Cleveland, Ohio --
The dust hasn't settled on the 2014-15 NBA season. Everything is fresh, and the Golden State Warriors are the new champions. They are a dynamic team with elite team defense and a great offense. They have the league's MVP. Draymond Green is a restricted free agent, but will in all likelihood return to the Bay Area. Klay Thompson emerged this season and was 3rd team All-NBA. They are young, and weren't pushed to seven games in a single series in the playoffs. They won 67 games.
Confident Warriors fans may find themselves thinking about return trips to the Finals. With Curry, Thompson, and Green, you have a young core that combines offense and defense. The Western Conference remains difficult. Anthony Davis is ascendant, and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook still play for the same team. Maybe the Houston Rockets finally find their third star. But the path now goes through Golden State.
In Cleveland, the offseason is uncertain, but promising. Decisions will come from the Cavaliers and Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, Iman Shumpert, and J.R. Smith. It seems likely that all would decide to return to a Cavs team that blitzed the league with full health, but you never know. Regardless, the Cavs will have LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, two players whose considerable talents elevated when sharing the court this season. There are much, much worse places to start.
Questions will remain about the defensive upside of the team, and to a certain extent they're fair. Timofey Mozgov made a big difference, but is under contract for just one season. Irving made strides, but has a long way to go. Tristan Thompson is versatile and good defensively, but could stand to improve in just about every area defensively. Most bigs do in their age-23 seasons.
But the simple fact remains that, along with the age-less San Antonio Spurs, the Warriors and Cavs were the best teams in the NBA after January 15th, and it wasn't particularly close. And both teams have the means to keep these teams intact. Round one, should the teams build on what they have, goes to the Warriors. It was the first time they made it deep with this group, and they withstood LeBron James' best shot.
This isn't to be confused with the Cavs' best shot. Irving played in just one game of the Finals. Kevin Love, an essential cog on Team USA and multi-time All-Star, didn't play a minute. The Cavs, for whom scoring had come so easily, found themselves in a spot where they could not score. James pushed himself at a level we've rarely seen, ever, in basketball. It's difficult to say the Cavs' lack of depth did them in in this series. With James, Irving, and Love, you have an overload of shot creation. It makes sense to surround them with defenders and stationary shooters.
Without Irving and Love, the Cavs were reduced to just one player capable of handling the ball consistently in the Finals, let alone of creating actual offense. It didn't work. No one has ever logged the kind of minutes before the age of 31 that James has, and there will be a lot of urgency on his part to add titles to his resume, soon. It's impossible to predict health, but it's hard to believe the same type of offensive onus will be on James next year.
In the meantime, these teams will now have history. Kyrie Irving's block on Steph Curry late in Game 1 will live on. Draymond Green flexing on James Jones after a successful post-up in Game 6 will be remembered by the Cavs. The pain of defeat will linger, for the players, for the fans. The Cavs front office will remain hungry. Golden State will have a justified confidence. LeBron James won't like that confidence.
It stands to reason that these teams will win a lot of regular season games heading into the playoffs next year. You can't guarantee that either will be the favorites, you can't guarantee health.
It's been some time since the NBA has seen a sustained East-West rivalry. It's difficult to imagine anything reaching the level of what Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had in the 80's with the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, but it isn't crazy to imagine LeBron James and Steph Curry trading MVP awards in the years to come.
Congratulations to the Golden State Warriors. Hopefully we will see you again.