The 2016-17 NBA season has been the Year of Kevin Durant, ever since all of basketball, from the front offices to to the players to the fans to social media, held its collective breath last July 4th weekend as he decided to sign with the Golden State Warriors. For a weekend, The Hamptons was the center of the sports universe, and everything since has been in reaction to KD joining forces with a team that won a record 73 games last year.
- Russell Westbrook is playing out of his mind this season because he’s mad at Durant.
- The Boston Celtics made their biggest free agent signing ever with Al Horford because they missed on Durant.
- What are the Washington Wizards supposed to do now that they had hoped to sign Kevin Durant, being the team from his hometown and all, but could not even get a meeting with him?
- How far have the Lakers really fallen now that they could not get a meeting with Durant, and they get meetings with everyone because they’re the Lakers?
- The Oklahoma City Thunder had three of the five best players in the NBA (Durant, Westbrook, and James Harden, with the other two top-five players being LeBron James and Steph Curry) at the beginnings of their careers, and now only have one. Are they now officially this generation’s version of the Shaq and Penny Orlando Magic that were super fun for a few years, but were gone before we could appreciate them and never won a title?
- Sure, the San Antonio Spurs will be good because they are always good, but in their first year without Tim Duncan, do they even have a chance against this Warriors team?
- Sure, the Houston Rockets will be interesting because they own the statistical darlings corner of the NBA and are the Oakland A’s of basketball, and the collaboration of GM Daryl Morey, newly hired head coach Mike D’Antoni, and star James Harden (who made the conversion from shooting guard to point guard this season and got even better) might even make them great, but can they hang with this Warriors team?
- Given the last two bullet points, are we destined (or doomed, depending on how you look at it) for a third straight Warriors/Cavs NBA Finals and the other 28 teams are merely bystanders in this inevitability?
That last bullet point was occupying my mind when I wrote about Durant-to-the-Warriors last July, and that still may very well be the end result of the Year of Durant, but the second tier contenders have been compelling this regular season (particularly Boston, Toronto, Washington, Houston, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, and Utah) and even teams that are not competing this year are made compelling by the bountiful crop of young talent in the Association from Kristaps Poszingis in New York, to Joel “The Process” Embiid in Philadelphia (whom the Sixers shut down for the rest of the season after appearing in just 31 games, but it was an unforgettable 31 games), Nikola Jokic in Denver, to Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns in Minnesota to Jabari Parker, Thon Maker, and Giannis “The Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee. The NBA is doing just fine, even if the end result feels inevitable. But just like everything else this season, when a post-trade deadline injury sent shock waves through the NBA, the injury in question was Kevin Durant.
A couple nights ago, playing against the Wizards in his hometown of Washington D.C. for the first time since he deliberately made it clear he did not want to play for his hometown, KD hurt his knee when he collided with teammate Zaza Pachulia. According to Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical, Durant could be out for the rest of the regular season, and perhaps longer than that. All of a sudden, things are not as certain as they seemed.
It’s impossible to write the Warriors off completely. They still have Steph Curry, they still have Klay Thompson, and they still have Draymond Green. They still have Steve Kerr as their coach. Those guys made The Finals each of the last two years without Durant, including coming back in a seven game series against Durant and the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals last spring. Even without Durant, their high-end talent in this high-end talent-driven league should make them better than most teams on any given night, but without him, their margin for error narrows significantly. Golden State also lacks the depth they enjoyed in previous seasons. In order to make room for Durant, the Warriors jettisoned Andrew Bogut (whose injury in the Finals was the straw that broke their collective back against Cleveland last spring), Harrison Barnes, and Festus Ezeli. The team they have is still very good, but the relative lack of depth was the risk they had to take by adding Durant to what could already be considered a super-team.
Durant’s injury also gives the Spurs and Rockets a better chance of crashing the party. I am not saying they are absolutely going to knock off the Warriors now, but this could make Golden State’s road that much more difficult. The Warriors currently sit at #1 in the Western Conference, with a 50-11 record. The Spurs are two and a half games behind them, at 47-13. If San Antonio could steal the #1 seed from Golden State, it would mean the Warriors potentially having to play the Rockets and the Spurs in order to get back to The Finals instead of the Rockets and Spurs having to play each other in the second round, as would happen if the standings remain the same. For Golden State, the possibility of Durant coming back and playing his first minutes in months in a second round playoff series against Houston, who could already pose as a touch match-up for them, is something that would scare me. The Warriors would much rather have San Antonio and Houston cancel each other out and only have to face one of them before their rubber match against LeBron and the Cavaliers.
I do not wish injury on anyone, and I am also not one to hold it against Kevin Durant for leaving OKC and joining the Warriors rather than beating them, but I have to admit this second half of the NBA regular season is more interesting than I expected, all because it is the Year of Kevin Durant.
The Boston Celtics are playing their best basketball since the days of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and (yes, even) Ray Allen. They currently sit second in the Eastern conference, tthree games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers, with Kevin Love out with an injury and LeBron James logging more minutes than he should at age 32, and Brad Stevens is going to coach the Eastern Conference All-Stars for the first time in his career. Perhaps most impressive about what they have done is that they are winning games with regularity in spite of their significant lack of health, with the longest tenured current Celtic Avery Bradley and 2016 free agent acquisition Al Horford both missing extended periods due to injury.
The success of the Celtics two and a half years removed from being in the draft lottery themselves (as opposed to living vicariously though the Brooklyn Nets’ miserable season) to being a top-five team in the NBA, despite Danny Ainge’s inability to find suitors in this decade’s version of the Allen and Garnett trades that the fan base so desperately wanted, is a testament to the coaching staff and the smaller moves Ainge has been able to make, but the biggest story for the Celtics has been the NBA’s smallest blossoming superstar.
Isaiah Thomas stands 5’9″, two inches shorter than I am, and my always unrealistic dream of playing on a school basketball team, let alone in the NBA ended around sixth grade when I realized I’d never be tall enough to make up for my inherent lack of skill. Despite a good college career (two time 1st Team All-Pac-10, two time Pac-10 Tournament MVP at Washington), Thomas was overlooked by NBA teams for his height, and he was taken with the 60th and final pick of the 2011 NBA Draft by the Sacramento Kings.
What is amazing about players taken in the 2nd round of the NBA Draft is that the ones that make it as stars, make it with a vengeance. Draymond Green fell to the second round, is now the NBA’s best defender, the most polarizing player on the NBA’s best team, and has developed this revisionist history around his draft status where several teams claim they were about to take him even though they all had a chance at him. Manu Ginobili being selected by the San Antonio Spurs with the 57th overall pick in 1999 and forging a Hall of Fame career out of obscurity in Argentina is an even greater component to the mystique and the greatness of Gregg Popovich and the Spurs than lucking into Tim Duncan at #1 in 1997.
In Isaiah’s case, though, the Kings do not get the credit for finding a diamond in the rough of a superstar because they let him go before his full potential was realized–same goes for the Phoenix Suns–but the chip on his shoulder is just as big as Draymond’s. Thanks to another great trade by Danny Ainge (a three team trade with Phoenix and Detroit where the Celtics gave away Marcus Thornton, Tayshaun Prince, and a late 2016 1st round pick, and came away with Gigi Datome, Jonas Jerebko, and IT), Thomas arrived in Boston at the 2015 trade deadline.
The Boston teams are in the midst of an under-six-feet renaissance between Julian Edelman (5’10”), Dion Lewis (5’8″), Malcolm Butler (5’11”), Danny Amendola (5’11”), Dustin Pedroia (5’9″), Mookie Betts (5’9″), Andrew Benintendi (5’10”), Jackie Bradley Jr. (5’10”), Brad Marchand (5’9″), and Torey Krug (5’9″), but Isaiah Thomas is the ultimate example because of the emphasis on height in who plays basketball at the professional level. While the Red Sox and Patriots gain acclaim for taking a chance on shorter outfield prospects and surrounding Tom Brady with a bunch of quick and shifty little guys, the Celtics have turned into a borderline contender built around a little guy in a big guy’s sport. This is almost unprecedented.
My two favorite basketball players who never played for the Celtics are Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson. I have written plenty about Duncan over the years, given that he was an active player this time last year, and he and Pop have been the Brady and Belichick of basketball. I wanted to write my ode to AI in September when he was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in September, but it was my last college semester, I was working full time, and my buddy Murf’s bachelor party was that same weekend. Life got in the way, but I am here now.
I attended my first Celtics game in 2001, weeks after Rick Pitino skipped town. The Philadelphia 76ers were in town in a year when they eventually reached the Finals and Iverson was the MVP. To this day, I believe he is the best athlete I have ever seen in person (Honorable mentions Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The interesting thing is that Malkin actually stands out more than Crosby in person because of his size.). By my memory, he systematically picked apart a Celtics team that had Pierce and Antoine Walker and was finally showing signs of a competitive pulse at the start of the Jim O’Brien Era almost entirely by himself. It was amazing.
Iverson was officially listed at 6’0″, but even as a kid, I never really believed that number. AI was fearless and played like he was six inches taller than his actual height, making him one of the most intimidating people in the history of the NBA. He played hard and lived hard, and his career ended much more abruptly than many of his contemporaries as a result, but in his heyday, there were few players more compelling for someone flipping through the channels and stopping on a neutral site basketball game.
AI never won a title, and was labeled as a selfish player. Some of that was fair, but also a lot of that was the lack of quality talent that surrounded him in his prime. Unlike other elite point guards of his era like John Stockton, Gary Payton, and Steve Nash, AI never had a Karl Malone, or a Shawn Kemp, or a Dirk Nowitzki, or even an Amar’e Stoudemire to give the ball to. AI had Keith Van Horn and a past-his-prime Dikembe Mutombo. Iverson tried to do everything on offense by himself because that really was the best option in most years. This is the thing that has me worried about IT in Boston, but also not really. Sure, Al Horford is not the elite offensive threat that Karl Malone is. Sure, Kelly Olynyk is the victim of early Dirk comparisons. Sure, Jaylen Brown is an unproven rookie with some trouble finishing at the rim. But the Celtics are still building. Isaiah already does not have to do it all himself, even if he is consistently lighting it up in the fourth quarter, but they are still getting better.
What I really like about Isaiah Thomas the more I have learned about him is his self-awareness. In listening to recent podcasts where his sat down with Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer and Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical, he has it all in perspective. He was the last pick in the draft. He was 27 and on his third team by the time he became an All-Star, and he’s just now getting recognized as a legitimate superstar at 28. It’s like an actor or musician who did not achieve success or fame until after he or she learned how to be an adult. In the NBA, we are at the point where we are surprised when someone drafted as a teenager like Kevin Garnett or LeBron James turns into a well-adjusted human being. Isaiah spent his basketball career being doubted, being overlooked, and has proven people wrong at every turn, so now that he’s arrived, he’s not about to let it get to his head.
This week, Thomas broke a 45 year old Celtics franchise record set by the great John Havlicek of 40 consecutive games scoring 20 points or more, with game 41 being Boston’s last-minute loss to the Chicago Bulls the other night. IT is making his way into the history books in the NBA’s most storied franchise, but this story is still in its early stages.
With the salary cap in the NBA jumping from $70 million to $94.1 million this summer, there was a real chance for the landscape of the league to dramatically change, and it did, but not in the way fans were hoping, unless they live in the Bay Area. After Kevin Durant’s Independence Day weekend in The Hamptons, in which Oklahoma City still thought they had a chance at keeping KD, and power brokers from Gregg Popovich to Pat Riley to Steve Ballmer to Steve Kerr and Jerry West to Danny Ainge and even Tom Brady got in on the action to try and lure him to their respective team and city, and ultimately Kevin Durant decided to take his talents to the record-breaking 73 regular season win Golden State Warriors.
To me, this doesn’t feel like when LeBron James made The Decision in 2010, to take his talents to South Beach, to join forces with Dwyne Wade and Chris Bosh, and to rip the collective heart out of a city that had not won a championship in any sport since the Johnson Administration. With Durant’s departure from OKC, he was leaving a better basketball situation than LeBron left in Cleveland, and chose a basketball situation that has even higher expectations, but also a better chance for success than Miami in year one was. In 2010, it was Wade and Pat Riley recruiting LeBron and Bosh to play for their team, circumventing the crap shoot that is building through the draft by putting together three of the top five picks from the 2003 NBA Draft as fully formed, fully developed NBA stars seven years later.
(It’s worth noting that this wasn’t the first time Riley was able to stockpile lottery picks from the same draft class. The 2006 Miami Heat team that beat Dallas in the NBA Finals was the only team to have the top three picks from the same draft: #1 pick Shaquille O’Neal, #2 pick Alonzo Mourning, and #3 pick Christian Laettner from the 1992 Draft, and none of them had been drafted by the Heat. In hockey, former Boston Bruins and current Edmonton Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli has now traded away the #1 and #2 picks from the 2010 NHL Draft, Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin, both good players, and both dealt for pennies on the dollar, making Chiarelli two thirds of the way to completing the illusive “Reverse Pat Riley.”)
I have mixed feelings when it comes to the plight of the Oklahoma City Thunder and their fans. It has to be devastating to lose such a dynamic talent without getting anything in return. As a Celtics fan, the tease of KD when he was a star at Texas in a year that the C’s were in the lottery was tantalizing, and the devastation when the Celtics fell to #5 in the draft order was real. The Portland Trail Blazers even took Greg Oden from Ohio State with the first pick so either of the top two picks could have made KD a Celtic. Again the possibility of Durant coming to Boston had me and other Celtics fans excited for a couple days, especially after the Greatest Quarterback of All Time and the Greatest Designated Hitter of All Time joined the recruiting effort, but again it wasn’t to be. If Kevin Durant could toy with my emotions all these years without ever playing for my team or against my team in a playoff series, the pain Thunder fans has to be exponentially worse. That being said, the Thunder had to see this coming.
Thunder GM Sam Presti did an excellent job picking in the lottery when was in there three straight years. First, he took Durant in 2007, then Russell Westbrook in 2008, and James Harden in 2009. That is about as good as it gets for building a young and athletic foundation for a franchise (though they may have been bested by Minnesota in the last couple years. Time will tell). They made the NBA Finals in 2012, and were not as ready for the moment as the aforementioned LeBron/Wade/Bosh Miami team that had finally figured it out. Even still, the future looked bright for Oklahoma City, and then they panicked. Before the start of the 2012-13 season, Presti traded James Harden to the Houston Rockets for an assortment of assets. In the years that followed, Harden blossomed into an All-Star, a franchise player, and a piece of tabloid fodder, but nonetheless a perennial MVP candidate along with his fellow former OKC lottery picks. NBA teams can go decades without landing even one player like this and the Thunder had stumbled upon three, right out of college and learning to be professionals together.
While Presti deserves credit for drafting as well as he did, the Thunder have had shortcomings in other areas of their basketball operation. They have never run a particularly creative offense, relying heavily on the individual athletic prowess of Durant and Westbrook to win games. To be fair, that helped them win a lot of games, but in an incredibly tough Western Conference, good has not been good enough most of the time. The one two punch of KD and Russ presents a tough mismatch for most teams, but it has been effectively neutralized in big games by the incomparable ball movement of the San Antonio Spurs and the great passing combined with the historically great three point shooting of the Golden State Warriors. After a disappointing 2014-15 season when reigning MVP Durant was injured most of the season and Westbrook had his share of injuries, OKC missed the playoffs and decided to part ways with head coach Scott Brooks. This would have been a great opportunity to replace Brooks with a proven and creative NBA coach like offensive mastermind Alvin Gentry (who led the Phoenix Suns to the Western Conference Finals in 2010 and was an assistant on Steve Kerr’s staff in Golden State that year) or defensive innovator Tom Thibodeau (who basically invented the modern NBA defense and was suddenly available after the Chicago Bulls stupidly decided to move on from him, but instead they decided to go with a very successful college coach in Billy Donovan. Now Gentry is coaching Anthony Davis in New Orleans, and Thibodeau has Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins to coach in Minnesota while Donovan had to adapt to the NBA after nearly two decades at the University of Florida on the fly while also trying to win in the short term and keep Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook confident and content in Oklahoma City.
Oklahoma City is at a disadvantage compared to some other NBA cities. They cannot offer the lifestyle opportunities that New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco or Chicago or Miami can, but they could take a page out of San Antonio’s book. San Antonio is in a similar situation. They’re not a huge city and the Spurs are the only major professional sports team in town (the same is true of OKC, Salt Lake City, Orlando, Sacramento, Portland, and Memphis, some of the most rabid NBA fanbases) so they won’t get a Hall of Fame quarterback as part of the recruiting pitch, but they can control what is in there control, and have the smartest, most cutting edge basketball operations department they can create, and give any player who might be interested the assurance that they will be put in the best position to win.
The biggest reason I feel differently about Durant’s departure from Oklahoma City than I do about LeBron’s Decision to leave Cleveland is because Oklahoma City is lucky to even have an NBA team. KD was not drafted by the Oklahoma City Thunder. He was drafted by the Seattle Supersonics. Remember them? They were this NBA team in Seattle with really good uniforms, who won a Title in the 1970s led by Dennis Johnson, and had an exciting team in the 1990s with Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton that lost to Jordan’s Bulls in the Finals. Also, they were in a real professional sports city that still has baseball and football. Seattle fans got to see Durant’s rookie season, in which he was already really good, and then the owners moved the team to Oklahoma. Sure, Durant is taking his talents to Golden State, but unlike the last NBA city he left, the whole team isn’t coming with him this time. “Oklahoma City Thunder” sounds like a minor league baseball team anyway.
Beyond the people of Oklahoma City, the regular season will suffer the most from Kevin Durant playing for the Warriors. In any given year, we are lucky if there are six or seven teams in the NBA who have a real chance at winning the championship. Last year, there were four (Golden State, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, and Cleveland), and now, barring multiple catastrophic injuries to Golden State’s starters, that number is down to two. If, say Durant and Steph Curry can’t go for the playoffs for the Dubs, then maybe the Spurs or the Clippers could win the West, but otherwise we’re looking at Cleveland vs. Golden State Round 3 next June.
I was hoping that Durant would sign with the Celtics (obviously), but for reasons bigger than just my local fandom. There is no rival for LeBron in the Eastern Conference. LeBron’s team, whether it was Miami or Cleveland, has made the Finals every year since 2011. Every NBA Finals since I’ve been old enough to drink has had LeBron in it. Adding Durant to the Celtics (or Miami, although Boston has the stronger supporting cast especially with Wade leaving for Chicago this week), there would instantly be another contender in the East. The Celtics added Atlanta Hawks veteran big man Al Horford as a maximum contract free agent, whom Oklahoma City was interested in bringing in to play with Durant (Horford also won two National Championships at Florida playing for Billy Donovan), a great young coach in Brad Stevens, a good albeit undersized scorer in Isaiah Thomas, and lots of good, defensively stout role players like Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder, Amir Johnson, and Avery Bradley (who was selected for 1st Team All Defense for the first time in 2015). The Celtics had never landed a big name free agent in their prime, but after Horford agreed to join the Celtics, I talked myself into believing Durant could be the second. They had a good basketball situation to sell to KD, but nothing can compete with the chance to play with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson and Draymond Green and get to play for a coach like Steve Kerr, who is quickly becoming the genius Phil Jackson/Gregg Popovich superstar coach hybrid for the new generation.
While the NBA will not be the most competitive league from top to bottom next season, it will be strangely compelling to see how things unfold for this super-team in Golden State. It’s amazing how quickly this long-suffering franchise, that waited 40 years between titles after Rick Barry’s Warrior team fell apart against Phoenix in 1976 to when Curry and Co. overran LeBron and the Cavs the first time around, turned and replaced LeBron as the NBA’s greatest villain. All eyes will be on the Warriors this year, and most of those eyes will be rooting for failure. This is a team that went 73-9 in the 2015-16 regular season, overcame a 1-3 series deficit against OKC in the Western Conference Finals only to blow a 3-1 series lead against Cleveland in the NBA Finals. They had a chance to be greater than the 1996 Bulls or the 1986 Celtics or any other team in the “greatest team ever” argument, but instead they’re the 18-1 Patriots of basketball.
Really good Historically great, but the way it ended will always undercut the achievement. In defeat, the lineup that had been so dominant for two years looked suddenly exposed. LeBron put in a superhuman performance, but for the first time since Mark Jackson was coaching them and the possibility of trading Klay Thompson for Kevin Love seemed like a great idea for Golden State, the Warriors looked human.
First it was Curry’s nagging injuries after a season of abuse by bigger, more physical point guards, neutralizing the effect of the NBA’s first ever unanimous MVP (by the way, the only other players in any sport to be the unanimous MVP are Tom Brady and Wayne Gretzky. Ever heard of them?) and the most unconventional most dominant player basketball has ever seen. Then it was Draymond Green’s suspension. The Dubs were up three games to one on a Cleveland team that was fundamentally flawed, being run by an aging (although it really is amazing how good LeBron James still is considering how long he has been in the NBA, the load he has had to shoulder with relatively weak supporting casts compared to those of Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or Michael Jordan and the fact that he has NEVER MISSED A FREAKING PLAYOFF GAME despite taking his teams to the Finals SEVEN TIMES including the last six years) superstar, who mortgaged their future two summers ago by trading #1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins to Minnesota for the mostly disappointing Kevin Love, but the suspension of Green for Game 5 gave Cleveland life and gave Cleveland momentum. Then it was the injury to Andrew Bogut, out for the last two games of the Finals, though he should be healthy enough to play for Team Australia in the Olympics this summer. If Bogut was the only thing to go wrong for the Warriors last month, they would be back-to-back champs, they would be the undisputed Greatest Team of All Time, and Bogut himself might still be a Warrior and not a Dallas Maverick, but sometimes the injury to a role player can reveal exactly how fragile the ecosystem of a basketball team really is. Was Kendrick Perkins the most important player on the New Big Three Era Celtics? Of course not, but when he got hurt in the 2010 Finals, it was all over for the Celtics, and the following year when Danny Ainge traded him to the Thunder, the Miami Heat were finally able to beat the Celtics. The Warriors were exposed. LeBron figured them out, and willed Cleveland to a long awaited Title. I’ve never been a huge LeBron fan, and I’ve always said I’d rather see the Browns or (more likely) the Indians be the ones to end Cleveland’s title drought, but I came away from the 2016 Finals impressed. This guy has lived up to as much hype as anyone who was compared to Michael Jordan while still in high school possibly could.
While the Pats took a while to redeem their lost championship, and in the year that followed became the first team since the 1980s to go 11-5 or better and miss the playoffs after Brady hurt his knee, the Warriors are going all in for 2016-17. The spike in the salary cap allowed for them to replace Harrison Barnes with Kevin Durant, and now a team that had three of the league’s best 15 players has four of them. Instead of playing it safe, they put the target on their backs and made the next season all about pursuing immortality all over again. Will they win 74 games this time? Will they get to 75 or 76? Will they sweep the playoffs? Will Steph Curry be okay with the Warriors bringing another MVP winner in his prime? Can Steve Kerr get his four superstars to play together and for each other? Can the Spurs or Clippers possibly keep pace? Can this team win 80 games in the regular season? What happens if they shatter their own win record and struggle in the Finals or against San Antonio? If they win it all will Durant leave? If they do anything short of winning it all, which would be a colossal disappointment, will Durant leave? This season is so inevitable that to quote the great Kevin Garnett, “ANYTHING’S POSSIBLE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” We will see.
About a year and a half ago, I wrote an article for another website about the parity, or lack thereof, in the NBA in comparison to the NFL, NHL, and MLB. My main point was that since 1980, only nine teams had won NBA Titles, less than a third of the franchises in the Association, which was fewer than any other sport. By comparison, there have been 19 different World Series Champions in baseball (and that number has not changed since I wrote that article, as the Boston Red Sox and San Francisco Giants have already won in that span), 16 different Stanley Cup Champions in hockey (and that number will not change this year, as the Los Angeles Kings won their second Cup in 2014, and the New York Rangers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Anaheim Ducks, and Chicago Blackhawks have all won the Cup in the last 35 years), and 15 different Super Bowl Champions (but now it’s up to 16 after the Seattle Seahawks won their first Super Bowl in 2014). After I wrote that article, we got a sequel to the 2013 NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs, but with a very different result. In 2015, there is new blood in the NBA Finals, sort of.
As far as the television entertainment value is concerned, the 2015 NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors is a refreshing change of pace purely for the fact that our eyeballs will be watching different colored jerseys in June. It’s also refreshing because we will finally have a new champion that does not come from the Basketball Establishment, the nine franchises that have owned the last 35 years collectively. I’m a lifelong Boston Celtics fan, and I’m more than okay with the Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, Chicago Bulls, Detroit Pistons, Houston Rockets, Philadelphia 76ers, Dallas Mavericks, and Miami Heat all sitting this one out. In fact, of those teams, only the Moreyball Houston Rockets were the only ones to even make the Conference Finals. The Golden State Warriors have not won a championship or even been to The Finals since 1975. Rick Barry was their star player, Gerald Ford was President, and the world was still a few months away from Carlton Fisk’s legendary home run and the debut of Saturday Night Live. The Cleveland Cavaliers have never won a championship, and the city of Cleveland has not won a title in any of the four major sports since 1964, when the Cleveland Browns won the NFL Championship in the Pre-Super Bowl Era. The state of Ohio has not won a championship in a major professional sport since the Cincinnati Reds won the 1990 World Series. These are two title-starved fanbases.
Despite the new blood in the 2015 Finals, the DNA of the two teams that competed in 2013 and 2014 are clearly smeared all over this year’s championship series. The obvious example is LeBron James. Early in his career, LeBron made it to one NBA Finals in 2007 with the Cavs, but they did not belong in the same league as that San Antonio Spurs team. After ripping the still beating heart out of the city of Cleveland in the summer of 2010, LeBron went to the NBA Finals four straight years with the Miami Heat, after joining forces with Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, and Pat Riley. The level of competition in the Eastern Conference declined so greatly in that time due to the Celtics getting old (then getting very young), the Bulls and Pacers being cursed with devastating injuries, and teams like the Knicks, Nets, and Pistons being unable to get out of their own way in rebuilding attempts, Cleveland turned into the instant favorite to win the East despite missing the playoffs each of the four years LeBron was in South Beach when they re-signed him last summer.
Much the way the Cavaliers are a replica of the 2010-14 Heat, the Warriors emulate the San Antonio Spurs. Their game is predicated on depth, defense, and ball movement (they should look into getting that trademarked), and their head coach, Steve Kerr is a disciple of Gregg Popovich, having played for San Antonio in the early 2000s. Last summer, Kerr was the most coveted head coaching candidate despite having never coached before, and it’s clear why now. He ultimately chose the Warriors over the New York Knicks, and that looks like a no-brainer in hindsight as well. The Knicks, with Phil Jackson (an all time great coach, but a rookie executive who will turn 70 in September) running the team from the other side of the country where he lives with his fiance, who happens to be the owner of the Lakers, instead hired Derek Fisher, who like Kerr, has no coaching experience, but unlike Kerr, was playing in the Western Conference Finals for Oklahoma City this time last year and has not had the time to get proper perspective. New York was awful this year, but lost in the lottery, much the way Golden State did years ago in the first modern draft lottery when the Knicks came away with some guy named Patrick Ewing. This time, Golden State won the Steve Kerr lottery and are playing for their first NBA Title in 40 years, while New York is left with bad contracts and the dilemma of what to do with the 4th overall pick in the draft. Clearly, Kerr went to the Harrison Ford School of Choosing rather than the rival decision execution educational institution named for Julian Glover.
This Cleveland team has the same flaw every LeBron James team outside of the 2012 and 2013 Heat teams and the 2008 and 2012 USA Olympic teams has had: what is Plan B when LeBron is hurt/tired/effectively guarded? Sure, there’s Kyrie Irving, who can provide a ton of offense all by himself, but when playing against more balanced rosters that can distribute and contribute from three or four positions at any time, LeBron feels like he has to do everything himself. Kyrie Irving isn’t Dwayne Wade, and he isn’t Chris Bosh. Kevin Love was supposed to be in the picture as a third star, and they traded a budding superstar in Andrew Wiggins to get him, but Love got hurt in Game 4 of the first playoff round against the Celtics. With Love potentially leaving in free agency this summer, this has the potential to be one of those moves that really hurts in the long run. Much like when the Detroit Pistons took Darko Milicic with the 2nd pick in the 2003 NBA Draft, even if you win it all this year, with or without him, it’s hard to shake the feelings of what might have been had you not left someone like Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, or Dwayne Wade on the table. At least they have LeBron.
Last year’s NBA Finals started off competitive, but after LeBron cramped up in the first game, the Spurs took more and more control of the series, and the Heat limped their way through five games, physically and mentally drained from by the smart, unselfish dominance of the Spurs. Team basketball has been LeBron’s Kryptonite his whole career. I know that sounds harsh, but a big part of it is because he’s very rarely had a good team around him. He was drafted by Cleveland, a franchise with a very limited history of basketball success before his arrival in 2003. He didn’t grow up in a basketball culture like the Celtics or Spurs where there were other young stars that could be considered peers, so he was used to having to do everything himself. It wasn’t until his Miami stint when he had Wade and Bosh to play with that he ever had anything like “Big Three” to be a part of. In 2014, Wade and Bosh appeared to have lost a step, and once again it was LeBron vs. The World. That was good enough to get out of the flawed Eastern Conference, where their stiffest competition was an Indiana Pacers team on the verge of losing Lance Stephenson in free agency and struggling to find a consistent identity on the court, but reality hit when he ran into the Beautiful Game that is San Antonio Spurs basketball. The way to beat a team that has the best player on the planet, is by having five guys who can pass, who can play defense, and who can make each other better. San Antonio game LeBron more than he could handle in 2007, then it was the New Big Three Era Celtics and Stan Van Gundy’s Orlando Magic that gave him fits to the point where he left his native Ohio to join forces with two other All-Stars in the prime of his career. Even his first year in Miami, the Dallas Mavericks, a team of aging veterans, outworked the Heat on the floor while Rick Carlisle coached circles around Erik Spoelstra. In 2012 and 2013, LeBron was just that good. No team could beat him. The Spurs came the closest, but LeBron was the best whenever the Heat needed him to be those years. In 2014, it looked once again like LeBron didn’t have a team in Miami worthy of his greatness, and he went back home.
There are superstars who do it all themselves because they have to, and superstars who do it all themselves because they are selfish. It’s not always easy to see the difference. In hindsight, it’s fair to say that Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing never had teammates on the level of Scottie Pippin, James Worthy, Kevin McHale, or Robert Parish. Michael Jordan had Pippin, and Kobe Bryant had Shaq (and later Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum), but they still wanted to be the ones being the heroes in the end, and often that was the right call for the team. It’s unclear which camp LeBron truly belongs in, but I would like to see if he’s capable of becoming the third kind of superstar: the one who makes everyone around him better. This is the most intriguing kind of player to me, as an observer. Bill Russell, Larry Bird, Steve Nash, and Tim Duncan are the purest examples. They all played with more Hall of Famers than the selfish superstars because they made their teammates, who were good players, into Hall of Famers by winning as much as they did. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett made each other better when they joined forces in Boston, and now they’re working to make young players like John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Andrew Wiggins better with their new teams. Could LeBron join forces with another player and make themselves better? It’s hard to improve on what LeBron can do by himself, but it would be interesting to see if he ever had a teammate who could go toe-to-toe with him both athletically and intellectually.
The Golden State Warriors are built around one of these unselfish superstars. Stephen Curry is one of my favorite players in the game right now, and I’m glad to see he’s finally reaching the level I thought he could. When the Warriors picked him in 2009, he looked more like someone who should be going to his 8th grade graduation than someone getting selected in the NBA Draft, which may have been why Hasheem Thabeet, Ricky Rubio, and Jonny Flynn were drafted ahead of him (seriously, the Minnesota Timberwolves had the 5th and 6th picks in that draft, they used them both on point guards, and neither one was Steph Curry) despite being the leading scorer in college basketball that year, but he might be the best player to come out of that draft (I’ve joked about the busts, but that was also the draft where Blake Griffin went 1st and James Harden went 3rd, so it wasn’t all bad) when it’s all said and done. He’s the best shooter in the NBA, and his running of the Golden State offense makes Klay Thompson, Andrew Bogut, Draymond Green, and Harrison Barnes better players than they would be by themselves. Steve Nash would be proud. The NBA wasn’t quite ready for this kind of team when he was in his prime and turned the Phoenix Suns into this kind of team, but the season Curry has had is validation of Nash’s style.
Golden State is a joy to watch, and LeBron James is amazing to watch by himself. He’s now in The Finals for the fifth straight year, and the same question lingers: can he be better by himself than the best team in the NBA? If he can, then Cleveland will have won something for the first time since the Johnson Administration. If not, it is a victory for team basketball, a victory for the legacy of Gregg Popovich and the Spurs, a victory for up-tempo jump shooting philosophies, and a victory for a passionate and dedicated group of basketball fans who have not had much to cheer about in a long time.It should be fun, and it should be different from what we’ve seen the last few years, but not as different as you’d think.