Cleveland vs. Golden State is for more than just a battle for the Larry O’Brien trophy.
It’s a showdown of the two most popular players in the game, LeBron James and Stephen Curry. It’s a battle of styles, the more old-school isolation-heavy ball of Cleveland vs. the three-point shot and up-tempo game of the Warriors. It’s a battle about legacy. It’s a matchup of the two best teams in the NBA, two teams who dominated their conference playoffs to get here.
It’s a rivalry.
The best one the NBA has had in years — maybe the best one going in professional sports right now. It’s one played out on the biggest stage with three straight NBA Finals meetings, with the third installment of the trilogy starting Thursday night in Oakland. We love watching the players and storylines evolve over those years — this is drama on the “Game of Thrones” level.
That is good for the NBA.
However, when we head into next NBA season expecting a fourth Finals showdown between these teams, and maybe we get a fifth after that, is that good for the NBA? Or is that lack of competitiveness sucking the drama out of the postseason? Is this sense of inevitability good for the league?
“It’s definitely fun, you know?” Green said earlier this season. “A team that you beat, that’s beat you – it’s definitely fun. I think, if you look at the last two years and this year, we’ve been the top two teams in the league each year. So, I look at it as a rivalry, and it’s definitely a fun game to play in.”
And fun to watch — two great teams going at it with contrasting styles and philosophies. Ratings should be sky high for this one.
The NBA used to be thick with rivalries: Bulls vs. Pistons (with the player rivalry Isiah Thomas vs. Michael Jordan), Bulls vs. Knicks, there was Phil Jackson vs. Pat Riley, and the ultimate Lakers vs. Celtics (which included Magic vs. Bird). That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Now? Not so much. And this is true across professional sports. The advent of free agency — which fans love, people are more into playing GM now than the games themselves — has torn down those walls. Johnny Damon can jump from the Red Sox to the Yankees and that’s just business. In the NBA, often players have known each other since AAU or USA Basketball events long before they get to the NBA, so while they go hard at each other on the court, off it there is a sense of fraternity. In the off-season, they all play and work out together in one of a handful of places in Los Angeles or Las Vegas.
That’s what makes the Cavaliers vs. Warriors different.
This is LeBron forcing a switch so Curry has to guard him. This is Green trying to get under LeBron’s skin but actually, LeBron gets under Green;s and forces a mistake that leads to a suspension. This is Andre Iguodala in LeBron’s face. It’s Kyrie Irving hitting the game winner over Curry in the 2016 Finals (and hitting the game winner last Christmas Day to complete a Cavaliers comeback). It’s the Warriors adding Kevin Durant to the mix.
These teams don’t like each other. Respect is there, but so is the passion needed for a great rivalry. It’s why we’re all excited to see the rubber match between these two powerhouses.
And when it’s over, we may be lined up for a fourth. Then maybe a fifth.
In the West, the Warriors will re-sign Curry and Durant this summer, and every one of their four core players is still under age 30. It’s hard not to see them remaining the team to beat in the West — and maybe being unbeatable — for four more years. At least.
In the East, LeBron has been the dominant force leading his team to seven straight NBA Finals, and in his 14th season he is having arguably his best playoffs ever. He shows no signs of slowing down, and the team around him with Irving and Kevin Love can pick up as he fades.
Fans can complain, but both of these “superteams” were born of circumstances other teams can’t recreate (which is to say, there’s nothing for the league to do to “fix” this). For one, there’s not going to be another LeBron for a long, long time. With the Warriors, they built this team via the draft — they picked and developed Curry, Green, and Klay Thompson. They added Andre Iguodala as a free agent, but he’s complementary to the stars. As for Durant, it took a one-time giant spike in the salary cap thanks to a new television broadcast deal to create the space for Golden State to land him, another situation that is not going to be repeated (and the league added the “Designated Veteran Player” contract to the CBA because of it anyway).
These teams aren’t going away. It’s hard to picture something happening this summer that will lead anyone to say “that team can dethrone the Cavaliers/Warriors” next season. (Barring injury, of course.) Think of it this way: If the Boston Celtics have an ideal summer, what will we say about them heading into next season? “They can challenge Cleveland.” That’s it. Do everything right and maybe they can take a series six or seven games now.
The Cavaliers/Warriors rivalry will continue.
But if it remains such a dominant force that it sucks the drama out of the playoffs with its inevitability, that’s not good for the league. Yes, the NBA has always thrived when it’s biggest stars are on its biggest stage — we talk about the six times Michael Jordan won a title, not the seven times he lost in the Eastern Conference playoffs and couldn’t get there. But even in the Jordan era, there was a drama that seems lacking in this postseason. That’s not a good thing for the NBA, it’s broadcast partners rely on the playoffs for a lot of that revenue the league is getting.
However, we’ve got the drama we wanted now — Cavaliers vs. Warriors. LeBron vs. Curry. The two best teams in the NBA going at it for a third straight year.
We’ve got a real rivalry.