Hello. What follows below the break is the climactic ending to the first Godfather film, but as an NBA basketball team.
Last night, LeBron James willed the Cleveland Cavaliers to a Finals victory over a vastly superior team in the Golden State Warriors. It was an incredible feat, and it seems less believable the more I think about it. The Cavs have some real talent, but there are also some absolute clowns on that roster, and some of those clowns played minutes late in the fourth quarter of Game 7.
This led me to compare the team to Kanye West’s GOOD Music label, which just released an absurdly fun posse cut called “Champions” that might be just perfect for this moment because of the title and the fact that GOOD Music has plenty of clowns that play in crunch time, too. I think both rap music and basketball benefit from strong personalities. The individuals drive most of the conversation, at the least. That made this string of analogies fun to write, even if they are ridiculous and admittedly completely pointless.
Finally, 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. Golden State, meanwhile, has merely greased the wheels of its finely-tuned apparatus, defying every expectation except their own.
Respect in sports is personal, as subjective a concept as can be. People respect seeming effortlessness, as in the case of Steph Curry’s cocksure 35-foot bombs under duress. Those same people may value in the same measure the distinct work ethic required to reach Curry’s dominance in the first place. Earning respect takes a variety of forms – achieving an objective preeminence helps, but so does fighting on behalf of a teammate and playing through the end of a long-dead season with as much tenacity as at the start.
Two separate, but thus far equal, entities continue to struggle with earning the respect of fans and casual observers. For the Charlotte Hornets, an identity crisis has stifled interest in a relatively small – but growing – basketball market, whose most notable notoriety this month comes on the heels of legislation rather than the home team’s magnificently disciplined run to and through the playoffs. For the Cleveland Cavaliers, another issue of identity has chased the team for two seasons. In both cases, fairness never bothers to pick up the phone.
This is a safe space. Here, you can feel free to admit that you had no idea how we got here, to a 2-1 Cavaliers lead through three games of the NBA Finals. You probably thought the Cavs couldn’t do it when Kevin Love became Kelly Olynyk’s personal Stretch Armstrong action figure. And you definitely thought the Cavs couldn’t do it when Kyrie Irving went down with a fractured kneecap in Game 1. Sure, they had LeBron, but at 30 and in his fifth straight Finals, how much damage could he possibly inflict on his own? People that now say they knew the Cavs would be up 2-1 under these circumstances are liars. It’s alright, you can admit you were wrong. We all were.
Cleveland sports fans have suffered for 51 years. It is well-documented, even on this site, and the many near-misses over the years have done nothing to alleviate the anguish. Cubs fans feel sorry for Cleveland faithful, because at least they have the Bears, Blackhawks and Bulls in the Windy City. Cleveland’s best claim to a winner lay two and a half hours southwest in Columbus, where THE Ohio State University has returned to national prominence courtesy of its football team.
Desperation in the Bay Area does not nearly reach Cleveland’s feverish pitch, thanks in part to the San Francisco 49ers, the defending World Series Champion Giants and a perennially competitive A’s team. The Golden State Warriors, however, have not won a title since Rick Barry was tossing underhanded free throws while averaging thirty points a game in 1975.
The Eastern Conference Finals are now over, and LeBron James will be attending his fifth consecutive NBA Finals. We got what we expected, which isn’t necessarily what we wanted, but it isn’t what we didn’t want either. In a season full of surprise and intrigue – aren’t they all in the age of Moreyball? – and barring a miraculous, unprecedented comeback from the Houston Rockets, it may very well be that we receive a Cavs-Warriors Finals. That would pit the league’s current MVP, Steph Curry, against the Most Valuable Player of the last decade, James. And that would be barrel-of-chimpanzees fun.
So much of the narrative of the Finals, like the NBA itself, will revolve around LeBron, and that is perfectly alright. What we must not forget, however, is that this next series will feature the Finals debut of J.R. Smith, bomb detonation expert and titan of social media. For that, we should be grateful.
I’ve avoided this for so long. I ignored it like a ne’er-do-well roommate, years behind on his rent but always at the forefront of craft IPA and porter trends that cost more than a cigarette addiction in New York City. Speaking of, the apple has truly gone rotten in Madison Square Garden, as your New York Knickerbockers have plummeted to a new low. “But the cap space!” you say. I know. I know. It’s always the cap space, until it’s not. Elsewhere, the best team in the Eastern Conference (which is sort of like being the best dissenter in a Soviet gulag, but still) is up for sale, and the Pistons bring new meaning to the phrase “addition by subtraction.”
Trading away team headcases is a time-honored NBA tradition. From Dennis Rodman’s Detroit exit in 1993 (and then from San Antonio to Chicago in 1995) to Ron Artest’s unceremonious trade out of Indiana in 2005, getting rid of serviceable but troublesome players allows both teams and players to move on from the skeletons of a marriage gone awry. In situations like these, a player’s future success (Rodman’s with the later three-peat Bulls, Artest’s with the Lakers) tends not to cast the trade in a bad light because the team had decided it simply could not function the same way anymore.
On Monday, two teams expurgated veritable Anthony Fremonts, as the Cleveland Cavaliers dealt Dion Waiters to the Oklahoma City Thunder while acquiring J.R. Smith from the New York Knicks as part of a three-team trade which also involved Iman Shumpert. Both Smith and Waiters had endured franchise-altering waves in the last few months, and now each is set to test exactly how much a change of scenery can do to help a player’s psyche, to the betterment or detriment of their new teams.
I love the game of basketball for its subtle artistry and the supreme level of skill necessary to exceed at it, not unlike being a musician, a physician or an astronaut. In no other basketball league in the world is the competition greater, obviously, than in the National Basketball Association. These people are the absolute best of the best, and the webs they weave nightly, from Kyrie Irving’s magisterial through-the-legs assists to Ray Allen’s legendarily perfect follow-through on a jump shot, can drive a fan up the wall with wonder, reducing him or her to an adolescent curiosity in which questions become essentially rhetorical. With the NBA preseason right around the corner, the time has come for everyone with a voice to chime in with predictions and perspectives. We at TwH are no different.
We (I) will break down each division, listing the teams in the order in which I believe they will finish the regular season. There will be plenty of room for dispute, as there always is, and from the start I must concede that this is an imperfect art. There are far too many variables involved in an 82-game season to know everything, but we will do the best we can with what we know now. Sometimes it may only take a gut feeling to push one team over another. Prepare for anything. And so we begin, in the Atlantic Division.