The 2018 NBA Finals had potential — for about 47 minutes and 55 seconds. If not for the crunch time debacle of Game 1, maybe we’d be looking forward to a Game 6 right now. Maybe the Cavs would be up 3-2. Maybe they’d be preparing for the opportunity close out the series at home. Maybe they’d be on the cusp of winning their second championship in three years. Maybe.
All that sounds insane now, but the Cavs stealing Game 1 at Oracle could have made the Jekyll to reality’s Hyde. The Cavs would have, at the very least, avoided a sweep. LeBron wouldn’t have gone from scoring 51 to playing the rest of the series on a self-inflicted broken right hand. And if they’d gone on to win the ‘ship? Whew. Then it would be hard to see LeBron leaving this summer.
Instead of all these maybes and would-haves actually coming to fruition, the Golden State Warriors will parade through downtown Oakland today on the heels of their quickest championship win yet.
So what’s next for the NBA’s contemporary rivals, now that we’re reminded of the outrageous imbalance of power blemishing the NBA’s complexion?
It’s the End of the Cavs as We Know Them
The Cavs are cooked, and so is the rivalry. We can officially kiss it goodbye in just under a month.
LeBron James has been playing with house money since June 19, 2016. On that night, he fulfilled his promise. He’d gifted northeast Ohio their first championship in more than 50 years in the most dramatic fashion imaginable. You know the buzzwords: 3-1 deficit. 73-win team. Unanimous MVP. Game 7. So why should LeBron have to stay in Cleveland if the goal he set out to achieve became one of the most beautiful moments in the history of basketball?
LeBron wants to win at the highest level. And it’s not going to happen anymore with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Unless, of course, the entire organization is gutted from Dan Gilbert to Jordan Clarkson — in which case, it still may not be enough. At this point, LeBron ostensibly has no sense of trust in either the self-serving team owner or rookie GM Koby Altman: Gilbert refused to re-sign former (successful and beloved by LeBron) GM David Griffin mere moments before a crucial offseason, and Altman ultimately traded away Kyrie Irving for change found between couch cushions. LeBron, who’s always been the master of his own destiny, shouldn’t feel compelled to afford the front office a shred of a benefit of the doubt.
The Cavaliers simply don’t deserve LeBron’s trust, if there’s any there to begin with. And what’s a successful business venture without trust? LeBron has said time and again that in spite of personal differences with the Trump-loving, comic sans-using, anti-LeBron letter writer in Gilbert, the two have a decent working relationship. But Cleveland isn’t really working out for LeBron anymore.
LeBron’s 15th NBA season will go down as one of the most dumbfounding, indescribable, and fantastic in his G.O.A.T. campaign. But the statistics and broken records will just be supporting details in the tall tale which only began with losing Griffin and Irving. In August 2017, it felt for a fleeting moment that the Cavs hadn’t just won the trade with Boston, but had won the offseason after acquiring Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, Jeff Green, and Brooklyn’s 2018 draft pick. They beat Kyrie on opening night! The Arthur memes showed unity and brotherhood!
But… we all know what happened next. It wasn’t all fruitless trades, misdiagnosed hip injuries, secret marriages, Napoleon complexes, and soup throwing though. Kevin Love had to come to terms with personal demons. Ty Lue had to confront the health he was sacrificing for his drowning team. LeBron was performing at an unprecedented level, but it looked like the only time he allowed himself to have fun was during the All-Star Game (not to neglect his scuffle with Fox News that very same weekend).
What we know now is that LeBron James dragged a twice-made-over team out of the dumpster and into the 2018 NBA Finals. Whether it’s an indictment of the Eastern Conference or a testimony of LeBron’s divinity or both matters little when LeBron is losing badly to the greatest team ever assembled. In essence, we just watched Michael Jordan get swept by the ’96 Bulls. So how do we reconcile the greatest player of a generation struggling so mightily against the greatest team of the same era?
Well, we encourage him to do #WhateverItTakes to put himself in a position to get back on top. It’s going to mean leaving Cleveland, assembling a team he has faith in, restoring a semblance of trust in whichever front office and ownership situation he finds himself in, and letting the rest unfold.
If LeBron stays, he’ll have to start from scratch for the third time in a year. So when LeBron leaves, it’s rebuilding time for the Cavs anyway. Without him. But maybe with Trae Young.
As for the Champs?
The Warriors apparently want to get younger. And with only one guy — the guy — signed through 2021, Golden State is positioned well to do just that. All members of their All-Star quartet will enjoy their prime for the next handful of years; when your baby-faced assassin is practically the gramps of the group, you’re in a healthy spot. That is, of course, until health itself becomes an issue.
“Y’all got no clue. No clue. That tells you about this team that nothing came out,” David West said https://t.co/VkrrVYX86o
— Marc J. Spears (@MarcJSpearsESPN) June 9, 2018
Steph Curry missed 31 games of the 2017-18 season thanks to a slew of ankle injuries and an unlucky MCL sprain. His extended absences tested the Dubs in ways they’d grown too arrogant to think they could fall victim to, and David West has intimated that tensions flared enough to potentially put a second consecutive championship in jeopardy. While it’s been a bit ironic if not taxing listening to Klay and Draymond talk about this past season having been extraordinarily difficult, it’s just a jarring reminder that the Warriors’ version of “difficult” is 29 other teams’ dream.
Obviously, Golden State got their sh*t together in time to evade Conference Finals elimination and ultimately sweep the weakened Cavs. Everything is a drunken kind of dandy today. Two-time Finals MVP Kevin Durant will feel vindicated and secure about his career this summer, and will ideally keep himself busy enough to stay off of Twitter for good. But as the Dubs begin to gear up for the fabled three-peat, they must confront their team — not just the alleged bad blood in their core — as a whole and genuinely evaluate the capacities of their role players. They may have to cut the habit of generously picking up stranded vets like Matt Barnes and Nick Young if they seek an easier road to the 2019 Finals.
Let them do it. The Dubs have good, young performers whose development has spoken for itself. Quinn Cook, rescued from the throes of the G-League to replace Curry midseason as decently as any 25-year-old two-way player could, has earned his belonging. Rookie Jordan Bell is a star in the making, even if that star may have to rise beyond the Bay some day. Sophomore Patrick McCaw — otherwise known as Andre Iguodala‘s apprentice — suffered a major setback following a freak spinal injury, but will expect an elevated role come October. 22-year-old Kevon Looney, whose 2018-19 team option wasn’t picked up last October, stepped up in spite of it all, morphing from Santa Cruz regular to starting center in the playoffs. They’re kids who’ve already won championships and understand how and when to contribute to a team of this caliber. That’s special.
The Warriors aren’t just a superteam with a Death Lineup, a Defensive Player of the Year, two MVPs, and a no-maintenance historically excellent shooter who happens to play great defense. They also have pronounced success with youth development. That’s just plain damning for the rest of the league.
This coming offseason will be telling. Golden State may choose to forgo some of their ring-chasing vets in favor of their promising young whippersnappers. They’d be better for it. This is almost certainly the end of Zaza Pachulia in the blue and gold; his phasing-out was slow but certain. West will likely announce his retirement in the coming months. Decisions will have to be made about JaVale McGee and Nick Young, the goofy twosome no one quite expected to evolve from cinnamon challengers to O’Brien trophy winners eight years ago. 34-year-old Iguodala and 32-year-old Shaun Livingston are each signed through 2020 after uncertain 2017 negotiations, but there’s no telling how efficiently the bench anchors will hold up.
They may have fatigued us indefinitely, but perhaps we can find some inkling of excitement in the Golden State Warriors in these next few offseasons. If the Dubs do indeed pursue a youth movement, we’ll need to keep an eye on young, unassuming free agents (Will Barton, anyone?). This year, KD will have to choose whether he wants to commit long-term or toying with the idea of undertaking a new challenge. And as Klay and Draymond’s contracts approach uncertain ends, we’ll have to keep an eye on how much this team — whether it’s the billionaire owners or players — is willing to financially sacrifice in order to keep this unparallaled chokehold on the NBA.
That’ll be worth watching, right?