Has there ever been an NBA Finals with such a wide variety of legacies at stake? There are places in the NBA pantheon to be had, employment implications and even financial sacrifices on the line. Here’s a look at some of the incentives within this series, with everything from key stats to historical quirks for some of the key figures in these Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors:
You know what this is about, but maybe we need to clarify what it is we’re discussing. Maybe when we say “Greatest Of All Time” we really mean “Greatest Extended Stretch Of Excellence.”
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For example, if we call Michael Jordan the GOAT, it’s not because he surpassed all the individual achievements of Wilt Chamberlain or the ring count of Bill Russell or the combination of rings and points by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. What we’re really talking about is the stretch from 1987 to 1998, when Jordan won five MVP awards, six championships and six Finals MVPs. We’re saying his best was the best. (We’re definitely not discussing his time in a Washington Wizards jersey, unless it’s to acknowledge Mariah Carey’s dress version of it.)
This championship would be LeBron’s fourth in six years and would presumably be his fourth Finals MVP in six years as well. That’s as many as Jordan won in any six calendar years. Yes, Jordan skipped a year-and-a-half to play baseball. That shouldn’t count against LeBron. If anything, he should get credit for maintaining the physical and mental stamina to sustain this level of excellence without a break.
Of course, for LeBron, this might be the continuation, not the culmination.
One other LeBron tidbit: He has either won the Most Valuable Player award or beaten that season’s MVP in the playoffs in six of the past eight years, which matches Jordan in the stretch from 1991 to ’98. LeBron’s run can’t continue this year, as neither he nor Stephen Curry nor Kevin Durant was among the three MVP finalists invited to the awards show in June. James still could be the first star to beat a team with the two previous MVPs since Micheal Ray Richardson led the New Jersey Nets past Moses Malone, Julius Erving and the Philadelphia 76ers in 1984.
The margins delineating greatness at the game’s stratosphere can be so thin. If Kyrie Irving missed his final 3-pointer in Game 7 last year and Curry made his, Curry and LeBron could be tied with two championships apiece. Instead, it would take Curry winning this year and next year to tie LeBron. If Curry wants to be the defining player of this era, he will need head-to-head supremacy against LeBron and a higher ring count.
For Curry, a run at Jordan’s résumé feels too far off. Jordan never scored fewer than 20 points in an NBA Finals game. It happened to Curry four times in last year’s Finals and once in the 2015 Finals.
Curry still needs to show he can control the game at the highest level of hoops. The one thing missing from his mantle is an NBA Finals MVP award. The most probable path to landing one: score 30 points four times. The Warriors are 22-3 in playoff games when Curry scores 30 or more.
It’s an especially difficult ask, though, against the Cavaliers, who’ll grab and hold him away from the ball, disrupting the Warriors’ flow on the weak side that makes Golden State so potent offensively. (One of those three losses came in Game 6 of last year’s Finals, when Curry’s most memorable moment was chucking his mouthpiece after he fouled out).
Curry is quietly having the best playoffs of his career, posting personal highs in scoring (28.6 points), field goal percentage (.502) and 3-point shooting (43.1 percent). He quietly had a higher regular-season scoring average this season than he did in his first MVP year. If he can unleash four more monster games, all of the “quietly” goes away.
Because the alternative would be so, so bad …
• Imagine Durant squandering the goodwill that started with his low-key rookie contract extension announcement on Twitter in 2010 and crescendoed with his emotional Most Valuable Player speech in 2014.
• Imagine him catching flak from the game’s legends for taking the easy way out and joining the team that ousted him from the 2016 playoffs.
• Imagine all the uncomfortable moments at All-Star Weekend whenever he is around former teammate Russell Westbrook.
• Imagine all of that and then no championship at the end of the day? The summer of ridicule that would follow?
Yeah, best if we didn’t do that until if and when it becomes a necessity. How about we picture Durant taking himself off the board for most accomplished players without a ring in the game today and basking in the cheers in the parade and thinking, “Yes. This makes it all worthwhile.”
And if he wins the Finals MVP to boot — Durant is ESPN Forecast’s favorite — all of the people who said he wanted to ride Curry’s coattails to a championship can go to wherever it is the people who said LeBron went to Miami to ride Dwyane Wade’s coattails wound up after James picked up his first Finals MVP. Besides, who even wears coattails these days?
This one’s about employment, which is of much greater immediate concern than legacy for Brown. If he coaches the Warriors to the championship, and if Steve Kerr’s health does not improve to the point when he can’t resume coaching full time, then Brown becomes the natural choice to take over the job.
Another outcome: Brown wins, Kerr comes back and now Brown’s a top candidate for the next batch of job openings around the league. It’s a nice career bounce for Brown, whose head-coaching days seemed finished after the Cavs fired him for the second time in 2014.
With Kerr looking doubtful to coach at the start of the series, Mike Brown vs. Tyronn Lue in Game 1 would be the first NBA Finals game with two African-American head coaches since 1975, a series that featured Al Attles for Golden State and K.C. Jones for Washington.
If Lue goes back-to-back, he would become the first coach to win championships in his first two years since John Kundla in 1949 and 1950, the first two seasons in Minneapolis/Los Angeles Lakers franchise history.
|* took over coaching duties mid-season|
Lue had already become the first rookie coach since Pat Riley in 1982 to win a title after getting the job mid-season (Kerr won the 2015 title with the Warriors as a rookie head coach but took over before the season).
Also, Lue could expand the list of active head coaches with multiple championships, joining Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra. It’s no coincidence that you won’t find an NBA head coach who has been on his current job longer than either of those two. Multiple rings do wonders for tenure.
If the Cavaliers win, then Love can say he has never lost a playoff series in which he has participated (he missed most of the 2015 playoffs because of a dislocated left shoulder). LeBron could say he has never lost a playoff series with Love by his side. That would make their poolside summit in Los Angeles in 2015 while Love contemplated his free-agency options one of the pivotal moments in recent NBA history, and a reminder that NBA summers can be as fascinating as the seasons.
If you haven’t noticed, Love has been much more than a cabana boy in these playoffs, averaging a career-best 17.2 points and 10.4 rebounds. Yes, the Cavaliers didn’t add a Durant-level player, but Cleveland is working with a better version of Love.
We don’t have many Curry vs. Irving debates, but maybe we should. When Irving finally got to play a full series against Curry last year, he outscored him in four of the seven games. Even when Curry went off for 38 points in Game 4, Irving was right behind him with 34 of his own. Point totals for the 2016 Finals: Irving 190, Curry 158. Another batch of similar results, and the “which point guard is better” discussions should get more frequent.
Fun fact: Klay Thompson has taken 100 3-pointers over the past two NBA Finals. Not-so-fun-fact: He has made only 33 of them. That makes it easy to tell he’s shooting below his career 3-point shooting rate of 42 percent in the big-money games. In these playoffs, Thompson is up to 36 percent on 3s.
For now he can still hang his hat on Game 6 of the 2016 Western Conference finals, in which he went off for 11 3s in Oklahoma City, kept the Warriors’ 73-win season alive and probably sealed Durant’s decision to join them that summer.
Thompson also scored 37 points in Game 5 of the NBA Finals last year, although that came in a loss. He scored 34 in Game 2 of the 2015 Finals, also a loss. For a guy who has put on some of the most memorable shooting performances in NBA history, Thompson has never had an NBA Finals game that has gone down as his alone. He has a chance to change the narrative this time.
West’s legacy might be the most easily quantifiable. He passed up more than $10 million for a chance to win a championship, so we know exactly how much this means to him. It didn’t happen for him in San Antonio last year, when he opted out of a $12 million contract with the Indiana Pacers and signed for the veteran’s minimum of $1.5 million. On another minimum contract with Golden State, and despite other players needing a championship to bolster their reputations, no one wants a ring more than West.
Back in, say, 2011, you could start a vigorous debate by asking who was the best young point guard in the NBA: Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Westbrook or Williams. Williams might not have been the consensus choice, but he sure destroyed CP3 in their head-to-head matchups. Then ankle injuries took Williams out of the conversation altogether.
Williams now could become the first one out of that group to win a ring. A midseason pickup for Cleveland, he isn’t just along for the ride either; he scored 14 points in the Cavs’ closeout victory over the Pacers in the first round. And if Mo Williams could score a basket in Game 7 last year, it’s not too hard to imagine Williams making a contribution to a Cleveland championship this time.
It feels as if this could be a nice late-career bonus as Williams winds down his playing days … until you realize he was born the same year as LeBron James: 1984.