Hello, my name is Rodger Sherman, and I am apparently the one fan excited about the 2018 NBA Finals, the fourth in a row between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors.
It doesn’t seem like I should be the only person excited about this series. After all, Game 7 of the Cavs-Celtics Eastern Conference finals was tied for the highest-rated NBA game in ESPN history; Game 7 of the Warriors-Rockets Western Conference finals was the second-highest-rated game in cable TV history; last year’s Cavs-Warriors Finals were the most-watched NBA Finals ever broadcast on ABC; Game 7 of the 2016 Finals was the most-watched single game ABC has ever aired; and the 2015 Finals were the highest-rated Finals in ABC history. But trust me: I have scoured the web, and everybody else appears convinced that the upcoming Golden State–Cleveland series is evidence that the league is cratering. Maybe everybody is going to be hate-watching, or some sort of Transformers thing will take place where these games get 14 percent on Rotten Tomatoes but still gross $1.2 billion at the global box office.
I understand why the series is generally regarded as unappealing. For one, the Cavaliers are wildly outmatched—Vegas lists the Warriors as -1060 favorites to win the series, the most lopsided Finals odds since 2001. More importantly, this is a story we’ve seen unfold a bunch of times already. (It really is like Transformers, huh?) This marks the first time in any major American sport that the same two teams have played in a championship series four years in a row. While last year’s clash was an all-critical rubber match between two NBA titans that had split the two previous titles, this year’s matchup comes with an aura of inevitability. The most likely scenario is that Golden State takes a 3-1 lead in the Warriors-Cavs series of Warriors-Cavs series. And how could the Warriors blow a 3-1 lead?
It seems like there’s nothing new to learn this time around. The Warriors are cemented as the best team of this era. LeBron James is cemented as the best player of this era; an upset win here wouldn’t push him past Michael Jordan in the eyes of Jordan stans, while a loss wouldn’t drop him below Jordan in the eyes of his own stans. (Take it from me: I am one.)
This is the point when I’m supposed to write something about how I’m drawn to this series because of greatness, that while it might be dull to see the same two teams in the Finals every year, at least we’re seeing the two best teams, à la the Celtics-Lakers duopolies of the 1960s and 1980s. But while overwhelming dominance might have been the story line when these teams met in last year’s Finals—the Cavs and Warriors combined to go 24-1 in the first three rounds of the 2017 playoffs—it feels unfair to say that this season, when neither team has played like the league’s best.
The defining story of these two teams’ road to this Finals is struggle. The Cavs hardly seemed elite, straggling to a 50-32 regular-season record and a fourth-place finish in the Eastern Conference. Cleveland needed to win two Game 7s to make the Finals. The Warriors, meanwhile, finished seven games behind the Rockets in the regular-season standings and trailed Houston 3-2 in the Western Conference finals before Chris Paul went down with an injury. After Paul was ruled out, the Warriors were reinstalled as series favorites, but still needed back-to-back double-digit second-half comebacks in elimination games in order to survive.
The reason for these struggles is that outside of their tremendously talented stars, neither of these teams has a well-constructed roster. The Cavaliers are LeBron and detritus, having shed Kyrie Irving in the offseason and swung a series of midseason trades to patch together a haphazard roster of players who have universally disappointed. After Kevin Love was forced into the league’s concussion protocol upon suffering an injury in Game 6 against the Celtics, James came to the realization that he was now leading a team whose second-best player was Jeff Green. (Who played admirably in games 6 and 7! Still, he remains a less-than-ideal second option for a potential NBA champion.)
And the massive contracts required to assemble the Warriors’ superteam has limited Golden State’s reserve options, as over the course of its dynasty the bench has gone from a unit primarily comprised of veterans to one primarily comprised of players on affordable rookie deals. Andre Iguodala spent years coming off the bench for the Warriors, but in these playoffs he returned to a starter’s role for the first time in four seasons. And then he got injured during the conference finals, thinning the roster even more. Kevon Looney was fifth on Golden State in minutes against the Rockets. Jordan Bell, a rookie picked in the second round of this year’s draft, was the team’s first bench option in games 4 through 7. Quinn Cook, who was playing in the G League until March, was on the court for the decisive minutes of Game 5. For the most part, these youngsters have underwhelmed, but they are the bench that the Warriors have.
It might seem odd, but I appreciate the fact that both of the NBA Finals teams are incomplete. Because it puts the brunt of the burden on the greatest players on the planet. LeBron has played Atlas all season, leading the NBA in minutes, and knew during the postseason that he literally could not rest in critical games. He tried to play all 48 minutes in Game 7 against the Pacers (and failed), and then successfully pulled off the feat in Game 7 against the Celtics. James saved Cleveland’s season with a monstrous 46-point, 11-rebound, nine-assist outing in a win-or-go-home Game 6.
And the Warriors, too, have needed to be bailed out by their stars. It was Steph Curry’s run of scoring 11 straight Golden State points in a span of less than two minutes in Game 7 that truly toppled the Rockets. Time and again, the Warriors have just thrown the ball to Kevin Durant when all else has failed; Durant has come through when it’s mattered most.
This is the Finals I want to see: James looking to his left and seeing George Hill, looking to his right and seeing J.R. Smith, and understanding that he needs to drop 50 points to win. (And he just might.) Curry witnessing a James rampage and grasping that the only way to take back control is to attempt (and make) a blaze of increasingly outrageous 3s. Durant realizing that he has just one quarter to silence the Blog Boys.
For all that these teams have accomplished, they have an air of desperation about them that they simply haven’t had in years past. There is no cruise control. Every success must be won on the backs of their best players. I cannot wait to watch the best players in the world dig their deepest.