It is the dream, the goal and the obsession of 30 teams, of hundreds of players and thousands, if not millions of children. Winning an NBA Championship is the ultimate goal of anything and everything basketball and the NBA Finals are the absolute pinnacle. Last year, we witnessed magic as the Cleveland Cavaliers overturned at 3-1 deficit to defeat the Golden State Warriors. It was King James against Steph Curry, his ‘splash brother’ Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. It was the best against the best. And it was epic.
Those two teams were the strongest in the NBA last year. This year, they have been the favourites from the very beginning. The reigning champs, Cleveland, have quietly consolidated and improved this year while the record-breaking Warriors managed to add Kevin Durant during the summer. Both sides sit atop their conferences but can they be beaten or should we already pencil them in for the NBA Finals?
The Cavs recently had a three-game losing streak. So, yeah, that’s something. If a three-game streak is considered notable though, you know the team is strong.
This Cleveland team is armed with LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and a Kevin Love who is finally excelling away from Minneapolis. They have the best players and no other team in the East can compete. Despite recent difficulties, unrest and strife. Despite LeBron calling out the front office for another playmaker. Despite everything, the Cavaliers are the best in the Conference.
Their nearest competitors are the Boston Celtics and the Toronto Raptors but neither is any real threat to usurp Cleveland’s throne. Both teams have weaknesses. The Celtics struggle with defensive rebounding, for example, and unless the Canadians pull off a brave move before the deadline (like snatching Paul Millsap from Atlanta) they should also remain inferior. Do not get me wrong. The C’s and the Raps are both really strong teams, capable of finishing atop the Conference, if not winning the Conference Finals.
For Boston, Isaiah Thomas is so hot right now that he is contributing to the melting of the ice caps. Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart and Jae Crowder gives young coach Brad Stevens a stifling defence and the addition of Al Horford gives them a centre who can do it all and do it well. For the Raptors, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are a strong, balanced backcourt and are arguably among the best in the league. They are both All-Stars and Jonas Valunciunas is a really good centre with Jared Sullinger, who is capable at starting, for depth.
And yet, Cleveland is better. The Cavs have played their conference rivals five times so far this year (Toronto three times and Boston twice). Every game, home or on the road, has gone to James and his Cavaliers.
LeBron is one of the most dominant players in the league. He is the king. James has been to every NBA Finals since 2011 and that is not a coincidence. Is he the best ever? He’s certainly in that bracket. Behind him, Kyrie can score like crazy and handle the ball like no one else and he has already scored a three to win the NBA Championship in his young career. And then there’s Kevin Love. There is no way around it. Love is a great player. He should never be a tertiary scorer but he is because of the strength of this franchise.
From the bench, the Cavs have snipers Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith and Channing Frye to space the floor and either get open or keep their defenders from closing on the superstars. Then, they have Tristan Thompson to boss the boards and swat shots and experienced heads all over the hardwood and pine that should keep them head and shoulders above the rest of the East. And that should also take them straight to the Finals, should they avoid debilitating injuries.
Tyronn Lue has got the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals once already, getting the city the ring it was so desperate for, and that is unlikely to change. The Cavs have unrivalled leadership in LeBron, the best roster in the Eastern Conference and no team in the East can realistically expect to beat the men in wine and gold over seven games. The franchise is only 2.5 games ahead of the Celtics with their 35-15 record but their strength is undeniable. Neither of their closest rivals has beaten them yet this year so Cleveland’s place in the NBA Finals should be a given.
Golden State Warriors
It’s not all been smooth sailing for the ‘superteam’ that assembled in Oakland this summer.
Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green were joined by Kevin Durant and, despite some hiccups, they look like a four-superstar team because they are one. KD has settled well and, even if he is still getting used to the team, even if the team is still getting used to him, he has performed and so have they.
We say hiccups but we’re talking about a team that is currently 43-8 on the season so, you know, they are really, really small hiccups. Stephen Curry’s shot can change a game. Klay Thompson is an elite shooter and a well-balanced two-way two-guard. Draymond Green is the most combative player in the NBA, physical and dominant despite his size. He can defend any player and do so well and his skillset is flawless, capable of passing and scoring. And Kevin Durant? Well, we all know KD is one of the ultimate scorers in the league and he offers so much else that he has to be considered one of the very best players in the NBA.
Honestly, there just does not seem to be a way to truly matchup against them in a single game, let alone a seven-game series. Their closest rivals all fall short because of course they do. The San Antonio Spurs are just four games back and they have Gregg Popovich. That’s enough to challenge the Warriors, right? Wrong. The matchups just do not work out because no team could matchup well with Golden State. Kawhi Leonard is a special defender but even he cannot stifle all four superstars in the way that he can one-on-one. Beyond the Claw, the team falls back. Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker have both lost a step because of age. LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol both excel more at the offensive end than the defensive. All in all, Spurs’ typically rigid defence would likely struggle to hold all four superstars back, with each of the them having the ability to dominate the game any and every night.
Beyond the Spurs, the Houston Rockets have surprised everyone this year. The hiring of Mike D’Antoni was quite widely criticised but his high tempo, all-offense style have thrived with James Harden possibly leading the MVP race since his move to point guard. That same style, though, leaves the Rockets open to GSW, who boast an excellent offence but also a terrific defence. I won’t even waste your time by delving into the Los Angeles Clippers. They have an elite trio but its not happened for them yet and it won’t happen now. The Warriors just have too much for them.
The Golden State Warriors are unbelievable. I mean, we all expected it, but no team in the West and maybe even the East can compete. Four superstars on one team makes a ‘superteam’ and a ‘superteam’ is called such because it is better than the rest. The Warriors are better than the rest. Their place in the NBA Finals is assured, barring a quadruple injury.
So, can the Warriors or Cavaliers be beaten? Well, no. They are the two best teams in the Conference. We will see a rematch this spring, a chance for revenge. It will be Golden State vs. Cleveland come the NBA Finals, but only one team can be the best. My money would be on the Warriors but I said the same last year and I believe Golden State blew a 3-1 lead. Did you know that? They blew a 3-1 lead. Okay, just checking.