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Will the Finals Loop Be Broken?

The Cavs and Warriors have clashed in the past three NBA Finals, and appeared predestined this preseason to do so again. But the league’s long-standing hierarchy was rattled this regular season, opening up a whole new world of possibilities.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

A fractal is an infinite pattern fed into a never-ending feedback loop. Zoom in, zoom out, the same pattern emerges. Stare at a fractal adjusting in scale for long enough and it’ll feel like you’re in an endless fall.

Over the past four years, the Warriors have created a pattern that has left the NBA suspended, plummeting nowhere. More than anything else, that sinking feeling—the one that has yet to go away—is why so much of the discourse arrives at the team having ruined basketball. At their best, the Warriors feel like forever.

But the league isn’t defined by any one pattern. Its history includes an entire constellation of them. History concurs with Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who, at the start of the season, tried to temper expectations around his team, understanding full well that a fourth straight Finals appearance often reveals itself to be the death knell for modern dynasties (e.g., the Lakers and Heat). “It’s not easy,” Kerr said. “I think that’s the hardest thing probably for people to understand, fans, media, whoever … is the fatigue, the emotional and spiritual fatigue that sets in when you’ve been going to the Finals. That’s why LeBron going to the Finals seven years in a row, to me, is one of the most amazing accomplishments ever for a player in this league.”

Minnesota Timberwolves v Golden State Warriors Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Almost concurrently, GQ published a cover story on Kevin Durant, still flying high from his first championship, admiring the gravity of his Finals Moment, a go-ahead pull-up 3 in LeBron’s face in the final minute of Game 3. He referred to the play as a torch being passed to him from LeBron, though I suppose the more apt metaphor would be Prometheus stealing fire from the gods. “I’m on the same level [with LeBron] as a basketball player,” Durant told GQ. “Off the court, I can learn a thing from [LeBron]. But as a basketball player, I feel like it’s 1A, 1B. And that’s an accomplishment for me.”

In the afterglow of his Finals MVP win, Durant seemed to have caught a glimpse of forever: The Warriors and Cavs may have completed a trilogy, but Durant’s rivalry with LeBron was just beginning. There is a sort of giddiness in the way Durant talked about his standing with LeBron, like he’d just graduated to college and immediately found a like-minded peer who shared all of his interests—the kind of giddiness that had been bludgeoned out of the Warriors and Cavs over their previous two bouts. KD’s comments, especially when juxtaposed with Kerr’s, clearly illustrate the difference between chasing a second straight Finals appearance and chasing a fourth—or an eighth.

Our national fatigue presaged their actual fatigue. A slew of injuries has left Golden State vulnerable. An extreme makeover in Cleveland has slightly rearranged the working structure of the team, though it might have also put more of a demand on LeBron than ever before. The feedback loop is fraying. But how many teams in the postseason race are in position to take advantage?

Champions contend in the present and with the past. Their résumés are submitted into the annals of history, where we can spend the rest of eternity debating superiority. And they defend their turf in the now, against teams that have spliced a bit of the champion’s DNA into their own fabric. The Rockets, with offensive genius Mike D’Antoni at the helm, have become a streamlined mutation of the Warriors, who themselves are a mutation of his old Seven Seconds or Less Suns teams. “The ball finds energy” has long been D’Antoni’s mantra, but in Houston, it’s inverted itself: The energy is where the ball is—and the ball is almost always in the hands of either James Harden or Chris Paul. The Blazers have remained steadfast with their two lead guards, who have range from anywhere inside the half-court line, but also have added league-leading rim protection to the fold this season. The Raptors and Jazz, two teams that have been emblematic of a more conservative ideology of the game, also have changed their style of play to match their opponents. The Raptors are more 3-point-friendly than ever before, and even the Jazz have embraced small-ball principles with the addition of Jae Crowder during the trade deadline.

Champions don’t usually have to worry about the future. But even that has changed this season. Everything’s accelerated. Rookies Ben Simmons, Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, and OG Anunoby will all be starting in the playoffs this weekend. The unicorns have arrived, too: Giannis Antetokounmpo will be playing in his third postseason; Anthony Davis will be making his long-awaited return; Karl-Anthony Towns and, eventually, Joel Embiid will be making their playoff debuts. Their expansive two-way skill sets are just more wrinkles to the calculus of playoff game planning. How do you adjust to a many-faced center?

Not every young team is equipped to make a quantum leap this postseason. Injuries have surely diminished the chances of the Celtics, who still boast an elite defense, but don’t quite have the proven firepower without Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward to hold up for three straight series. But the one team built to one day rule the Eastern Conference could also threaten to reach the Finals sooner than expected. There is no team hurtling into the playoffs at the same velocity as the Sixers, who won 16 straight games to close out the regular season, imposing their will on both ends of the floor. Their closest parallel is the 2009-10 Oklahoma City Thunder, who shocked the league with a 50-win season after notching only 23 wins the season prior; the Sixers finished the season with 52 wins after winning 28 in 2016-17. The Baby Thunder’s first postseason series was a humbling experience: Durant’s lithe body and lack of advanced ballhandling was exposed by Metta World Peace, who held the scoring champ to 35 percent shooting in the series. That sparked a transformation; the Thunder would make the Finals only two years later.

Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

After four years of being the dreg of the league, Philly has emerged from a chrysalis with a futuristic blueprint. Combine a 6-foot-10 point guard with savant-level creativity and the ability to defend all five positions with a 7-foot center who can defend the rim as well as Rudy Gobert but also hit a 3-pointer off a pindown play (and a whole lot else in between). Surround those two miraculous talents with players who can shoot and defend, or at least do one of those two things at an elite level. Then watch the machine run itself. The Sixers feel like a wellspring of accumulated knowledge that has emerged at the forefront maybe a little too quickly. Watching Simmons and Embiid play, the direct link to the lineage of LeBron James and Kevin Durant is clear. James and KD are two of the most influential players of the post-Jordan generation, inspiring young prospects (especially big men) to explore their games with a point guard’s freedom, and to play with a sensibility unique to them. The Process was a torturous experiment that nonetheless yielded an almost perfect set of talents for the times, one few teams are suited to deal with.

Maybe none of this would be true if Steph Curry hadn’t injured his knee. Putting the award aside, the most compelling arguments for Curry as the most valuable player are the league executives who have told Zach Lowe that they aren’t scared of the Warriors if Steph Curry isn’t in the lineup—a slap in the face of Durant, who has on several occasions claimed ownership of being a top-two player in the league. But that’s the nature of sports, and the reason the Warriors acquired Durant in the first place. The Warriors are succumbing to the same gradual erosion that every great team faces. At their best, Durant raises the Warriors’ ceiling exponentially; at their worst, Durant ensures their floor is secure.

Considering the hallowed tones with which the Warriors’ name has been uttered for the past three years, even discussing the Warriors as anything less than an inevitability is a huge win. For the first time in a long time, the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t just, in fact, more tunnel. There are legitimate challengers in both the present and the immediate future. It turns out Golden State hasn’t ruined basketball, but this weekend, the league will embark on its salvation nonetheless.