June 1st will mark the third straight NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. This is a rivalry that in my opinion is underappreciated and at times unjustly criticized. Consider the following ingredients: two historically great teams, the best basketball player in the world on one team (LeBron James, Cleveland), a two-time MVP on the other team (W. Stephen Curry, Golden State), that MVP being on a team that won 73 games the year before (Golden State), that 73 win team adding a top 5 player on that team this year (Kevin Durant, Golden State) and this is essentially a 3 years series that is a 1-1 tie with the winner of this year winning the series 2-1. All of those ingredients are the makings for a story you would see in a comic book or comic book television series.
By the way, Marvel, Shonen Jump or DC… get on that
However, the casual basketball fan has been bored with the playoffs so far. As a result of this matchup, which fans should be salivating for, has been shunned by us basketball fans. This is due to the predictability that these two teams would face each other in the finals. People have been airing out their grievances with competitive balance in the league. While this argument is fair in principle, it is a weak argument. The problem with this argument is that it neglects sports history and when sports is fondly remembered. This argument also shows hypocrisy and a double standard for the NBA players of today than that in the past.
Here is a great question for any sports fan of any age, when was NBA basketball best?
Depending on one’s age, the following question was answered with either 1980s, 1990s or early 2000s. At face value, this seems very vague but there is a point. Sure a person’s ‘golden age of basketball’ can differ on age, however, the one thing a person likes is domination. People want to see teams dominate. Just as a social experiment try watching ‘your team’ in a close game and then watch ‘your team’ blow another team out and see the emotions that swell up in each situation. Point is, people like to see great teams dominate and each of these periods has seen one or two dominant teams take the NBA hostage. This literally means that the NBA then was exactly like how it is now.
Think about it like this. The 1980s was dominated by either the Celtics or the Lakers. Sure there was the Philadelphia 76ers and Bad Boy Pistons, but the Lakers and Celtics were dominant. Those two teams combined for 8 championships from 1980-1989. The Bulls won 6 championships from 1990-1999 and had Jordan decided not to retire the first time, we could have legitimately seen one team have an 8-peat rather than two 3-peats. Even then, the Bulls and Rockets combined for 8 championships in 10 years. To even bolster this point, the 2000s saw the Lakers and Spurs win the championship 7 times in 10 years. Even if 1999 was included, The Spurs and Lakers won the championship 8 times in 11 years.
Yet despite people clamoring for competitive balance now, everyone likes these periods of NBA basketball and fondly remember this period of time. In fact, no one looks on with disdain at Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal etc. for having a great team. Instead, they are called great players. However, the fact is they were great players surrounded by great talent.
Enter LeBron James.
Since the 2010-2011 season, LeBron James has made the finals every single time. Also, in terms of parity, LeBron plays in the most balanced of times in regards to the NBA. Since the 2010s, the NBA has seen 6 different teams win. Granted LeBron played on two of those teams, but if you were to include this fact and take away the Miami Heat and the Cleveland Cavaliers from the list of ‘NBA Championship winning teams since 2010’, there have been 4 different championship teams and the decade is not even over. In other words, LeBron is doing what he is doing in a period when the NBA is the most balanced it has ever been since the 1970s. Also, his Cavaliers team won against a 73 win team. In other words, LeBron should be celebrated but somehow it is not and it goes beyond the ‘people cannot enjoy greatness at the time’ argument. The reason why it does is because there is a strong belief that even if LeBron wins this Finals, which he is an underdog in, he will never be recognized without people critiquing him.
This is also a fact for the Warriors. Their team can be considered one of the greatest teams in this decade. Although they only have one championship in the 2010s, this team won 73 wins in the 2015-2016 season, have had all their all-stars except for one be homegrown, developed and stuck with a two-time MVP, and made a 2 round draft pick a catalyst for their defense. However, the Warriors are also criticized for being soft and the poster boys of why this era is not as good as the 90s. To me, there are two reasons for why LeBron and the Warriors are critiqued for their greatness.
One LeBron simply cannot get out of Jordan’s shadow. While I am not lucky enough to see Jordan play live, I was blessed to have a cousin who had full game Michael Jordan tapes. To me, Jordan is better because of a number of reasons but there is one sole reason why Jordan is better. This is a confusing statement but here goes: the gap between Jordan and the average player in the 80s and 90s is wider than the gap between LeBron and the average player in the 2000s and 2010s and that’s why Jordan is better.
Now granted the average player in the NBA from an individual ‘case by case’ standpoint are better and more complete than they have ever been. However, assuming the players in the 90s were given the same advancements in knowledge of the game as the players in the 2010s, as well as nutrition than there is every reason to believe that the skill level between the average players in the 90s and 2010s would be the same. Thus the gap between Jordan and those players would the same. As a result, Jordan would be better than LeBron just by comparison. Of course, this is a circumstantial argument but when taking this argument into account as well as the fact that Jordan has amassed way more accolades in a shorter time span, and that includes the Wizards years, then one starts to realize the gap between Jordan and LeBron.
With that being said, that does not mean LeBron James is not a great. LeBron is probably a top 5 player ever when he decides to call it quits. He is a 13-time All-Star, a 3-time NBA Champion, and a 4-time MVP. That is greatness personified. Granted, maybe not Jordan great, but still greatness. Also, there is still time for him to be even greater.
However, the main reason for why both teams are critiqued is one word, power. Through free agency, players are exercising their power to leave a crap situation to a great situation better than everyone else. Unfortunately, that means fan bases get their feelings hurt. However, the heartbreak is not just for the team that sees their player leave. Some team’s fanbases understand when a good team acquires a great player, it means that their team may not be able to stack up. This is because there is now the creation of superteams. This leaves a feeling that the NBA is unfair.
However, for LeBron, his Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers teams are the shining examples of this superteam phenomenon. Why? Because depending on which spectrum one resides on, one believes LeBron either started or popularized the superteam dynamic. Thus, LeBron brought this criticism on himself, and to be honest, the Durant edition of the Golden State Warriors have become the golden examples of this power being used for supposed evil. However, the superteam being hated is an excuse by the casual NBA fan for not liking a player utilized their power to change the landscape of a season.
Even experts like Shaq and Barkley criticized both players which to me seems a little weird at times. While their critiques are usually spot on, it is coming from mouths who experienced what having a superteam or playing against one can do. Considering that Shaq had the advantage of playing with Wade and Bryant, and Barkley never won a championship because he had to face Larry’s Celtics, Jordan’s Bulls or Hakeem’s Rockets each year, one would think both men would understand the advantage of the super team. Also, Barkley was not exactly the shining example of someone who stuck with one team. To avoid critiquing two really smart perspectives on basketball, I’ll end with this: while it is justified to criticized Durant and LeBron for not having the will to compete against the best, it is not justified to critique a team for this.
Magic Johnson played on Laker teams that featured Hall of Famers, including one of the greatest centres ever in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Jordan had Pippen, Larry had McHale and Parish. Need more examples? Shaq had Kobe, Hakeem had Drexler. The fact is just because one player is not as good as Jordan or that both teams are superteams does not mean that these Finals should be shunned. In fact, two superteams should be a reason why the Finals should be celebrate. In all, as a fan, it is pretty disappointing seeing other fans not seeing the greatness in this finals.