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The NBA Finals Referendum

For a whole year, we have waited for this. There’s been triple-doubles, and unicorns, but mostly … waiting. But what if the Cavs and Warriors’ third Finals clash can’t live up to the historic hype? What does it mean for the league?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

For 11 months now, it has seemed inevitable: The Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors would meet in the NBA Finals again. It was a previously undiscovered point on the axis of certitude between taxes and death. The trick of the regular season, then, became how to pretend this was not the case.

Last season, the Cavaliers and the Warriors were the league’s best teams. The Cavs finished by wrenching the city of Cleveland’s first major championship in five decades from the jaws of defeat. Golden State galloped out to 73 regular-season wins and were within a few butterfly wing flaps from their second consecutive championship. This season, with their conference rivals already inhaling their exhaust fumes, both had the gall to get even better.

This version of the Cavaliers, assembled over the course of the season, warps the floor with multiple 3-point snipers, daring defenses to stop LeBron James, earth’s best basketball player, in space. The Warriors responded to a Finals loss by adding Kevin Durant to a lineup that already included Steph Curry (two-time MVP), Draymond Green (All-Star, All-NBA third team, perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate), and Klay Thompson (founder of Klaytheism). We knew it would be Cavaliers-Warriors. And that certainty sapped a not insignificant amount of fun from the regular season and three rounds of the playoffs.

Sure, there were thrills and genuine surprises at the margins. As always, dudes got dunked on in entertaining and disrespectful fashions. Russ broke Oscar Robinson’s triple-double record, fulfilling his destiny as the most-extra NBA player of our time. Giannis Antetokounmpo became a full-fledged Sith Lord. Real estate prices on Dion Waiters Island boomed. But, overall, an element of drama has been missing. There have always been superteams — in the ’80s the Celtics and Lakers hogged all but two of the decade’s championships; in the ’90s, all roads led to Chicago. This year was different, though. Whatever this era of NBA history was — the Salary Cap Explosion Era, the Analytics Era, the 3-point Era — is coming to a close.

The high from the television deal — the disruptive driving force behind the last three years of NBA team-building and the reason that the Warriors could sign Kevin Durant — has curdled into a hangover. The league’s contract with its broadcast partners runs through 2024–25, but the business model underpinning it is creaking. A new CBA, written in part as a response to Durant’s defection to NorCal, goes into effect this July, and though next year’s salary cap does rise some ($7 million), that’s less than previous projections. The bubble hasn’t burst, but it is leaking. The luxury tax will once again have fangs.

Combine the post-cap boom with the overwhelming dominance of the Cavs and Warriors and what you’re left with is an environment ripe for complaining. A major theme of this season was everyone bitching about the season. Fans complained about competitive balance and Durant throwing in his lot with the Warriors after his Thunder team choked away their own 3–1 lead. Durant, in turn, complained about people complaining. The MVP race, always a spirited tussle over the meaning of the word "value," was so acrimonious that it could now be argued that triple-doubles, at a certain point, became bad. The All-Star Game was such a hard-sucking, low-effort debacle that an entire internet cycle was dedicated to trying to fix it. The slam dunk contest was like watching puppies get euthanized, with Aaron Gordon spending an interminable amount of time to discover the worst thing you can do with a drone that doesn’t involve missile strikes.

Loudest of all were the complaints about the length of the season. The traditional 82-game, October-to-April march will be with us for the foreseeable future. But there’s a general and growing awareness that the campaign is toast — done in by the Spurs, who ran a one-legged Tim Duncan out to the cusp of his 40s, and done in by the science of rest, which is persuasive. Which does nothing to placate the aforementioned broadcast partners who ponied up a treasure chest for a product only to find the Warriors starting Patrick McCaw, Matt Barnes, and Kevon Looney (whoooooooooo????) in nationally televised games. It’s FANTASTIC! Adam Silver heard those critiques clear as the bell on a cash register.

The hegemony of the Cavaliers and Warriors is so total that it demands to be accounted for. Is this kind of dominance good for the league?

Cleveland was so dismissive of the regular season that it couldn’t be bothered to play defense during it. The Cavs made a calculated decision that freshness for the playoffs was more important than going all out during the season. And they were right. LeBron and crew went 3–1 against the Raptors during the regular season, with a net rating of minus-2.6. In the playoffs, Cleveland dismissed Toronto like it was throwing out a gum wrapper, posting a net rating of plus-17.1. The Cavs had a plus-5.9 regular season against the Celtics. In the Eastern Conference finals, they demolished Boston by plus-24.4, and set the record the largest halftime lead in postseason history (41 points). Only Marcus Smart’s Game 3 out-of-body experience saved the Celtics from a sweep.

All the Warriors have done is go 27–1 since March 14, trailed for only 63 of 432 minutes in their last nine games (DEAR GOD), played the four fastest-paced games of the playoffs, been the best first-quarter AND fourth-quarter team in the postseason, and featured a starting lineup that’s outscored opponents by 32.6 points per 100 possessions.

These teams are the NBA. Everything else is context.

Remember a million years ago, when it seemed like the Clippers had discovered some terrifying new defensive gear? Gone, like the moments after waking from a dream. The Celtics and Brad Stevens punching over their weight to win home court in the East? An interesting footnote and the source of a really cool photograph of LeBron turning Isaiah Thomas into a fanny pack. Russell Westbrook’s historic triple-double-fingers season; Kawhi Leonard taking a leap after taking The Leap, like Dante in Devil May Cry; Mike D’Antoni and James Harden’s Houston remix of Seven Seconds or Less, ended with yet another demoralizing D’Antoni defeat to the Spurs? All of it’s meaningless. The league’s 28 other teams have been onlookers at a coronation since last July. Now, on the eve of the Finals, we can finally ask the question that we don’t quite know the answer to: Whose coronation is it?

So much is riding on this series that even the numerology feels appropriately heavy. The last leg of the trilogy. LeBron’s seventh consecutive Finals appearance. Zach Lowe, whose takes come medium-warm at their hottest temperature, and then are still backed up by copious research and consideration, said recently on his podcast that "This is the greatest three-year regular-season run in the history of the sport. Period. … If you finish one for three in the Finals in the greatest three-year regular-season run in history, that’s bad." If the Cavaliers win, it means the LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan argument can no longer be summarily dismissed.

But it’s bigger than these two teams. This Finals will be a referendum on the NBA itself. The sport has always been about the playoffs. There’s a reason reputations are made and broken there. But if this season has been all about the Finals, what happens if the Finals suck? What if we get an end-to-end Warriors sweep? In many ways, this year’s Finals can’t possibly live up to the excitement of last year’s. In the past the winning teams have acted as signposts for the rest of the league. This way to the mountaintop. In this weird moment between eras, it feels like the only thing left to learn from the Cavaliers and Warriors is their success can’t be replicated.