The Cavs and Warriors play on Christmas Day. These teams have been orbiting each other for the past two years, and they are worlds better than everyone else in the NBA this season. I could add more context here, but it would be pointless. Everyone knows the stakes. This is Finals rematch, and a Finals preview, and here is a picture of LeBron James in an Ultimate Warrior T-shirt last June.
Nothing more needs to be said. But while wait for 2:30 on Sunday,here are a few more thoughts.
Start with the Warriors. It really isshocking how quickly this has come together with Durant. That opening night loss to the Spurs seemed like a reminder that Golden State isn't going to just run through the season blowing out the entire league, but everything that's happened since will make you wonder.
I can't tell you how many times I see a Warriors game on the schedule, talk myself into thinking it can be competitive, only to check in a few hours later and find that it's overby halftime. After the opening night blowout, the defense is now the second-best in the entire league. Offensively, they're as dominant last year, but with twice the opportunity to rest their stars. Their net-rating is four points higher than anyone in the league, and a full point higher than anyone in 20 years.
Everything that people feared the KD Warriors might do, they're doing. There's a real chance that Sunday's Cavs game will turn into a blowout, leading to 48 hours of takes wondering whether it's healthy for the NBA to have a team that is this much better than the rest of the league. And yet...
When Kyrie Irving gets hot, the other team doesn't matter. He will hit pull-up threes, twisting fadeaways, lay-ups between three guys who are twice his size, and every other demoralizing shot on the board. He creates offense out of thin air. His confidence is also at an all-time high this year (which happens when you hit one of the biggest shots in NBA history), and he's more consistent than he's ever been.
Obviously, LeBron is still the best player on the floor. He led the Finals in minutes, points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals last June, and he's the reason the Cavs will always have a chance in these games. But if LeBron is a two-way cheat code who makes the Warriors unusually vulnerable—along with Tristan Thompson's defense, mobility, and rebounding—Kyrie is the guy who has to actually break them. He scores in bunches to help answer Golden State, he creates offense when LeBron needs rest, and he's a killer in isolation if things get tight in the fourth quarter.
He did all of that to help swing last year's Finals. Now he's in the middle of putting together the best year of his career (24.2 points, 5.3 assists on 48.1% shooting and 42.7% from three). All of which is to say: the Warriors should be favored regardless of what happened last year, but if Kyrie goes lights out in the second half, anything can happen.
And then there's the bigger picture. It's the subtext to Sunday's game, and this whole season.
I understand people who complain about the Warriors and Cavs dominating the rest of the league, a group that included Adam Silver as recently as this summer. The counterargument would be that too much parity just means that we're left without any great and memorable teams (see: the NFL), and dynasties attract exactly the sort of casual sports fan that has long proved illusive for the NBA. This is true. Even so, the ideal zone for the NBA would still give us three or four elite title contenders in any given year (put KD on the Celtics, or throw Draymond on the Rockets, and we'd be just about set). Instead we have the Warriors chasing 70 wins (again), and the Cavs looking peerless in the East, and nobody else is close.
The NBA's regular season has always been relatively meaningless in a top-heavy league, but Golden State and Cleveland take it to the extreme. Even the playoffs feel like a formality now.
It's not ideal, and I'm sure that living rooms across America will feature at least one argument about whether this is healthy for the NBA. There are good points on both sides. I'm just not sure the answer matters.
Logistically, the new CBA will make it nearly impossible to create teams this dominant in the future. The old CBA made it almost as tough, but the Cavs won two lotteries in three years, and a combination of historic draft luck and the influx of TV money gave the Warriors a window to add Durant to a 73-win team. Still, the system is designed to distribute superstars evenly around the league, and but for two once-in-a-generation flukes, it's already working. The other playoff teams in the East and West are clustered together closer than ever, and life may get complicated for the Warriors as soon as this summer. One day, if the new CBA works as intended, the NBA's elite teams may look more like the Rockets or Celtics.
That will be a new era, but I'm not sure it'll be a better era. It's fun when the best teams are historically great. So I will enjoy Warriors-Cavs while it's here.
Steph is unstoppable and brutally efficient, and Kyrie is streaky as hell, but he's capable of getting hot enough to upstage Curry. Klay Thompson is flawless off the ball, and J.R. Smith is full of flaws, but come June, he'll still be talented enough to counter Klay when it matters. The Warriors got KD, and also traded away their interior defense in the same summer that Kevin Love remembered how to dominate on offense again. Durant is currently the best offensive player on the planet, but he's never been good enough to beat LeBron. Draymond's defense can shut down everyforward in the league, except one.
LeBron will go down in history as one of the three best players ever, and instead of watching him dominate the Pacers and Jazz to close out his career, we get to watch him be tested by one of the most unfair juggernauts the NBA has ever seen. Of course, everyone knows this story already. Time to see what happens next.