The Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers tip-off the NBA Finals on Thursday night in a series that, like all NBA Finals, will have an impact on the legacies of those competing in the best-of-seven series. Even if the players don’t care about proving anything more than being the better team over the next few weeks, the history of basketball is an important topic to some, and this series is very important to the history of basketball.
For the Cavaliers, this series is mostly about LeBron James. James is trying to cement his status among the all-time greats with a third championship in six Finals appearances. He’s also looking to fulfill the narrative of the prodigal son for the city he was supposed to save before leaving for Miami via “The Decision.” Putting a gold tab on the back of a Cavs jersey would be the biggest sports moment in the history of a city that hasn’t won a title since the Browns won the NFL championship (not even a Super Bowl) in 1964.
I’m not going to swallow James’s “I’m coming home” narrative without pointing out that Cleveland was a better long-term situation than Miami, and they were also the only team James could have gone to without suffering even more public backlash. Maybe he wanted to make amends with Cleveland, and maybe he didn’t think he could win a title with an aging Miami team that got thoroughly shellacked by the Spurs.
None of that matters though, as James will be playing in his fifth straight Finals, a feat no player has managed since Bill Russell’s Celtics. Any time you share a category with that man, you’ve done something right. The only difference is that Russell won 11 of his 12 Finals, while James has only won two of five so far. If that record goes to two of six, it could be hard for James to claim he belongs on the Basketball Mount Rushmore, although winning rings is a team thing.
The Warriors are trying to prove that they belong in the conversation as an all-time great team. In the regular season, the Wariors tied with five other teams for the sixth-best record in NBA history, joining such vaunted squads as the 91-92 Bulls, 99-00 Lakers and 85-86 Celtics. The only team in the group that didn’t win the Finals were the Mavericks, who lost in the first round, comically enough, to the Warriors in 2007. The Warriors have already passed the Mavericks, and now they need to prove they belong in the same conversation as those other teams.
It’s natural to think the Warriors aren’t on the same level as Jordan’s Bulls, Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers, or Bird’s Celtics. It’s not fair to compare the Warriors to those teams, because they had some of the all-time greatest players in the history of the league on their roster. Unless of course you think Stephen Curry could be an all-time great player.
I don’t know if people are ready to admit how good Curry truly is. He’s the driving force of one of the most explosive offenses we’ve ever seen. His shooting is approaching unbelievable levels, making step-back threes off-the-dribble with a defender in his face as frequently as many players make them wide open in the corner. Of all the players in the league, Curry is the only one I think could be better than LeBron (healthy KD is up there as well). This series is Curry’s chance to start the conversation about him being an all-time great. If he outplays LeBron and wins the title, we may have another legend on our hands.