We stand on the verge of the fourth straight NBA finals featuring the same two teams.
The National Basketball Association has been synonymous over the years more so with dynasties than with parity, but lately it has swung even more in favor of the former.
Assuming the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers finish off their opponents in their respective conference finals, it would give us those two teams playing each other in the championship-deciding series yet again.
That’s not a given as just three games into the conference finals as of Monday, Golden State leads the Houston Rockets, 2-1, and Cleveland is tied with the Boston Celtics at two game apiece. However, the Warriors and Cavaliers still have to be considered the favorites.
After all, in today’s superteam era of the NBA, the outcome of a season has started to feel less organic and more scripted than a professional wrestling show. I just find it hard to care about a league in which the championship feels like it’s decided in the offseason instead of on the field, or in this case the court.
Thus, I’ve gotten to the point where I might watch a few playoff games here and there or if there’s nothing else on and I’m flipping channels late at night, I might stop for a few minutes on one of the regular season games if there’s one on, but I don’t pay near the amount of attention to the NBA that I did back when I was in grade school in the 1990s.
Under the current system for free agency, teams have no means of attempting to pay more for a player and lure them away from a rival team. As somebody who’s seen that happen all too many times in baseball, that sounds like a pretty good deal at first, but it’s really not.
Instead, teams can’t offer more than the maximum amount in a deal with a player and that amount goes up in each bargaining phase. Thus, it is in a player’s best interest to take a short-term max deal and then sign for the increased maximum again in another year or two.
In doing so, the league’s best players are free to change teams pretty much at will on any given offseason. There is no difference in money, so the deciding factor tends to become where a player can go with the best chance of winning a championship. This leads to the formation of superteams consisting of two, three or more perennial all-stars and Most Valuable Player candidates joining forces on the same squad.
I feel like this superteam phase started with the Celtics of roughly 10 years ago, who crafted their “big three” of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. There were, of course, instances of building a team around a homegrown star and another star picked up through trade or free agency in the past, such as the latest Los Angeles Lakers dynasty built around Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal in the early 2000s. However, that big three seemed to usher in a new era for the way teams would pursue a championship. Those Celtics won just the one title, beating the Lakers in 2008. The Lakers won a finals rematch between the two teams in 2010.
The superteam phase then reached a fever pitch in 2010 when LeBron James, having blossomed into the biggest star of the game and the next best thing to Michael Jordan, decided to leave Cleveland for the Miami Heat.
That led to a string of four consecutive finals appearances for the Heat, but just two championships in 2012 and 2013. The Dallas Mavericks bested the Heat in 2011 and the San Antonio Spurs did the same in 2014.
LeBron then packed up his bags and went back home to Cleveland. After LeBron broke apart the superteam he formed in Miami with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, he simply formed a new one in Cleveland with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.
As a result of building such teams, LeBron has now played in seven straight NBA finals, going on eight.
Golden State’s dynasty on the rise took down the injury-plagued Cavaliers in six games in 2015.
In the rematch the following year, Cleveland battled back from a 3-1 series deficit to win the final three games and take the series in seven games. Much like the 1985 World Series in baseball, officiating decisions in Game 6 prompted some controversy over whether that series should have even made it to a Game 7.
The Warriors then pulled a page out of LeBron’s playbook and added another star for the 2016-2017 season, swiping Kevin Durant from the Oklahoma City Thunder. Golden State thus went on to pound Cleveland in five games in the latest finals.
Here we stand again, looking at the possibility of a fourth-straight encounter. Granted though, the Cleveland superteam is no longer what it once was. Irving, reportedly tired of being seen as second fiddle to LeBron, asked for and was granted a trade in the offseason. He landed with the Celtics, the team now left standing in the way of Cleveland going back to the finals.
Love, a top player with the Minnesota Timberwolves before demanding a trade in the 2014 offseason and landing with the Cavaliers for the start of LeBron’s superteam 2.0, remains a part of the Cleveland team.
The Cavaliers received Isaiah Thomas from the Celtics in the Irving trade and planned to not even miss a beat this season in running through the Eastern Conference yet again. However, the fit didn’t work out and Thomas was dealt to the Lakers midway through the year.
LeBron is more vulnerable to miss the final series of the year now than he has been in almost a decade. However, even if he does lead Cleveland back to the finals, are we really supposed to believe the Cavaliers can hang with a Warriors team that hasn’t lost more than one game in a postseason series since the 2016 finals?
This Warriors team swept their first three rounds of the playoffs in 2017, all best of seven series, before only dropping one game to Cleveland in the 2017 finals.
They’ve won the first two legs of the marathon journey that is the NBA playoffs this season, both in five games.
The only team standing in between the Warriors going back to the finals is the Houston Rockets, who have crafted a superduo of their own in the hopes of competing with the Warriors — adding star guard Chris Paul from the Clippers in the offseason to join Houston’s established star player James Harden.
Even so, I would be surprised to see the Rockets push that series beyond a game six if they even get that far. Game 4 for that series tips off Tuesday at 8 p.m., after The Missourian’s print deadline.
It’s always possible that either the Celtics or Rockets could pull off an upset. However, I think we’d better get used to the idea of the Warriors once again beating the Cavaliers in the finals. Then, it’s another arms race in the offseason to see if anybody can build another superteam to knock either of them off.