At long last, the 2016 NBA Finals have arrived and with it, the matchup the league and basketball fans everywhere have been clamoring for since last June: a rematch between the defending champion Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
If legacies in sports are forged in a crucible of hostility and confrontation, a Finals series between the best regular season team in NBA history and the team that’s been preparing to face them since they were defeated in last year’s Finals promises no shortage of either. This seems fitting considering we’ve just completed a regular season filled with more genuinely compelling storylines (and annoyingly force-fed narratives) than most in recent memory. As the Warriors and Cavs prepare to run it back over the next two weeks, a number of BIG QUESTIONS will be posed by the second meeting of these two teams, and rightfully so. There are legitimate historical ramifications at stake in these Finals. But it will be in the minutiae of what will surely be a closely contested series that the benchmarks of history will be decided.
Do the Warriors need to beat a fully loaded Cavs team to validate last season’s title or their 73-win season?
The Warriors won the 2015 title and followed that up with 73 wins in the regular season. To top those off, they became only the tenth team in league history to overcome a 1-3 deficit in the Conference Finals to advance. These are matters of record, which should be validation enough, regardless of this year’s Finals outcome. Beating the Cavs again, however, would make the 2016 Warriors one of only eight teams in league history to win consecutive NBA championships. On top of that, winning this year’s title would make Stephen Curry one of only four players in league history to win both consecutive MVPs and championships – along with Bill Russell, Michael Jordan and LeBron James, himself.
How will the two teams – with history on the line – match up over a 7-game series with whole, and relatively healthy, rosters?
A common – if myopic – premise that arose from last year was that the short-handed Cavs, who managed to take two games from the Warriors, would’ve surely won the title had Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love been available for the duration. But that assumption carries with it all the benefits of the hypothetical without any of the drawbacks of the probable.
Had Irving and Love been available, it’s unlikely the Cavs would’ve employed the slow, grind-it-out style that so successfully stymied the Warriors’ run-and-gun offense. During the six games of last year’s Finals, overall pace between the two slowed to a glacial 90.7 possessions — 8 less for the Warriors and 3 less for the Cavs than their regular season averages. The Cavs rejiggering their approach to their available players forced the Warriors into the same uncomfortable matchup — and same 1-2 series deficit– that the bigger Grizzlies had put them in two rounds earlier.
The likely result had Irving and Love played in that series — at the probable expense of Matthew Dellavedova and Tristan Thompson — is that the Cavs would’ve used a faster, more perimeter-skewing attack playing to the offensive strengths of their personnel. The only problem with that, however, is that it would’ve put two of their worst perimeter defenders — again, in Irving and Love — in heavy action against the most devastating perimeter offense in the history of the league. It would’ve, in other words, looked more similar to the sped-up style the Cavs unsuccessfully used against the Warriors in two, fairly uninteresting losses to them this season, where the pace averaged 95.4 possessions.
What does it mean for LeBron’s legacy if he loses to go 2-5 in the Finals?
No matter how badly some may want to boil these Finals down to some reductive referendum on LeBron James, the fact remains that nobody in the history of the league since Bill Russell has been to six straight NBA Finals. It’s a testament to James’ greatness that he’s managed to accomplish this rare feat with the paucity of competent role players he’s won with over the course of his career. It’s possible the 2016 Cavs have the most versatile and complete roster James has had the opportunity to play with in his 13 seasons, especially if you consider the number of injuries his Heat teammates (Dwyane Wade, especially) had to deal with during his four-year run in Miami.
Despite their defensive deficiencies, the offensive firepower Irving, Love, J.R. Smith and mid-season addition, Channing Frye bring to a revitalized Cavs team in this rematch cannot be overstated. But almost equally important to the numbers these four will provide to the Cavs box score will be how much their collective presence lessens the burden on the shoulders of LeBron James — whose Herculean effort last June ultimately proved unsustainable. Sure, James averaged a gaudy 35/13/9 in those six games — but it took him 46 minutes and an egregiously inefficient 33 FGAs per game (on a bricktastic 39% shooting and absurd 41% usage rate) to hit that slash line.
The positive effect healthy teammates have had on James’ workload has already been evident in the first three rounds, as the more balanced Cavs lineup has freed LeBron to play fewer minutes and become more of the all-purpose playmaker his skillset naturally calls for. What’s resulted has been a series of 3-point barrages unleashed up-and-down the Cavs rotation. The Cavs are shooting a blistering, and playoff high, 43% from long distance through the first three rounds, a more proficient rate than even their more famous Splash-happy opponents. Whether the Cavs can maintain that rate against the Warriors’ 2nd best regular season 3-point defense (they only allowed their opponents to hit 33% during the regular season and 34% so far in the playoffs) will play a huge role in deciding the Finals victor.
Will back-to-back NBA titles cement the Warriors as the greatest team in NBA history and Stephen Curry as the best player in the NBA?
After the season he’s had, there is probably nothing more Stephen Curry can do to convince anyone about his place in the “Best in the NBA” hierarchy. Similarly, there are Jordan stans who will never acknowledge another team — no matter their record or accomplishments — as being better than the ‘96 Bulls squad that won 72 games and the first in their second trio of championships. For evidence of that, just peruse the comments sure to follow below. What will be difficult to argue for any contrarian, however, is what a Warriors victory will mean relative to the expectations many had before the season began and how consecutive titles could impact the rest of the league moving forward.
Though it seems foolish in hindsight, Stephen Curry and the Warriors were far from the odds makers’ betting favorites for a repeat MVP or title before the season began. Last October, their standard odds for repeating were in the neighborhood of 5-to-1. The Vegas favorite to win the title before the season was, unsurprisingly, the Cleveland Cavaliers at an average line of 9-to-4. The prospect of Curry winning a 2nd MVP award felt similarly far-fetched at 6-to-1 odds before the season — well behind the likes of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, who were the favorites, and others like Kevin Durant and James Harden. The pre-season NBA GM poll revealed a similar predisposition toward the Cavs and James — with nearly 54% of those polled anticipating a first title for the Cavs and a 5th MVP award for James.
What is very clear now is that the Golden State Warriors morphed into an uber version of the team that won 67 games and a title last year. And as insane as it sounds (certainly as it is to type), this is a team that has yet to hit its theoretical peak with Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green all now just entering their prime years (Curry is 28, Thompson and Green are both only 26). While other stalwarts of this Warriors team like Andre Iguodala, Andrew Bogut, and even Harrison Barnes, may soon be phased out in favor of younger, more athletic, or simply more cost-effective alternatives, their “Big Three” will not be going anywhere for the foreseeable future, meaning rivals like the Spurs, Thunder, Clippers and, yes, the Cavs will have to continue the organizational trade craft necessary to form a response for at least as long as those three are teammates. These are considerations that will directly impact the future employment locations of stars like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, to say nothing of folks like Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul.
Nothing makes sports more interesting than the inherent stakes of historical significance. That this year’s championship series feels loaded with just that level of import will likely make for the most watched NBA Finals in history, if not the most discussed. Whether you believe the Warriors will fulfill some season long destiny to achieve NBA immortality or that the Cavaliers can reverse a city’s 50-plus year history of sports futility, narratives will either be pushed to their logical end or twisted to rebut unwanted outcomes. The only certainty is that the teams involved are about to give basketball fans exactly what they want: more reasons to keep watching and talking about the NBA for years to come.
Warriors in 6.
With Game 1 of the NBA Finals tipping off tonight, June 2, at 9 p.m. EST, head over to our latest POLLS installment to vote for this year’s winner.