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NBA Finals Preview: Sorry LeBron, It’s Steph’s Time

When the Warriors and Cavs tip off today, there will be a lot more at stake than just the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

When the Warriors and Cavs tip off today, there will be a lot more at stake than just the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

LeBron James is probably going to lose his second straight trip to the NBA Finals.

More than baseball and way more than football, the path through the postseason in professional basketball bends ineluctably toward the best team, and by just about any measure, the Golden State Warriors have been the best team in the NBA this year. Since acquiring Timofey Mozgov, Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith mid-season, the Cleveland Cavaliers have forged an on-the-fly identity as a hard-nosed team that eats offensive glass for breakfast, but the jury-rigged Cavs cannot compare to the refined machine of the Warriors.

You’re going to hear Golden State referred to as a “jump-shooting team” and an “offensive juggernaut” in these Finals, but that neglects how dominant they’ve been defensively all year through a combination of Andrew Bogut’s protection of the paint and their ability to switch a solid defender onto just about any matchup at shooting guard, small forward or power forward.

As opposed to beginning with a scorching offense and trying to retcon a passable defense (which is kind of how the “7 Seconds or Less” Phoenix Suns of Steve Nash and Mike D’Antoni went about it), the Warriors under first-year coach Steve Kerr have taken a defensively solid team and supercharged the offense, yielding a many-headed hydra with home-court advantage, a 46-3 record at the Oracle and confidence to spare – the Dubs haven’t lost four out of seven games this entire year. They sport the best net rating (+10.2) of any team LeBron has faced in the Finals. The second- and third-best teams on that list? The 2007 and 2014 San Antonio Spurs, who defeated James’ teams 4-0 and 4-1, respectively.

A lot of people involved in these Finals have a lot on the line. A championship for either rookie coach could set the standard for his career – and maybe even save David Blatt’s job in Cleveland. A title for the Warriors would go a long way to minting the status of a new-age brand of basketball built around long-range shooting and positional flexibility through the middle of the lineup. For Kevin Love, a series win would mean a championship in which he barely participated on the floor. (Which honestly makes it seem like he’s the victim of some vindictive genie’s curse.) For Smith and Shumpert, the most glorious rescue from the purgatory of the New York Knicks.

But no one’s legacy will be defined by this series more than LeBron’s.

If the Cavs Win:

As tough as it would be for a team of Golden State’s caliber to lose after such a superlative season, the Warriors are set up to succeed for years to come. Curry is under contract through 2017, as is Andrew Bogut, and together they’ll only be paid $23.1 million that year – a season when the cap is expected to balloon to $108 million. Klay Thompson is on the books through 2019 on a contract that looked giant when he signed it and entirely reasonable now that he’s blossomed into one of the best two-way wings in the league. And Steve Kerr is not even a year into a five-year deal. Parts will have to be shifted over the next several years and Draymond Green – who’s been arguably as important to Golden State’s success as Curry – will have to be paid, but this is a team built to contend over a wide window.

Furthermore, Golden State losing would have to almost come about through some kind of colossal breakdown. Certainly, if they simply hold serve they win this one. A major injury or a complete disappearing act by a key player would have to happen, or else a complete magic act by the Cleveland Cavaliers in terms of offensive rebounding and defense.

Bottom line, a Warriors loss would be unexpected and disappointing, but it would also be a learning experience that could steel Golden State’s core group for multiple Finals runs over the next several years. You can’t knock the Warriors’ preparation and execution, but looking at recent Finals champs, there aren’t many stars of Curry’s caliber who haven’t had to suffer some kind of postseason letdown before reaching the promised land: Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki and LeBron James himself.

If the Cavaliers can somehow pull out a series win, though, it could completely tilt the conversation about LeBron James. He would go from being 2-3 in the Finals to 3-3, and of those three losses, it’s really only the loss to Dallas in 2011 that seems completely inexplicable. In the two losses his teams have suffered to the San Antonio Spurs last year and in 2007, the Spurs were demonstrably the better team.

And look at how he’s moved the needle for two franchises over the last year. The Miami Heat went from Eastern Conference champs to missing the playoffs entirely while the Cleveland Cavaliers went from winning the number one pick in the draft to contending for a championship. Neither of these things is entirely due to James, of course – blood clots in Chris Bosh’s lungs effectively swept the Heat out of a low playoff seed and trades, plus Kyrie Irving’s injury, means the bulk of minutes right now are going to an almost entirely different set of Cavs than at the tail end of last year.

After James spoke of patience in announcing his return to Cleveland, he suddenly finds himself on basketball’s biggest stage again with a chance to bring home a championship to a city desperately in need of one. But …

If the Warriors Win:

It shouldn’t actually change our perception of James much at all, really. Blowhards and pundits will of course feast on it, but in some ways, James is playing with house money at this point. Look again at the shifts he caused almost singlehandedly in the Heat and Cavs’ fortunes. It makes plain just how massive an impact he has on the game – even the Bulls without Michael Jordan in 1994 went 55-27 and took the Knicks to seven games in the second round.

Now, whether you take that as a sign of LeBron James’ comprehensive command of the floor, or an indicator of Miami and Cleveland’s comparative struggles to build successful units around LeBron is largely up to you (and possibly what team you root for). And the Cavaliers will face much bigger questions going forward than the Warriors: Will Kevin Love stay? (He has said he expects to be in Cleveland but…come on, we’re through believing anything Love says carries any weight before it actually happens, right?) Will the Cavaliers re-up on players like Iman Shumpert, Matthew Dellavedova and Tristan Thompson, who has likely earned max or near-max money but plays the same position as Love?

The Cavs shifted into fifth gear when they traded Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett for Love prior to the season and then into overdrive when they went after Mozgov, Smith and Shumpert. In doing so, did they mortgage their long-term future for a short-term run that could end in a head-on collision with one of the most successful teams in NBA history?

If that collision produces a Warriors win, it will certainly burnish their reputation as not only one the most successful but also one of the most dominant teams in NBA history, plus a bellwether of a basketball revolution that’s been predicted for several years: the move away from dominant big men and post buckets and toward the perimeter and 3-point shots. Teams from the Suns with Nash to the Orlando Magic with Dwight Howard have been pointing that way for over a decade, but the Warriors winning it all could finish the job. The NBA is, after all, a copycat league and a team demonstrating that you can be defensively dominant while firing up shots from downtown could signal the point where an uprising becomes a paradigm shift.

In the end, this is not the Finals that fans of beautiful basketball dreamed of between the Warriors and the like-minded Atlanta Hawks. Nor is it LeBron James returning to the site of his last great defeat with a new army to get revenge on the San Antonio Spurs. Unlike last year, where the playoffs opened with five Game 7s in the first round, the postseason this year has been strewn with underwhelming series and injuries to key players from Love to Irving to Pau Gasol to Kyle Korver to Chris Paul to Mike Conley to John Wall.

These might not be the playoffs we deserved, but they’re the playoffs we got and now there are legacies – from LeBron’s to the role of the 3-pointer and the old school big man – on the line.

Prediction: Warriors in 6