Ri­valry will die when Fi­nals fiz­zles out

The Mercury News Weekend - - SPORTS - Di­eter Kurten­bach Colum­nist

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.

JOSE CAR­LOS FAJARDO — STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

Whether Le­Bron James, cen­ter, leaves Cleve­land or stays, the ri­valry with Dray­mond Green, Stephen Curry and the War­riors won’t be the same.

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