This year’s NBA finals is actually a rematch from last year: the Cleveland Cavaliers, representing the Eastern Conference, against the Golden State Warriors, who are representing the West. The game’s two biggest stars on the game’s biggest stage. Although we’re only guaranteed four games (Game one is this Thursday), it’s a virtual certainty we’ll end up getting either six or seven.
Here are the biggest storylines heading into the series.
1. The LeBron and Curry Rivalry
Between them, LeBron James and Stephen Curry have six of the last eight Most Valuable Player awards. LeBron’s got four, and Curry’s got two, but the manner in which Curry won this year’s award has gotten under LeBron’s skin. Curry won the 2016 MVP award unanimously, which is an NBA first, prompting this meditation from LeBron:
I think sometimes the word ‘valuable’ or ‘best’ player of the year, you can have different results. You know, that’s not taking anything from anyone that’s ever won the award. Look at Steph’s numbers. He averaged 30, he led the league in steals, he was 90-50-40, and they won 73. So, I don’t, do you have any debate over that, really, when it comes to that award? But when you talk about most ‘valuable’ then you can have a different conversation, so, take nothing away from him, he’s definitely deserving of that award, for sure.
It was a bit passive-aggressive from LeBron. He was either suggesting that Curry deserved “Most Valuable” honors but not “Best Player” honors, or the reverse. Obviously a player of LeBron’s caliber must see himself as the game’s best, so it’s not a surprise to hear he’s reserving top praise for himself. Still, there was enough spice in that answer to draw a chilly response from Curry, who, when asked about LeBron’s comments, said: “I’ve gotten really good at ignoring people, so, that is the theme of the past two years.”
It’s possible LeBron is just jealous. For the second straight season, Curry has surpassed LeBron as the league’s top jersey-seller. This year, he’s projected to sell more of his signature shoe than LeBron will sell of his — an unbelievable achievement, since it means Under Armour (which really only has Curry) and not Nike, the basketball behemoth, will lay claim to the market’s top-selling basketball sneaker.
What’s more, it seems every time I turn on “SportsCenter” on a night both teams have played, Curry and the Warriors get top billing whereas the Cavs highlights come later in the hour. Both Derrick Rose (2011) and Kevin Durant (2014) interrupted LeBron’s multi-year MVP runs, but Curry has seemed to do something more: he has taken the mantle of world’s best player away from LeBron. Some have construed LeBron’s “secret motivation” at the start of last year’s finals as annoyance over the world seeming to move quickly — too quickly — to crown Steph the league’s best.
Earlier this season, when the Warriors went on the road to play the Cavs, Curry made an off-hand remark about enjoying the “good memories” that the Cavs arena brings to mind for him. The Warriors clinched the NBA championship last year in Cleveland, and Curry remarked that he hoped the locker room “still smells a little bit like champagne.”
Cleveland.com reported that Cavs players were pissed at these comments, perceiving them as disrespectful: “When LeBron James finished up his media address after shootaround this morning, he walked away asking reporters why no one asked him about Curry’s comments. He said he had an answer for it.”
That answer involved getting humiliated by 34, with Curry (35 points) dramatically outplaying LeBron (16 points), perhaps as revenge for last year’s head-to-head numbers in the finals, in which LeBron so overshadowed Curry that there was talk at the end that LeBron might actually get finals MVP honors—although he was on the losing team!
2. A Finals Rematch, But With Both Teams at Full Strength
Entering last year’s finals, the Cavaliers were depleted. They had lost one of their top three players, Kevin Love, for the rest of the playoffs thanks to this injury a couple weeks prior:
In Game 1 of the Finals, they lost Kyrie Irving, the second member of their “Big Three” to go down in season-ending injury:
The Cavaliers did what they could to mount a challenge, and despite exceeding expectations by winning two games — including one in Golden State, a notoriously difficult venue — they were no match for a full-strength Warriors side.
This year, the Cavs are healthy and well-rested. They disposed of the Toronto Raptors in six games, finishing them off last Friday, meaning they will have enjoyed nearly a full week of rest prior to their matchup with the Warriors. It will be interesting to see if the Warriors show any signs of fatigue in these finals. They’ve just come off a grueling seven-game series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, not to mention that they’ve had a more strenuous regular season than they needed to, given that they were chasing the all-time regular season record in wins.
3. What If the 73-9 Team Fails to Win it All?
The Warriors going for, and actually achieving, the all-time regular season wins record at 73-9 — previously held by Michael Jordan’s 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls at 72-10 — is one of the most impressive team accomplishments I’ve ever witnessed. I’m probably in the minority, but I think it’s a greater achievement than winning the championship this year would be, since it’s rarer.
But since culturally the ultimate respect is given to teams that go on to win the hardware, it will feel massively underwhelming if the Warriors fail to cap off their record-breaking season with an NBA title.
Consider the legacy of the 1972 Miami Dolphins against that of the 2007 New England Patriots. The Dolphins completed their perfect season, going undefeated then winning the Super Bowl, whereas the Patriots won every game except the final one, Super Bowl XLII against the New York Giants. Here’s the thing: the Patriots actually won more games in their season than the Dolphins did, but only the Dolphins’ accomplishment gets remembered, since they won it all.
How important is this year’s NBA finals? It could mean the difference between the Warriors being remembered as the greatest team of all time, or merely the greatest regular-season team of all-time — and this distinction is gigantic within sports culture.
4. Player Concerns for Their Legacy
LeBron’s finals resume, for many people an important marker of a great player’s legacy, can either become respectable again, or it can slip away from his grasp forever. He’s currently 2-4 in the finals. In 2007, his Cavs got swept by the far-superior Spurs; in 2011, in his first year with the Heat, he played the worst basketball of his career and lost to Dirk Nowitzki’s Mavericks; in 2012 and 2013, he won, first against the Thunder, and then against his old foes the Spurs; in 2014, the Spurs got revenge, and in 2015, in his first season back with the Cavs, the Warriors cruised to a 4-2 finals victory.
Many folks give him a pass for last year’s loss, in which his heavily depleted Cavs faced off against a three-point-raining juggernaut, and they don’t count his two losses to the Spurs in the finals against him, since he played well in those series and did what he could against vastly superior teams. But if he loses again this year, his record in the finals will be 2-5, which is really poor.
If he wins, however, it’ll be 3-4, which will give him three championships, with two different teams, and close to a .500 record in the finals. Most significantly for LeBron’s legacy, it will have brought a championship to title-starved Cleveland, whose longsuffering fans are so hungry for a trophy ESPN recently profiled them in a 30 for 30 documentary piece.
I can picture it now: This summer, at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio, with tens of thousands of clamoring fans demanding their king, the player who is a successful businessman in his own right and one of the world’s most recognizable brands, takes the stage to defeat his enemy and bring glory to his people.
But even before Donald Trump brings his talents to Cleveland for this year’s Republican National Convention in July, LeBron and company will get the chance to bring the most amount of joy to the city since, well, LeBron came home in 2014 (or at least since earlier this year when the Browns released Johnny Manziel).
On the other side of the court, what will it do to Curry’s legacy if the Warriors win but he doesn’t nab MVP honors? Even though he’s the league MVP for two years running, in last year’s finals it was Andre Iguodala, not Curry, who won the finals MVP award. Against the Oklahoma City Thunder just now, arguably Klay Thompson was the series MVP.
Curry is widely considered the best player in the league, but his career trajectory is entering a different orbital plane now, where accomplishments like Michael Jordan’s six finals MVPs in six finals appearances are the sort of benchmarks he will be judged against.
Prediction: Cavs in 6.