We find ourselves on the cusp of the NBA Finals, ready to watch the same two franchises duke it out for the same Larry O'Brien trophy on the same floor they did 364 days ago: Oracle Arena, where the same team (Golden State) has won 96 of their past 103 contests, and the same MVP, star teammates, head coach, and role players lurk, eager to renew their quest for the same result as last season.
But it's a rematch in name alone; the differences outweigh the similarities. These Cavaliers are different than the ones who strode into the Bay last June, relying heavily on a banged up Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert, giving James Jones heavy minutes off the bench, and keeping things slow and muddled in order to give themselves a chance to steal games at the end.
LeBron is still the best basketball player in the world, but he's playing loose and free, trusting his teammates (who are healthy) and enjoying the ride, loosening his grip and gently guiding the wheel rather than white-knuckling as he slows the offense to a halt. Kyrie and Shump are healthy this time around, as is Kevin Love, who's already dealt with the ups and downs of his first playoff run, rebounding beautifully from a slump by shooting the lights out in Games 5 and 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals. J.R Smith is playing the best two-way ball of his career. New addition Channing Frye (62% from the field, 56% from three during the postseason) is set to be the Cavs best big man off the bench, a far superior option than last year's ritual of hoping for something from Jones, who plays only sparingly nowadays. Delly is a #brand, all of the sudden. This season's Veteran Wing Who Signed for the Minimum (Richard Jefferson) can give you something, whereas last season's (Shawn Marion) could not. Tristan Thompson is Tristan Tristan Thompson, a player whose consistency and reliability are two things that haven't changed (and hopefully won't for a long, long time). And just like the 2015 Finals, Cleveland employs a rookie head coach who has begun his postseason career 12-2; but this one seems to connect with his players and presses the right buttons at just the right time.
Despite their change in fortune and undeniable improvement, the Cavs may still not have enough to beat the Warriors. The experts lean toward picking Golden State, and it's hard to blame them; they had 73 regular season victories and employ a two-time MVP who somehow keeps getting better. Despite the appearance of vulnerability against Oklahoma City, the Warriors are not particularly vulnerable. To beat them four times in seven tries, the Cavaliers will need to be at the very top of their game.
After everything, the joy and the pain and the heartbreak, the thrill of The Return, scrapping like hell to take the Warriors to six last season, withstanding a midseason coaching change, gelling in time for another playoff push through the improved Eastern Conference, the Cavaliers stand on the precipice of history. Cleveland has the health, ability, and opportunity to beat Golden State and bring a title to Northeast Ohio.
If they do pull it off, some would call it "redemption." That's certainly been the language of many pundits and fans; LeBron himself has stopped just short of calling it that, but tiptoes right up to the line.
But we shouldn't call it that, and no one should think that way. The city of Cleveland, the NBA franchise who calls it home, and the players who wear its jerseys don't deserve to carry such a cosmological burden. Losing will not seal some eternal fate, and winning will not absolve them of some deep sin. None of them, not even LeBron, who tore a city's heart out on national television in 2010, have done anything so unforgivable. Nor can they heal all its city's wounds (either in sports or outside of it) by winning.
No, what the Cavaliers have in front of them is something better, something elusive, yet attainable - a chance at self-actualization. This group of players can show everyone their best selves, their best performances as teammates, and can play their best basketball against (perhaps) the greatest team in the history of the league. Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving wanted to be on this stage for years before reaching it, and here they are, ready to show themselves worthy of the mantle. LeBron is ready to lead, to "get that one for the Land," the thing that's been driving him.
The difference between last year's Finals and this year's Finals is that the whole group is here, the Big Three are healthy, and the whole can become greater than the sum of their considerable parts. They've come together, seem closer than ever, and one year after their heartbreak, they appear calm, confident, and ready. The Cavaliers have a chance to prove themselves - not to some immutable, abstract legacy, not to a cursed sports town, not to reporters, not to anyone watching on TV, not to the fans, not to the league, not even to their opponents, but to themselves. They have the chance to become the best they can be, and beating the Warriors four times in the process.
Cavs in 6.