”
The greatest teams, those whose very existence tell the story of professional basketball in America, inspire both admiration and adulation but, in equal part, venom and rage. Both of those aspects, the love and the hate, tell us that we’ve witnessed basketball greatness. You cannot have great love or great hate without greatness, and the presence of both of those qualities tell us that there’s been a great basketball team in our midst.
Thompson highlights the ten greatest dynasties in the NBA’s history, from George Mikan’s Minneapolis Lakers all the way to the Stephen Curry-powered Warriors squads. You get what you’d expect in a book about the NBA’s best teams--chapters detailing the reigns of Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers, Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics, Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs, and on and on.
There’s even a chapter on LeBron James, positing the notion that he himself was a dynasty as he made his stops in Cleveland, Miami, and now Los Angeles. There are some things you wouldn’t expect too, namely giving the Bad Boys Detroit Pistons an invitation to the big kids table (I think either Dr. J’s Philadelphia 76ers or the early 1970’s New York Knicks were more deserving, plus my stepfather taught me to always dislike anything associated with Bill Laimbeer).
In each chapter, Thompson details the things that built each dynasty. You get the face of each squad, the other key members, the villain (either in the form of an opponent or the member of the dynastic squad most often perceived as a villain by opposing teams and their fans), the moment the dynasty could have ended early (the Showtime Lakers getting upset in the 1981 playoffs and Magic Johnson saying he wanted to be traded in 1982, the Rockets getting oh-so-close to beating the Warriors in 2018 before
choking coming up short), and the cultural impact (the way in which the 1960s Boston Celtics were a model of race relations that was in many ways well ahead of the entire country, the resonance of Michael Jordan’s Nike and Gatorade ads, how the Spurs brought an emphasis on scouting and drafting foreign players and, in Thompson’s words, “the Spurs had become basketball’s UN”), and more.
If you’ll pardon my indulging by making use of the “hooper or not a hooper” discourse, I feel very comfortable saying that Thompson is whatever the “hooper” equivalent is when it comes to sportswriting. By which I mean you can tell he’s someone who both knows his stuff and clearly loves both the game and the league.
Just as there is in the best basketball, especially the brand that the Warriors play, there’s a certain playfulness to Thompson’s writing. Thompson’s writing is not lifeless and stale; rather, sentences pop with joy and verve as his prose never feels pedestrian. If you’re familiar at all with Thompson’s writing from The Athletic or his previous two books, then what you’re getting (and its high quality) will not come as any surprise.
Even though you are getting an onslaught of information, you never feel like you’re hearing a dry and tedious lecture about statistics or trite stories. Rather, you feel like you’ve sat down at the neighborhood bar to have a free-flowing conversation about the great teams of the NBA with someone who knows the game inside and out. You’ll sit down, thinking you’re just going to read a chapter or two, and you’ll look up and realize you’ve read the whole book in one sitting.
Thompson’s excellent writing, which takes you on a journey through the history of the NBA’s dominating dynasties, would be enough to make this book well worth your time and money. But you also get great artwork as well, provided by Yu-Ming Huang. Seeing LeBron James like Radio Raheem (from Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing) wearing the brass knuckles of “LOVE” and “HATE” both cuts an intimidating figure and also gets to the heart of this whole enterprise. A portrait drawing of Bill Russell smiling with his many, many championship rings adorning his fingers brightens up the chapter on his Celtics teams. Stephen Curry, drawn with a Terminator-esque cyborg eye enhancement while characteristically chewing his mouthguard, makes the baby-face assassin seem even more terrifying, a visual representation of the fear he inspires in opponents when he is given a sliver of space to shoot.
“What makes the NBA arguably the greatest sports league in America,” Marcus Thompson effectively argues in his latest book, is “dynasties.” Being lucky enough to root for and write about one of the teams featured in Thompson’s top-ten list certainly gives you a level of appreciation for that kind of greatness. I also think about the days that made me into a true NBA fan and the dynasties that dominated that time. And, as Thompson correctly notes, they were there either to be loved (Jordan’s Bulls, Duncan’s Spurs) or hated (the Bad Boys Pistons, the Shaq-Kobe Lakers) by yours truly.
By writing this book and telling the NBA’s story in this way, Thompson shows that he understands what captures our imagination regarding the NBA, he grasps what pumps the heart of NBA fandom. If you love basketball, if you love sports, if you love good writing and storytelling, then you’ll love Dynasties by Marcus Thompson. With the holidays imminent, it’s a book that I would recommend as a gift for the hoops-lover in your life.
Thomas “Dr. Tom” Bevilacqua is the author of Golden Age: The Brilliance of the 2018 Champion Golden State Warriors.