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Light-Years Ahead and Poised to Stay That Way

After winning their second title in three years, the Warriors are set up for a long run of dominance. The Cavaliers, meanwhile, have some difficult and pressing roster decisions to make.

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

The 2017 NBA Finals revealed a major dichotomy between the Warriors and Cavaliers. Golden State’s roster has three players younger than 22 (only the Nuggets, Suns, and Timberwolves have more), and its homegrown talent could grow into contributing roles to supplant its veterans on the decline. Even rookie guard Patrick McCaw played important Finals minutes, making a couple of key baskets late in the third quarter of the team’s series-clinching 129–120 Game 5 win. Conversely, the Cavaliers’ role-player rotation is made up largely of aging cast-offs and misfits, like Deron Williams and J.R. Smith. Factor in Kevin Love, and Cleveland’s veteran defense in these Finals was passable at best; at worst, it was plagued by missed rotations and poor communication. It made clear that while the Warriors are ascending, the Cavaliers are idling.

Cleveland’s all-in approach helped get it a title last year, but it exacerbated the team’s roster-construction issues, which will only be more pressing entering the 2017–18 season. The Cavs have $125.6 million guaranteed tied up in only eight players. The Warriors, meanwhile, have a Big Four who are all in their late 20s, as well as a perfect blend of youth and experience.

We saw only glimpses of what the Dubs are capable of in their five-game Finals victory. They rarely used variations of the Lineup of Death. They missed open layups in Game 1, had sloppy turnovers in Games 2 and 3, and saw Steph Curry and Klay Thompson function as offensive zeroes in Game 4. They didn’t unleash the daunting 1–3 pick-and-roll between Curry and Kevin Durant until the second half in Game 5. They made noticeable game-to-game adjustments. Cavs head coach Ty Lue said after Monday’s loss that he doesn’t "see a big gap" between his team and the Dubs, but it’s easy to imagine the gap expanding. Golden State’s time at the top is likely only beginning, and that means any team looking to take the throne will have to elevate its game. Cleveland played about as well as it could in Games 3 through 5, and yet it was nowhere near enough, leaving the league’s preeminent superstar searching for answers. "I need to sit down and figure this thing out," LeBron James said when asked how he views the Warriors after Game 5. "They’re going to be around for a while. … They’re built to last a few years."

Indeed, the Warriors are building something sustainable that resembles the standard the Spurs set over the past 20 seasons, a stretch during which they have never missed the playoffs. San Antonio’s success is the product of a long list of factors, from head coach Gregg Popovich creating a selfless locker-room culture to general manager R.C. Buford and the front office embracing forward-thinking personnel decisions (such as trading an important role player, George Hill, for the no. 15 pick in the 2011 draft, Kawhi Leonard). It helps that the Spurs had Tim Duncan, too, as well as a seemingly endless supply of other talented, high-character individuals.

The Warriors have taken a page from the San Antonio playbook ever since Bob Myers took over as general manager in 2012. They’ve never relented from their pursuit of a similar sustainability model, keeping an eye toward the future, which has shown in their decision-making. Golden State maintained cap and asset flexibility to give itself a shot at landing Durant, and it devoted resources to young players on the back end of its roster. It takes good fortune to be in the spot that the Warriors are in now, but they’ve also created their own luck.

The newly crowned champs will face a great test trying to keep their core intact over the next few years, but they’ve positioned themselves nicely. Curry and Durant will both be expensive to re-sign (despite reports that Durant is willing to agree to less than the max), and Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Zaza Pachulia, and JaVale McGee could be costly, too. In 2018, McCaw will become a restricted free agent. Klay Thompson will hit the market in 2019, and Draymond Green in 2020. Based on "conservative" projections by The Vertical’s Bobby Marks, it could cost Golden State ownership $1.3 billion over the next four years to keep this nucleus together due to the luxury repeater tax. Dang.

There may come a time when the Warriors need to cut a star loose in order to field an affordable roster, and that’s why it’s so important that they’re planting the seeds for a succession plan now. McCaw appeared in all five Finals games after serving as a regular rotation player in the prior series against the Spurs. Only 21, he’s a feisty, hard-nosed defender who can hit 3s, pass, and run pick-and-roll. It’s conceivable that he’ll be Thompson’s lower-cost replacement in a few years, a player who can enable Golden State to sustain the same high level of success despite having less star power. Damian Jones and Kevon Looney logged little to no minutes in these playoffs, but they provide insight into the type of big man the Warriors seek: one who is versatile, with shooting range and a knack for rebounding.

Patrick McCaw (AP Images)
Patrick McCaw (AP Images)

The Cavaliers have taken a different approach. After signing LeBron in 2014, they shipped no. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins plus a lot more to the Timberwolves for Kevin Love. Maybe the move was necessary to persuade James to commit to Cleveland. If that was the case, then you make the trade every time. But in a vacuum, it was a mistake. The Cavs won a title with Love, but it’s not like he made a significant impact during the 2016–17 Finals, and had Cleveland kept Wiggins it would now be in better shape for the future with two young, rising studs in the 22-year-old and the 25-year-old Irving. Love remains an extremely talented scorer, and he’s worked hard to transform his physique. But he has been hampered by a left knee problem in recent years, he’ll be 29 come September, and he is merely an adequate defender — which exposed the area that the Cavs were most deficient in against the Warriors.

Love is nice. But in retrospect, the Cavs would’ve been better off keeping Wiggins and using the extra cap space on guys better than Deron Williams, who more closely resembles a Big3 League player than a rotation player on a Finals team. In that scenario, they might’ve been able to avoid dealing two first-round picks for a year and a half of Timofey Mozgov (who barely even played in the 2016 Finals) or swapping 2018 and 2019 firsts, respectively, for Channing Frye (who also didn’t appear much in either Finals) and Kyle Korver (who stunk in this year’s Finals). The Cavs won a title last June. The exhilaration long-suffering Cleveland fans felt that summer will never fade; any time that The Block or The Shot show up on a highlight reel, it’ll be impossible for them not to smile. But to win championships again and again, like the Warriors are trying to do, or like the Spurs have done, teams must build through the lens of sustainability.

If LeBron decides to "sit down and figure this thing out" with Cavaliers GM David Griffin, maybe they’ll come to the conclusion that instead of focusing on short-term gains and giving roster spots to old heads like Williams, they’re better off investing in younger and cheaper talent that could grow into something worthwhile. The Cavs have made only two notable forward-thinking decisions in recent years: They acquired draft-and-stash forward Cedi Osman in 2015 and bought a 2016 second-round pick for $2.4 million that was used to select point guard Kay Felder. They should start doing more things like that.

The problem is that we don’t know what LeBron will do once he has the option to hit free agency in 2018. I wrote last week that he will consider leaving, and some of Griffin’s comments suggest he’s aware of that possibility, too. If that’s the case, everything the Cavs have done to this point makes sense. "We’ve been given like a sacred trust in this guy," Griffin said in reference to LeBron at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in March. "You don’t go from zero to 100 in our league in a way that makes sense. You have to do it in a way that you can capitalize on the window you have."

Whether or not the front office feels LeBron is committed to the Cavaliers, it can’t continue with this Band-Aid solution. It won’t work. Cleveland will run into a brick wall every postseason for the foreseeable future, unless it’s totally healthy and the Warriors aren’t. Everyone except LeBron and Kyrie should be movable, and Griffin would be wise to dangle Love for a trade package that includes a top pick and cost-effective contributors.

"I’m not the GM of the team. I’m not in the front office, but I know our front office is going to continue to try to put our ball club, put our franchise in a position where we can compete for a championship year in and year out," LeBron said after Game 5. "Teams and franchises are going to be trying to figure out ways that they can put personnel together, the right group of guys together to be able to hopefully compete against this team. They’re assembled as good as you can assemble."

It’s a good thing LeBron is taking notes. Now it’s time for the franchise to start practicing the lessons of sustainability that he’s hopefully learned.