Fed up with fans and observers grumbling about a top-heavy postseason full of lopsided victories, Stephen Curry told reporters last week that the moaning over Golden State and Cleveland was becoming “almost disrespectful.” The NBA’s two Superteams, after all, had to “work our butts off” to become the first pair of teams in NBA history to meet in the Finals for three consecutive straight years. “You can’t just sleepwalk through a season,” Curry said. “You got to come out every night and prove yourself.”
The two-time MVP has a point: Greatness should never be taken for granted. But there’s a better way to frame this than simply praising the embarrassingly talented Warriors and Cavaliers for maintaining good health and sufficient focus to steamroll through an overmatched field of competitors. Just consider how many different major plot lines, decisions, and developments needed to come together to deliver this Finals three-match, a fascinating showdown that will feature seven 2017 All-Stars, four 2017 All-NBA selections, seven of the last eight MVP winners, and arguably the top three basketball players in the world.
All seven All-Stars boast a compelling arrival story. LeBron James had to leave South Beach to return to a lottery team, welcoming the biggest burden of his career and walking back across thoroughly burned bridges. Kyrie Irving was selected with a No. 1 pick received in a trade with the Clippers that was foolishly left unprotected. Kevin Love is here thanks to a blockbuster trade made possible by two atrocious seasons that led to back-to-back No. 1 picks.
Curry will guide the Warriors because the Timberwolves passed on him twice, because ownership chose him over Monta Ellis, and because he shook off ankle injuries to become the greatest three-point shooter of all time at the precise moment that three-pointers reached their peak value. Klay Thompson is here because the Kings are the Kings, because he was tailor-made to run shotgun to Curry, and because Warriors management resisted trading him for Love. Draymond Green is here because Golden State made one of the greatest second-round picks in league history and because his strengths (defensive versatility, stretch play-making) have never been more important and his lack of height has never been less important.
Finally, Kevin Durant joins the party in the most extraordinary circumstances of all. He bucked conventional wisdom by leaving the only franchise he had known and a community that he had embraced. His move was made possible only by Oklahoma City’s impossibly dramatic loss to Golden State in the 2016 West finals and Golden State’s impossibly dramatic loss to Cleveland in the 2016 Finals. His signing was legal thanks to an unexpectedly large jump in the salary cap, Curry’s favorable contract, and a complicated series of roster subtractions.
Seriously, stop and think for a moment about this group of seven players—many of them generational talents with never-before-seen skillsets—and how exactly it came to pass that they will all share the court together this week. This Finals was built on top lottery picks, blockbuster trades, agonizing free-agency decisions, draft steals, years of losing, excellent luck, excellent timing, excellent decisions, and the league’s rising financial fortunes all converging. Now, stop and marvel at the fact that all seven stars—from the 25-year-old Irving up to the 32-year-old James—are in their respective primes.
Given that these parallel tracks of impossible-to-plan events played out over the better part of a decade, taking this showdown for granted would be more than just “disrespectful.” It would be dumb and delusional.
As such, all complaints about the NBA’s lack of competitive balance shall officially be suspended for the next three weeks. Let’s worry about the futures of the Spurs, Celtics and, everyone else, down the line. The time to savor Warriors vs. Cavaliers III—in all its unfair, preposterous and star-studded glory—has arrived.
What to Watch: Three storylines
• Golden State’s Redemption: The primary lens for viewing the 2017 Finals is through 2016 Finals, and there’s no way around it. Cleveland’s unprecedented, drought-ending comeback from a 3-1 deficit left a 73-win team flabbergasted and sent Golden State on a redemption quest as soon as James broke into tears at Oracle Arena after Game 7. That series raised questions about Green’s decision-making and self-control, Curry’s health, Andre Iguodala’s health, Harrison Barnes’s utility and the Warriors’ frontcourt rotation. It also set the stage perfectly for Durant’s July 4 decision.
Golden State is back to atone for its collapse with a healthy Curry, a wiser Green, a pair of new centers, and Kevin Durant instead of Harrison Barnes. Despite not being the defending champions, this group is unquestionably the favorite. The Warriors posted the best point differential since the 1996 Bulls, the best offensive rating since the 1987 Lakers, and the most assists per game since the 1985 Lakers… all without really exerting themselves. They went 15-1 to close the regular season, largely without Durant, and smoked through the West with a perfect 12-0 record in the postseason. Their +16.3 playoff point differential is currently on track to be the best mark in league history. In short, this is a phenomenally talented group that sure looks like it is on a mission.
The best part? The Warriors should get the challenge they deserve. James has looked as unstoppable as ever, drawing comparisons to Michael Jordan and guiding Cleveland to a 12-1 postseason record en route to the Finals. James’ current numbers—32.5 ppg, 8 rpg and 7 apg—have only been matched by one player who has advanced to the second round: James himself in 2009. Meanwhile, he is leading the most efficient offense of his career thanks to a deep cast of shooters. It also helps that Love is playing his most effective basketball since arriving in Cleveland and that Irving is fresh off a sparkling 42-point showing in Game 5 of the East finals and… oh yeah… game-winners against Golden State in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals and on Christmas Day.
While the “3-1 lead” jokes may continue throughout eternity, there will be no diminishing Golden State’s revenge should it occur. And if James somehow shocks the world again? Well, brace for a summer of “Mike vs. LeBron” debates.
• Cleveland’s Bench: The Cavaliers have been lights out during the playoffs, racking up an obscene 120.7 offensive rating against Indiana, Toronto and Boston. All three of those opponents struggled to accomplish the basics: They couldn’t consistently keep James out of the paint and therefore were susceptible to being diced up by the Cavaliers’ endless supply of catch-and-shoot targets. Golden State, which owned the No. 2 defense during the regular season and the No. 1 defense during the playoffs, is much better equipped to make James work. The Warriors can protect the paint in both their big and small configurations, and they have multiple wing defenders to rotate against James. There’s no question that James will find a way to get his, but he’ll need his helpful role players to continue helping.
That’s where the questions begin. During the 2016 Finals, Cleveland dumped Channing Frye from its rotation as the 6’11” stretch big struggles finding a good defensive match-up against versatile opponents. Kyle Korver, Cleveland’s top midseason pick-up, may have his hands full keeping up with Golden State’s pace at age 36. Ditto for the 32-year-old Deron Williams. Finally, there’s guard Iman Shumpert, who has been able to focus on his defensive responsibilities and mostly hide out on offense during the playoffs. Golden State’s defense is sound enough that there really isn’t room for anyone to hide or be shy.
Upsetting the Warriors, whose bench is led by a Sixth Man of the Year candidate in Iguodala, will require more than just the Cavaliers’ excellent starting five. Which of Cleveland’s bench players will shine despite the unfavorable match-ups?
• Big or small: The use of traditional centers was a major storyline in both the 2015 and 2016 Finals. In 2015, Golden State downshifted away from Andrew Bogut and capitalized on Timofey Mozgov’s inability to cover ground against smaller lineups. In 2016, Bogut struggled and then was lost to injury. That eventually prompted Warriors coach Steve Kerr to play back-up centers Festus Ezeli and Anderson Varejao in Game 7 as counters for James’s physicality and Cleveland’s offensive rebounding, to disastrous effect.
This year, Golden State’s interior depth could prove to be an advantage. Pachulia, cleared to play after missing a portion of the West finals with a heel injury, gives the Warriors the ability to start big. McGee offers a lob target with length that could prove to be a difficult match-up for Cleveland’s smaller looks. And Green looms as a steady back-line leader for Golden State’s small-ball looks. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers’ looks involve using Tristan Thompson, a 6’9” energy and rebounding specialist, or Frye at center. They can also shift Love or James into the role to add more shooting in smaller looks.
While it could take some time to play out, it’s certainly possible that both teams elect to play large portions of this series with lineups comprised of five shooters. For Golden State, this is the “Death” look that has proven so successful since Green’s emergence two years ago. For Cleveland, this might prove to be the best way to keep up with the Warriors’ fireworks. While Cleveland’s six most-used lineups of the playoffs so far have included either Thompson or Frye, five-man groups with James or Love at center have posted very strong point differentials in limited time. Frye’s minimal role at the end of the 2016 Finals and his poor showing in a January loss to Golden State combined with Golden State’s offensive pace and ball movement could force Cleveland’s hand.
Most Intriguing Match-up: LeBron vs. KD
Please, please, please don’t overthink this. Curry versus Irving is electric. Love versus Green is crucial. Thompson’s offensive rebounding versus Golden State’s bigs can be a game-changer. And, yes, Durant will be only one of numerous Warriors players to defend James. “It’s going to be team versus team,” Durant argued earlier this year. “We’re not playing 1-on-1 out there, as much as people want us to.”
While that’s a nice thought, it’s not how history will remember this one. In 2012, James was MVP and Durant was runner-up. Same thing in 2013. In 2014, shortly after Durant said he was “sick of being second,” he claimed MVP and James was runner-up. Later that year, Durant became the second-youngest player to reach 15,000 points. James, of course, was first.
In SI.com’s Top 100 NBA players of 2014, James was first and Durant was second. Same thing in 2015. Same thing in 2016. Same thing in 2017. Go back to their draft classes: James was No. 1 in 2003 and Durant was No. 2 in 2007.
James’s Heat beat Durant’s Thunder in the 2012 NBA Finals. James went back to the Finals the next four years and Durant missed out the next four years. This is James’s eighth Finals and this is Durant’s second. James has enjoyed near-perfect health while Durant has endured three foot surgeries during the 2014-15 season and a scary knee injury that nearly ended his 2016-17 season. On the all-time pecking order, James is now looking down at Larry Bird and every other small forward. Durant still has some rungs to climb.
In head-to-head match-ups, James is 18-5 overall—14-4 in the regular season and 4-1 in the playoffs. When Golden State beat Cleveland in January, it was the first time Durant had beaten James since Jan. 29, 2014, snapping a five-game losing streak. And no matter how Durant explains his free-agency departure from Oklahoma City, this much is indisputable: he joined the team that gave him the best chance to finally beat James. Period.
Durant is still only 28, he has years to go before he starts declining and he’s won every individual award there is to win. But he’s been at this a long time, he’s been stuck in James’s shadow for most of that time, and he hasn’t won a title. This is, easily, his best chance yet to change those facts. He doesn’t need to singlehandedly outplay James and he doesn’t need to win Finals MVP or even be the best player on his team in the series. But Durant’s Warriors do need to defeat James’s Cavaliers, or else he’s going to face a summer’s worth of chortling about his heavily-debated free-agency move backfired and another year of unflattering comparisons to his rival.
Biggest X-factor: Klay Thompson, Warriors
Cleveland’s defense will certainly face heavy scrutiny in the run-up to Game 1 and beyond. That’s only natural given that it’s easily the weakest unit in this match-up: During the regular season, Golden State’s offense ranked first, Golden State’s defense ranked second, Cleveland’s offense ranked third and Cleveland’s defense ranked 22nd. After the All-Star break, when their attention waned, the Cavaliers’ defense dropped all the way to 29th.
During the playoffs, Cleveland has pulled itself together, ranking third in defense and posting a monster +16.1 net rating. However, that ranking was aided by injuries to Toronto’s Kyle Lowry and Boston’s Isaiah Thomas. Cleveland’s defense will surely have its hands full adjusting from its past playoff competition to Golden State’s offense.
One good way for the Cavaliers to manage that adjustment? Have Klay Thompson remain mired in a slump. Entering the Finals, Thompson is averaging 14.4 PPG and shooting 36.4% on threes, both well below his career postseason marks. He’s still yet to hit five threes in any of Golden State’s 12 postseason games; last year, he hit 5+ threes in 10 of the Warriors’ 24 postseason games. It’s also worth noting that Thompson was hit or miss in last year’s Finals: He went off for 37 points in Game 4, but he was 1-of-5 from deep in Game 1, 1-of-7 from deep in Game 3, and a combined 5-of-20 from deep in Games 6 and 7.
To be fair to Thompson, Golden State doesn’t need his offense nearly as much this year thanks to Durant, who has played well in the playoffs since shaking off a calf injury against Portland. But this calculus remains: Cleveland’s ability to pull off the upset relies heavily on winning shootouts, and accomplishing that feat becomes much easier if Thompson is sputtering. On the flip side, Thompson could easily prove to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back if he is able to get loose.
Series Prediction: Warriors in 5
LeBron James’s upset bid requires a number of factors to break his way: Irving and Love must both be sensational, a bench unit with many question marks must deliver consistently, and a much-maligned defense must flip the switch to an even higher level. Is it reasonable to expect so many things to fall perfectly into place for a second straight Finals?
The 2017 Warriors are better, wiser and healthier than the 2016 Warriors. Kevin Durant’s arrival helps offset James’s brilliance, it takes Golden State’s offense to another level, and it decreases the Warriors’ reliance on questionable role players. Draymond Green’s strong postseason run, which has taken place largely without distractions and incidents, sets him up nicely to make amends for his Finals-altering suspension. And Stephen Curry’s quality of play should not be overlooked: He’s averaging a postseason career-high 28.6 PPG and shooting a postseason career-best 43.1% on threes while moving much better than he did in 2016 after missing six postseason games due to injury.
The Warriors lack the best player in this series, but they possess more overall talent, better two-way balance, more useful depth, greater lineup versatility, and more individual match-ups to exploit. That, plus home-court advantage and a renewed focus following last year’s catastrophe, should be enough to complete the redemption mission.