Sports fans are a funny bunch, often with very short memories and long expectations. Four months after the franchise won their first-ever NBA championship, and four months after LeBron James and “All The King’s Men” fulfilled their destiny by bringing a professional sports title to the most tortured sports city in America, fans of the Cleveland Cavaliers are all asking: “can we do it again?”
Any time you have LeBron James on your team, that’s a totally fair question. Given the way he put the team on his back when the Cavaliers faced a 3-1 deficit to the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, and given his performance in Game 7 of said NBA Finals — where he tallied 27 points, 11 points, and 11 rebounds, becoming the first player to record a triple-double in Game 7 of the NBA Finals since James Worthy did it for the Showtime Lakers in 1988 — he may very well have cemented his legacy as the greatest small forward of all time. It’s now safe to say that in the storied history of the NBA, there aren’t five players who are truly better than James.
But while James will forever be synonymous with the Cavaliers and their first-ever championship, he certainly didn’t do it all by himself, and he certainly won’t have to defend that title all by himself. Cleveland’s “big three” of James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love came together like they never have before as the playoffs, and the NBA Finals, went on.
Irving, in particular, transformed into the combo guard with lethal drive-and-kick ability, combined with elite scoring ability out to the three point line. In last year’s finals, he was every bit the tag-team partner to James, making clutch shot after clutch shot to counter any momentum the Warriors were trying to create. Over these last three games, he was the most devastating scorer among all 24 guys on both rosters, averaging over 30 points per game in that span. Simply put: he outplayed Stephen Curry, the reigning league MVP, in the three most important games of both player’s season(s).
Love may never be the gifted scorer, dynamic passer, and prolific defensive rebounder that he was in Minnesota, because those simply aren’t what he’s being asked to do in Cleveland. But he’s beginning to fully accept the role that the team has asked him to play: the do-it-all guy who can step up with different types of contributions in different types of situations. A perfect example of that would be in Game 7 of the finals, when he both added nine points and 14 rebounds in the game, and totally locked up Curry with second ticking off the clock for a Warriors comeback.
Even behind Irving and Love, much of the Cavaliers supporting cast that earned championship rings last year will return in 2016-2017, and some of those who won’t be returning will be replaced by players who can contribute much of what they’ve lost. Reserves like Matthew Dellavedova (signed with Milwaukee), Timofey Mozgov (signed with the Los Angeles Lakers), and Mo Williams (retired) will be replaced by Chris “Birdman” Anderson (James’ former teammate from the Miami Heat) and Mike Dunleavy (a shooter off the bench).
Heading into the 2015-2016 NBA Finals, the Cavaliers only lost two games in the Eastern Conference playoffs; both losses came against the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals. Similar to last year, it’s very unlikely that the Cavaliers will face any true tests in the first two rounds of the playoffs, given that the Eastern Conference in 2016 is rather top heavy (and increasingly thin as you head down the list of teams).
Their primary competitor in the East, almost unquestionably, appears to be the Boston Celtics. The pesky, unrelenting, and well-coached Celtics finished as the #5 seed in last year’s playoffs, and despite being badly undermanned in the postseason due to injuries, they gave the Atlanta Hawks everything they could handle in the six game series that Atlanta eventually won. With the addition of All-Star forward Al Horford (signed away from Atlanta) and Jaylen Brown (the third overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft), the Celtics look to be the second best team in the East, and a team that has the depth, skill, and coaching to advance far in the playoffs. Brad Stevens has proven to be a young and excellent head coach for Boston as his teams are always well prepared.
Still, it’s tough to see a team that lacks a true superstar and crunch-time scorer usurp the Eastern Conference throne from Cleveland. Given that, the 2016-2017 regular season just seems like a formality for the Cavaliers, because it just seems like basketball fans are destined for a “rubber match” Finals between the Cavaliers and the Warriors. The Warriors won the first one, when the Cavaliers were without Irving and Love. Cleveland took the second one, when they were at full strength, and Curry was hobbled by a leg injury that wasn’t nearly as healed as he might’ve led on.
But the Warriors, fresh off both their historic 73-win regular season and their loss in the NBA Finals, spent the summer somehow making themselves even better. They shocked the sports world by signing Kevin Durant, one of the five best players in the entire NBA, to a lucrative free agent deal. In other words: they went from a historic team, to a potentially legendary one. The Warriors’ offense, predicated on ball movement and unselfish play, works exactly to Durant’s skill-set. And Durant gives the Warriors yet another scoring option for a team that already has two of the best shooters in the NBA in Curry and Klay Thompson. With his six-foot-nine height and almost disproportionately long arms, Durant can not only get off a shot any time he wants to, but he can cover four different positions on the court defensively as well (as he did when he and his former team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, did when they were playing the Warriors themselves in last year’s playoffs).
Golden State’s path to the 2016-2017 Finals looks to be almost as inevitable as Cleveland’s, given that the Western Conference lacks a true superpower that can outlast the Warriors in a seven game series. The San Antonio Spurs are always a threat in the postseason, but their age might have finally caught up to them.
So, when June of 2017 rolls around, the chances of LeBron and “All The King’s Men” repeating might just come down to a Cavaliers-Warriors, Part III.
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