The 2014-’15 NBA season is now over, having come in like a lion and gone out like the exploding sun’s inevitable consumption of the Earth. The best team from the regular season capped off its run with a championship, and the best player in the world sulked away with a 2-3 record in the NBA Finals after posting one of the greatest individual series ever. LeBron James is the seminal figure in the movement which fell him in these Finals, and Golden State’s enthusiastic adoption of flexibility proved too much for Cleveland’s limited, defense-heavy rotation.
First, an ode to LeBron, the army of one which came as close to going one-on-five, and winning, as any man ever has. Okay, that’s a simplistic reduction – Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov were excellent in the paint, Iman Shumpert tried his damnedest to play defense with one shoulder, J.R. Smith J.R.’d his way again into our hearts with a last-second flurry of shots and Matthew Dellavedova gave it his all, though his tank has been below E since Game 3.
LeBron’s one-man show on offense generated points for him and opportunities for everyone else, opportunities on which they just couldn’t capitalize. The Cavaliers weren’t originally built to play this way, of course, and the injuries to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love will always cast a certain tint on this series, but their maladies allowed LeBron to reach his apex and, perhaps, the apex of individual basketball. I thought Russell Westbrook achieved this three months ago. I was wrong. LeBron was even more Westbrook than Westbrook, and it was beautiful and heartbreaking to watch him be so helpless (save your “Pros are pros” arguments for the barroom, too. The people asking why LeBron couldn’t get it done with Matthew Dellavedova are the same ones making fun of him for not being able to stop Steph Curry, NBA MVP, for a full seven games).
Here’s a stat you’ll read several times today and in the coming days: LeBron became the first player ever to lead both teams in scoring, rebounding and assists in the NBA Finals. He posted 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game, annihilating any precedents for individual brilliance under pressure, albeit in a losing effort.
To be fair, it would’ve been perfectly reasonable to elect him Finals MVP for the same reason he garners so much MVP attention during each regular season, that he fulfills the most basic definition of “most valuable.” Indeed, he could have been the first Finals MVP to feature for a losing team since Jerry West in 1969, if not for the stupendous performance of a guy who did not start a single regular-season game for his 67-win squad.
Andre Iguodala deserves as much credit as anyone for Golden State’s incredible play in the Finals. After having not been in the starting lineup all season, Steve Kerr inserted him for Game 4 in the place of Andrew Bogut, revealing a futuristic ultra-small lineup full of shooters and playmakers.
In a way, Iguodala benefited from a movement for which LeBron James himself is a focal point, a free-flowing kind of Total Basketball which Bethlehem Shoals of FreeDarko dubbed “the Positional Revolution.” Certainly, no team embodied “making the best out of the ingredients on the roster” than the Golden State Warriors this season, and no player was allowed to find himself within Kerr’s given framework more definitively than Iguodala.
James has been the most emblematic player of this ethos in the twenty-first century, spurring teams to go after multi-faceted skill players who can shoot and bring the ball up the court even though they are built like NFL tight ends. By going small in Game 4, Golden State marinated old-school thought, left it overnight and cooked it to a delicious medium-rare, complete with a warm, red center. Iguodala’s defensive tenacity against LeBron, forcing James into tougher shots despite being left alone with him on the left block for the majority of the series, allowed the Warriors to play to their strengths, and often, Iguodala was the one initiating fast breaks and pushing the tempo.
The players at the other side of those fast breaks, of course, were undaunted and got better as the series progressed. Steph Curry didn’t receive any Finals MVP votes, but his otherworldly scoring ability drew fierce attention from Cleveland, opening space elsewhere. Draymond Green returned from the dead to deliver fantastic performances in the last three games; watching him start to make the floaters and pull-up elbow jumpers that Mozgov dared him to take from under the basket called to mind taking a visit to the Kane Kwei Carpentry Workshop.
Klay Thompson had a curiously tough series, but a few shots in Game 6 before he fouled out reminded us that the mere threat of a 37-point quarter is enough to keep defenses honest. Bogut was great when necessary, and the same could be said of David Lee. Festus Ezeli played fearlessly around the rim, no doubt having taken notes from Bogut during the season. Shawn Livingston’s length and passing ability made him an unquestioned asset, particularly in the moments when he switched onto LeBron, forcing some uncharacteristically bad passes and quick decisions. And it certainly wouldn’t be fair not to lavish praise onto both Harrison Barnes and Leandro Barbosa, each of whom combined freakish athleticism with compelling basketball acumen and scoring ability in a rush.
While I’m here, I’d like to also congratulate Ognjen Kuzmić, whom the Warriors drafted along with Barnes, Ezeli and Green in 2012 and who this season is both an NBA D-League Champion and an NBA Champion.
As Andrew Sharp noted this morning for Grantland, a hell of a lot of things have to go right for a team to win a championship. Staying healthy certainly would’ve helped the Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies as well as Cleveland, and either of the Clippers or Spurs would’ve done well not to wear the other out so soon. Alas, that is the nature of this league. The Golden State Warriors are the perfect team for this time, and no matter what happens next season or beyond, this vibrant battalion of Swiss Army knives are now championship.