A three-year battle between two bitter rivals, each with one victory; this NBA Finals needs little help in establishing the stakes involved. It’s going to be hard enough to understand what to take away from each individual game after last year’s historic 3-1 comeback, let alone how to interpret the series as a whole. And yet, when you step back and look at the big picture, this series will define how we speak of these teams for the next 50 years. I explored what the Cavaliers title meant last year, and depending on who wins this year, the reverberations could be even greater.
If the Cavs Win
It would cement the Cavaliers as one of the best teams of all time. While many teams have won two titles, few have done it against such incredible competition. And with the Warriors forced to make some difficult decisions this summer (likely retaining Kevin Durant and Andre Igoudala but having to make hard decisions on Shaun Livingston, Zaza Pachulia, Ian Clark, JaVale McGee, and Ian Clark), the Cavaliers could be set-up to be title favorites for as long as LeBron James remains the best player on the planet. With the recent play of Kyrie Irving, perhaps even afterwards.
There is a narrative that the Cavaliers are an old team, but the main core is quite young. Kyrie Irving (24), Tristan Thompson (25), Iman Shumpert (26), Kevin Love (28) are all either in their prime or approaching it (and an improved Kyrie and Tristan is a scary thought for opponents.) LeBron is 32 and J.R. Smith 31, but that is hardly an age that will see a steep decline. The older vets like Richard Jefferson (36), Kyle Korver (35), Channing Frye (33), and Deron Williams (32) are important pieces, but not irreplaceable. This Cavaliers team should continue at a high level for years to come.
A Cavs win would also put LeBron James in the conversation against Michael Jordan, perhaps even passing him. LeBron doesn’t (yet) have the six rings, but four would be close, and eight Finals appearances is two more than Jordan. James would also have beaten much better competition, with the Warriors of the last two years and the Spurs during his Heat era all equal or better than anyone Jordan faced.
For the Warriors, their claim as one of the best teams ever would likely come to an end. For all of the regular season wins, for all of the talent on that roster, titles still dictate history. With one title in three years, it would be difficult for them to lay claim as a top team historically. As mentioned above, they have hard decisions to make this summer, and another loss would not help their ability to acquire talent that is looking for rings. It’s unlikely, but with Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry both looking to sign massive deals this summer, their ability to keep Draymond Green and Klay Thompson down the road could also be in jeopardy, as it would be difficult to spend so far into the luxury tax on a team that wasn’t producing titles.
If the Warriors Win
They get to put themselves among the best teams to ever play the game. Their dominance is real, their talent is unmatched. A win this season would not only validate their stake as one of the best ever, but likely redeem their loss in last year’s Finals to many people. It would also likely help them retain talent at a below-market level and acquire additional talent for pennies on the dollar.
From the Cavaliers perspective, perhaps it means nothing. This is the best the Warriors will ever be. The salary cap and looming contracts weigh heavily on the Warriors’ ability to add to this incredible core. Andre Igoudala’s free agency is likely to use up valuable resources and also lock them into a player that is staring down either the decline in talent, or ability to stay healthy. Without Igoudala, can the Warriors replicate their Mega Death lineup with him and their four stars? Can they replace Zaza Pachulia in their starting unit? There is a decent chance if the Cavaliers lose this year, they are returning the same team in next year’s Finals against a weaker opponent.
Then again, perhaps not. Health is a scary thing in professional sports, and the odds of making it into another postseason healthy aren’t great. LeBron James has logged a lot of minutes without a major injury, and if time and luck catches up to him, what does that mean for the Cavaliers’ hopes at future Finals appearances? Does Boston finally cash in and acquire the likes of Gordon Hayward and Paul George? Or does a Milwaukee Bucks team rife with match-up nightmares take a leap next year? Dominance is fleeting. It’s easy to predict a Warriors and Cavaliers showdown for the next three or four years, but what are the odds it actually happens?
Even if you take the luck and injury factor out of it, what happens if the Cavaliers lose this series? Does David Griffin return? If Kevin Love is unplayable, do trade rumors pop back up? There’s a non-zero chance that a Cavaliers loss, especially a quick and ugly one, would change the look of the franchise forever. And with that, the pains of assimilating new talent. LeBron has teased the idea of joining his “banana boat” buddies, with Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, and Carmelo Anthony all facing uncertain futures with their teams. If Cleveland flops, if the roster is overturned, does LeBron look to join his friends elsewhere in the coming years? Is the scenario much better if they decide to join forces here?
This Finals match-up is going to be incredible. Sports exist for these moments and these match-ups. There is no reason to get caught up in the what-ifs that change drastically based on who hoists the trophy. But in the same way this match-up loomed over the entire NBA season, the questions of what happens next loom over the results.