Nothing is Exempt From Resurrection

Finally[1], the series we all assumed would happen for much of the season has arrived. In what many will call “a rematch,” NBA Finals begins tonight, with the defending champion (and Greatest Regular Season Team Ever™) Golden State Warriors once again welcoming the Cleveland Cavaliers to Oracle Arena. Calling it “a rematch” is technically correct insofar as the same two franchises representing the same two cities as last year return; however, what makes the Finals so apparently compelling is how much the circumstances surrounding these teams have changed since June 2015.

For all intents and purposes, the Cavs arrive in Oakland a different team entirely from the one that pushed last year’s Warriors to six games, though the chip on their shoulder carries more mass than that of the nearly 400,000 Cleveland residents combined[2]. Golden State, meanwhile, has merely greased the wheels of its finely-tuned apparatus, defying every expectation except their own.

At this point, I mean – there isn’t really much to say about either team that hasn’t already been said, often more concisely or in better terms. The Warriors are an unbelievable collection of talent with an even more unbelievable bill of health. Even when that goes awry, as with Steph Curry’s injury earlier in the playoffs, they adjust and continue. That alone says everything about Golden State: their best player, the two-time and current NBA MVP, goes down for two weeks, and the entire team just forges ahead, like a hardwood version of The Oregon Trail[3].

Here’s something that, if you’ve been paying any attention at all, you know already: LeBron James has been to six straight NBA Finals. The last time he wasn’t in the Finals was in 2010, when the Lakers defeated the Celtics[4]. H1N1 was still raging. Spain was just a debt-ridden country; now, Spain is a debt-ridden country with a World Cup. Instagram and Snapchat didn’t even exist.

Cleveland, of course, is starved for a championship, and what the Cavs have at their disposal during this series far outshines the 2015 runners-up. Healthy versions of Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving are the biggest factors, but it would be remiss to look over the contributions of Channing Frye, Richard Jefferson (!) and JR Smith, who is, at the time of this writing, shooting a better percentage from three (46.2%) than either Curry (40.7%) or Klay Thompson (44.8%).

Whether the Cavs can bring a championship to The Land hinges on a variety of factors, including how Tristan Thompson responds in pick-and-roll defense and on the offensive boards. Oklahoma City enjoyed immense success against the Warriors largely due to second-chance opportunities by going big against the Death Lineup. Andre Iguodala assuming the role of LeBron’s shadow helped him win a Finals MVP a year ago; because he appears likely to start in the place of a regressed Harrison Barnes makes him all the more important this time.

Even putting Irving and Love aside, that the Cavaliers trust Tyronn Lue makes Cleveland much more formidable than under David Blatt[5]. Lue’s learning curve has been relatively smooth, and the fact that he was an assistant for several years under Doc Rivers’ regimes in both Boston and Los Angeles likely equipped him with some of the skill required of dealing with several big-name players, perhaps the most striking stylistic difference between himself and Blatt.

So much of the outcome depends on LeBron James. At 31, he is creeping out of his prime at a Federer-esque rate while still remaining one of the two best basketball players on the planet. If “most valuable” were taken at its most literal, he would be somewhere around an eight- or nine-time defending NBA MVP. His usage rate and points per game are both down around eight percentage points apiece from last season, but that’s a good thing because it means he does not have to constantly do as much.

His admirers and detractors boast contradictions aplenty. LeBron is the living embodiment of the Lincoln quote about not being able to please everybody all the time. He could close his career by winning five titles in Cleveland, owning seven overall[6], and people would still point to the five he lost[7] as some sign of his indelible fallibility and all-around weakness as a player and, in turn, as a human being.

Like I said over 600 words ago, there isn’t much left to cover before these teams tip off tonight. Abstract ideas concerning redemption, legacy, validation and determination will dominate the narrative surrounding this series, but don’t let that cloud the fact that there awaits some of the best basketball we’re likely ever to see.

As for a prediction: that came in November.

*     *     *

[1] And, in the case of the Eastern Conference playoffs, mercifully

[2] Which, according to 2013 Census estimates, exceeds that of both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. Related: you know what the NFL needs? More population-based bar arguments.

[3] “Here lies Steven Adams; perperony and chease”

[4] Thankfully allowing for the birth of “NBA Champion Metta World Peace”

[5] That isn’t to say Blatt isn’t a good coach – you’re welcome to do that on your own, given that you’re almost certainly an NBA champion head coach yourself – but so much of what coaching is lies in how players respond, and Blatt was not fit for his time.

[6] And matching our site’s namesake, incidentally

[7] The number of things that bringing this up implies are so varied and loaded they deserve a separate post altogether.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: