Happy Thursday, WFNYers. The Cleveland Indians are doing some stuff, and the Cleveland Browns aren’t doing anything much which means they aren’t doing any harm. But this week it’s all about the Cleveland Cavaliers. They are in the NBA Finals, after all. The Cavaliers lost Game 3 to the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday night, going down 0-3 in the series. Given the Warriors’ superlative abilities, a 3-0 lead would seem to warn of an imminent demise for the Cavs. But while we’re waiting…
While Wednesday night’s Game 3 was plenty painful to watch, I’m not going to talk about it. Because I’m still dwelling on what transpired in Game 1. Maybe “dwelling” isn’t the right word — at least not by itself. Perhaps “agonizing,” “stewing,” “mourning,” “despairing,” “philosophizing,” “contemplating,” “lamenting,” “accepting,” “pouting,” “questioning,” “protesting,” “theorizing,” and “reconciling” (with your preposition of choice) are as equally appropriate. But mostly dwelling … and deeply deeply suffering. Because barring a miracle, the outcome of the Finals was determined in Game 1, if not before.
The Cavaliers lost Game 1 of the Finals 124-114 in overtime, despite thoroughly outplaying the Warriors. The dictionary choice “thoroughly outplaying” is appropriate here, given the talent disparity between the two teams. The Cleveland Cavaliers have LeBron James, still the best player in U.S. professional basketball I concede (which weakens my premise). Beyond LeBron James, the Cavaliers have Kevin Love — probably a top-25 player — and a lot of role players who don’t always play or have a role. They used to have a guy named Kyrie Irving, who was good. They don’t anymore.
But after James, the Golden State Warriors have in Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry two of the top five players in the league (( The order in that range depending on one’s basketball aesthetic tastes. I think my palate would rank the league’s best five players as LeBron James-Regular Season James Harden-Kevin Durant-Anthony Davis-Stephen Curry-Postseason James Harden. If Kawhi Leonard were still alive he would belong in the conversation as well. R.I.P. )) — one of whom is a seven-footer with an incontestable jump shot and the other is already assuredly the best pure shooter of all time.
In addition to the two dynamos of Durant and Curry, the Warriors have two more players in the NBA’s top 15 with Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. The fifth player in the Warriors’ lineup could be a Big Montana from Arby’s and the team would still score 110 points per game. But they also have a superfluous crop of reliable veterans, former All-Stars, pseudo-rookies, and killer athletes, ranging from Andre Iguodala (former NBA Finals MVP and All-Star who missed the first two games of the series), ex-Cavalier Shaun Livingston (former fourth overall pick who turns into a throat-cutting assassin against the Cavaliers), JaVale McGee (hyper-athletic seven-footer/lunatic who shot 11-of-13 in Games 2-3), David West (former All-Star), Nick Young (gunner who averaged over 17.0 points per game only a few years ago), Jordan Bell, Kevon Looney, Patrick McCaw (all young but talented, especially Bell), and Zaza Pachulia (still on the roster only because he ended Kawhi Leonard’s career last season). Not exactly The Avengers or even the Suicide Squad from Iguodala down — but the point being they are collectively a hell of a lot better than a Big Montana (if less delicious), and a hell of a lot more than the Warriors need.
To review: The Warriors won 73 games in 2016, then added the second-best player in the NBA. The Cavaliers lost the Finals 4-1 last season, then subtracted a top-15 player. It takes some imaginary numbers (and players) to make that math balance in the Cavaliers’ favor.
So for the Cavaliers to have been leading in the fourth quarter of a road game in the NBA Finals, the Cavaliers had to have been collectively outplaying the Warriors absent an abrupt retirement from half their roster.
But then something weird happened. With the Cavaliers up one point with 6:43 remaining in the fourth quarter, official Ken Maurer whistled LeBron James for a foul on what was clearly a clean strip of Kevin Durant. Durant made one free throw and missed the second, but Kevon Looney tipped the ball in. On the next possession, none of the officials called Kevon Looney for a foul on LeBron James for what was clearly not a clean strip as James gathered to shoot. A four-to-five point swing in a game separated by zero points in regulation. Both were baldly the wrong call.
Moments later, with only 0:36 seconds remaining and the Cavaliers up two, officials called Kevin Durant for a charge on LeBron James. They reviewed the call under the pretense of checking whether James was in the restricted area when he was plainly 18-to-24 inches outside the charge circle. Ken Mauer and his crew overturned the charge, changing it to a block against James, something I do not recall witnessing in thousands of hours of watching basketball over the last several years since the NBA instituted instant replay. Durant shot two free throws. Another swing of great consequence.
The Cavaliers were unable to secure a victory in regulation in no small part due to three high-leverage, inopportune calls, one of which was a total departure from protocol,1 and lost Game 1 in overtime. It was another lucky break in a series of lucky breaks for a team that doesn’t need them and gets them anyway.
The franchise name “Golden State Warriors” is a combination of the former Philadelphia Warriors’ nickname (which relocated west in the 1960s) and the state of California’s nickname, The Golden State. Legend tells of James Marshall discovering gold flakes in the Rio de Los Americanos 160 miles northeast of where the Warriors’ arena is now located. At the time in 1848, Marshall was overseeing construction of a mill for Swiss exile John Sutter. “During a routine check of the construction, Marshall saw sparkles in the ground below the trickling water.” After some investigation, it turned out the “riverbeds around both the American River and the Sacramento River contained one of the largest gold deposits discovered in human history.”2
Hundreds of thousands of people from the American East, Midwest, and rest of the world flocked to California in the ensuing year (hence the term “49ers”) to “pick out gold out of crevices of rock with their butcher knives in pieces from one to six ounces.”3 People in various industries — from banking to blue jeans — and the young nation itself became immensely rich from the bounty of California and the influx of gold into its economy. California became the 31st state in the United States of America in 1850 while much of the West from Kansas to the Pacific Ocean remained unsettled. “Just like that, after centuries of colonial empires scoring the earth in search of gold, America stumbled into the greatest discovery of gold up to that point while building a sawmill.”
California received its nickname “The Golden State” because of the treasure trove of gold retrieved from its rivers and mountains. The nickname doubles as a chromatic designation of its beauty — as the setting sun’s rays from the Pacific horizon are apt to light up the hilly temperate Californian coastal landscape with a spectacular, golden-orange glow. But it’s named the Golden State because prospectors found gold there and people in the mid-1800s were unoriginal and not terribly clever. Lest you be unconvinced, the state motto is the veritably tacky “Eureka!”
One hundred and seventy years later, a modern equivalent to the Gold Rush is still going on in California’s Bay Area. Entrepreneurs and venture capitalists are making extraordinary sums of money (since decoupled from its gold backing) from investments in and around technology enterprises in San Francisco, Silicon Valley, and their adjacent Oakland. Companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple are some of the most successful companies in the world, most of their wealth coming in the last 20 years. Other companies like Instagram (now owned by Facebook), Uber, Twitter, and Snapchat are all valued at incomprehensible sums despite not proving they have viable business models. Startup companies in the Bay Area draw absurd valuations every week for doing no more than residing in a dysfunctional market and living by people willing to give them too much money.
One of the megacompanies to emerge from the Bay Area/Silicon Valley (albeit a generation ago) is Oracle, for which the Warriors’ current arena is named. Joe Lacob, the Warriors’ majority owner, is also a beneficiary of California’s modern Gold Rush, having made his fortune as a partner at a venture capital firm on Sand Hill Road in Silicon Valley. Wealthy technocrats line the courtside seats at Warriors’ playoff games.
In March 2016, Warriors owner Joe Lacob was the subject of a New York Times Magazine profile in which he brazenly touted his organization’s innate brilliance. “We’re light-years ahead of probably every other team in structure, in planning, in how we’re going to go about things,” said Lacob. “We’re going to be a handful for the rest of the NBA to deal with for a long time.” It’s not intuitive or instinctive to put two of the best five players on one basketball team, it’s — we’re led to believe by Lacob — innovative and inventive!
In the profile, Lacob’s rarely quoted as crediting the players at all, bestowing upon himself the mantle of polymathic genius to which pro basketball was but an inevitable and pliant victim. As “Lacob sees it, Curry’s dominance on the court, though essential, is inextricable from everything else he’s done with the franchise over the last few years, from knocking down the office walls to the Ellis trade.” It was only a matter of time before Lacob and his massive advanced throbbing computer brain conquered basketball. “The great, great venture capitalists who built company after company, that’s not an accident,” said Lacob. “And none of this is an accident, either.” The Warriors blew a 3-1 lead to the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals that season, which may or may not have been part of Lacob’s master plan. Who can say?
The Warriors made some fantastic managerial and personnel decisions to be sure — picking Stephen Curry seventh in the 2009 NBA Draft, finding Draymond Green in the second round, and hiring Steve Kerr. But Lacob is also completely oblivious to his own luck — Stephen Curry radically exceeding any rational person’s expectations and turning into the best shooter in NBA history, the team’s contract and injury luck with Curry — who missed over two-thirds of the 2011-12 season with an ankle injury and hasn’t been without nagging leg injuries since — the aborted trade of Klay Thompson for Kevin Love before the Cavaliers acquired Love, and the injuries to both Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving (the Cavaliers second- and third-best players) before Game 2 of the NBA Finals in 2015. Lacob and the Warriors also hired Mark Jackson to coach their team once.
Since the 2016 Finals, the 73-win Warriors lured top-five player Kevin Durant to join them weeks after his team lost a 3-1 series lead to the Warriors and knocked on the door of a Finals matchup with the Cavaliers, knocked out top-three MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard for 13 months and counting in Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference Finals after Zaza Pachulia put his foot under Leonard’s landing spot on a jump shot, had Chris Paul suffered a series-ending injury in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals when the Warriors trailed 2-3 in the series, and a bunch of other breaks I’m surely forgetting that culminated in Game 1 against the Cavaliers — when the severely outgunned Cavaliers couldn’t get the officials to just do a better-than-awful job.
That’s the main reason Game 1 was so frustrating, infuriating, and demoralizing. For the past several years, the Warriors have been the team that needs nothing and gets everything. Joe Lacob has the arrogance and conceit to discover gold strolling by a river and exalt his own genius for having gone for a walk. Game 1 was so traumatic to Cavaliers fans and sympathetic NBA viewers because it was so unnecessary — the Golden State Warriors, by their own boasting and admission, don’t need anyone’s help, least of all from some bureaucratic officials. They’re light-years ahead! “And none of this is an accident, either.”
After Game 1, I felt like I did when the Cleveland Browns lost to the Baltimore Ravens last season in part due to a ludicrous excessive celebration call when one its receivers harmlessly flipped a ball. The ultra-wealthy lobbying for a tax break while gutting funding for public schools. A tuxedoed man in a monocle urinating on a homeless person’s tent. Punishing an eventual 0-16 team? A soon-to-be-swept team (hopefully not)? For what? Why?
The Cavaliers don’t need anyone’s help to lose this series. The Cavaliers are not good. The Cavaliers are playing a superior team. The transparently bad officiating down the stretch in Game 1 wasn’t merely wrong. It was totally gratuitous. It was just mean.
Which brings us to the Cavaliers. The franchise that only has LeBron James on its roster because they were blessed to have one of God’s greatest basketball creations born down the street, and was so pitiful on the eve of his arrival that the NBA would have had to have given them the top pick even if they hadn’t won the lottery. The franchise that squandered seven years of LeBron James’ career with inadequate supporting casts and bad coaches. The franchise that hired Mike Brown — twice! The franchise that was the beneficiary of its own stupidity while James was in Miami, winning the lottery a staggering three times to enable them to assemble the roster that won the 2016 Finals almost on accident. The franchise that drafted Anthony Bennett. The franchise with an egomaniac of an owner who, if not guilty of Justice Department’s alleged transgressions, is certainly guilty of alienating the people closest to him and fostering a dubious work environment. The franchise that is probably still title-less if Draymond Green could control his impulse to hit people in the groin. The franchise whose owner didn’t renew the contract of David Griffin, the only general manager to assemble a championship roster in the city in over half a century. The franchise that traded its second best player ever for spare parts. The franchise that coldly traded away beloved players and locker room teammates like Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye. The franchise whose coach didn’t use a timeout with four seconds remaining in Game 1 with the ball and the game tied, and who kept switching Kevin Love off Andre Iguodala to guard Kevin Durant in Game 3 as Durant coasted to 40+ points. The franchise that is only relevant because the best athlete of a generation was willing to bury his animus for the owner and the way its fans treated him at the chance of finishing an errand foisted on him by circumstance and cruel fate. The franchise that — even though James is officiated differently than anyone else in the league because of his sheer physical strength — made it to the NBA Finals with what is an objectively bad team besides James. How lucky is that?
The Cleveland Cavaliers as an entity don’t deserve anything more than the Golden State Warriors, even if the fans shouldn’t have to suffer the same fate.
While fans seldom get what they deserve, Cleveland Cavaliers fans — myself included — have a chance to deserve another championship as much as deserve has anything to do with it. Just as Cleveland fans did in 2016 when the city celebrated with less jackassery than other fanbases have demonstrated in their moment of triumph. I was listening to the Longform Podcast immediately after Game 3 ended, and guest James Fallows imparted some good advice passed down from his father. “You can’t control everything in your life, but you can decide on the degree of happiness of your response. Things are going to happen to you, and some of the response is within your control.”
That’s what Cleveland fans can do. On the eve of what may or may not be the end of their Empire in the East (hopefully not), we can be embittered by circumstance or injustice, and feed into the rage machine. Or we can critique what is wrong while also appreciating how incredibly fortunate we have been over the last several years. We can be more like Draymond Green … or more like Cedi Osman. It’s a choice.
The reason people have turned on the Warriors despite the beautiful brand of basketball they play is that they’re the team with an embarrassment of riches without the decency to be embarrassed. After 11 seasons of one of the greatest athlete’s the world has ever seen, a title, euphoria, something resembling transcendence, and hundreds of amazing memories with friends and family, we as Cavs fans should be embarrassed but overjoyed by how fortunate we’ve been. It’s good to be rich.