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

Path to a Trilogy, Chapter IV: Don’t Forget About Dre

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Welcome to Chapter IV 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 IV, we take a closer look at the 2015 NBA Finals, one in which the Cavaliers endured injuries to key players while the Warriors struggle to put the ailing and shorthanded Cavs away. Links to previous installments of Path to a Trilogy can be found here

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

Going into the 2015 NBA Finals, much is made about the point guard matchup between Most Valuable Player Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving. Many believe that the series could hinge on this important battle, but Irving will not be at 100% because of left knee tendonitis that kept him out of part of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Warriors are a slight favorite, but the Cavaliers have the best player on the floor and the best player on planet Earth: LeBron James.

Both teams have a week off before the Finals, and early on in Game 1, it shows. The two offenses combine to shoot just 35.5% in the first quarter, at the end of which the Cavaliers lead 29-19. The Warriors rebound in the second quarter and pull the score to within three points at halftime. The main story is becoming the other-worldly performance of James, who has 19 points at the half. The Warriors use 18 points from their bench to get back in the game in the second quarter, speaking to their appropriate “Strength in Numbers” slogan.

The Cavaliers and Warriors start to find their rhythm in the third quarter, and the game is tied at 73 heading into the fourth quarter. The fourth quarter turns out to be just like the first three, with neither team able to gain control. Game 1 is setting the stage for a potentially classic NBA Finals, one replete with star power and fascinating storylines. Two made free throws from Cavaliers center Timofey Mogzov tie the game at 98 with 32 seconds left, but the Warriors have possession with a chance to take the lead. The Warriors run a play that allows Curry to get past Irving and drive to the basket. Keep in mind, Irving is playing with left knee soreness and, while he scores 23 points in regulation, is clearly not fully healthy. And yet, somehow, someway, he is able to make up ground on Curry and block his layup attempt against the backboard.

On the Cavs’ next possession, James takes a stepback three from the wing and misses. A desperation attempt from Iman Shumpert very nearly goes in at the buzzer, but the Warriors get the stop and overtime is necessary to decide Game 1. James’ 42 regulation points are not enough to will Cleveland over the finish line.

Curry scores the first four points of the overtime, all on free throws. With just over two minutes left in the game, Irving drives on Klay Thompson, loses his footing, and fractures his left kneecap, the same knee that caused him trouble in earlier rounds of the Playoffs. Harrison Barnes hits a three on the next possession to put the Warriors up by a score of 105-98. The Cavs are sunk in Game 1, but the concern shifts to Irving’s injury. It is announced the next day that Irving will have surgery and miss the rest of the NBA Finals. Many see the injury as a soul-crushing blow to the Cavaliers, as James is the only member of the “Big Three” the Warriors have to contend with defensively. The main defender on James in Game 1 is Andre Iguodala, and he makes LeBron work the hardest out of any of the Warriors’ best defenders. Iguodala also pours in 15 points on the offensive end, including two three-pointers. He is quite possibly the MVP of the game for Golden State.

Game 2 takes place three days after Game 1, giving the Cavs and head coach David Blatt two days off to game plan for life after Kyrie Irving. Matthew Dellavedova, the author of just nineteen starts before this game, will start at point guard for the Cavaliers; he is tasked with the responsibility of guarding Curry. The matchup appears to be lopsided, but Dellavedova’s main strength is his defensive effort.

Sure enough, his defense helps the Cavaliers in Game 2. Dellavedova hounds Curry all night and forces him into one of his worst performances of the season. The Cavaliers’ style of play is reminiscent of what was common in the NBA in the 1990s, as isolation and late-shot-clock attempts rule the day for Blatt’s offense. The plan of slowing down the game and letting James work in isolation sets is working, and a LeBron three puts Cleveland up 83-72 with 3:14 to go. The Warriors chip away at the deficit and, on their last possession in regulation, Curry hits a scoop layup to tie the game at 87. On the Cavs’ final possession, James, instead of taking a deep three like he did at the end of Game 1, tries to drive past Iguodala. He misses a contested layup over several defenders, and the game heads into overtime, marking the first time ever that the first two games of the Finals went into an extra period.

Once again, a superhuman regulation performance from LeBron James (36 points, 14 rebounds, 10 assists) is not enough to beat the Warriors. In overtime, the two teams go back and forth, and the Warriors take a one-point lead on two Curry free throws with 30 seconds left. On the ensuing Cavs possession, LeBron James and James Jones both miss shots, but Dellavedova is fouled going for an offensive rebound on Jones’ three-point attempt. He makes both free throws to put the Cavaliers up 94-93. Curry airballs a stepback jumper on the next possession, and James splits a pair of free throws to put Cleveland up two. With no timeouts, the Warriors must push the ball up the floor with just four seconds left. Curry turns it over, and the Cavaliers tie the series at one game apiece. The series heads back to Cleveland for Games 3 and 4. James finishes with 39 points, 16 rebounds, and 11 assists on 11-of-35 shooting from the field. Curry, the 2015 league MVP, finishes with 19 points on 5-of-23 shooting. Dellavedova is the hero of Game 2, but can he continue to help the Cavs in subsequent games?

In Game 3, that answer is an emphatic yes. His defensive energy and penetration, combined with the overall brilliance of James, carry Cleveland to a 68-48 lead late in the third quarter. The Warriors, though, begin to figure out some things in the fourth quarter with a lineup centered around unlikely facilitator and backup power forward David Lee. The Warriors bring the lead down to one when Curry hits a three with 2:46 to play in the fourth quarter. On the next possession, a wild Dellavedova shot goes in; the Aussie was fouled on the play and made the free throw to extend the lead to four. The crowd at Quicken Loans Arena later chants “Delly” as his unexpected 20-point performance helps the Cavs to a 2-1 lead in the NBA Finals. The real star, though, is James, who scores 40 points, grabs 12 rebounds, and dishes out eight assists in the victory; LeBron plays a whopping 46 minutes in Game 3.

The wear and tear on the Cavaliers is starting to show, however; cameras catch a fatigued James holding the basketball for over five seconds after the final buzzer sounds in Game 3. A more tangible sign of Cleveland’s exhaustion is Dellavedova’s hospitalization for extreme cramping after the game; the cramping would not affect him enough to keep him from playing in Game 4, but the damage has been done.

The Cavaliers’ model of winning is to have James play at an all-time great level and have the supporting cast make enough shots around him to win. That model begins to fail the Cavaliers in Game 4. While James is good, he makes just seven of his 22 shots in 40 minutes. The other part of the problem is that the Warriors are better in this game, as well; Curry contributes 22 points while Iguodala adds another 22 in his first start of the season. Instead of starting traditional center Andrew Bogut, Golden State head coach Steve Kerr decides to start their so-called “death lineup”, with the 6’7″ Draymond Green playing the center spot normally occupied by the seven-foot-tall Bogut. This is the lineup that the Warriors use at the end of their games and the one that carried them to victory in overtime of Game 1, and Kerr rolls the dice with it to start Game 4.

The decision pays off. The five starters combine for 84 of the team’s 103 points en route to a 103-82 victory. The Cavaliers close the game to 73-70 near the end of the third quarter, but a 17-5 Golden State run spanning the third and fourth quarters is too much for the Cavaliers to overcome. After his stellar performance in Game 3, Dellavedova shoots 3-for-14 from the field, bench flamethrower J.R. Smith goes 2-of-12, and the team combines to shoot just 33% in what would be their worst offensive performance of the series. The surprising standout of this one for the Warriors is Shaun Livingston, who earns a +25 figure in just 24 minutes of playing time. He adds in seven points, eight rebounds, and four assists, and his presence stabilizes the second unit in the win. Golden State’s hero, though, is Iguodala, who, in his first start of the season, guards James for most of the game and forces him into his worst performance of the series. The series is even at two games apiece heading back to Golden State for a critical Game 5.

In Game 5, the stars arrive for both teams. In the first half, James scores 16 points while Curry drops in 15 to lead the Golden State effort. The Warriors lead 51-50 at halftime, but seven first-half threes from Smith, Shumpert, and Mike Miller help the Cavs keep pace. The Warriors stretch the lead to six at the end of the third, but the Cavaliers come back to take an 80-79 lead on a parking lot three from James with 7:48 to play in regulation. Curry counters at the other end with a three on the next possession. The Warriors expand their lead with five straight points, including a circus layup, from Iguodala. They lead by seven points with just under three minutes left when Curry crosses over Dellavedova and hits a stepback three over him. The play sends the internet into a frenzy and becomes the signature moment of the 2015 NBA Finals. Curry finishes the game with 37 points and seven made threes. 17 of his 37 points come in the fourth quarter.

James’ stat line indicates yet another stellar performance: 40 points, 14 rebounds, 11 assists. His team, for as great as he has been, finds itself down three games to two in the NBA Finals.

Game 6 is back in Cleveland just two days after Game 5. Early on, the Warriors look like the far superior team, charging out to a 28-15 lead after one quarter. It is becoming increasingly obvious that James will need far more help than he’s getting if the Cavaliers are to win Game 6 and, for that matter, an NBA championship. The Cavaliers close the gap to two points before halftime and even take a 47-45 lead early in the third quarter.

But the Warriors are just too much for the banged-up Cavaliers to handle. Golden State pulls away in the third quarter and leads by as much as 15 points before it ends. A LeBron James dunk pulls Cleveland within seven points with just over ten minutes left in the game, but the Warriors expand their lead after that behind the shared offensive efforts of Curry, Iguodala, and Livingston. The Cavaliers never get within one possession of Golden State’s lead, and the Warriors coast to the franchise’s first championship since 1975 behind 25 points in Game 6 from Curry and Iguodala. James finished the game with 32 points on 13-of-33 shooting.

The individual performances of the players in this series create a new dilemma; who will win NBA Finals MVP? James is clearly the best player in the series, having logged nearly 46 minutes, over 35 points, and 13 rebounds per game. The Warriors’ two candidates for the award are Curry and Iguodala; while Curry has the better numbers over six games, Iguodala’s insertion into the starting lineup helped turn the series around for the struggling Warriors. The award ultimately goes to Iguodala, who is praised for guarding James for most of the series, even though James still thrived offensively when guarded by the Finals MVP.

Many argue that the Cavaliers would have won this series had they been fully healthy, but we will never know. Can Cleveland get Irving and Love back to form to take another run at the championship next year? Or will the Warriors’ dominance continue in the 2015-16 season?

The Stanley Cup Playoffs Are Far More Entertaining Than the NBA Playoffs

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It’s probably not a secret that I absolutely love the NBA.

I’ve always enjoyed the game of basketball, particularly at the professional level. From the skill needed to play the game to the individual players and coaches, I’ve always taken a liking to the sport. Even as it’s become increasingly obvious that the need for 28 NBA teams and seven months of basketball has gone by the wayside this year, it’s still been fun to watch the game, even if you know who’s going to win most of the time. But even I can admit something about the league in 2017, particularly compared to other sports:

The NBA Playoffs have been absolutely terrible.

Many fans and experts anticipated, even going all the way back to last July, that the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors would meet in this year’s NBA Finals. The two teams had met in the Finals in both 2015 and 2016, with each side winning a championship. With superstar Kevin Durant joining Golden State, it became obvious that the two teams were on a collision course to meet in June once again, barring injuries or other unforeseen events. Even then, I still found the concept of a trilogy, or “three-match”, if you will, fascinating. The problem was not in the final matchup but rather in the lead-up to it.

For example, the first three rounds of the NBA Playoffs featured just two Game 7s. The first one, between the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers, took place on April 30, with the winner (Utah) earning the right to be eliminated by the Warriors in the next round. The other Game 7, held on May 15 between the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards, earned the Celtics a place in the Eastern Conference Finals where they would be promptly smashed by LeBron James and the Cavaliers. Even when a series was competitive and interesting, you knew what the ultimate outcome would be for the winner. This was never more evident than in the Warriors’ and Cavs’ collective rampage through their respective conferences; the two teams went a combined 24-1 before meeting in the Finals, and the one combined loss happened when Celtics guard Avery Bradley hit this incredibly glitchy buzzer-beater to defeat the Cavaliers in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

Presently, Golden State leads Cleveland two games to none in the NBA Finals and the series is quickly becoming a matter of when, not if, the Warriors are crowned champions; the Warriors’ average margin of victory in the first two games has been 20.5. The league put all its eggs in the three-match basket and may be getting what it deserves in a dud of a championship series. Part of that is because of Durant’s move to sign with the Warriors on a two-year deal last summer. His ability to do so is an outgrowth of the league’s bloated salary cap, one that ballooned from $70 million to over $94 million in the span of just one year. Because of that, the Warriors had the money to invest in Durant and the NBA had eleven months to kill before the Cavs-Warriors Finals matchup.

That thought leads us to the NHL’s Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Stanley Cup Playoffs have been the polar opposite of the NBA’s; unpredictable, random, and, most of all, exciting. The Nashville Predators, the bottom seed in the Western Conference and, by points, the 16th and very last team in the playoffs, find themselves two wins away from a championship after tying the Stanley Cup Final at two last night in front of their raucous fans. Each conference’s top team was eliminated before the Conference Finals, and the Ottawa Senators, the 12th-best team in the Playoffs, reached the Conference Finals and took the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins to a double-overtime Game 7 that ended with a Chris Kunitz goal to send Pittsburgh to its second straight Stanley Cup Final.

Hockey’s playoffs have been completely different from the NBA’s; while they’ve had just three Game 7s, the Stanley Cup Playoffs have had 27 overtime games and five games that have gone to two overtimes before a game-winning, sudden death goal. In reality, it’s likely the NHL Playoffs have almost always been more interesting than the NBA Playoffs, but it took a confluence of events like this year’s for all of us to realize that.

Perhaps the most appropriate symbol of the sudden crossover between the two sports is NBA legend Charles Barkley. Barkley, a television analyst who’s unafraid to speak his mind, has taken frequent shots at the NBA Playoffs for their lack of intrigue. Last month, Barkley went so far as to casually admit that he was watching the NHL Playoffs while not fulfilling on-air duties for TNT, one of the broadcasters for the NBA Playoffs. Last night, Barkley appeared on NBC’s telecast of Game 4 of the Predators-Penguins series, praised the Stanley Cup Playoffs, criticized the NBA Playoffs, and announced that Gary Bettman had invited him to Nashville for Game 4 (which, if true, is brilliant public relations by the NHL).

While he didn’t exactly tow the company line, Barkley brought up a good point with his comments. The NBA Playoffs haven’t been exciting and the Stanley Cup Playoffs have. Why would you watch a television show if you know, to a certain extent, how the series is going to end? The Stanley Cup Playoffs, on the other hand, are completely unpredictable, and while the game may not always be played at the highest level, you legitimately don’t know who’s going to win on any particular night. It’s truly worth watching just about all of the time.

When the Celtics did defeat the Cavaliers, it was considered one of the most shocking upsets in the history of the NBA Playoffs. Keep this in mind: Boston only won one game! That one win was considered one of the most stunning results in recent memory, and it demonstrates just how much dominance the NBA’s top two teams hold over the rest of the field.

As crazy as it sounds, I don’t fault Kevin Durant for leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder and joining the Warriors last summer. His decision was enabled by the expanding salary cap and he made an individual sacrifice, of both spotlight and finances, to win. I can’t find fault with that, but I can find fault with a system that allowed the Warriors to have four All-Star caliber players on their roster, as well as four of the top 20 players in the game today.

It’s not the fault of Kevin Durant or LeBron James that the NBA Playoffs have been atrocious. Both men and their teams are simply trying to win a championship and the rest of the league has not been able to catch them. But, we can point out that the NBA Playoffs have lacked the excitement and mystery that most fans, including myself, want. The championship series was supposed to save the league’s sinking ship, but those prospects now look rather bleak.

That has led us to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, a far more interesting and unpredictable affair that will end with either the Nashville Predators or Pittsburgh Penguins as champions. The fact that we still don’t know, even after Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final, who will hoist the trophy speaks volumes to just how much we should appreciate hockey, especially during these times in sports.

Are the Warriors Too Good For the Cavaliers?

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

After Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the most talked about person surrounding the Warriors-Cavaliers showdown in Oakland wasn’t Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving, or LeBron James.

It was Rihanna.

The fact that the Barbadian singer stole the headlines away from the game itself shows that the contest couldn’t have been all that competitive.

Sure enough, it wasn’t. The Warriors easily took care of the Cavaliers, 113-91, in a game that was never truly in doubt after halftime. Kevin Durant led the way for Golden State with 38 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists; even more impressively, Durant did all of this without committing a turnover, becoming the first player to have 30 points and five assists without a turnover in a Finals game since Michael Jordan accomplished that feat in Game 1 of the 1997 NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz. Steph Curry poured in another 28 points on 6-of-11 shooting from beyond the arc.

LeBron James paced the Cavaliers with 28 points, 15 rebounds, and eight assists, and Kyrie Irving scored 24. As strange as this may sound, the individual performances of James and Irving were not nearly as good as their numbers would suggest, as the Cavaliers were -18 when both players were on the floor last night. The Cavaliers were thoroughly dismantled in the second half, and their defense had no answers for the Warriors’ multi-pronged attack, which was centered around Curry and Durant.

Cleveland’s performance in Game 1 begs an important question: is this version of the Warriors too good for these Cavaliers to beat in a seven-game series?

Let’s start by stating the obvious: the Cavaliers played far from their best game last night. The team combined to shoot just under 35% from the field (30 for 86) and made just 11 of 31 attempts from the three-point line. Cleveland’s turnover problem was exacerbated by the Warriors offense, which turned the ball over just four times in 48 minutes. The Warriors had a really, really good night and the Cavaliers…. well, let’s just say they didn’t. That being said, it is worth examining whether or not Cleveland’s struggles are an anomaly or a disturbing trend.

For example, the Cavs’ transition defense is something that can be fixed. Take this play from late in the first half last night. Watch as the seas part for Durant to finish the fast break with a thunderous slam (pun 100% intended):

If I’m Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue, I would play that clip on loop for the next 48+ hours before Game 2. The Warriors finished Game 1 with 56 points in the paint and could’ve had closer to 70 had they not missed or, in the case of Zaza Pachulia, passed up on several open layups. The Cavalier defense was so concerned about the Warriors’ vast array of shooters (Curry, Klay Thompson, even Draymond Green) that they completely neglected to protect the rim. This strategy, one that basically rejects every fundamental tenet of basketball defense, turned Game 1 of the NBA Finals into Kevin Durant’s own personal dunk contest. That strategy can definitely be adjusted/fixed before Sunday night’s Game 2 rolls around.

But the Cavaliers must sort out other issues if they want to win their second championship in as many years.

Even though James and Irving are the undisputed leaders of the Cavs’ attack, the team simply needs contributions from other sources in order to be successful. For example, Kevin Love shot just four-of-thirteen from the field last night and had quite possibly the quietest 21-rebound performance in NBA history. J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson, Cleveland’s other two starters, combined for just three points and one made field goal on seven attempts.

That’s not all, though, for the Cavaliers’ individual struggles. Deron Williams, who scored fourteen points in seventeen minutes in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Celtics, struggled to get anything going last night. Williams’ game was so truly awful that he amassed a whopping offensive rating of ten (offensive rating is a measure of how many points a player accounts for per 100 possessions while he is on the floor). In case you haven’t figured it out, ten points per 100 possessions isn’t that good. Similarly, sharpshooter Kyle Korver, acquired from the Hawks in a midseason trade to give the Cavs more of a perimeter presence off the bench, accrued an offensive rating of 21 in nineteen minutes; he didn’t score in the game.

The Cavaliers simply cannot survive the Warriors’ merciless onslaught without contributions from their secondary pieces. While Irving is one of the best point guards in the league and James is the best player on the planet, they cannot singlehandedly carry the Cavs to their second straight championship. Players like Williams, Love, Korver, Smith, and Thompson must stretch Golden State’s defense with their perimeter shooting if the Cavaliers want to take this series deep.

There’s also this to consider: the Warriors should have an off night offensively at some point in this series, as even an offense as talented as Golden State’s is prone to go cold from time to time. Last night, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green combined to shoot 6-for-28 from the field and score just fifteen points. However, both made an impact on the defensive end; Thompson performed the unenviable task of guarding Irving while Green held an 85 defensive rating in his 36 minutes of action (with the defensive rating statistic, a lower number equates to better performance). Near the end of last night’s game, FiveThirtyEight writer Chris Herring pointed out the difference in the teams’ supporting casts:

It’s true; while Thompson and Green struggled mightily on the offensive end, they still impacted the game with what they were able to do defensively. The Cavaliers’ other pieces have not been able to do that, and how did they impact Game 1 when their shots weren’t falling? Answer: they didn’t.

Granted, the Warriors played extremely well in Game 1. Their four turnovers tied for the fewest in NBA Finals history and conventional wisdom would think that the performance will be difficult to replicate. But consider this: for all of the praise Golden State’s offense is getting today (and deservedly so), they only shot 42.5% from the field last night. For as well as they performed on the game’s biggest stage, they had far from their most efficient game of the season. That’s part of why I picked them to win the series; even on a bad night, they can still destroy you offensively. And while last night wouldn’t necessarily qualify as a bad night, the numbers show that they can play even better than they are right now. That is a frightening and scary thought for Cleveland to wrestle with.

The Cavaliers have fixable, albeit major, problems to rectify before they hit the Oracle Arena floor for Game 2 of the NBA Finals on Sunday night. They need their bench to produce and their shooters to start hitting from behind the three-point line. They also need to play better transition defense, and they can accomplish that by simply standing in front of the player with the basketball at that particular time.

And they need to quickly make these adjustments to save the NBA Finals from turning into Kevin Durant/Jeff Van Gundy vs. Rihanna.

Path to a Trilogy, Chapter III: Love Lost

Derrick E. Hingle/USA Today

Welcome to Chapter III 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 and will continue into the 2017 NBA Finals if necessary. 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 III, we take a closer look at the 2015 NBA Playoffs, one that saw both the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors go through their share of hardships and failures before reaching the NBA Finals. Links to the first two chapters of Path to a Trilogy can be found here and here

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

It is the night of April 23, 2015, and TNT is broadcasting a doubleheader on the first Thursday night of the NBA Playoffs.

At 7:00 PM EDT, the Boston Celtics host the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 3 of their first-round series; Cleveland has taken the first two games of the series at home. Game 3 is close throughout, as the Celtics try to defend one of the best home courts in the NBA. However, the Cavs are in control late, and two Kevin Love three-pointers in the span of as many minutes ultimately seal Boston’s fate. LeBron James plays the starring role with 31 points and 11 rebounds as Cleveland takes a commanding 3-0 series lead and looks to close out the Celtics in Game 4 on Sunday.

In the second game of TNT’s doubleheader, starting shortly after 9:30 PM EDT, the Golden State Warriors, also up 2-0 in their series, go on the road to face off against the upstart New Orleans Pelicans. Despite winning the first two games of the series, the Warriors look like the far inferior team for the first 36 minutes of the game and trail 89-69 heading into the fourth. Golden State begins to chip away at the deficit but still trails by double digits after an Anthony Davis dunk with 3:13 left in the fourth quarter. It would be New Orleans’ last made basket in regulation, and a Steph Curry three with twelve seconds left brought the Warriors within two. After Davis splits a pair of free throws at the other end, Golden State got the ball back trailing by three. Curry misses a game-tying three-point attempt but Warriors utility big man Marreese Speights gets the offensive rebound. Keenly aware of the game situation and the players around him, he gives the ball right back to Curry in the corner. Watch him hit this unbelievable shot to tie the game and send it into overtime:

It is also fair to argue that Curry was fouled on the play, and that fact is corroborated the next day in the league’s “Last Two Minute Report” the next day. The Warriors take care of business in overtime to win Game 3, 123-119. Two days later, Golden State defeats New Orleans 109-98 to sweep the Pelicans and advance to the second round.

The day after the Warriors finish off the Pelicans, the Cavaliers take their shot at sweeping the Celtics. With Cleveland up 18-10 just over halfway through the second quarter, Kelly Olynyk and Kevin Love become entangled while going for an offensive rebound. The result is a separated shoulder for Love and a premature end to his season.

Still, the Cavaliers take care of the Celtics and move on to the second round, one that would see them face off against the Tom Thibodeau-coached Chicago Bulls. The Warriors, on the other hand, would be matched up against the grit-and-grind Memphis Grizzlies, a team that split two games with Golden State in the regular season.

On Sunday, May 3, the Warriors open their Western Conference semifinal series with a 101-86 victory over Memphis. Ten different Warriors score in the victory, and while the Grizzlies have their way in terms of the game’s pace (just under 90 possessions), the Warriors have a 1-0 series lead. However, in a rather surprising turn of events, the Grizzlies take the next two games behind the play of big men Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Memphis point guard Mike Conley is also instrumental to the team’s success, but he has just returned from facial surgery and averages just 11.3 points over four games after posting 22 in Game 2. Because of the Conley injury and improved shooting from Curry and backcourt-mate Klay Thompson, the Warriors take Games 4, 5, and 6 to win the series four games to two. This effort is capped off by a 32-point performance from Curry and a 70-foot shot that goes down as one of the best in the Playoffs. The Warriors have been pushed, but they move on to the Conference Finals.

The Cavaliers open their series against the Chicago Bulls on May 4. While Cleveland looks like a better team than Chicago, the absence of Love changes the tenor of the series. Love’s departure from the lineup seems to affect the Cavaliers most in Game 1, as the team shoots just 26.9% from three-point land in a 99-92 defeat. In Game 2, the Cavs flip the switch and win behind 33 points from James and a surprise 17 points on five threes from James Jones, one of LeBron’s Miami teammates brought to Cleveland to help change the team’s losing culture.

The next two games are two of the most entertaining contests of the NBA Playoffs. Game 3 goes back and forth until the final minute, when, with Chicago leading by three, midseason Knicks acquisition J.R. Smith hits a three with 11 seconds left to tie the game. This gives the Bulls the opportunity to have one final possession, and 2010-11 NBA MVP Derrick Rose uses it to bank a buzzer-beating game-winner over the Cavs’ defense and propel the Bulls to a 2-1 series lead.

Game 4 is held on Mother’s Day, May 10, and is equally as suspenseful as Game 3. Cleveland blows a seven-point lead with just over four minutes to go, and a Rose layup over James’ outstretched arms ties the game at 84 with 8.4 seconds left. After a botched attempt at a final possession, the Cavaliers have the ball on an inbound with a second and a half left. James cuts to the near corner and drills a very long two-pointer over Jimmy Butler to sink the Bulls, tie the series at two games apiece, and return home-court advantage to the Cavaliers. Ironically, Cavs head coach David Blatt had drawn up a play in the previous timeout in which James would be the inbounder and not take the final shot; the superstar overruled his head coach’s judgment and drew up the final play of regulation for himself.

In Game 5, the Cavaliers nearly squander a 15-point fourth quarter lead but survive a late Chicago comeback to take a 3-2 lead. Game 6 would be the least competitive of the series, as the Cavaliers use a 25-13 second quarter to defeat Chicago by 21 and move on to the Eastern Conference Finals.

In the other Western Conference semifinal, the Clippers take a commanding 3-1 series lead over the Houston Rockets. Many are enthralled with a potential Clippers-Warriors Conference Final, as the two teams have a rivalry that dates back to before both teams were championship contenders. In a stunning turn of events, though, the Clippers blow their 3-1 series lead and the Rockets advance to the Conference Final, setting up a matchup of the top two vote-getters in the MVP race; Curry wins the award on May 4 with Houston’s James Harden finishing second and LeBron James finishing third. The ultra-disappointing loss for the Clippers is Game 6, one that saw them lead by as many as 19 points late in the third quarter.

The Warriors win the Conference Final series against Houston in a fairly incident-free five games; Games 1 and 2 come down to the final possession, but Houston’s blown opportunities in both games come back to haunt them in the rest of the series. Curry outplays Harden for most of the series and the rest of the Warriors do likewise to the Rockets. The Warriors advance to their first NBA Finals since 1975, the year a Rick Barry-led Warrior group defeated the Wes Unseld, Phil Chenier, and Elvin Hayes-fronted Washington Bullets.

In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Cavaliers are matched up with the 60-win Atlanta Hawks. Despite Love’s absence and Irving’s left knee tendonitis that keeps him out of Games 2 and 3, the Cavaliers absolutely dominate the series en route to a four-game sweep. James averages 30 points, 11 rebounds, and 9 assists in the series, including a 37-point, 18-rebound, 13-assist performance in Game 3 with Irving out of the lineup.

The Cavaliers and Warriors are set to meet in a potentially-thrilling NBA Finals. Will Irving’s injury allow him to be at full capacity for a long series against Curry and the Dubs?