It has become the rivalry that we can’t stand yet can’t ignore. No one without a strong rooting interest is really thrilled about Cleveland-Golden State Part IV because it defies the false, preconceived notion that parity drives sports. Still, the NBA Finals will commence Thursday night, and many of us are too obsessed with loving, hating and debating the historical significance of both LeBron James and the Warriors to abstain from watching.
This is the “Fast and Furious” of guilty sports pleasures. Few will brag about watching these movies, but who can resist the action and star-studded cast? If the NFL succeeds by legislating that every faceless team has the chance to rise quickly, then the NBA presents a counterargument: Compelling individuals, marketed and trusted to lead the league, can maintain interest. While parity is an aspiration — and the perceived lack of it is a major concern — it is not forced through the rules, and the NBA can cite numerous periods in which it has prospered during times of dynasty or even quality-of-play lulls by being a character-driven sport.
It’s appropriate, not to mention obvious, to suggest that the league must move past having the same freakin’ Finals. Four straight would be more than enough even if every series had been highly competitive. But it’s misleading to say flatly that this Finals takeover has been bad for the game.
Parity is important to long-term interest, sure. But so are eras of greatness. So are frequent visits from Goliath. The NBA situation is complicated because there are layers of dominance. For eight straight seasons, James’s team — first in Miami, now in Cleveland — has owned the Eastern Conference. And in the West, Golden State has grown from exceptionally good to potentially an all-time great over the past four seasons. So you have the baddest player on the planet blocking every team in one conference. And then there are the Warriors, who possess a seemingly indestructible combination of talent, coaching, system and culture.
Nevertheless, the Finals’ television ratings should be solid. These playoffs have been a hit, with the league landing two Game 7s during the conference finals. The Finals matchup is the same, and the outcome of a third Warriors championship in four years seems all but certain. But if you have been invested in the journeys of these stars, it doesn’t feel the same.
James has had to verify his excellence in a way that forces you to look at him with awe — again. The Warriors were pushed to the brink by a Houston franchise obsessed with beating them, and in outlasting the Rockets, Stephen Curry and Co. proved to be more than some glamorous team that makes a bunch of pretty jump shots.
The NBA seldom thrives on mystery. The Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers have won 33 of its 71 titles. The intrigue often isn’t about who will win. It is about how much a fascinating star or team will win. For the best, it is an arduous greatness check. They get all the hype and freedom in exchange for dealing with a ridiculous burden. Want to be an all-time great? Count the rings. Bill Russell has 11. Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bob Cousy all won six titles. The five-ring club has Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan.
The NBA’s irresistible question: How great can you be? That’s why, every time James does something special, we must have a summit to discuss his legacy and whether he’s the best player ever to wear sneakers. That’s why Cleveland-Golden State Part IV matters so much. It’s about the conversation we will get to have after the formalities.
With another championship, the Warriors can add more heft to their candidacy as a transcendent giant. If James can take down the Kevin Durant Warriors the way he did the 73-win Warriors two years ago, he won’t just earn a fourth title; he will receive universal praise for carrying possibly the most pedestrian champion in NBA history and spark, yes, another round of debate about the greatest player of all time.
But the impact isn’t limited to Cleveland and Golden State. As tired as these Finals feel and as much as people gripe about the lack of parity, you started to see the emergence of a positive effect this season of teams being forced to compete with greatness. Next year, it should be especially tangible if Boston gets healthy and Houston evolves and Philadelphia matures (provided it gets past this insane Bryan Colangelo burner Twitter account story). There’s the potential for more true championship contenders than we have seen in a while. There’s the potential for those teams to be perfectly balanced between each conference, which means no need for revising the playoff format. And that’s before mentioning that James, a free agent this summer, could either keep Cleveland in the mix or change another team’s fortunes. Don’t rule out San Antonio, either, if it mends its strained relationship with Kawhi Leonard. And if that doesn’t happen, a Leonard trade could enhance the hopes of one of these contenders or add another team to the hunt.
The East has been chasing James for so long that opponents have had to improve their team-building practices. On a larger level, the entire league has had to raise its game to go after Golden State. If others had quit pursuing, then the NBA would have a huge problem. But many teams haven’t. So the effect could be reminiscent of how Tiger Woods elevated golf. And for all the bellyaching about Connecticut’s dominance of women’s college basketball, you have seen elevation in that sport, too, as teams have improved to compete with the Huskies. The past two Final Fours have been among the best in the history of women’s hoops.
In the NBA’s case, there is the possibility that this pursuit will create haves at the expense of more have-nots. It could entice more teams to consider tanking, which is a problem that Commissioner Adam Silver seems adamant about solving. But if the league goes from having two or three legitimate contenders to six and if those are some of the most balanced star-driven conglomerates we have witnessed in years, then it would represent a level of natural parity that would benefit the game.
The NBA doesn’t need to do something about the Warriors, who built a record-setting team mostly through the draft and with textbook roster management before a salary cap spike allowed them to poach Durant two years ago. It needs more teams to do what Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey has done: compete and get creative. It needs more teams to plan and draft as well as Danny Ainge has in Boston. It needs more teams to have the determination of Masai Ujiri, who, despite watching Toronto continue to run into a LeBrick wall, will keep trying to win big.
This is probably about as far as the Cavaliers and Warriors can take their kinda, sorta rivalry. They’re already by themselves on a historical ledge. But we may not be done with LeBron vs. the Warriors, if the self-proclaimed king leaves Cleveland to join his own super team. Or perhaps the Warriors will regress rapidly as their core players hit 30; there have been signs this season that it could be the case. Or perhaps the Celtics slowly have gathered Golden State’s kryptonite, and we’re about to see a team with the versatility, toughness and strategy to launch a new NBA reign. Or perhaps it’s Houston or Philadelphia or Minnesota. At least the daydreaming is justified now.
Whatever happens, it will require greatness, not a bunch of mediocre teams playing at each other’s level. For the NBA, whether it is repetitive or fresh, greatness has always been good for business.