NBA 2017: How Did We Get Here... Again?

LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors react to a play during the game on December 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. Credit: David Sherman / NBA / Getty Images

This NBA season has been one of the most entertaining in recent memory, even if the end result is all-too predictable. Yes, it was amazing to worship at the altar of Russell Westbrook as he dragged Enemy of the Turkish State Enes Kanter and his ragtag Oklahoma Thunder team to the playoffs, but the Thunder didn’t even survive the first round of the playoffs, torpedoed by Westbrook’s vainglorious triple-double compulsion that carried them there to begin with. And while it warms my heart to see Dion Waiters—the NBA player with the greatest gap between self-confidence and actual production—flourish and prove, once and for all, that men lie, women lie, buckets dnt, the Miami Heat didn’t even make the playoffs. Ever since Kevin Durant announced he was joining the Golden State Warriors, the season has had only one conceivable Finals match-up. After eight months of set-up, it’s here, it’s real, it’s spectacular.

The Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors are about to play in the Finals for the third straight year, marking the first trilogy in NBA history. In 2015, the Warriors announced their legitimacy as a true powerhouse, dispatching the Cavs—albeit, a depleted version with no Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love—in six games. Then, last year, Lebron James transformed into God — a vengeful, super-wrathful Old Testament God who seemed to wreak havoc for sport — and punted the Warriors into the earth’s core, as the Cavaliers became the first team to come back from a 3-1 deficit in Finals’ history.

This year, they’re both even better. Despite winning a paltry 67 games compared to their historic 73-win season last year, they’ve undeniably improved. Gone is the joyous improv that defined the past two years; this season, they demonstrated a ruthless, clinical efficiency sweeping through the Western Conference playoffs with a 12-0 record and a NSFW +16.3 point differential. Stephen Curry’s long threes are no longer an expression of defiance —a curled lip at old fogies who decry jump-shooting — they’re an expression of dominance.

In the East, the Cavs exist on an entirely different stratum than the other teams. After two seasons of awkwardly finding their identity, the Cavs are now fully realized. Kyrie Irving turns defenders into SAE brothers after a brutal round of dizzy bat; Handsome Kevin Love spaces the floor and grabs rebounds, as defenders get lost in his eyes, as blue as the ocean is deep; Tristan Thompson breaks people’s will to live. In fact, the Cavs almost seem bored by their brilliance—this ennui manifesting itself in a mid-season defensive hiatus, or mid-game water-bottle-flipping sessions, or James holding the likes of the Celtics and Raptors in open contempt. The Cavs are the best team on the right coast and they know it.

These Finals, though, carry more weight than simply proclaiming one of these two very good basketball teams to be the very best basketball team; they will shape the history of the league and the legacies of the players involved.

For Lebron, in particular, the stakes are high: if he can somehow topple the heavily favored Warriors, he is potentially the greatest basketball player of all time. For the first time in James’s career, this conversation is worth having, and not just a vapid conversation to kill time during the 19th hour of local sports talk radio after all of the bad Colin Kaepernick takes have been exhausted. With a win over the Warriors, James will have won four championships, including two over two of the most talented teams ever. James’s on-court abilities—his passing, his athleticism, his versatility—were never in doubt, but with another win over the Warriors would bolster his remarkable resume to unprecedented heights, rebuking those who impugn his Finals record and suggest that he is merely a product of weak Eastern Conference opponents. More than anything, with another title, James would capture the overall culture zeitgeist in a way he never has before.

In matters as nebulous as legacy and GOAT-iness, at a certain point, emotion and pathos trump pure statistics. Michael Jordan (and Kobe Bryant, to a lesser extent) inspired such fanatic devotion because they represented more than mere basketball--they were consummate winners, the contrapositive of [in extreme Sean Hannity voice] modern-day sissies reared on participation trophies. Lebron James, on the other hand, doesn’t embody something bigger than the sport; rather, he embodies the perfection of it. He is basketball by AI, a one-man singularity able to instantaneously process and produce the most positive outcome on any given possession. Over the course of his seven straight Finals appearances, James has transcended the parameters of team-sport-hood; it’s almost immaterial who his teammates are. (I’m fairly certain that James could at least make the playoffs with the staff of NPR.) He is an ecosystem unto himself, sustaining and enabling his teammates. Right now, the Jordan-James debate is a matter of personal preference, of deeply human struggle versus cyborgian efficiency. But with a triumph over the Warriors, James would definitively settle the debate.

For the Warriors, a second title in three years would solidify their place in NBA history (and allow Joe Lacob, their tech-dork, Gavin Belson-incarnate owner, to once again bump uglies with the Larry O’Brien trophy). Even as they’ve set a record for total wins over a three-year span in NBA history, they haven’t always exuded the most intimidating vibe--their one title in 2015 was a direct result of Cavalier injuries, thereby forcing Matthew Dellavedova, a sweaty bucktoothed goon, into serious minutes; they’re known to blow the occasional 3-1 lead; Steph is a girl’s name.

The Warriors are so polarizing because they contain multitudes: They’re either everything that’s right about the sport or the very issue that’s plaguing it. With four All-Stars, they’re the super-est of super teams, accused of single-handedly destroying the NBA’s parity, as if it’s their fault alone that the Knicks are owned by a mean fedora with a soul for the blues. Too, they’re at the vanguard of the three-point revolution, relentlessly shooting from farther and farther distances and daring the rest of the league to play keep-up. They play with unbridled audacity, laughing in the opposition's face as they systematically tear them apart. A championship wouldn’t only validate their methods, it would legitimize them as the sport’s preeminent dynasties.

Although both James and the Warriors have been the subject of much meme-based scorn (and memes have there been), they’re the two principal figures of this era in NBA history. Lebron James and the Warriors are greatness, teetering on the verge of greatest. They have the talent and attitude — now all they need is the hardware.