The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers will face off in Game 1 of the 2017 NBA Finals on Thursday, the first time in league history that the same two squads have met in the championship series for three consecutive years. (Even though it sometimes feels like the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers have played each other every other year since the league launched in the late 1940s, they’ve only matched up 12 times, and never three in a row.)
The league would love to sell Cavs-Warriors III as a clash of the titans, a white-hot rivalry, an all-time great "threematch." But while Steph Curry’s Warriors and LeBron James’ Cavs are unquestionably the best teams in their respective conferences, and have each brought home a Larry O’Brien trophy to their formerly long-suffering fans (the Warriors in 2015 and the Cavs last year), making this third round the theoretical tiebreaker, this matchup just doesn’t carry the gravitas or excitment of the three (non-consecutive) Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird finals of the 1980s, Michael Jordan’s domination of the ’90s, or any of the other great eras in NBA Finals history.
Part of the struggle to gin up excitement for Steph v. LeBron is the insufferably dull product fans have witnessed in the previous 14 playoff series this year, which were defined by blowouts and early exits, culminating in this year’s matchup of Goliaths. Only two series went seven games (the Jazz and Clippers, and the Celtics and Wizards), and neither was particularly enthralling.
Also problematic for the NBA is the fact that so much of the tension of last year’s NBA Finals simply can’t be replicated. The Warriors — then the defending champs — had won a record 73 regular season games and were on a mission to dethrone the championship-winning 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, who won 72, as the greatest team of all time. No manufactured drama was necessary to make that storyline interesting. Yet there was an equally good narrative brewing on the other side of the court.
Only six years removed from James’ unceremonious defection from Cleveland, when he took his talents to South Beach to team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to chase what he believed would be a limitless run of championships with the Miami Heat (as it turned out, he won two and lost two in his four trips in four years to the NBA Finals), James was chasing redemption — for his image that he clumsily sullied with his ham-fisted ESPN-televised "The Decision," for the jersey-burning rage he inspired in the Cleveland fanbase, and for his legacy that had been defined largely by being the greatest player of its era, but not its greatest winner.
Down three games to one in last year’s Finals, James seemed to tap into a supernatural force that willed the Cavs all the way back. When James weeped openly on the court and made his hometown of Cleveland (okay, he’s from Akron, but close enough) a championship city for the first time since 1964, there were no hills left for King James to conquer.
So where’s the drama this year?
Appearing in his seventh straight Finals, James isn’t chasing redemption. He’s just chasing Jordan, winner of six rings with the Bulls and generally considered the consensus NBA player of all time (though there’s plenty of room for argument on that score). Meanwhile, the Warriors are no longer the scrappy and loveable upstarts who won a championship with rookie coach Steve Kerr two years ago. After adding Kevin Durant, another future Hall of Famer and every bit the game-changing force as Curry and James — via free agency last summer, the Warriors are in full-on unapologetic Evil Empire mode. A Warriors win might help tilt he "greatest player in the game right now" argument in Curry’s favor, but the addition of Durant — to go with returning All-Stars Klay Thompson and Draymond Green — makes a Warriors title less about Curry’s greatness and more about Warriors General Manager Bob Myers’ ability to squeeze this much insane talent under the NBA’s salary cap.
Sure, the Cavs’ gave James — who already had All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love helping to carry the load — some graybeard veteran help in the form of Kyle Korver and Deron Williams, and also the comparatively young journeyman power forward Derrick Williams to help pull down some boards. But on paper (and in Las Vegas), the Warriors have a decided advantage. They’re supposed to win. And they probably will.
Hopefully the series is close, but even more desirable would be competitive games, something lacking from last year’s Finals (when six of the seven games were blowouts) and most of this year’s playoffs. But there’s no redemption story or history to be made in the 2017 Finals. We’ll just have to be satisfied watching the two best teams … again.