The Greatest of All Time™ discussion couldn’t be hotter with LeBron playing in his seventh consecutive Finals and looking to unseat one of the most talented teams of all time.
To be sure, Michael Jordan’s post-career legacy has never been less secure than it is right now, but it’s not the only GOAT that’s in danger.
Sorry, Bird. Sorry, Magic.
The 1980’s Celtics and Lakers remain the gold standard for the NBA’s best rivalries. It makes sense. The Lakers made eight trips to the NBA Finals from 1980-1990. The Celtics made it to five. It featured a perfect set of superstars in Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, rivals dating back to their college days. It had the insane talent level that almost no era has been able to match, with other stars like Kevin McHale, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Robert Parrish and James Worthy.
With all that said, it’s worth noting that these two Goliaths “only” played each other three times in that 10-year stretch. The Cavaliers and Warriors accomplished that in three consecutive years, making it the first time we’ve ever had a three-match in NBA history.
The Cavaliers and Warriors can match the talent level from those 80’s teams. The LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant represent the three best players in the NBA. Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Tristan Thompson represent the fourth through eighth best players in this series.
Andre Iguodala, an All-Star in his own prime, comes off the bench for Golden State. The Cavaliers feature Kyle Korver and J.R. Smith, who sit at fourth and 15th on the all-time three-pointers made list. Both teams are profoundly talented and would be able to compete and win against any other team that’s ever been constructed. That’s the talent level we’re dealing with here. These teams have real depth and star power like we’ve rarely seen before.
To make matters more contentious, there’s the ever-present reality of the cultural divide. The Warriors represent a Bay Area swarmed with Silicon Valley ideals and wealth. Cleveland, though on the upswing, represents the everyman rust belt.
It’s tempting to write off the cultured, detached rich folk vs the hardworking midwesterners narrative that we’ve seen a thousand times. It’s mostly lazy and rarely based on reality. That doesn’t make it any less functionally real. If you don’t think there’s resentment coming from California towards the Midwest and visa-versa to this day, I don’t know what to tell you.
We’re seeing the Hicks vs the Knicks all over again, except this cultural divide comes at a very tense time in American history and it’s on the biggest stage the NBA has to offer.
The stakes are also incredibly high. We’re watching a player in LeBron try to take Michael Jordan’s throne as the GOAT against perhaps the most insane collection of talent ever compiled. The Warriors simply cannot afford to fall to 1-2 amid addition of Kevin Durant to a 73 win team and the most successful three-year regular season run we’ve ever seen.
A loss for either would serve as a devastating blow to the legacies they were trying to create.
The narrative lines are so easy to draw, even on a organizational level. The Warriors are lauded for their organizational structure (light years), while the Cavaliers are often looked at differently given their inmates-running-the-asylum vibe that comes with employing the most self-reliant star in history whose agency represents a not-insignificant portion of the team.
On the court, this reveals itself as well. The Cavaliers relentlessly attack mismatches and have crafted everything they do around maximizing their superstars in James and Irving. The team dies without James on the floor for a good reason — they run almost nothing without him in mind.
By contrast, the Warriors are system-dependent almost to a fault. They will run their beautiful offense that can lead to some of the most devastating basketball we’ve ever seen, and they stick to that orthodoxy even when tasty mismatches can present themselves at the expense of the offense.
Finally, these teams just do not like each other. There’s a requisite respect that comes with having gone to war for the past three seasons, but do not mistake that for a fondness.
We haven’t quite had a McHale-Rambis clothesline in this series, but that doesn’t mean we’ve been without fireworks:
There’s real disdain, and it manifests itself on and off the court. We’ve had tombstone cookies. We’ve had players openly hoping that the opposing locker room still smells like champagne. We’ve had players wondering if their opposition’s feelings got hurt while informing them that it’s a “man’s league.”
These two teams have a dangerous combination of pettiness and lack of filter. It leads to fireworks. They don’t like each other, and they’re not afraid to subtly (and not-so-subtly) hint that this is the case.
If these two teams never play in the Finals again after this year, it’s fair to say that this rivalry will never reach Lakers-Celtics level. Sure, those teams “only” played three times, but they loomed around each other like a spectre for the entire decade. They made moves to account for one another and were the defining cultural icons of the decade that saved the NBA.
That’s why this current rivalry has a chance. The Cavaliers and Warriors ran through the Eastern and Western Conferences with the greatest ease we’ve ever seen. Even if you account for a slight drop-off for each team and improvement around the rest of the league, it’s unlikely we don’t see these teams play again.
It’s also worth noting that these teams are set up for the long-haul. The Cavaliers entire primary core is under contract for the next several years, and once the Warriors ink Durant and Curry to long extensions, the top eight-plus players in this series will be around for at least the rest of the decade.
The only way that, assuming these two teams continue to meet in the Finals at least once or twice more, that this doesn’t go down as the most epic rivalry we’ve ever seen in the NBA, is to have one team take an overwhelming advantage. If the final tally of these series has one team up 5-1, it doesn’t work.
There needs to be equality for a rivalry to truly flourish. There needs to be a real chance either team can win and be viewed as equals.
It’s impossible to project the future. It’s possible somebody blows a knee out or demands a trade out of nowhere. Hell, maybe LeBron gets really old, really fast.
That said, as clearly as we can see forward, it doesn’t appear that these teams are going anywhere. We are watching what could be the greatest duel in league history in real-time.
We should make sure we don’t wait to appreciate it until after it’s done.