An Analysis of the Celtics-Cavaliers Trade

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The NBA has officially lost its mind.

Last month, Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving requested a trade out of Cleveland to play outside of LeBron James’ shadow. When he did so, he listed the Spurs, Knicks, Heat, and Timberwolves as his four preferred destinations in a future deal. Rumors had periodically appeared about the Phoenix Suns trying to work out a deal that would have centered around Irving and Suns point guard Eric Bledsoe. But other than those five teams, it didn’t sound like anyone else would be involved in the Irving proceedings.

So naturally, Irving eventually was shipped to none of those aforementioned teams:

Wow. If you think there’s a lot to digest here, you’re right. Let’s start with the trade’s headliners (Thomas and Irving) and then branch out from there.

Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas entered the league at the exact same time; in fact, Irving was the first pick in the 2011 Draft while Thomas was the last. This trade marks the first time in NBA history that the first pick in a draft has been swapped for the last pick in that same draft. Because they have played for the same amount of time, we can conveniently and easily compare their careers to this point.

Possibly the best NBA stat to encapsulate a player’s full value is VORP (Value Over Replacement Player). Since the 2011-12 season, Irving has a slightly higher VORP than Thomas (16.2 to 14.9). Thomas, though, started his career with the Sacramento Kings and was traded to the Celtics at the 2015 trade deadline after a brief layover in Phoenix. Starting with Thomas’ first full season in Boston, though, he has a far higher VORP than Irving (8.2 to 4.4). Thomas, in fact, finished fifth in NBA MVP voting last season and was incredibly valuable to the Celtics in their, at times, seemingly improbable run to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Where Thomas is docked by critics, and rightfully so, is for his defense. Among those who played at least 1,500 minutes last season, Thomas was tied for third-to-worst in Defensive Box Plus/Minus (DBPM), coming in ahead of only Shabazz Muhammad and Nick Young. DBPM measures a player’s contribution to his team in points per 100 possessions, and Offensive Box Plus/Minus (OBPM) does the same thing on the other end of the floor. Part of the problem is that, in case you haven’t heard, Thomas is all of 5’9″ and is the shortest point guard in the league. There are very few matchups, if any, that Thomas can possibly win at the defensive end with his height. What some may not tell you, though, is that Irving, standing at 6’3″, isn’t significantly better at the defensive end. Despite his six-inch height advantage, Irving finished just one point better in DBPM last season, which tied him for fourteenth-worst in the league. Offensively, both players have been pretty much even since coming into the league, with Thomas having a slight advantage in Offensive Box Plus/Minus. If this trade were simply player-for-player, I’d probably call it about even with (maybe) a very slight advantage for the Cavaliers.

The issue for the Celtics, though, is that they didn’t just give up Isaiah Thomas in the trade. Let’s move on from Thomas and Irving and look at the other cool toys the Celtics forked over to get Kyrie.

Crowder is an enticing sixth-year player and the advanced metrics are largely split on how good he actually is. While VORP has him as a slightly above average player, win shares (which is exactly what it sounds like) is very high on him. That statistic rates his value very highly and says that he contributed fourteen wins for the Celtics over the past two seasons, a number slightly better than Irving’s win shares (13.9) over the same period. Another figure that casts Crowder in a very positive light is True Shooting Percentage, which takes into account all of a player’s field goal and free throw attempts. Crowder pulled in the top 20 in TS% (61.3) last season, and both he and Thomas finished in the top 20 and ahead of, wait for it, Kyrie Irving.

While Crowder’s exact value seems to be kind of hard to peg, his presence gives the Cavaliers plenty of lineup opportunities. If the team wishes to go small to try to directly mirror a lineup like the Warriors’, they could start Crowder at small forward, LeBron James at power forward, and then have a choice between Kevin Love or Tristan Thompson as the team’s starting center. The other option for the Cavs is to leave their starting lineup as is, with both Love and Thompson starting, and have Crowder come off the bench to spell James. This choice may be more likely, as James played over 42 minutes per game in last year’s NBA Finals. Either way, the Cavaliers and coach Tyronn Lue have no shortage of options for using their new wing.

And don’t forget that the Celtics also included Croatian big man Ante Zizic in this deal. While Zizic probably isn’t NBA-ready just yet, he is an interesting big man who averaged a double-double per 36 minutes in the Turkish Euroleague last season. When he declared for the 2016 NBA Draft, I compared him to Nikola Vucevic and noted his 25.7 PER in the Adriatic League, a league that features teams from several countries, most notably those comprising the former Yugoslavia. Zizic could be an interesting piece for the Cavs’ future, and even though he struggled at times in the Summer League, he could be a fascinating component of the Cavaliers’ haul for Kyrie Irving. He’s expected to play in the United States this year and will likely spend most of his time in the G-League, formerly known as the NBA’s Developmental League.

Last, but most certainly not least, the Cavaliers received the Celtics’ all-important and unprotected 2018 first round pick from the Brooklyn Nets. The Nets were the worst team in the league a season ago and the Celtics received their first-round pick in the Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce trade, otherwise known as the gift that keeps on giving the whole year round. The Nets are showing very few signs of improvement for next year, and if the team again has the worst record in the league, then the Cavaliers will have the best chance at acquiring the #1 overall pick in the 2018 Draft. Assuming owner Dan Gilbert and his son, Nick, can work their almost biennial draft lottery voodoo, the Cavs will have very good odds at reeling in the first pick.

While we’re likely a little ahead of ourselves with this one, if the Cavs have the first pick, they could choose from Missouri’s Michael Porter, Jr., Duke’s Marvin Bagley, Michigan State’s Miles Bridges, and a host of other intriguing prospects. Even if they don’t have the first selection, they could still get a very good player in the first few picks. This is all assuming that the Nets don’t somehow make a run to the eight-seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, which seems extremely unlikely with the state of their current roster.

Of course, this trade will lose value after next year if James leaves for greener pastures in free agency next summer; Thomas is also a free agent next year and may look to relocate if James leaves. Still, a superstar, a proven starter, a potentially solid international big man, and a potential #1 pick is just about as well as the Cavaliers could have possibly done.

The Cavs’ front office deserves all of the credit they could possibly get for pulling off this deal. When Irving’s trade demands became public knowledge, many assumed that Cleveland would get less than market value for him because Irving would be desperate to leave and the front office would be desperate to move him. Instead, the Cavs actually got above market value for him and the assets they received in the trade could appreciate over time. It is surprising, though, that Celtics GM Danny Ainge decided to pull the trigger on this move when he could have let the Cavaliers trade Irving elsewhere and take his chances going against a Cavs team likely led by James and Kevin Love. That being said, the Celtics still have a lot of assets in tow and Irving will give them valuable and significant contributions. But hats off to new and, until yesterday, relatively unproven Cavs GM Koby Altman for getting as much as he could for his disgruntled star point guard. And while this move probably isn’t enough to close the gap between Cleveland and the Warriors, it looks like the Cavs may have gotten better with yesterday’s trade.

The Cavaliers were in a situation with Kyrie Irving that could best be described as impossible. And yet, somehow, someway, they came out on top when they decided to deal him.

The Potential Effects of a Kyrie Irving Trade

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Yesterday, NBA Twitter collapsed on itself with the report from ESPN’s Brian Windhorst that Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving is asking for a trade out of Cleveland. Irving has been the second-most important player on a Cavaliers squad that has reached the NBA Finals in three consecutive seasons, and the news of his trade request comes as a complete shock to both the Cavs and the rest of the league. Irving’s reasoning for doing this is to get out of the shadow of LeBron James, who is somehow still the best player on the planet at age 32. The Cavaliers are reportedly none too pleased with the demands becoming public because the news lessens Irving’s trade value. Needless to say, there’s a lot going on here.

Irving has stated that he prefers four potential destinations: San Antonio, Minnesota, Miami, or the Knicks. Let’s just say that he would make any of those four teams better, with the degree of improvement being dependent on how much each team is willing to fork over in a deal. We’ll leave this space to what a possible trade would do to the Cleveland Cavaliers as they are currently constituted.

The present-day Cavalier offense is built around isolation sets for LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. While the Cavs averaged 110.3 points per game last season, James and Irving, on average, scored 51.6 of those points; combined, the two accounted for nearly 47% of their team’s points in every game they played. Kyrie averaged career highs in points and shots taken per game a season ago, and a 32-year-old James appears to have been ready to cede more of the offense to the team’s star point guard. In fact, Irving’s regular season usage rate was higher than LeBron’s a season ago.

Of course, Irving is not a true point guard in every sense. He has never averaged more than 6.1 assists in a season and has drawn comparisons to Allen Iverson both for his slick ball-handling and his isolation tendencies. This doesn’t mean that he’s a selfish player; he wasn’t even the primary ball-handler in Cleveland’s offense when he and James were on the floor together. But it would be a stretch to see him putting up numbers akin to the league’s best assist men (John Wall, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, etc.) anytime soon.

That being said, the impact of his impending departure from Cleveland cannot be overstated. Many of the problems Cleveland had last season, particularly against the Warriors, came because of the overuse of James and Irving. If you think LeBron James is currently overworked (which he is), you won’t want to see the Cavaliers without a legitimate second option to give him relief. There are numbers to back this up.

For example, in last year’s NBA Finals, James and Irving both pulled usage rates of over 30 percent. Translated: when both players were on the floor, they accounted for over 60% of the Cavaliers’ offense. Cleveland wasn’t playing two-on-five, but at times, it felt like they were. Irving’s usage rate increased when James went to the bench while James’ increased without Irving. The two players averaged a ridiculous 41.4 (!) minutes per game in this past Finals but without the defensive attention devoted to Irving, the Cavaliers offense simply does not operate as efficiently.

Together, James and Irving chipped in 77 points in Game 3 of the 2017 Finals. The Cavaliers won that game by…. that’s right, they lost. One of the best performances by two teammates in an NBA Finals game still wasn’t enough to topple the mighty Golden State Warriors. Even with Irving, the Cavaliers, as currently constituted, are not nearly good enough to win a championship. Without him, they’re still a dangerous team in the Eastern Conference (having the best player on Earth will do that to you), but they are not the unassailable force out East that they are right now.

Let’s say, hypothetically, that Irving is traded to the Knicks for Carmelo Anthony. Let’s also assume that the Knicks’ star power forward, Kristaps Porzingis, is not involved in any potential deal. Irving’s PER (player efficiency rating) last season was 23.0 while Anthony’s was 17.9 (league average in 15). Anthony’s VORP (value over replacement player) was 0.7 while Irving’s was 2.9. Irving ranked in the top 15 of all players last season in Offensive Box Plus/Minus, while Anthony barely scratched the top 50. Most interestingly, Anthony’s Box Plus/Minus last year was -2.2, a rating similar to players such as Derrick Rose, Arron Afflalo, Jamal Crawford…. and Kyrie Irving. The Cavs would essentially be trading away one of the best offensive players in the game for an aging player whose career trajectory is quickly hurtling toward a serious decline at age 33.  The Cavs would also not improve at all on defense, which was easily their weakest point last year. This trade would make perfect sense for the Knicks, which obviously means that there’s no way it’ll ever come to fruition.

The Cavaliers, though, are likely left with no better options. The team and new GM Koby Altman are faced with no good alternatives after Irving’s trade demands became public knowledge yesterday. Altman is taking over for the jettisoned David Griffin, who was fired on June 30, much to the dismay of the Cavs’ best player. The Cavaliers are also the biggest soap opera in the NBA today; their superstars are disgruntled, their owner is meddling in the team’s success, and their roster could be gutted by this time next year. In the short term, though, a potential Irving trade may put the Celtics ahead of the Cavs in the Eastern Conference next season. With all indications pointing to James potentially leaving Cleveland after next season, his second stint with the Cavs may end like the first one did: with a playoff loss to the Celtics. I’m not ready to say that for sure just yet, but Irving’s loss would be catastrophic to Cleveland’s championship hopes.

Kyrie Irving shocked the basketball world yesterday by asking for a trade out of Cleveland. Because Irving made the request, the trade is likely to happen sooner rather than later, and it will be interesting to see where he goes and what the Cavaliers can get in return for his services.

His demands truly put the Cavaliers in a peculiar place, but Cleveland has itself to blame for his wanting out.

LeBron vs. Jordan, From a Different Perspective

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Sports is dead.

Well, at least until tomorrow. This week marks the only time in the calendar year in which no professional sports games will be played. It’s a slow news week and at this point, it seems like we’re almost inventing news to get us through it. Think about that story: a player took his franchise’s ineptitude into account, as well as the sport’s inherent health risks, when deciding whether or not to keep playing football. No, never! Anyhow, it’s not the best week for new developments in the sports world.

This is good. Really, it is. We need breaks every now and then to take us out of a 500-mile-per-hour sports news cycle rife with blowhard dads, out-of-control beefs, and lots and lots of basketball. (The last game of the NBA Finals was on June 12. It feels like the sport never left us.) This also gives yours truly an opportunity to examine something I’ve somehow become opinionated about over the past year or so:

The debate over who is truly the best basketball player of all time, a debate that can be narrowed down to just two players: LeBron James and Michael Jordan.

You’ve probably heard the crazier, louder, and most controversial opinions on this subject. From our flawed memories to the supposed clutch gene, we’ve heard just about every possible opinion on this subject. It’s not that these opinions are bad or even wrong, but they do become tiring after a while. Once the discussion reaches a certain point, it feels like the same facts (or opinions) are being regurgitated and we try to come up with new, more interesting, and more controversial ways to address this matter.

This used to be something I spent zero time and energy on. After all, it’s the most hotly-contested debate in sports between fans, pundits, and even players. The contrarian in me said that I should ignore this and pay attention to other issues in sports that I viewed as being more important at the time. It really does put the psycho in psychoanalysis and I used to loathe it with a burning passion:

Anyone who makes a sincere argument about James’ legacy compared to Jordan’s clearly doesn’t understand just how much basketball has changed over the past 20 years. These people also don’t understand that the two men are completely different players who do completely different things on the court.  LeBron has always been aware of this, thankfully.

Sure, the game of basketball has changed over the past 20 years. And I’d like to think that I’ve become less of a sarcastic, angry curmudgeon over the past thirteen months (wishful thinking). So I decided to further investigate some things myself, and even I must admit that I was surprised by just some of what I found. For all of my life, I had always assumed that Jordan was better, but I gave myself a serious self-examination to discover why I held that opinion and whether or not I was right.

I decided that I was going to examine this analytically and accept that I may not expect the outcome I would eventually come to. I was jumping in on the hottest debate in sports.

For starters, most everyone agrees that James is a better passer than Jordan. This is certifiably true; not only does James (7.0) average more career assists per game than MJ (5.2), LeBron’s 35.0% assist percentage easily outshines Jordan’s (24.9%). Okay, we’ll give this facet of the game of basketball to LeBron. As long as Jordan isn’t hurting his teammates on the offensive end, it shouldn’t be that big of a deal, right?

As many will tell you, the absolute worst thing you can possibly do with the basketball is turn it over. In the case of an unskilled player like me, the worst thing you can do is shoot it, but that’s an entirely different conversation. Anyway, James has, as you would expect, more turnovers per game than Jordan. Again, this is over the course of both players’ full careers, so everything they have done is being factored in.

Take a closer look at that number, though, and you’ll see that it isn’t as black-and-white as it may seem. Sure, James averages more than three turnovers per game, but as we pointed out earlier, he also gets about seven assists. In terms of career totals, James’ assist-to-turnover ratio is about 2.06. Jordan, who obviously passed the ball less in his day, has an assist-to-turnover ratio of roughly 1.93. At this stage, I should point out that I won’t be counting Jordan’s comeback season in 1995, one in which he played just 17 regular season games. While much is often made of James’ turnovers, particularly in the playoffs, the problem is actually overblown in the regular season. If you take James over Jordan, you’re getting an extra 106 assists in exchange for just over 36 more turnovers. Wouldn’t you take that literally every single time? I know I would.

If you place a lot of import in playoff statistics, like I also do, you’ll notice that these numbers are slightly different. James’ assist-to-turnover ratio dips to 1.93 while Jordan’s hovers around 1.87. While both players are down, James is still slightly better. If you hitch your wagons to playoff LeBron and ditch playoff Jordan, you’re signing up for 45 more assists and 22 more turnovers. Again, you’d take that trade-off.

Another common knock against James’ overall game is his shooting ability. For some reason, many have made LeBron’s “inability to shoot” their justification for knocking him as a player. So of course Jordan’s shooting numbers have to be better, right?

Actually, that’s not necessarily the case. What if I told you that James has better career percentages on both two-pointers and three-pointers? That would probably shock you, right? Well, it’s true. While Jordan has a better field goal percentage in the playoffs, James actually has a better true shooting percentage; true shooting percentage, or TS%, is a measure of every “shot” a player takes over the course of a game or a season (twos, threes, and free throws). The numbers state that James is kind of, sort of a better shooter than Michael Jordan. Funny how that happens.

Now, many Jordan zealots will point to his scoring numbers (three more points per game in the regular season and five more in the playoffs) as a way to essentially stiff-arm these critiques. But in the playoffs, Jordan is able to pull off these numbers by taking over four more shots per game (in the regular season, it’s just over three extra shots per contest). Those numbers, then, are not as impressive when you consider how much harder he has to work for them. That isn’t meant to be a knock on Jordan’s offensive prowess but it does put both players’ scoring ability into context.

There’s one more thing to think about here: Jordan appeared in six NBA Finals and LeBron has appeared in eight. While most will take this time to point out that Jordan has six rings as opposed to James’ three, the fact that James has been to eight Finals total and seven in a row speaks to how consistently good he has been. Of course, if Jordan didn’t take the better part of two years off to play baseball, he may have matched or even surpassed this feat. And while Jordan has a 6-0 record in the Finals, he also lost to other Eastern Conference teams in the playoffs in the earlier stages of his career. That should also factor into his playoff greatness, whether you like it or not. This is the question: would you rather lose early in the playoffs or get to basketball’s biggest stage and then succumb to a simply better team? That’s pretty much what you’re saying if you bring up Jordan’s Finals record as the be-all, end-all answer in the debate between these two titans of basketball.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you probably know that I am something of an advanced stats nerd. Advanced analytics, particularly in basketball, place everyone on a level playing field and make all things virtually equal. This next section may bore you, but it is arguably most significant when comparing both players.

One of the main statistics used to evaluate players in basketball is Player Efficiency Rating, or PER for short. In that category, Jordan is slightly ahead of James (27.9 to 27.6). The distance between these two players, the top two in the history of the NBA in PER, and the third-place player (Shaquille O’Neal) is sizable. Jordan and LeBron are the two best players in this all-encompassing category, but we’ll cede the high ground to MJ on this one.

The more revealing stat in this debate is Value Over Replacement Player, otherwise known as VORP. VORP essentially tries to quantify just how much better (or worse) a player is than just about any other replacement player in the league in terms of points per 100 team possessions added (or subtracted). It is basically basketball’s answer to Wins Above Replacement. You get it, I VORP. I’m sorry. I had to throw that in.

Back to the matter at hand now. Just like with PER, both players are in the top two all time (it should be noted that these rankings also encompass the ABA). This time, though, James finds himself on top (115.9 to Jordan’s 104.4). While career PER is an average of a player’s efficiency rating over the course of his career, VORP is a statistic that accumulates as a player racks up more career minutes. So surely, upon seeing this, you would think James has played significantly more career games and minutes than Jordan, right?

Well, it’s not exactly that way. James has played 41,272 career regular season minutes. Jordan has played 41,011. The difference in service time between the two all-time greats? 261 minutes, a difference that Jordan would have compensated for in roughly seven games.

Another similar measure of a player’s success is a stat called Box Plus/Minus (BPM). Box Plus/Minus is almost identical to VORP, except that it attempts to quantify the contributions of a player per 100 possessions while he is on the floor. BPM, just like PER, is an averaged statistic and is not dependent on minutes played. James and Jordan possess all three of the greatest BPM seasons of all time, but James has a slightly better BPM than Michael (9.1 to 8.1). There are also separate calculations for offensive and defensive BPM. LeBron has the advantage in both figures.

Advanced statistics have spoken. They say that LeBron James is the greatest basketball player of all-time.

This is a debate that you could spin yourself in knots with. There are legitimate arguments to be made for both players and it’s hard to find blame with any opinion… as long as it makes logical sense, of course. To tell you the truth, I’m still not entirely comfortable having this conversation, as Jordan’s second retirement came just under four weeks before my birth. I’m also not comfortable with some seemingly downplaying Michael Jordan’s impact on the game of basketball, as he came into the league when NBA Finals games were broadcast on tape delay and left the sport of basketball as the second-most popular sport in the United States.

That being said, this discussion is simply about which man is the better basketball player and, by extension, the best basketball player ever. My careful study of the numbers shows that LeBron James has a slight but clear advantage.

Everything and Nothing Is Changing in the NBA

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Gordon Hayward is shipping up to Boston.

The former Utah Jazz forward will sign with the Celtics on a 4-year, $128 million deal, with the fourth year being a player option. Hayward is the asset Celtics GM Danny Ainge had wanted all along, and he didn’t have to give up any of his precious assets to get the best free agent on the market. This, ultimately, was Boston’s endgame; save the team’s stockpile of draft picks and most of its key pieces to acquire Hayward, who just last year was a 10-win player for the Jazz and a top-15 player in the league, having earned career highs in points and rebounds.

One would figure that Hayward’s decision would significantly change the balance of power in the Eastern Conference. If this is your opinion, you may want to seriously rethink it.

In order to make room for Hayward on their roster, the Celtics are expected to trade any one of Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley, or Marcus Smart; rumors are that the front office is looking to jettison one of the three players to Utah in a sign-and-trade to acquire Hayward. The most likely scenario is that Crowder is traded, as he would likely be cast as an undersized power forward in Boston’s new offense. However, his loss would be a bitter pill to swallow; Crowder ranked second on the team in win shares (6.7) last season and third in value over replacement player. While he probably wouldn’t be as productive if he stayed in Boston, don’t think that the Celtics are losing nothing if they trade him. Advanced statistics are not as friendly to Bradley or Smart, but the former was Boston’s second-leading scorer a season ago and the latter was the team’s sixth man. If it were up to me, I’d trade Marcus Smart; he only shot 36% from the field last season and just over 28% from deep. Smart, though, is one of the best defensive players on the team (tied for first in defensive win shares) and his departure would likely force Terry Rozier to step in as the Celtics’ backup point guard. While acquiring Hayward is definitely worth it for the Celtics, the team will likely be faced with non-trivial losses after his signing becomes official.

While the Celtics were the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference a season ago, their Pythagorean win-loss record says that Boston should have been 48-34 based on last season’s point differential of +216, or +2.6 points per game. Let’s say that the Celtics send Crowder to Utah in the sign-and-trade. In terms of win shares, the Celtics are getting a +3.7 net change, but if you take that number and add it to their expected win-loss record and not their real one (53-29), the team would finish at 52-30. Granted, this does not take the overall fit of either player into account, but it does provide a starting point to figuring out just how much better Boston is with Hayward’s addition. Personally, I’d say that the Celtics are about three wins better than they were last season if they don’t trade Crowder. If they do, they’re probably right back where they were a season ago, even though their roster is more talented and, simply put, better. The team is due for a market correction after essentially stealing an extra five wins last season, but Hayward will help them once he gets acclimated to his new surroundings.

Remember when I told you that Hayward was worth just over ten wins for the Jazz last season? Well, that isn’t the important thing when considering his move. The main question to ask yourself is this: is Gordon Hayward worth an extra three wins in late May?

That’s the amount of wins the Celtics would have needed to get past the Great Wall of LeBron in last year’s playoffs. Even with one of the luckiest and most surprising wins in NBA playoff history, Boston was absolutely no match for the James-led Cavaliers in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. Does the acquisition of a player like Hayward push the Celtics over the edge and past the Cavaliers? My guess, at least for next year, is that it doesn’t. It does make things more interesting, but it’s unlikely that Hayward instantly makes the Celtics the best team in the Eastern Conference; after all, the Celtics were immolated to the tune of a -100 point differential in last year’s Conference Finals, one that lasted just five games.

Now, Hayward’s signing is not solely a play towards 2018. The Celtics, assuming Ainge can re-sign star point guard Isaiah Thomas next year, are squarely in position to ascend to the Eastern Conference throne should James begin to decline (he turns 33 in late December) or leave the Cavaliers after next season. From that point of view, the acquisition is very smart; Boston gets a star player while giving up relatively few assets to do so. However, those picking the Celtics to win the East next year are probably at least a year ahead of themselves.

Of course, Hayward’s move isn’t the only significant development in this year’s free agency window. Let’s take a look at what’s been going on in the Western Conference, shall we?

In my view, the most significant move out west was the Minnesota Timberwolves’ draft day acquisition of Jimmy Butler from the Chicago Bulls. Chicago, for reasons passing understanding, only took Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and the seventh overall pick (Lauri Markkanen) from Chicago for a player who ranked in the top fifteen in both offensive and defensive win shares last season. Then, Minnesota signed Indiana Pacers (more on them later) point guard Jeff Teague and dealt Ricky Rubio to Utah. While the two are similar players, Teague is a slightly better shooter and, by extension, a slightly better floor-spacer for an offense that will likely run more isolation sets for Butler. Also, the addition of Butler should help budding stars Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony-Towns, both of whom are just 21 years old. Butler’s arrival should be beneficial to Wiggins, in particular, as he struggled mightily on defense last season. For added measure, the team later signed power forward Taj Gibson to play alongside Towns in the paint.

Here’s the catch, though: the most transformative acquisition of the past two weeks came to a team that finished 31-51 last season. While their Pythagorean win percentage says they should have won seven more games than they did, the Timberwolves have a ways to go before becoming a serious championship contender. While the Celtics can at least see the light at the end of the tunnel with the Cavs’ dominance, there still exists a gulf between Minnesota and the Golden State Warriors. And Golden State doesn’t have aging superstars who are likely to leave the team anytime soon. So while Butler makes the Timberwolves a lot better than they were, he shouldn’t be enough to make the difference between them and the Warriors.

Another huge trade in the West was the Oklahoma City Thunder’s acquisition of Pacers forward Paul George. George announced shortly before the deal that he had absolutely no intention of re-signing with Indiana when he becomes a free agent in 2018. This left team president Kevin Pritchard between a rock and a hard place; trade George and receive less than he should in return or keep George for one more year and let him walk, likely to the Los Angeles Lakers, next summer. Pritchard decided to cut his losses and deal George to Oklahoma City in exchange for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. George is a legitimate star in today’s NBA, and his numbers would suggest that the Pacers should get far more than they did in the trade. However, his preemptive decision left Pritchard with no good alternatives, so trading him for far less than market value was probably his only move to get himself out of check with his superstar. While many observers have chided the Pacers for getting fleeced in the deal, they had very few good options in this situation. They should be let off the hook just for getting anything at all for George’s services.

George, by all standards, is a very good player. He had a career year last year and has averaged over 20 points per game in each of the last three full seasons he has played. Where he has struggled recently is with his defense, as he accrued a negative defensive box plus/minus rating last season. This year, though, he’ll be playing with Russell Westbrook, the league’s reigning MVP. Chances are that he won’t be carrying all of the offensive load like he did with Indiana last season, thus giving him more energy to spend on defense. The two should have a symbiotic relationship next season, and while Westbrook probably won’t be averaging a triple-double next season, the addition of a player like George will take some of the burden from both players.

That being said, the Thunder won just 47 games a season ago. They were the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference playoffs and were bounced in an exciting but anticlimactic five games by the Houston Rockets in the first round last season. While the Thunder will try to keep George after next season, the Lakers are still the favorites to reel him in next summer. And even with him, the Thunder are likely not good enough to make a serious run at a championship this season. While George is an objectively excellent player, he shouldn’t move the needle enough to push the Thunder past the Warriors.

The one team that can claim to have a fighting chance at winning the West next season is the Houston Rockets. The team acquired star point guard Chris Paul from the Los Angeles Clippers in a monster trade that included the Rockets sending seven players back to L.A. The numbers, though, suggest that the hefty price Houston paid (Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, others) is more than worth it; Paul contributed just under 11 wins to the Clippers last year in all of 61 games. Even at 32, Paul is still one of the best point guards in the league, and his addition could very well make the Rockets the second best team in the Western Conference. While some have made the argument that Paul and superstar James Harden will struggle to coexist because, as they say, there is only one basketball, the Rockets now have two of the best guards in the game. Somehow, I’m inclined to think they’ll make it work.

But, again, can they beat the Warriors? Paul has never been to the Conference Finals and the Rockets couldn’t even get past the Kawhi Leonard-less Spurs in Game 6 of the conference semis last year. In a vacuum, this move would likely make the Rockets the title favorite next season. Instead, Houston will have to contend with the monolith that is the most talented basketball team ever assembled.

And also, the Warriors will be even more absurd than they were just last year. In free agency, the team has added shooters Omri Casspi and Nick Young (yes, that Nick Young) to their already-loaded bench. Meanwhile, they have also managed to keep all of their core pieces intact while making their roster even better than it already was. If a team is going to catch the Warriors for the NBA title next season, I haven’t found it yet. While CP3 makes the Rockets significantly better, Houston would need several things to go right for them to get past Golden State.

Many important moves have been made in NBA free agency and trades in the last few days. Several teams have gotten better this month, such as the Thunder, Celtics, Timberwolves, and Rockets. We haven’t even gotten to mention the Denver Nuggets, who will be a ton of fun next year after signing power forward Paul Millsap to a 3-year, $90 million deal. Also, the Sacramento Kings are pushing toward playoff contention (don’t laugh) with the signings of George Hill and Zach Randolph, as well as the drafting of Kentucky’s DeAaron Fox with the fifth overall pick in the draft.

Many NBA teams have gotten better over the past couple of weeks. Unfortunately for them, the moves made this June and July likely won’t make much of a difference come next May and June.

Phil Jackson Isn’t Leaving the Knicks in Dire Straits

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Phil Jackson is goink, goink, gone as President of the New York Knicks.

The news was passed down early yesterday morning, as Jackson and owner James Dolan began to have major philosophical differences about the future of the franchise. This frustration is reported to have revolved around a potential buyout of Carmelo Anthony, an avenue that would have entailed the Knicks paying him a large sum of money, potentially up to $54 million, to play elsewhere. While Anthony wanted out of New York, Jackson wanted to get something back for his services. With this, the tumultuous, turbulent, three-year tenure of Jackson’s rule over the Knicks came to an end yesterday.

The reaction to this news? Predictable:


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Needless to say, Knick fans are pretty stoked about the team getting out of Jackson’s grasp. At this point, though, it’s probably a good idea to take a look back at Jackson’s time with the Knicks and just what exactly went so wrong for him and the team over these past three years. It’s also important to look at where the Knicks are now as opposed to where they were when Jackson took over as the team’s lead executive.

On March 18, 2014, the Knicks hired Jackson as their team president. The team was 28-40 at the time and in no position to make a run towards the playoffs. In fact, Phil’s first move as the lead executive, as certain individuals will happily remind you, was to sign Lamar Odom, who, at the time, was in the midst of an addiction to alcohol and cocaine. As a metaphor, it wasn’t the best start to the Jackson era in New York.

After the season, Jackson fired head coach Mike Woodson and replaced him with the recently-retired Derek Fisher. While the hiring was met with optimism, the Knicks previously had their heart set on Steve Kerr, who instead took a job with the Golden State Warriors. The team reportedly low-balled Kerr by offering him $13 million for three years; the Warriors offered to pay Kerr $5 million per year for five years, an offer he happily accepted. Three years and two Golden State championships later, it’s clear that the disenfranchisement of Kerr set a negative tone for Phil Jackson’s tenure as president of the Knicks.

Perhaps more telling, though, were the assistant coaches hired by Jackson to help the inexperienced Fisher. Among others, Jackson hired Jim Cleamons and Kurt Rambis to spots on Fisher’s bench. Why was this significant? Well, both men were former assistant coaches under Jackson in his time with the Bulls and Lakers; they would help implement Jackson’s favored Triangle offense, an offensive system he used in both of his previous coaching stints to help him win eleven championships. The Knicks, however, did not have Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, and it showed, as the team went 17-65 for the 2014-15 season, Jackson’s first full campaign as leader of the Knicks’ front office.

The seminal move of that season was the team’s trade of J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert to the Cleveland Cavaliers. In a three-team trade that also included Dion Waiters and the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Knicks acquired… Alex Kirk, Lou Amundson, and Lance Thomas. Smith and Shumpert became important pieces to the Cavaliers’ run to the NBA Finals that season and both are still in Cleveland. Jackson had finally helped build a title contender. Unfortunately, that title contender played in Cleveland, serving as yet another metaphor for the hapless Knicks.

Jackson’s lasting legacy as an executive will be his selection of Latvian power forward Kristaps Porzingis with the fourth pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. Porzingis has been excellent as a Knick and represents the team’s future as Carmelo Anthony begins to decline. Of course, in true Jacksonian fashion, he tried to trade the 21-year-old Porzingis before this year’s draft. When asked why he would even think about doing such a thing, the principal reason he cited was the Knicks’ future. The main reason for trading Porzingis would have been because he blew off last year’s end-of-season exit meetings because he, like everyone else, was and is frustrated with the Knicks’ dysfunction. While Phil cited the future to explain why the Knicks took calls about Porzingis’ availability, little did he know that trading the team’s best asset would have sabotaged the future Jackson said he was trying to protect.

This is also to say nothing of the relationship (or lack thereof) Jackson cultivated with Anthony. Among other insults, Jackson suggested that Anthony was a ball hog and didn’t necessarily care about winning. Jackson later went back to his Twitter with this truly bizarre clarification after subtweeting his star player:

One thing Jackson does understand about being an executive is the use of social media. As an influential leader in the 21st Century, Jackson understands that Twitter is a way to get your message out without going through the media. Unfortunately, his Twitter usage only created further problems for the Knicks, a team already torn apart by bad management and poor performance.

So where are the Knicks right now? After firing Fisher and bringing in new coach Jeff Hornacek before last season, the Knicks are at something of a crossroads. While Jackson and the Triangle are out, Hornacek and the remains of his staff and the team’s front office will have to fend for themselves with a roster somewhat in question; point guard Derrick Rose is a free agent and the team reportedly wants to try to trade Anthony, even though Jackson has left the front office.

Even though Phil Jackson proved to be a fairly awful executive (the Knicks were 80-171 under his leadership), he didn’t completely sabotage the team’s future. While there were times it looked like he would, Jackson still left the Knicks with Kristaps Porzingis and the opportunity to get something meaningful in exchange for Anthony’s services.

As for who will replace Jackson, that still remains to be seen. The top candidates to emerge for the position are former Cavaliers GM David Griffin and Raptors president Masai Ujiri. If the Knicks can lure Ujiri from Canada, the Raptors are likely to receive draft pick compensation in return. Of course, the success of Jackson’s replacement will depend on how willing owner James Dolan is to trust the new decision-maker(s). Dolan’s track record could use some improvement; since 2002, the Seattle SuperSonics have won more playoff games than the Knicks. Since 2008, the Seattle SuperSonics have been known as the Oklahoma City Thunder. The task awaiting whoever takes over as the president of the Knicks is to rebuild the worst-run franchise in the NBA into a contender. Good luck.

But the new president of the team will have Porzingis, Anthony, and, most importantly, a bright future for a team that has not reached the Eastern Conference Finals since 2000. That’s a lot better than nothing.

Some Thoughts on the NBA Draft

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Another NBA Draft has come and gone and, as usual, there are plenty of storylines to go around. Markelle Fultz was taken first overall by the Philadelphia 76ers, Lonzo Ball went second to the Lakers, the Timberwolves traded for Bulls superstar Jimmy Butler, and college freshmen (or the age equivalent of college freshmen) accounted for the first eleven picks in the draft.

Needless to say, there is plenty to talk about after last night’s NBA Draft. Here are some unsolicited thoughts on the last night’s draft and the events that surrounded it.

Ball Don’t Lie

Earlier this week, the Los Angeles Lakers traded away guard D’Angelo Russell and the unyielding contract of Timofey Mozgov to the Brooklyn Nets for center Brook Lopez. Many believed the move was meant to make room for the team, led by new President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson, to draft UCLA guard Lonzo Ball. Sure enough, that’s what the Lakers did with the second overall pick in last night’s draft.

Ball is the team’s point guard of the future and has the ability to make all of his teammates better. The Lakers aren’t going back to the glory years of “Showtime”, but the acquisition of Ball could be what helps them get back into playoff contention. And while the specter of Lonzo’s father, LaVar, hangs over the selection, Johnson and General Manager Sam Seaborn Rob Pelinka have decided that hitching the Lakers’ wagon to the UCLA guard is worth the risk. And personally, I must say that I agree. Ball was the best player available for the Lakers and he could start the team toward a return to prominence. Don’t let a crazy father stop you from thinking that.

The Timberwolves’ Future Is Now

Arguably the biggest move on draft night was the Minnesota Timberwolves’ acquisition of Jimmy Butler from the Chicago Bulls. In return, Chicago acquired guards Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn from Minnesota; the Bulls also acquired the draft rights to Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen, the seventh pick in the draft. The Timberwolves, meanwhile, also received the rights to the 16th pick in the draft, Justin Patton of Creighton.

While LaVine is an exciting player who averaged nearly 20 points per game last season, he suffered a season-ending ACL tear on February 3. Dunn, on the other hand, averaged all of 3.8 points per game in his rookie season after being drafted last year to unseat Ricky Rubio as Minnesota’s starting point guard. Rubio, though, had possibly the best year of his career last season, making the 23-year-old Dunn more than expendable this summer. Markkanen is an intriguing player who has drawn comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki and Kristaps Porzingis as a sharpshooting seven-footer, but it’s very fair to wonder just how much more the Bulls could have gotten for Jimmy Butler, one of the best players in the game today.

Last season, Butler ranked fifth in the NBA in win shares per 48 minutes, and before you cast that aside, consider that he came in ahead of LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, and Stephen Curry, among others, in that category. In the category of VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), Butler again was fifth in the league, ahead of Kawhi Leonard, Chris Paul, and Kevin Durant. The T’Wolves, led by Butler’s former coach, Tom Thibodeau, are getting a legitimate and experienced superstar who is one of the best players in the league at both ends.

The Timberwolves were able to get that caliber of player without having to gut their assets to do so. And the Bulls gave up the face of their franchise without getting many good assets in return. The Timberwolves are the clear winner in this deal, and the acquisition of Butler could help the team reach the playoffs for the first time since 2004.

The Knicks May Have Stumbled Into a Good Decision

I get it, the Knicks and good decisions go together like toothpaste and orange juice. But hear me out here.

While it’s not a long line of great players, the Knicks have had success in recent years with international players. This has entailed both drafting and signing foreign talent, including drafting Kristaps Porzingis, acquiring Willy Hernangómez in a draft night trade two years ago, and signing Lithuania’s Mindaugas Kuzminskas last summer. And, not to belabor the point, but all of those moves were made, with varying levels of success, by Phil Jackson. Thank me later.

Last night, the Knicks continued that trend, selecting France’s Frank Ntilikina with the eighth overall pick. Whlie Ntilikina is raw, he won’t turn 19 until next month, and at 6’5″ he has elite length for a point guard. Most importantly from the Knicks perspective, he fits Jackson’s Triangle offense, a system that is very successful when it’s led by Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, the best out of any point guard in this year’s draft. While you may not agree with that, Ntilikina is a system pick and could prove to be successful. I would have taken NC State’s Dennis Smith, but I understand the Knicks’ reasoning.

And besides, the Knicks front office knows what it’s doing. Just ask them. And even as their owner played a blues concert with his band during a huge night for his organization, the Knicks may have done something right, even if they didn’t do it on purpose.

Speaking of Teams Accidentally Doing Good Things…

The Sacramento Kings have not had many things go right for them recently. The team’s last playoff appearance was in 2006 and the last eleven years have consisted of bad trades, multitudes of head coaches, and general dysfunction both on and off the floor. Last night, though, the Kings did good things with their first-round picks.

With the fifth pick, the Kings selected Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox. Fox played the aforementioned Lonzo Ball in the Sweet 16 of this year’s NCAA Tournament and absolutely dominated the matchup, scoring 39 points in a Kentucky victory. Fox is a dynamic playmaker with amazing speed and athleticism, and he looks to be Sacramento’s point guard of the future.

While the Kings possessed the tenth pick in the first round, they decided to flip that pick to the Trail Blazers for the 15th and 20th overall picks. They would use those picks on North Carolina’s Justin Jackson and Duke’s Harry Giles, respectively. Jackson is an intriguing player because of his length and his perimeter shooting, but I was most impressed with the selection of Giles. Giles is an energetic big man who would have been selected earlier in the draft if he had not suffered two ACL tears in the span of just four years. The Kings could be getting a steal with the Duke big man, as he is an excellent rebounder and finisher inside. If he can stay healthy, he’ll prove to be far more valuable than his 20th overall selection.

Hopefully for the Kings, Fox, Jackson, Giles, and others can help the organization move forward in a post-DeMarcus Cousins world.

Path to a Trilogy, Chapter VII: 3-1

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Welcome to Chapter VII of Path to a Trilogy, where we re-examine recent NBA events that have led to the Cavaliers and Warriors appearing in three straight NBA Finals. This series will be composed of several entries. Happenings of the past are written in the present tense, as they happened, to create a more vivid portrait of the NBA landscape as it was at the time the events took place. 

In Chapter VII, we examine the 2016 NBA Finals, one in which the Warriors get off to a hot start before the Cavaliers take a run at the most improbable comeback in NBA Finals history. Links to previous installments of Path to a Trilogy can be found here

Without further ado, this is Chapter VII of Path to a Trilogy. Hope you enjoy.

The 2016 NBA Finals tip off on June 2, 2016, and anticipation for the second Cavs-Warriors matchup is at a fever pitch. The television broadcaster for the Finals, ABC, is expecting a massive rating for the games. Ticket prices are, on average, selling for over $1,500. This series is a big deal, and much of the sports world is grinding to a halt to check it out.

While much of the anticipation for the series revolves around its two best players, LeBron James and Steph Curry, Game 1 belongs to both teams’ ancillary pieces. The Warriors take a 52-43 lead into the halftime break in spite of just 10 combined points from Curry and Klay Thompson. The Cavaliers come back strong and take the lead late in the third quarter. A James layup puts the Cavs up 68-67 with just over two minutes left in the third. Unfortunately for them, it’s the last lead they have in the game, as the Warriors go on a 15-0 run between the third and fourth quarters behind bench cogs Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala, the defending Finals MVP. Golden State pulls away in the fourth quarter en route to a 104-89 victory and a 1-0 Finals lead. Livingston leads the team with 20 points while Draymond Green gets 16 points and 11 rebounds. Curry scores just 11 points on 4-of-15 shooting, but even with the unanimous MVP struggling, the Warriors are able to handily fend off the Cavs. James goes for 23 points, 12 rebounds, and nine assists, while Kyrie Irving leads all scorers with 26 points.

Many expect the Cavaliers to come back stronger in Game 2, but instead, their play goes in the opposite direction. Kevin Love suffers a concussion in the second quarter while fighting with Golden State’s Harrison Barnes for a rebound; Love stays in the game until experiencing dizziness early in the second half and going to the locker room. While the Cavaliers have the game within six points shortly after halftime, the Warriors again blow it open in the third quarter and open up a 20-point lead behind 28 points and five threes from Green. James and Irving shoot a combined 12-of-31 from the field and score just 29 points. Curry is better in this game, as he makes seven of 11 shots and scores 18 points. Most impressively, the Warriors are +25 with him on the floor. The fourth quarter is fully anticlimactic, so exciting that ABC’s announcers take to discussing important matters such as old Paul Simon concerts. Golden State wins 110-77 to pull within two victories of their second straight NBA championship.

Before Game 3, the main question for the Cavaliers, among many others, is the availability of Love. That question is answered shortly before tip-off, as he is ruled out with a concussion and will be replaced in the starting lineup by 35-year-old Richard Jefferson, who will start his first NBA Finals game since 2003. That does not address the matter of whether or not the Cavs’ performance will improve when the series gets back to Cleveland.

The answer to that question, though, is yes. The Cavaliers blow a close game open in the second half on their way to a 30-point victory and their first win of the series. James scores 32 points and Irving adds 30 as the Cavaliers pull away. On the other side, the Warriors, possibly the best three-point shooting team of all-time, shoot just 27% from downtown in the loss. There is only one day of rest between Games 3 and 4, the only occurrence in the series in which there are less than two days off. Now, the Cavaliers have a chance to tie the series at two games apiece on their home floor. And better yet, Kevin Love will be back in time for the game.

Game 4, to this point, is the best game of the series, and it’s also Curry’s best performance of the NBA Finals. Irving, though, is matching him, and the Warriors carry a slim 79-77 lead through three quarters of play. In the fourth, though, the show belongs to the MVP, as he scores 13 points in the quarter to finish with 38 for the game along with seven made threes. With 2:42 to go, however, the turning point of the NBA season occurs.

With the Warriors in possession of the ball and Curry pump-faking for a three, Draymond Green attempts to set a screen on LeBron James. James, after a brief period of hand-fighting, knocks Green to the ground. While James walks over Green a la Allen Iverson, Green, in attempting to get up, crashes into James’ midsection. The two spar, leading to a double foul and a jump ball. Green’s foul is ruled a common foul on the floor, but the league reserves the right to review the play at a later time. The play does not affect the Warriors, as they go on to win Game 4, 108-97.

Irving closes with 34 points and a 14-of-28 performance from the field. James finishes with 25 points, 13 rebounds, and nine assists, but many are critical of his seemingly “passive” performance. Kevin Love scores 11 points off the bench, as Jefferson starts his second straight game but contributes minimally on the offensive end. In advance of Game 5, Golden State’s main concern is Green’s status; the NBA is reviewing his play at the end of Game 4 as a possible flagrant foul. Because he had already accumulated two flagrant foul points, any type of flagrant foul would warrant a one-game suspension under the league rules.

The league comes down with its ruling on Sunday, June 12, just one day before Game 5. Green’s foul against James is upgraded to a Flagrant 1, and Green is suspended for Game 5. He will not be allowed in the stadium for the game itself, but the league gives him the okay to appear in Oracle Arena in the case of a hypothetical championship trophy presentation. In an ironic twist, Green, quite possibly the series MVP for the Warriors, will be forced to watch Game 5 from O.Co Coliseum, the home of Major League Baseball’s Oakland Athletics; the Coliseum is situated directly across the street from Oracle Arena, and Green can travel between both venues via an underground tunnel.

In Game 5, neither offense can be stopped in the first half. The game is tied at 61 after just 24 minutes of play, and Klay Thompson scores 26 points in a scorching-hot half of basketball. Iguodala starts for Golden State and, once again, defends James; LeBron scores 25 to lead the Cavaliers. The first half is easily the most exciting half of the series, and the Warriors’ offense doesn’t miss a beat without Green. The issue for them, though, is their defense, which allows the Cavaliers to shoot over 54% from the field in the first half.

However, the second half is very different than the first. Both teams collectively run out of gas offensively, and the Cavaliers turn to their two best players to push them over the edge. The second half is the James and Irving show, and their heroics are enough for the Cavaliers to pull away to a 112-97 victory to force a Game 6 in Cleveland. Irving and James combine for 29 of the Cavaliers’ 51 points in the first half and 82 of the team’s 112 points for the game. It is the first time two players score 40 points in an NBA Finals game in the history of the league, and their superhuman effort extends the Cavs’ season for an extra three days. Thompson leads the Warriors with 37 points while Curry contributes 25. Golden State’s scapegoat is Harrison Barnes, who scores just five points on 2-of-14 shooting. Green will return to the Warriors for Game 6, but the Cavaliers have firmly established momentum by stealing Game 5.

Unlike Game 5, the start of Game 6 is a complete disaster for the Warriors. Cleveland opens on a 13-2 run and expands the lead to 22 points near the end of the first quarter. One of the best offensive teams in NBA history barely musters double-digit points and trails 31-11 after 12 minutes of play. Golden State is able to cut the lead to eight before Cleveland goes on a 13-5 run to close the half with a 16-point edge. 18 of Golden State’s 43 first-half points come from Curry, but the overall brilliance of James is hypnotizing the Warriors. Green is back, but it doesn’t seem to matter, as he scores just four points in the first half. While Golden State closes the game to seven points in the fourth quarter, the Cavaliers are in complete command all night; the Warriors never lead for the entire game. In the fourth quarter, though, the face of the Warriors’ organization has a moment he would assuredly like to forget.

Steph Curry is playing with five fouls with 4:28 left in the game and the Warriors down 12. His team is still theoretically in a position to win the game, but Curry needs to be careful to not pick up a disqualifying sixth foul. After a missed free throw from Klay Thompson, Curry attempts to steal the basketball from James and is called for a reach-in foul, his sixth. In response to the call, Curry throws his mouthpiece into the crowd and strikes a fan, drawing two technical fouls and an ejection. The game is effectively over, and a deciding Game 7 will be held in Oakland on Sunday, June 19. Curry’s ejection is the first in an NBA Finals game since 1996 (SuperSonics forward Frank Brickowski). He closes with 30 points and Thompson finishes with 25.

However, the star of the series is LeBron James, who scores 41 points, dishes out 11 assists, and grabs eight rebounds in the Game 6 victory. He has basically toyed with the Warriors over the past two games, and the combination of he and Irving has proven lethal against Golden State’s defense. Draymond Green finishes Game 6 with just eight points to go along with ten rebounds and six assists. Once again, the Warriors’ biggest disappointment is Barnes, but he somehow compounds his Game 5 performance with a 0-point, 0-assist, two-rebound showing in Game 6. Andrew Bogut misses Game 6 after suffering a significant knee injury in Game 5. He will not play in Game 7, and his fill-in for Game 6 is none other than Andre Iguodala. Game 7 will be highly-anticipated, even more so than the rest of the series. And the two teams are evenly matched, too: through six games, both squads have scored exactly 610 points. Nonetheless, the closest contest was Game 4, an 11-point victory for the Warriors. Many will hope for a closer game than that to decide the 2015-16 NBA champion.

For Game 7, the Warriors make a critical lineup change: backup center Festus Ezeli is inserted into the starting lineup to replace Iguodala and, by extension, the injured Bogut. The first quarter is close but choppy, as one would expect in a nerve-wracking, winner-take-all Game 7. The Cavaliers have a 23-22 lead after one quarter behind six points from James. The second quarter, though, belongs to the Warriors, and, more specifically, Draymond Green.

After scoring seven points in the first quarter, Green really goes to the work in the second, scoring 15 points on four made three-pointers. Part of the intrigue of this performance is Green’s suspension in Game 5; many feel that he was the Warriors’ best player in the series before his forced exile. Game 7 is no different, and Green’s offensive outburst leads the Warriors to a 49-42 halftime lead.

Cleveland comes out firing to start the second half, as J.R. Smith scores eight points in the first three minutes to fuel a 12-5 run and force a Golden State timeout with the score tied at 54. The two teams go back and forth for the rest of the quarter, but the Warriors are able to retain a one-point lead after 36 minutes. The star of the third quarter is Irving, who leads all scorers with 12 points. The NBA is twelve minutes away from crowning its next champion.

The fourth quarter, just like much of the third, is a back-and-forth affair. the lead changes hands on three separate occasions before a Klay Thompson layup ties the game at 89 with 4:39 to play. Both teams then go scoreless for well over two minutes, and both offenses are completely stagnant. It is noted on the television broadcast that both teams, after a series full of twists and turns, appear to be on their last legs. That is, of course, until a Warriors fast break with just under two minutes to go.

After an Irving miss and an Iguodala rebound, the Warriors push on the fast break with Curry and Iguodala. The break appears to be a 2-on-1 against J.R. Smith when Curry gives the ball back to his teammate after a give-and-go. Iguodala double-clutches for the layup and appears to have a clear shot at the basket until James, defying all laws of gravity and energy, rises up and blocks his shot against the backboard. The play comes to be the defining moment of the 2016 NBA Finals and quite possibly the defining moment of James’ career.

After misses at both ends of the floor, the Cavaliers have possession with just under a minute left. They run a pick-and-roll to switch Curry onto Irving; Thompson has guarded Irving for most of the series and is a superior defender to his MVP teammate. Irving exploits the switch and rises up for a three, which he makes. Suddenly, the city of Cleveland is just 53 seconds away from its first professional sports championship since 1964.

The Warriors decline to use either of their two remaining timeouts and instead leave their next possession in the hands of Curry. Curry is guarded by the previously-injured Love on the next possession, and he too looks to take advantage of the mismatch. Love’s effort on the switch is championship-worthy and critical to the Cavs’ ultimate success, as he forces Curry to miss a difficult three-pointer. At the other end, Irving attempts to score quickly with just under 30 seconds left, misses, but gets his own rebound. The Cavaliers reset and Barnes fouls James; while the Warriors have a foul to give, the foul gives Cleveland an extra three seconds of possession. With that possession, James drives to the basket and, in attempting a soul-crushing, series-ending dunk, is fouled by Green, misses the dunk, and comes down awkwardly on his right wrist. While he is able to shoot the subsequent two free throws, he still needs to make one to put Cleveland ahead by two possessions. After missing the first free throw, James rattles home the second to put Cleveland up 93-89 with 10.6 seconds remaining. Golden State misses multiple shot attempts on their next possession and the Cavaliers are NBA champions.

James joins Jerry West and James Worthy as the only players to record a triple-double in Game 7 of the NBA Finals; unsurprisingly, he is named Finals MVP. Most importantly, though, he has followed through on his promise to bring an NBA championship to the city of Cleveland, the first in over 50 years. The 73-win Warriors miss out on the one thing they had always wanted: another championship. Many point to Green’s Game 5 suspension as the turning point of their title contention.

After Game 7, Green calls General Manager Bob Myers about the team’s plans for the summer. Later that night, he makes another phone call, and it’s to the top free agent in the summer of 2016:

Kevin Durant.

This series will continue later in the summer, and the final chapters will be put on hold in order to give ourselves some distance from the historical events of this past year.

Don’t Blame Kevin Durant

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When I was younger, ESPN aired a show on its alternate networks called “The Top 5 Reasons You Can’t Blame….”.

The show was an engaging and contrarian look at events in the history of sports, and it tried to take a different look at conventional wisdom in order to exonerate certain sports pariahs. The first episode in the series, which aired from 2005 to 2007, attempted to absolve Steve Bartman of the blame for the Chicago Cubs not advancing to the World Series in 2003. My personal favorite episode, though, is the one dedicated to former Boston Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner.

Buckner, of course, booted a ground ball in the tenth inning that enabled the New York Mets to win Game 6 of the 1986 World Series and force a Game 7. Many blame Buckner for the Red Sox losing the series, as his error is believed to be the reason why the Mets won the championship. However, the show goes into great detail about relief pitcher Calvin Schiraldi’s implosion in the tenth inning of Game 6 as well as the truly inexplicable and baffling managerial decisions of John McNamara.

Many also forget that Buckner had been playing with multiple debilitating injuries and may not have even beat Mets speedster Mookie Wilson, the man who hit the ground ball, to first base anyway. Additionally, McNamara had defensive replacement and backup first baseman Dave Stapleton on the bench; the Red Sox turned to Stapleton in every one of their playoff victories to replace the hobbled Buckner and close out the game at first base. John McNamara, for reasons only known to John McNamara, left Buckner in for the tenth inning of the most important game of the season. Buckner shouldn’t have been in a position to botch the grounder in the first place.

Why am I bringing this up now? Today, the Golden State Warriors are NBA champions, at least partially because they signed the game’s second-best player, Kevin Durant, away from the Oklahoma City Thunder last summer. The Warriors had made back-to-back NBA Finals without him and one could argue that they would have won it all this season even if they hadn’t acquired another superstar. But the addition of Durant basically made the Warriors’ second title in three years a fait accompli, and many were critical of his decision to leave the Thunder, who lost to the Warriors in last year’s Western Conference Finals after leading them 3-1 in the series.

Joining the Warriors, of course, was likely the best professional decision Durant could have made. While the Thunder were also a championship contender, the Warriors already had three stars on the roster and the addition of Durant made their offense virtually unassailable. The professional and basketball implications of the decision, though, are not the only reason why KD jumped ship.

In late 2014, the NBA announced a new deal with its television partners, ESPN and Turner Sports. The nine-year, $24 billion extension would begin with the 2016-17 season and would affect what was at the time a $63 million salary cap. The NBA’s proposed remedy for this imposing spike was to have the cap artificially smoothed so that a dramatic increase would not occur from one year to the next. The Players’ Association, spearheaded by executive director Michele Roberts, vehemently rejected that idea. The reasoning makes sense on both sides; NBA Commissioner Adam Silver wanted the cap to grow exponentially while Roberts wanted to maximize the profits for the players she is in charge of.

Because of the Players’ Association’s rejection of the proposal, the salary cap jumped from $70 million to just over $94 million from last year to this year. Durant, an impending free agent in the summer of 2016, now had more options to choose from; while eight teams were able to sign him before the cap spike, 28 teams were able to sign him after it. One of those teams was the Golden State Warriors, who happened to be coming off the best regular season in NBA history and were one game away from winning their second straight championship the year before.

Durant, of course, decided to sign with the Warriors, helping to form quite possibly the most talented team in the history of the NBA. His move to Golden State, for all intents and purposes, made the regular season academic. The Warriors were clearly the best team in the league, and even Durant’s six-week absence near the end of the regular season didn’t derail the team from winning 67 games and breezing through the Western Conference playoffs without a loss. The addition of Durant made what was already an outstanding team one of the best in the history of the NBA, and his presence made sure no one would seriously compete with the Warriors for the NBA championship.

So, Durant left the Thunder and won a championship in his first season with the Warriors. The team also has the potential to become a dynasty, provided that their stars stay with the organization. Seems like a good decision, right?

Well, according to the sports media world of lambasting people for doing the right thing, Durant is a snake who doesn’t value loyalty and sold his soul for a ring. The idea is that Durant somehow owes something to the Thunder for employing him for the first nine years of his career. Of course, that’s not the case, and the idea of being able to freely choose who you play for has gone back nearly 30 years. Tom Chambers, the 1987 All-Star Game MVP who later became the author of the single most underrated dunk in NBA history, was disgruntled with his organization, the Seattle SuperSonics, for building a frontcourt that wasn’t exactly centered around him. While there was free agency at the time, it was only restricted, and if a player was good, his team would almost always re-sign him. However, the Players’ Union was able to agree with the league that one could become an unrestricted free agent if he met certain conditions, and so Tom Chambers became the NBA’s first unrestricted free agent and later signed with the Phoenix Suns. He later became the Suns’ sixth man when they went to the NBA Finals in 1993. Oddly enough, no one was angry at him for making the move from Seattle to Phoenix.

Many were upset with Durant for making the NBA season less interesting, and you can bet his decision did just that. But you have to remember that he made his decision for himself and not for us, and if you were in his position, you’d probably do the exact same thing.

One of the most vocal critics of Durant has been ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith; Smith famously spouted off on Twitter, a medium often noted for its users’ contemplative reason and thought, merely minutes after Durant announced his decision on July 4 of last year. What’s interesting about this is that Smith himself once left the Philadelphia Inquirer to join ESPN, and did so for possibly the exact same reason Durant left the Thunder: the opportunity to advance himself professionally and financially. While sports is different from the real world, what Durant did is what people do in real jobs all the time: take a position at a more prestigious company to gain exposure and experience with the hopes of progressing onward in their professional lives.

But, instead of looking at it that way, many have derided Durant as a traitor and a villain. And it’s not just the sports world that feels this way, either. Last night, Jeopardy! savaged KD with this clue:

After a loss to the Warriors in the 2016 Western Finals, this Thunder stud didn’t beat ’em, he joined ’em

It’s clear that not many people are willing to defend Durant on this one. I can see the logic in being angry at his decision, but you have to remember just that: it’s his decision, not yours. If you were in his shoes (hopefully not the KD 9 Birds of Paradise), you’d probably do the same thing. And, after all, the move paid off, as Durant is an NBA champion today.

Kevin Durant’s move also should have never been possible. Had the NBA put its foot down and forced the players to accept a smoothed cap, the Warriors would not have had the cap space to reel in Durant. Instead, they, like just about every other team in the NBA, had the money to pull it off, and it did create an unfair advantage for the Warriors.

And that is not Kevin Durant’s fault. Like Bill Buckner, he should’ve never been in a position to do what he did in the first place.

Path to a Trilogy, Chapter VI: Thunderstruck

Mark D. Smith/USA Today

Welcome to Chapter VI of Path to a Trilogy, where we re-examine recent NBA events that have led to the Cavaliers and Warriors appearing in three straight NBA Finals. This series will be composed of several entries. Happenings of the past are written in the present tense, as they happened, to create a more vivid portrait of the NBA landscape as it was at the time the events took place. 

In Chapter VI, we examine the 2016 NBA Playoffs, one that sees the Cavaliers succeed with relative ease over the rest of the Eastern Conference while the Warriors, the greatest regular season team in the history of the NBA, face injury and adversity in the Western Conference Playoffs. Links to previous installments of Path to a Trilogy can be found here

Without further ado, this is Chapter VI of Path to a Trilogy. Hope you enjoy.

In the lead-up to the 2016 NBA Playoffs, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors are favored to make it out of their respective conferences and meet for a second straight year in the NBA Finals.

The Playoffs commence on Saturday, April 16, and the Warriors play in the second game of the day at 12:30 PM Pacific Time; they are on their home floor to host Game 1 of their first-round series against the Houston Rockets. In spite of the star power on Houston’s roster, the Warriors are clearly the far superior team, as they jump out to a 33-15 lead after the first quarter. They are able to do this on the strength of 16 points from Steph Curry, the soon-to-be MVP of the league.

In the second quarter, though, Curry tweaks his ankle by stepping on a Rockets player. He stays in the game until early in the third quarter. When he leaves the game for good, the Warriors lead 65-39, and even though he only plays 19 minutes, he still leads all scorers with 24 points. Golden State goes on to win Game 1 by 26 points, but their main concern is the health of their best player.

The next day, the Cleveland Cavaliers open their Playoffs against the 44-38 Detroit Pistons. Detroit gives Cleveland slightly more than they had bargained for, as the Pistons lead by seven points with just under 11 minutes to go. And yet, the Cavaliers are able to come back and pull out a 106-101 victory to hold off the Pistons and avoid falling into a 1-0 deficit.

The Warriors’ next game is on Monday, April 18, and they make the precautionary move of sitting Curry in hopes of allowing his ankle to heal so he can play later in the series. The decision pays off, as the Warriors take Game 2 behind 34 points from Klay Thompson, 18 points from Andre Iguodala, and 16 points on 7-of-9 shooting from Curry’s replacement in the starting lineup, Shaun Livingston. The Cavaliers win their Game 2 two days later, and both teams have a 2-0 lead in their first-round series.

On Thursday, April 21, the still Curry-less Warriors and Rockets play Game 3. The Rockets lead for most of the game until an Ian Clark layup puts Golden State head 96-95 with 12 seconds left. On the other end, James Harden drills a turnaround jumper with just over three seconds left to put Houston back up one. The Warriors turn the ball over on the final possession of the game and Houston survives in Game 3. However, the Warriors are in good shape; Curry is set to return to the series in Game 4, which isn’t taking place until Sunday. The Rockets are barely able to win a game without him, so his return should give the Warriors a clear edge.

The Cavaliers, on the other hand, are fully healthy and starting to run on all cylinders against Detroit. They are up five with 45 seconds left in Game 3 when Kyrie Irving hits this absurd corner three while falling out of bounds to sink Detroit and effectively put the Cavs up 3-0. Their Game 4 is also on Sunday.

In the Houston-Golden State series, Curry returns to action for a highly-anticipated Game 4. The soon-to-be-MVP, though, is less than 100%, and he only shoots 2-of-9 in the first half. On the last possession of that first half, with the score tied at 56, Curry tweaks his right knee over a wet spot on the floor and is forced to leave the game with an injury separate from the ankle sprain he suffered in Game 1. Instead of folding without their superstar, though, the Warriors outscore the Rockets by 27 in the second half to take a 3-1 series lead. That night, the Cavaliers close out the Pistons with a 100-98 victory; Irving leads all scorers with 31 points.

In Game 5, the Warriors absolutely bludgeon the Rockets. They outscore Houston 37-20 in the first quarter and don’t look back. Thompson leads the Warriors with 27 points and seven made three-pointers, and even reserve Brandon Rush gets in on the fun with 15 bench points. The Warriors beat the Rockets into submission and will face either the shorthanded Los Angeles Clippers or the upstart Portland Trail Blazers in the second round of the Playoffs.

On Friday, April 29, the Blazers defeat the Clippers on their home floor in Game 6 to win the series and set up a meeting with Golden State. For the second year in a row, the Warriors avoid playing the Clippers in the Playoffs, but L.A. would have been without their two best players, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, for the remainder of the postseason. Portland, however, is a young team whose core of Damian Lillard, C.J McCollum, and others has relatively little playoff experience.

And in their matchup against the Warriors, it shows. Golden State easily takes Game 1 behind 37 points and seven threes from Thompson; while the final score is 118-106, the figure is deceptive, as Portland scores nine of the final 11 points in the game. Portland takes an 11-point lead into the fourth quarter of Game 2, but a spirited team effort and lockdown defense propel Golden State to a 34-12 fourth quarter edge; the Warriors win the game 110-99. Portland has missed its best opportunity to draw even with the Warriors, and the news isn’t getting better for them, either; Curry is set to return to the Warriors in either of the next two games in Oregon.

Curry is not in the lineup for Game 3 of the series, and the Trail Blazers finally take advantage. Despite 72 points from Thompson and Draymond Green, Portland wins Game 3 behind 40 points from Lillard. The win marks just the second post-first-round single-game victory for Portland since 2000. However, a change of events is about to occur; Curry is activated for Game 4 and will come off the bench for the 73-win Warriors.

While Portland leads for most of Game 4, the Warriors tie the game on a Harrison Barnes three with 52 seconds to play. The game heads into overtime, and like he did so often in the regular season, Curry takes over. Despite having not played for over two weeks, Curry scores 17 of the Warriors’ 21 points in overtime to carry his squad to a 3-1 series lead. Ultimately, 27 of Curry’s 40 points come in the fourth quarter and overtime, and he notches a +21 in 36 minutes off the bench. He’s back, and so is the terrifying offensive attack of the Warriors.

Game 5 is another entertaining, high-scoring, back-and-forth affair. Fittingly, in the final minutes of the game, the outcome is in the hands of Curry, who was named the first-ever unanimous MVP in NBA history the day before. He shows the world why he won the award with 12 of the Warriors’ final 17 points, including a stepback, fadeaway three over Al-Farouq Aminu to put Golden State up five with just under 25 seconds left. Curry hits four more free throws to salt away the win for Golden State and put the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. The next night, in the other Western Conference series, the Oklahoma City Thunder defeat the San Antonio Spurs to win their series in six games and set up a meeting with the Warriors. Golden State won all three meetings during the regular season and comes into the series as the clear favorite.

In the Eastern Conference, the Cleveland Cavaliers easily dispatch the Atlanta Hawks in a four-game sweep. LeBron James averages 24 points, 8.5 rebounds, and just under eight assists over the course of the four games, and the outcome of the series is never in doubt. The closest contest comes in Game 4, one in which the Hawks have a chance to take the lead on the final possession. Unfortunately for them, point guard Dennis Schröder’s shot is blocked by James in the final seconds and the Cavaliers survive. They will play the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals and are very heavily favored.

In Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, the Warriors take a 60-47 lead into halftime. The Thunder, though, make up the deficit and tie the game on the first possession of the fourth quarter. They take the lead with ten and a half minutes to go in the game; the Warriors would never tie or take the lead after Dion Waiters’ lead-changing basket with 10:30 to go. Oklahoma City goes up five points with just over 30 seconds to go and wins Game 1 by a score of 108-102. Their offensive is spearheaded by 53 combined points from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the two best players on the team. The team also gets a pleasantly-surprising 16 points and +19 from New Zealand-born center Steven Adams. Curry, Thompson, and Green contribute 74 points, but the team that prides itself on its “Strength in Numbers” is outscored 21-16 in bench points.

In Game 2, the Warriors respond. They trail for all of 12 seconds in the second quarter en route to a 27-point victory. Curry scores 28 points and drills five threes in 29 minutes, and both teams empty the bench in the fourth quarter. The Warriors are back….. or so it seems.

Both teams have a full three days off before Game 3; because they both closed their second-round series promptly, the Western Conference Finals started two days early and the teams were given an extra two days off traveling to Oklahoma City. The time off should help both teams heal any injuries they might have and make the necessary X’s and O’s adjustments.

The game is tied at 40 with over eight minutes to go in the second quarter and looks to be an even contest after 16 minutes of play. The Thunder go on an 8-0 run in the next two minutes. On a Golden State offensive possession halfway through the second quarter, Draymond Green drives on Adams. He draws a shooting foul, but on his way down from his jump, he kicks Adams in the groin area. For his transgression, Green draws a flagrant 1 foul; he is not ejected but the Thunder faithful voice their displeasure with Green. This play comes to be the defining moment of the game; Oklahoma City goes on a 24-7 run after the kick and leads by 25 points at halftime. Things would get worse before they would get better for the Warriors, as the Thunder lead by as much as 41 before the end of the third quarter. Oklahoma City takes a 2-1 series lead with Game 4 taking place two days later.

Before Game 4, the league looks into potentially suspending Green for his shot heard ’round the world in the previous game. They decide against it; however, in an important clarification, the league upgrades Green’s foul to a Flagrant 2. If a player receives three flagrant foul points in the Playoffs, he is automatically suspended for one game. Green has two points and is therefore just one flagrant foul away from a one-game suspension.

In Game 4, though, he won’t have to worry about flagrant fouls because he and the Warriors are a collective no-show. The Thunder carry another huge lead (72-53) into halftime and win Game 4, 118-94. Oklahoma City’s dynamic duo of Westbrook and Durant is giving the Warriors fits, and Curry does not appear to be his usual self, having shot just under 42% in the first four games of the series. In the span of mere hours after Game 4, Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski reports that Curry’s knee and ankle injuries have him playing at roughly 70 percent of his usual athletic capacity. The report also passes along a quote from Green, who states that the team’s 3-1 deficit is “stunning”. Panic mode seems to be in full effect. All of a sudden, the Golden State Warriors, the best regular season team in NBA history, are down 3-1 in the Western Conference Finals and within one game of being eliminated from the NBA Playoffs.

While the Warriors have jaw-dropping and deep problems, the Cavaliers have concerns of the first-world variety. They dominate the Raptors in the first two games of their series; the most memorable moment in the first two games for Toronto comes late in the first half of Game 2. With Cleveland leading 50-46 late in the second quarter, Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry, after being substituted out of the game, decides to leave the bench and head into the locker room to “decompress”; the Cavaliers go on a 12-2 run during the great decompression to carry a 62-48 lead into the half. The Raptors would go on to lose the game 108-89.

The Raptors and Lowry would come back strong in Game 3. A stifling Toronto defense holds Kyrie Irving to 3-of-19 shooting in what later becomes a 99-84 victory for the Raptors. DeMar DeRozan leads the Toronto charge with 32 points and the much-maligned Lowry chips in another 20. The Raptors have a chance to tie the series at two in Game 4. In that game, the Raptors lead for virtually all of the first half and are assisted by an inspiring defensive and rebounding effort from backup center Bismack Biyombo. The Cavaliers come back to take the lead with a little more than eight minutes left, and the game experiences eight lead changes in just four minutes and 21 seconds. Toronto pulls through at the end of the game, and a DeRozan runner with 1:33 to play puts them up 103-99. After a Cleveland miss, an offensive rebound from Biyombo off a Lowry miss keeps the possession alive for the Raptors, and the latter hits a layup to put the team up six and tie the series at two. For as well as Cleveland played at home, they too may need to scratch and claw to go back to the NBA Finals.

Game 5 between the Cavs and Raptors takes place on Wednesday, May 25, and it’s not so much a game as it is a bloodbath. Cleveland dominates from start to finish and, at one point in the fourth quarter, leads by 43 points. James, Irving, and Kevin Love combine for 71 points as the Cavaliers pull to within one game of their second straight NBA Finals.

The next night, the Warriors host the Thunder trying to stave off elimination and force a Game 6 in Oklahoma City on Saturday. They are able to do just that with a 120-111 win in which Curry scores 31 points and Thompson scores 27. Possibly the most significant and surprising contribution for the Warriors, though, is that of Marreese Speights, who scores 14 points in just eight minutes. The Warriors have forced Game 6, and their home fans are feeling so confident that they chant “see you Monday” in the game’s final stages. Monday, May 30, is the date for a potential Game 7. Golden State needs to win Game 6 first.

On Friday, the Cavaliers, as expected, take care of the Raptors behind 33 points and 11 rebounds from LeBron James. With the win, James becomes one of a handful of players in the history of the league to play in six straight NBA Finals. They are through to the NBA Finals, and will meet the winner of the Warriors-Thunder series.

Game 6 of that series takes place the day after the Cavaliers clinch their place in the Finals. And just like the first two games in Oklahoma City, the Thunder are off to a good start, jumping out to a 13-point lead with under five minutes to play in the first half. The highlight of the first half for the Thunder is an Adams dunk on Green, one that is seen as emblematic of revenge for Green’s kick to Adams’ groin in Game 3. The Warriors stage a minor comeback and shave the lead down to five points at the half.

The Warriors come out hot to start the second half, but the Thunder weather the storm and, after a Kevin Durant basket, lead 96-89 with 5:09 to go in regulation. Chesapeake Energy Arena is rocking, and the Oklahoma City Thunder are five minutes away from eliminating the 73-win Warriors and punching their ticket to the NBA Finals.

And then, in a bizarre and stunning turn of events, Durant disappears and Klay Thompson catches fire.

Before Durant’s basket, Thompson had scored 11 points in the fourth quarter. He had been hot all night, and was just one three-pointer shy of breaking the NBA record for most threes made in a playoff game. Thompson breaks that record with his tenth three of the game, a side-winding, 28-foot bomb that brings Golden State back within four points and kick-starts their comeback. Oklahoma City’s offense goes dormant, and a Curry three ties the game with just under three minutes to play. The game is still tied when Thompson drills a pull-up three with a minute and a half to go. The shot puts the Warriors up three, and they are ahead for good. Curry hits a runner with 14 seconds left and the Warriors go on to win, 108-101. Thompson finishes the game with 41 points, 19 of which come in the fourth quarter, and 11 made threes. Curry and Thompson are collectively known as the “Splash Brothers”, and they live up to the mantra in Game 6 with 17 three-pointers between them. The Thunder have blown their opportunity to close out Golden State at home, and the Oracle Arena crowd will see their team on Monday.

In that game, the Thunder again jump out to a double-digit lead late in the second quarter. And just like Game 6, the Warriors close that lead to single digits at the end of the quarter, as a Curry floater brings the lead down to six points at the half. The Warriors come out of the locker room hot, and a Curry three gives the Warriors the lead with 6:24 to go in the third quarter. It would be the final lead change of the game, as the Warriors are able to hold off several Oklahoma City surges to win the game, 96-88. For all of the reports of Curry’s demise, he sure looks like the unanimous MVP tonight; he throws in 36 points and a dagger three with 27 seconds left to push the Warriors to their second straight NBA Finals.

The Thunder were five minutes away from reaching the NBA Finals. Now, they’re eliminated. And in the season of Curry’s greatness, Thompson is the true hero in the Warriors’ conquering the odds and returning to the Finals for a rematch with the Cavaliers. And while he doesn’t yet know it, Klay Thompson, with his fourth-quarter heroics in Game 6, has irreparably changed the future of the NBA, for better or worse.

Path to a Trilogy, Chapter V: The Quest for 73

Greg Nelson/Sports Illustrated

Welcome to Chapter V of Path to a Trilogy, where we re-examine recent NBA events that have led to the Cavaliers and Warriors appearing in three straight NBA Finals. This series will be composed of several entries. Happenings of the past are written in the present tense, as they happened, to create a more vivid portrait of the NBA landscape as it was at the time the events took place. 

In Chapter V, we take a closer look at the 2015-16 NBA regular season, one in which the Warriors reach historic highs and the Cavaliers find new lows in LeBron James’ second season back in Cleveland. A nationally-televised meeting between the two teams on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day serves as a tipping point for both organizations. Links to previous installments of Path to a Trilogy can be found here

Without further ado, this is Chapter V of Path to a Trilogy. Hope you enjoy.

Obviously, walking in the locker room, it’ll be good memories. Hopefully, it still smells a little bit like champagne. — Steph Curry

Both the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors have very quiet summers after their meeting in the 2015 NBA Finals. The Warriors draft UCLA’s Kevon Looney with the 30th pick in the draft while the Cavaliers sign bench pieces Mo Williams and Richard Jefferson. However, the most intriguing (and for that matter, disturbing) part of Cleveland’s summer has nothing to do with their free agent acquisitions.

On July 14, ESPN’s Marc Stein publishes an article on his company’s website in which he criticizes LeBron James for “emasculating” coach David Blatt in front of the team, reporters, and fans during the Finals. The article passes along another quote from Stein’s colleague, Brian Windhorst, stating that James wants Blatt to stay on as the team’s head coach because he “likes having Blatt to kick around”. It is worth noting that Windhorst has covered James in some capacity since the Cavaliers drafted him first overall out of high school in 2003, so when it comes to what James is thinking at any particular moment, Windhorst is a trusted and reputable source. And the reporting of he and Stein seems to indicate a rift between superstar and head coach.

The Warriors’ main question mark going into the season is the health of their head coach, Steve Kerr. Kerr underwent back surgery over the summer, and while the surgery was successful, it left Kerr with leaking spinal fluid and migraine headaches. Because of this, he decides to take a leave of absence to start the regular season; this leaves Kerr’s top assistant, Luke Walton, in charge of the team. Walton has never coached before, and Kerr’s top assistant from the previous season, Alvin Gentry, is now the head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans. It is unknown how long Kerr will be away from the team, but Walton’s relative inexperience and Kerr’s leave is, at minimum, a slight issue for the defending champions.

At the start of the regular season, though, both squads are clicking. After a season-opening loss to the Chicago Bulls, the Cavaliers reel off eight wins in a row between October 28 and November 13. The real story in the NBA, though, is quickly becoming the dominance of the Warriors. While the Cavaliers are 8-1 on November 13, the Warriors are 10-0 and showing no signs of slowing down. The most significant of these first ten wins is a come-from-behind victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on November 4, one that saw Golden State trailing by double digits with just under eight minutes to play. Steph Curry hits seven threes in the victory, continuing his torrid three-point shooting pace in the early days of the season.

The Warriors continue their undefeated rampage through the NBA for another month. The closest they come to losing in their first 24 games is an overtime win against the Nets on November 14 and a double-overtime victory over the Celtics on December 11. The Warriors win their first 24 games of the season, the longest winning streak to start a regular season in NBA history. Curry is captivating the league and the world with his play, as he makes 125 threes over the course of the first 24 games. At his current pace, Curry is set to make well over 400 three-pointers in the regular season, which would topple the previous record of 286 set the season before by none other than Curry himself. He becomes the clear front-runner to win his second straight MVP award, and the team is following Curry’s lead in dominating the rest of the league. Their winning streak ends, however, on December 12, with a 108-95 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.

While the streak is over, the Warriors have established themselves as the team to beat in the 2015-16 NBA season. And they have done so with a first-time head coach at the helm, speaking to the organization’s newly-found culture of winning and continued excellence, even in the face of adversity. The Cavaliers, on the other hand, have also been rock solid in the first two months of the season. A December 23 win over the Knicks propels them to 19-7, and their next game is the most highly-anticipated contest of the young NBA season: a Christmas Day tilt in Oakland with the 27-1 Golden State Warriors.

Both teams are almost at full strength heading into the game. The Warriors are missing Harrison Barnes while the Cavaliers are without Richard Jefferson. Sure enough, the nationally-televised matchup lives up to the hype, and both teams play with championship-level intensity. The low-scoring affair sees the Warriors leading by five points at the start of the fourth quarter. The game feels like it’s being played in June instead of December, and the Finals rematch proves as a telling litmus test for both teams. The Warriors hold off the Cavs in the fourth quarter en route to an 89-83 victory. While much of the hype surrounding this matchup revolves around the battle between James and Curry, the two best players in the league, the real hero of this one is Golden State’s Draymond Green; Green scores 22 points and grabs 15 rebounds in the victory. Curry finishes with 19 points while James closes with 25. The Warriors improve to 28-1 and maintain their perfection at Oracle Arena.

Golden State is at least slightly better than Cleveland at this point in the season, but the two teams have another matchup on January 18, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. That game, like the other one, is nationally televised and gives both teams a chance to establish (or, in the Warriors’ case, re-establish) themselves; this time, though, it’s played in Cleveland. Before the game, Curry says that he hopes the road locker room still smells of champagne; the Warriors closed out the 2015 NBA Finals in Cleveland and celebrated accordingly. Coming into this game, the Warriors find themselves at 37-4 and still undefeated at home; the possibility of them breaking the NBA’s regular season wins record of 72, set by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, is becoming more and more serious with each Golden State victory. The Cavaliers are 28-10 and sit atop the Eastern Conference as they approach the halfway point of their season.

This game, just like the first one, is very highly-anticipated. Unlike the first matchup, though, it fails to deliver on the hype. A J.R. Smith basket makes the score 15-11 in favor of Golden State halfway through the first quarter. It would mark the closest the Cavaliers would get to the lead after the opening two minutes, as the Warriors pull away and coast to a 132-98 victory. Over the course of 48 minutes, the Cleveland Cavaliers fail to appear, as they fall behind by as many as 30 points before the game even reaches halftime. Curry finishes the night with 35 points and seven threes in all of 28 minutes, and Andre Iguodala, the defending Finals MVP, chips in another 20 points off the bench. The Warriors are leaps and bounds ahead of the Cavaliers, and thanks to their performance in Cleveland, just about everyone is aware of that. While the Warriors may be the best team in NBA history, the Cavaliers are in disarray.

After back-to-back victories seemingly right the ship for the Cavaliers, the organization does the unthinkable and terminates Blatt’s contract just four days after the team’s disastrous Monday night performance against the Warriors. In an even more fascinating move, the team immediately promotes the league’s highest-paid assistant, Tyronn Lue, to head coach on a permanent basis. Blatt leaves the team at 30-11 and on pace for an even 60 wins; however, it’s not enough for him to keep his job. Lue is regarded as a more assertive force on the bench for the Cavaliers; one of Blatt’s main problems was his allowing James to essentially coach the team during huddles and timeouts. Lue is put in place in part to regain control of the team from LeBron, but the move is still a massive risk, especially right in the middle of the regular season.

Ironically, on the same day Blatt is fired, Kerr returns to the sidelines for the Warriors. Walton reverts to his role as Kerr’s top assistant, having gone 39-4 in his stewardship of the NBA’s best team. Kerr’s comeback provides an emotional lift for the Warriors, and in his first game coaching the team in the 2015-16 season, Golden State defeats the Indiana Pacers 122-110. Two symbols of the Warriors’ farcical domination over the NBA come in the first half; Curry drills a 70-foot shot after the first quarter buzzer that does not count but still electrifies the Oracle Arena crowd. At the end of the second quarter, Curry fires a 48-foot shot that beats the buzzer and goes in off the glass. It is Curry’s 200th three-pointer of the season, and with his circus shot, he becomes the first player in NBA history to hit 200 threes in four straight seasons.

The Warriors’ domination over the NBA is slowly turning to demolition, and it seems the real point of the regular season is to find out whether or not the team can break the Bulls’ wins record.

Meanwhile, in northeast Ohio, the Cavaliers adapt to Lue’s insistence on increased pace and floor spacing. Cleveland earns two five-game winning streaks in the span of just under a month but loses three out of four after the All-Star break. The team, though, is responding to Lue; during a huddle at one point in the regular season, Lue tells James to “shut the f— up”, and it’s clear that the coach is controlling the huddle, even if his players use him as a towel rack during media timeouts.

The main story in the league, though, is still Golden State’s dominance. The Warriors are 52-5, with all five losses coming on the road, heading into a nationally-televised matchup in Oklahoma City against Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and the Thunder. Golden State needs to win 21 of its last 25 games be the greatest regular-season team of all time, and games like this one could go a long way towards deciding their fate.

The Thunder lead the game by 11 points at halftime, and early in the third quarter, Curry turns his ankle driving to the basket. (He would later return to the game.) The Thunder, though, look to be the better team on this night, and they lead 96-85 with 4:51 to play. And then, the Steph Curry show commences.

Curry scores eight points in the span of two minutes to help bring the Warriors within three. A Durant three, though, with 15 seconds to play puts Oklahoma City up four. A quick Klay Thompson layup is followed by a Durant turnover. Iguodala attempts a jump shot to tie the game a force overtime; while the shot misses, Iguodala is fouled by Durant with 0.6 seconds left. Iguodala, who goes on to shoot just 61% from the free throw line for the season, makes both free throws, and a Durant miss at the other end necessitates an extra five minutes.

In the overtime, the Thunder find themselves with a late lead once again. And once again, the Warriors come back, as a Thompson and-one layup and free throw tie the game at 118 with 30 seconds left. A Westbrook miss gives the ball back to Golden State with just seconds to play. Instead of taking a timeout, the Warriors play out the final few seconds of the game with Curry dribbling up the floor. Curry pulls up from 32 feet and drills a game-winning three; his shot beats the Thunder, breaks NBA Twitter, and spawns a double “BANG!” call from longtime broadcaster Mike Breen. The Warriors win the game to improbably go to 53-5 and maintain pace with the 95-96 Bulls. This game turns out to be the best in the NBA regular season and is the seminal moment in the Warriors’ quest for 73 wins. Curry finishes the night with 46 points and 12 made threes, tying the single-game NBA record. Also in this game, Curry breaks his own NBA record with his 287th three-pointer of the season, one he hit halfway through the overtime period. He is still on pace to hit over 400 threes for the year.

The Warriors do not suffer a letdown after the thriller in Oklahoma City, as they win nine of their next ten games. Their only loss in this span is a Sunday afternoon loss to the hapless Lakers in Los Angeles. Their next loss comes on the road at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs, the team many believe Golden State will have to go through to win the Western Conference. Unbelievably, the Spurs are also perfect at home for the season and move to 59-10 after the victory. The Warriors fall to 62-7 with the loss; for as historic as their performance has been to this point in the season, they are just three games ahead of San Antonio for the top seed in the Western Conference Playoffs. While everyone has been enthralled with their run at history, they will need to fend off the Spurs to hold on to home-court advantage.

The Warriors win their next six games before a home matchup with the Celtics on April 1. The Celtics lead for the entire fourth quarter and hang on to win 109-106 to deliver the Warriors their first home loss of the season. The next Tuesday, April 5, Golden State surrenders their second home loss of the year to the 26-52 Minnesota Timberwolves. The quest for 73 is clearly wearing on them, and the home loss is their ninth of the year. At 69-9, Golden State must win their final four games, two games each against the Spurs and Grizzlies to break the Bulls’ long-standing record.

In the first of the two San Antonio tilts, Golden State defends their home floor with a 112-101 victory. This win clinches them home-court advantage through the entire NBA Playoffs and brings them to within three wins of the record. On Saturday, April 9, the Warriors play in Memphis and are pushed to the limit. A Draymond Green basket with a minute left puts Golden State up 100-99, and the Warriors hang on in the final minute to beat Memphis and keep their hopes of reaching the milestone alive.

Their next game against the Spurs is in San Antonio on April 10; a Warriors win would tie them with Chicago for the wins record. The Warriors lead for most of the second half and stave off a late charge from San Antonio to win the game by a score of 92-86. The loss is San Antonio’s first regular season home defeat; the Spurs had won their first 39 home contests. The Warriors end their streak and earn a chance to break the record on their home floor against the Memphis Grizzlies on April 13, a full three days after their win in San Antonio.

Even though the Grizzlies pushed the Warriors four days prior to the final game of the season, Golden State’s last test in their quest for history turns out to be anticlimactic. A shorthanded Memphis squad is no match for the Warriors’ high-flying offense, and Golden State hangs 70 points in 24 minutes to take a 20-point lead into the half. The Warriors never look back and coast to a 125-104 victory, their 73rd of a historic 2015-16 season. The Warriors become the winningest regular-season team in NBA history; even more impressively, they never lose back-to-back games over the course of five and a half months of basketball. Curry makes 10 threes to finish the year with a whopping 402 three-pointers and over five made threes per game. He is going to win the league’s Most Valuable Player Award when the winner is announced in May.

The Cavaliers finish their season with significantly less fanfare; Lue goes 27-14 as head coach and the Cavaliers finish at 57-25 to secure the top seed in a traditionally weak Eastern Conference. Their main challengers in the East are the Toronto Raptors and the Miami Heat; these two teams will meet in the second round of the playoffs if they win their first-round series against the Pacers and Hornets, respectively.

The Cavaliers look like the best team in the East while the Warriors appear to be the best team in the NBA. Will the two teams meet for a second straight year in the NBA Finals? Or will challengers ascend to the throne and knock off one or both teams in the Playoffs