1.) What moment strikes the biggest lasting impression from the NBA Finals?
Bryan Toporek: I hate to echo the masses here, but yeah, it’s KD’s ice-cold pull-up 3-pointer in the waning moments of Game 3. Heading into the Finals, one of the Warriors’ few perceived weaknesses was their hierarchy in the clutch. Since they obliterated just about everyone throughout the Western Conference playoff bracket, they hadn’t faced many late-game situations where the outcome was in doubt. Earlier in the season, they had a tendency to play hot potato with Durant and Stephen Curry, where neither was sure whether they were “the guy” to take those crucial shots. In Game 3, however, Durant didn’t hesitate. Down two with less than a minute remaining, he rekindled the “KD is not nice” ad campaign by drilling a stomach-punch game-changer.
Brandon Jefferson: Kevin Durant snatching down a rebound, dribbling down the court and rising up over a retreating LeBron James to swish the go-ahead 3-pointer in the closing moments of Game 3. A lot has been said about the 2017 NBA Finals being the beginning of the torch being passed from James to Durant. Let’s pump the brakes on that since James is a superhuman, but that shot is one that’s going to replayed time and time again. With Golden State not wanting to repeat any of last year’s Finals story arc, going up 3-0 was huge for this team. While they ultimately left Cleveland up 3-1 again, this series had a completely different feel than 2016 after Durant’s shot. James had the more historic performance over the five games (averaging a triple-double, passing Magic Johnson for most triple-doubles in Finals history), yet to the winner goes the spoils. And in a series that featured four blowouts, hitting the game-winner in the only close game will be remembered.
J.M. Poulard: Kevin Durant’s heroics in the final stages of Game 3. KD dribbled the ball up the floor and began to get into his rhythm dribble for a pull-up jumper. It all happened in slow motion, while happening at game speed. Durant got to his spot on the wing, fired the jumper over LeBron James’ outstretched arms, flicked his wrist and called “game.” That sequence captured the Finals in a nutshell. Durant got whatever he wanted, while LeBron was left watching everything unfold and unravel despite his best efforts.
James Holas: The Battle of the Kevins. With over seven minutes left in the fourth quarter of Game 2, a 16-point deficit is daunting, but not insurmountable. Kevin Love catches the looping entry pass on the left block, with Durant on his hip. The yammering heads all bemoaned how thin the Dubs were inside, and from the looks of it, we were all about to witness burly Love punish the wispy scorer in the post, right?
Love drops his shoulder, power dribbles three times. Durant barely budges, and you can almost see the exclamation marks of alarm leaping from Love’s head; this isn’t going according to plan.
Love takes one more hard dribble, then wheels to the middle for one of his patented righty jump hooks. Durant uncoils from his stance, seemingly effortlessly, and snuffs Love’s attempt, blocking the shot and bringing the ball to his hip in one casual motion.
The Oracle crowd erupts; Durant pauses a beat with the ball on his hip, preening with his trophy. Watching him dribble up the court, crowd roaring, you can feel his confidence overflowing. In four dribbles he’s crossed half court, sizing up the waiting LeBron James. In two more dribbles he’s almost to the rim, elevating over the defense of the flailing Lebron and a harried Love. Durant absorbs contact, is sent sprawling, but not before kissing a twisting runner off the glass. The whole sequence takes a little over 12 seconds, the lead bumps up a mere two points and there were potentially five more games to play, but in that moment, the series seemed over.
2.) Where do you see Kevin Durant in the league and historically?
Bryan Toporek: Yo Steph Curry, I’m really happy for you, I’ma let you finish, but KD is the second-best player in the league right now behind LeBron James. We’ve long known Durant as one of the league’s most lethal offensive weapons, but the Finals reinforced how dominant he can be defensively, too. Yes, he’s had that ability for a while, but because he had to carry such a heavy offensive burden in OKC, we hadn’t seen that side of him as much in years’ past. I empathize with those who begrudge Durant for “taking the easy way out” and joining the Warriors, but really, can you blame him? Who wouldn’t want to maximize their chances of winning multiple rings? (Frankly, isn’t that what LeBron did when he left the Heat for the Cavs in 2014?) It’s too early to project where Durant will finish among the all-time greats, but his move to Golden State likely won’t be held against him 20 or 30 years down the line.
Brandon Jefferson: Durant has reaffirmed himself as the second-best player in the NBA. His MVP season in 2014 seems as if it happened a decade ago now. Due to injuries and the rise of Steph Curry and Kawhi Leonard, it felt as if Durant had lost his consensus number two ranking behind LeBron.
Following that Finals performance, there shouldn’t be any debate. James was the best player in the 2017 NBA Finals, but Durant had the biggest impact on the series on both ends of the floor. Without him, the Warriors could’ve found themselves in another drawn-out seven-game battle. With him, they disposed of the reigning NBA champions in five games. Historically, Durant is getting closer to being the undisputed greatest scorer the NBA has ever seen. Offensively he’s a seven-foot shooting guard, his ability to handle the ball and shoot from deep make him impossible for like-sized players to guard him and the wings that have the foot speed to stick with him he can raise over for a shot at any time. Durant will always be remembered as one of the most talented players to ever grace the court in the NBA, but if the Warriors are able to add more titles to their collection while he’s there then he is going to be mentioned as a top 10 player in league history when he hangs up his jersey.
J.M. Poulard: Durant still resides as the game’s second-best player and the one that will tip the scales in Golden State’s favor for the next few years. In terms of history, it’s tough to say while in it, but as I project into the future, the most fascinating thing is the amount of Hall of Fame doors he closes for guys out West. Think about it: There are a few Spurs players (Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili) that will one day be enshrined, but are we sure anybody else in the conference will now get a chance to build a resume worthy of making the Hall?
James Holas: Just like we’ve never seen a team quite like Golden State, we’ve never seen a player quite like Kevin Durant. We want basketball’s best to fit a certain archetype. We want them to live, eat, sleep and breathe basketball; not just the sport, but the competition.
We hold on to the images of the snarling Michael Jordan and the scowling Kobe Bryant, and we thrill to the relentlessness of Russell Westbrook and the drill instructor barking of Chris Paul. We listen to the tales told by legends of fistfights and cold shoulders and bloody playoff wars. We want to see the best in the NBA rise to the challenges, both in individual matchups and on the franchise level, scratching and clawing and coaxing and bleeding to bring an O’Brien trophy to the team that handed them to whatever team handed them the keys on draft night.
Kevin Durant hit most of those wickets. We watched him and the Thunder go from fun young team brimming with potential to a perennial contender, all with KD as the hub. Durant was an unstoppable scorer, and with Westbrook at his side, the Thunder were right there in the league with the Spurs, Cavs and Warrior; hell, just last season Durant was on the cusp of stamping his legacy with a feat for the ages, standing one game from toppling the mighty 73-win Warriors.
But Durant had enough of being The Guy, and moved to the Bay to be “one of the guys.’
3.) LeBron James put together a brilliant series, one of his best. Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving reasonably played up to their abilities. It was still hopelessly futile. Is this a problem for the NBA moving forward?
Bryan Toporek: It’s not a problem, because frankly, the series wasn’t hopelessly futile. Sure, the Cavs got obliterated in Games 1 and 2, but they were a late-game meltdown in Game 3 away from going back to the Bay Area tied at two games apiece heading into Game 5. Even if Golden State and Cleveland meet again in the 2018 Finals and the Warriors romp once more, history suggests something will trip them up in the near future. Remember, in late February, they thought Durant broke his tibia and was done for the year. Had that happened—or had Zaza Pachulia not busted Kawhi Leonard’s ankle during Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals—the outcome of these Finals could have been far different. Though this year’s Warriors seemed predetermined to win a ring, next year’s club will face challenges we can’t yet imagine. (Chris Paul to the Spurs, anyone?)
Brandon Jefferson: I do not think it’s a problem for the NBA. The Cavaliers, as constructed, are not a threat to this version of the Warriors. Yet, that doesn’t mean there are no worthy opponents out there. While the Spurs probably wouldn’t beat the Warriors in a best-of-seven series, they would give them more of a run for their money than any other team. Teams have also now seen what Golden State is and can plan accordingly for the future. There will be some brave souls who try to build a roster capable of going toe-to-toe with this Bay Area juggernaut and there will be some who decide that it isn’t worth it and build for the post-superteam era.
This is not the first time one team has dominated the league for an extended stretch (the 60’s Celtics, 90’s Bulls, 2000’s Lakers also held the NBA at their mercy) and it certainly won’t be the last either. Having a head of a snake for other teams to attempt to chop off will bring good play and stories to the league and that’s all the NBA needs to survive.
J.M. Poulard: Yes and no. The Warriors just made the offseason that much more interesting now that teams like the Cavs, Spurs, Celtics and Raptors will have to start an arms race to build a contender capable of thwarting the Dubs. If these teams do load up, we might have ourselves some great regular seasons and playoffs ahead. On the flip side, if none of the contenders actually improve, this juggernaut Golden State team could seriously end up winning 74 games while resting players and go 16-0 during the postseason. Naturally, some people will love that, but if there is a large segment of fans that are turned off by this kind of dominance, it may end up hurting the overall product in terms of ratings.
James Holas: The Warriors cast a long, dark pall over the NBA. Westbrook’s singular heroics, Harden’s precision cool efficiency, the rise of Giannis, the break-out of Wall: no matter the side stories and distractions, the might of the Warriors was the overarching theme of this season. The playoffs highlighted the chasm between the Warriors-Cavs and the rest of the league, and the Finals showed just how much better Golden State is than the Cavaliers.
The Dubs are the giant corporation buying up land in The Goonies. They’re OCP, omnipresent and powerful, providing everything to the world in Robocop. They’re the National Wrestling Association’s Legion Of Doom; deep, talented and too powerful for any team to really challenge them (I vote that Durant is either King Kong Bundy or Jake “The Snake” Roberts).
But the NBA is all about entertainment. The Warriors are the smiling heel, the Eddie Haskell of the NBA. The only thing worse than their smug, entitled attitudes is the fact that they back every bit of the smack talk and hype up. There’s an air of despair from like 28 other teams, but you can’t fault Golden State for building excellence. Now, the onus is on every other front office to concoct an antidote to the Dubs’ floor-stretching, rim-attacking versatility and athleticism. It bums me out that Durant ruined one contender while making another nigh-unbeatable, but the ratings don’t lie; after all of the pissing and moaning about how bad these playoffs were (and make no mistake, these playoffs were baaaaad), the Finals still pulled the best ratings in almost 20 years. I wouldn’t call the Warriors being almost unfair a “problem”…yet.
4.) Where do the Cavaliers go from here?
Bryan Toporek: It’s no secret the Cavs need more two-way players—or needed role players such as JR Smith and Tristan Thompson to not go MIA during Games 1 and 2 of the Finals—but given their cap constraints, their main avenues of improvement will be through the taxpayer mid-level exception and ring-chasing veterans. If they could get someone like PJ Tucker or James Johnson to sign for the mid-level exception, that’d give them another potential Durant-stopper who can knock down occasional threes on the other end. I don’t think they’ll have enough ammunition to trade for Paul George unless Indiana decides to move him this summer no matter the cost, and trading for Carmelo Anthony wouldn’t swing the needle in their favor. If I’m David Griffin, or whoever is running the franchise next year, for that matter, I’m sticking with the Bron-Love-Kyrie core for one more year at least.
Brandon Jefferson: First, EXTEND DAVID GRIFFIN’S CONTRACT!
The easiest path to contention is probably to simply run things back. In 2015, injuries took the Cavaliers’ best shot away from them. Last year, a suspension cracked the door open for an improbable comeback. This season, both teams were at full strength and Golden State easily was the better team. However, it’s no guarantee that will be the case if they face off for the fourth consecutive time. Keeping the team as is almost assures that Cleveland will win the East again. Once in the NBA Finals, you never know what could happen.
J.M. Poulard: The franchise is in a bit of a predicament. The coaching staff and personnel are good enough to make the Finals, but not win it, and therein lies the conundrum. Keep playing to lose versus Golden State or make a few big moves with the hope of competing. If the answer is competing, the franchise needs to overhaul its mindset. The regular season should not be viewed as a formality, but rather as an opportunity to build strong defensive principles and an offensive system that can do more than just survive when LeBron is off the floor. In terms of roster construction, Cleveland needs better two-way players (think Arron Afflalo or Danny Green type) and dynamic playmakers. Short of remedying these two areas, the Cavs will continue to win east crowns and nothing else.
James Holas: The Cavaliers would have had my vote against any other team in the NBA, but I think the Warriors beat them nine times outta 10. I would be 100 percent behind the “hey, Cleveland doesn’t need a radical overhaul, maybe a couple of minor tweaks and they’re cool” stuff if LeBron James wasn’t turning 33 this year. Cleveland can’t piss away the handful of elite years that Bron has left with lukewarm rosters.
Kevin Love was noticeably more comfortable and in tune with the team this season, and his shooting and rebounding definitely have value. But while Love wasn’t a wasteland defensively against the Warriors, the difference in quicks and twitchy athleticism between Love and guys like Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala was stark. The game has evolved at breakneck speed, to the point that Love, a cutting edge shooting-rebounding offensive fulcrum just a few short years ago, might now be outdated in the context of the Dubs-Cavs arms race.
The Warriors being SO MUCH better than Cleveland (#LightYears) calls for desperate measures. Can the Cavs finagle Paul George for Love plus future picks? Could they somehow interest the Bulls in taking Kyrie Irving for the services of Jimmy Butler? Would either of these moves move the needle enough to matter? Both Butler and Paul George would be sizable upgrades over either Love or Irving, but the “All Star math” still skews heavily in favor of Golden State: 4 All Stars (2 of which are MVP types) will most likely trump 3 All Stars, even if one of them is LeBron James.
And that’s the conundrum: Cleveland is cash strapped, and outside of Bron, Love and Irving (all three whom they need for success), simply don’t have attractive assets to use to add another high level player. If I’m the Cavs’ front office, I’m taking a run at Paul George, even as a one year rental, and I’m betting that playing deep into the playoffs and playing off of the best player of his generation is enough to entice him to stay.
5.) Final thoughts?
Bryan Toporek: Though these playoffs mostly sucked, injuries softened the Warriors’ slate throughout the Western Conference bracket. Had Jusuf Nurkic, George Hill or Kawhi Leonard not been hurt, Golden State might have faced at least a modicum of resistance before meeting Cleveland. No one should put an asterisk on this Warriors title—they’re deserving champions and should remain the title favorite each year for the foreseeable future—but if asked to take Golden State or the field for the 2018 champion, I’m taking the field.
In other words: Don’t let the Warriors’ dominance this season deter you from enjoying the rest the NBA has to offer. Twenty-nine other teams aren’t going to blow their teams up in deference to the Warriors’ dominance. Legitimate challengers will rise sooner than we think.
Also, Joel Embiid, please stay healthy next season. Kthxbye.
Brandon Jefferson: Even though we could see this outcome from the moment Durant chose the Warriors, it was still an entertaining season. The number of sweeps put a damper on the postseason, but even though it only lasted five games, the NBA Finals were a great cap on this year. Golden State now sits atop the league and the rest of the NBA is going to have to figure out if they want to throw stones at the throne or try and wait out their dominance. Either way, next season cannot start soon enough in my eyes.
J.M. Poulard: The Warriors might have the most cohesive roster ever constructed, and the Finals demonstrated that on each and every possession. There was no place for Cleveland to hide players and no one to divert attention away from because literally every player was a threat. It’s a bit like the 2014 Spurs on steroids. I can’t help but wonder what the legacy of these Finals will be as teams try to copy certain aspects of the Golden State culture. Steve Nash brought back the art of passing a few years ago with the Phoenix Suns and now that style has won two titles through three years. Sure, Golden State was loaded with talent, but it operated in a manner that goes a bit against the grain when looking at the history of NBA basketball. Will the future of the NBA be marked by a beautifully healthy blend of team play and isolation schemes? Let’s hope that’s what the Dubs have ushered in.
James Holas: *slow, rhythmic clap*
Good for you, Warriors. You won a league record 73 games last year while posting one of the best net ratings of all time and had three chances to close out a 3-1 lead in the Finals. You failed at that, so you add the 28-8-5, 2015 MVP to your other MVP and your All-Star shooting guard and your All-Star power forward, and you relatively breezed your way to a title. Kudos. Way to bring a laser cannon to the knife fight.
(Seriously, I’m glad Kerr’s health is improving and I’m hoping he makes a complete recovery, and doesn’t do any more damage to his back lifting this new O’Brien trophy).