Rivalry will die when Finals fizzles out
CLEVELAND » These NBA Finals will, in all likelihood, end today or Monday with the Warriors celebrating another championship.
The title — all but assured given Golden State’s 3- 0 lead in this seven-game series — will come at the expense of their top rivals, the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Bay Area and Cleveland don’t hold rivalries in any other sports, but when you play each other in four consecutive NBA Finals, it’s easy for one — no matter how peculiar it might seem in a vacuum — to develop.
“I’m very familiar with the city of Cleveland now. I know where the good spots are to eat, where to see good movies,” Warriors guard Klay Thompson said at the start of this series, adding, “it’s like a second home.”
It’s difficult to put it in a full, proper context and perspective in the moment, but I will say this: this Warriors- Cavs rivalry is one of the best in the history of the NBA, the modern era of professional sports and perhaps the full spectrum of sport.
And when the champion pops champagne bottles and douses their locker room in bubbly, it’ll probably come to an end.
What makes the Warriors- Cavs rivalry special isn’t merely the exceptional talent we’ve seen on the court, battling for the ultimate prize, over the past four years — it’s been that the teams have traversed 49-week journeys every year to meet for three weeks in June.
Yes, there was a baseline presumption at the beginning of every season that these two teams would meet, but that overlooked the fact that at any point on those team’s respective journeys, something internal or external could have prevented the two team’s paths from intersecting in the summer.
Though this year, the journey to another Finals matchup proved particularly treacherous for both teams.
The Warriors trifled with injury and ennui all season, resulting in the team failing to win the top seed in the Western Conference playoffs for the first time since Steve Kerr took over as head coach in 2015 and a seven-game series with the Houston Rockets.
For the first time since the team acquired Kevin Durant in the summer of 2016 — a direct response to their loss to the Cavaliers in that year’s NBA Finals — the Warriors had to contemplate their own mortality.
Meanwhile, the Cavaliers played two sevengame series this postseason, the second requiring a superhuman LeBron James performance to lift them out of a 2- 0 hole to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals.
But James’ jaw-dropping play this postseason was just part of the massive melodrama that surrounded the Cavs this year. Remember: this was a team that traded half of its active roster — literally — at the trade deadline in a last- ditch effort to return to the Finals.
So much of this year’s Cuyahoga Soap Opera stems from the fact that LeBron is a free agent at the end of this season, and that his return to Cleveland is a toss-up, at best.
But no matter if LeBron decides to leave or go, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the Cavaliers can return to the Finals next year.
If LeBron departs Cleveland, the Cavaliers organization has to blow up everything and rebuild from a sub-foundational level. NBA Finals? The Cavs would be lucky to make the playoffs again in the next half- decade.
Even if LeBron does return, Cleveland is so capstrapped they have no fair way of making the necessary move of adding another big-time, in-their-prime player to the fold this summer. It took everything James had to beat a nascent Boston team. Next year, Boston will add Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward — two All-Stars — back into the fold.
That doesn’t even factor in the rising power of the Philadelphia 76ers and the Milwaukee Bucks or the Heat and Pacers, both of whom could make a splash this summer in free agency and take a leap forward in 2018-19.
If LeBron returns, it’s because he’ll value loyalty over winning. And if leading this Cavs team to the Finals was the finest performance of his professional career, as it has been alleged, I struggle to comprehend what he’ll have to do to take the Cavs to the Finals next year.
The Warriors signing Durant in 2016 and the Cavs trading Irving for nickels and dimes this past summer ended any chance that this rivalry — no matter how long it lasted — was going to be fair, and LeBron has to take at least some blame for both moves.
LeBron was a major voice in the NBA players’ union when it made the decision to reject the team owners’ provision to space out salary cap increases when the league’s new TV deal spiked league reve- nue. Because they rejected that concept, LeBron was enriched in the short term, but it provided the Warriors a route to sign Durant.
And as for the Irving trade, the point guard wanted out of Cleveland because he was tired of being in LeBron’s shadow, when James didn’t step up and demand to the Cavs organization that Irving not be traded, it said a lot about their relationship.
Though, it should be said, this is not a onesided equation: if LeBron remains in Cleveland and finds another batch of magic, there’s no guarantee the Warriors return to the Finals next year, either. Golden State’s massive advantage over the field, obtained when they signed Durant, shrunk between year one and year two, and it’s poised to continue that trend going into year three. Golden State, will tinker, but not retool this offseason. Meanwhile, the Rockets stand a chance of significantly improving this offseason — perhaps by adding LeBron — which would put them in an excellent position to leap over the Warriors.
The pack is gaining on both teams and James’ possible ( probable? The odds seem to change by the second) exit holds the Northeast Ohio — and the entire league — in limbo.
Yes, one way or another, it looks as if these roads are finally diverging. The bad blood will dilute and the shockingly disparate natures of the two regions the teams represent will no longer be linked together through basketball.
Maybe the Warriors meet LeBron again in the Finals down the line with a different team, but it won’t be the same.
Warriors- Cavs was something special — the teams were Northern Lights for the league, their showdowns were something to look forward to every time they happened — and while I won’t miss the trips to Ohio, I will sure miss this rivalry when it’s gone.
Whether LeBron James, center, leaves Cleveland or stays, the rivalry with Draymond Green, Stephen Curry and the Warriors won’t be the same.