Congratulations to the San Antonio Spurs for their second-round series victory over the Houston Rockets, and good luck to the Boston Celtics as they attempt to close out the Washington Wizards.
You're both on the verge of Armageddon.
How else can you describe the slaughter that awaits each conference's also-ran in the semifinals of the NBA playoffs? The Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors are primed to destroy their supposed competition on the way to an NBA Finals rubber match.
This was the inevitable result of the 2016-17 season, and it's finally here. With just a few more games, we'll get to see LeBron James try to vanquish the superteam built specifically to destroy his throne.
And to anyone sick of the NBA's lack of parity, we have both good and bad news.
The bad news is things aren't going to change any time in the immediate future. Barring a catastrophic injury (or two), the Cavaliers and Warriors are destined to go toe-to-toe for a fourth straight Finals next season.
But there is a light on the horizon, faint as it might be. This era of two teams crushing the rest of the NBA could come to an end sooner than you think.
Let's start with the Cavaliers and the seemingly immortal LeBron James.
I'm not here to bury The King, or even to tell you he's about to enter some sort of decline. He's the greatest player on the planet, potentially the best ever, and he remains at the top of his game.
And if he can't play like the greatest of all time, Cleveland is going to find itself in trouble, relatively speaking. The Cavaliers' entire game plan at this point is predicated on finding over-the-hill veterans who want to chase a ring, guys LeBron can elevate back to some level of NBA productivity.
As long as LeBron is at his peak, that works just fine. You can get away with putting guys like Richard Jefferson, Deron Williams, and Kyle Korver around The King when he's clearly the best player in the NBA, especially with as weak as the Eastern Conference is.
But when LeBron slips even just a little bit, he's going to need genuine help — not just players on the mid-level exception or the veteran minimum.
Not only is Cleveland staring down the barrel of regression, but the conference is on the rise-- particularly Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks.
Meanwhile, the Cavaliers already have $116 million in salary on the books in 2018-19, $13 million more than the estimated salary cap for that season — and that's before Cleveland pays LeBron his massive, upcoming next contract.
While they're in OK shape for now, the Cavaliers very soon will hit a wall where their role players have retired and they can't find true replacements. We already started to see that this season, as Cleveland had to bring in guys like Derrick Williams and Andrew Bogut. The quality of veteran additions keeps declining for the Cavs, a trend that won't abate any time soon.
Now, you'd like to think the presence of Kyrie Irving is enough to bolster LeBron as he descends from his throne as the game's undisputed best player to "just" a top-five performer, but Irving hasn't shown he has what it takes to lead a team.
Lead them in scoring, sure — he can do that with aplomb. Playing the right way, making teammates better, and shooting the right shots, though? Those nuances of professional basketball escape Irving, and he hasn't shown any indication he'll grow out of that.
Again, there's no reason to expect LeBron to take a step back next season. He might maintain this level through 2018-19, too. And even once he's no longer in peak form, he'll still be capable of carrying his team through the East.
It's just that the Cavaliers, invincible as they are today, will have reason to worry for the first time since LeBron's homecoming.
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Really, though, the largest threat to the NBA resides in Oakland, where Golden State seems destined to rule the basketball world for the foreseeable future.
But the Warriors have cracks in the foundation, too. They face a similar dilemma to the Cavaliers, albeit one of their own creation.
When GM Bob Myers brought Kevin Durant into the fold, he set up a day of reckoning in the not-too-distant future. The Warriors have to find the cap space to pay both Durant and Curry this summer (as they don't have full Bird rights on KD, meaning he'd have to fit in under the cap to sign a long-term deal), then give Klay Thompson a new deal when he becomes a free agent in 2019, then pay Draymond Green when his current deal expires a year after.
Oh, and on top of all that, the Warriors need to figure out how to bring back Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala this summer without upsetting their cap sheet, lest they ruin everything down the line — because, like the Cavaliers, they won't have the cap space to reload their reserves.
That could be complicated, as one of the ways for Durant to make max money with Golden State is for the Warriors to clear the decks of almost everyone but their Big Four, Livingston and Iguodala included. And in that scenario (and the other likely outcomes), Golden State would have committed more than $110 million in salary to four players, with the cap coming in around $101 million.
That would leave the Warriors with four of the best players in the NBA — and little else. The loss of Igoudala would be particularly catastrophic, as he makes the small-ball lineups work at optimal efficiency.
Unlike Cleveland, Golden State does have a few promising young players on the roster already, which is important. The Warriors have to nail the development of guys like Ian Clark (who might be a cap casualty this summer), Patrick McCaw and Kevon Looney (who already has injury questions) if they want to stay head-and-shoulders above the rest of the West.
You can argue that stars are all that matters once you reach the postseason, and I'd agree with you to a certain extent. A team's top seven to eight players determine whether it's a championship contender — not just the top four or five. A couple of guys who can let the superstars rest for a few minutes here or there without blowing a lead are important.
Right now, Golden State has those horses in Livingston, Iguodala, and even David West. But the time when the Warriors can no longer strike the balance between top-heavy star power and a solid bench is approaching more quickly than most realize.
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Finally, there's one question mark that could precipitate a far more rapid decline for the Warriors: Steve Kerr's health.
Despite his arguments with Draymond Green and his reluctance to let his team run pick-and-roll until the heat death of the universe, Kerr is the heart and soul of this Golden State squad. He masterfully navigates the personalities, keeps the team loose, and encourages everyone to play with joy — which is when they're at their best.
If he can no longer be on the sideline during games, the Warriors have a major problem. Even if we assume he stays with the organization in some sort of front-office role, the team would no longer be his.
And if Kerr is not there to keep everyone leveled out, Golden State could fracture internally under the weight of ego and expectations.
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This is by all design, of course — well, other than Kerr's unfortunate injury.
When NBA owners gathered to hammer out their side of the Association's newest collective bargaining agreement, they took square aim at the Warriors and their superteam, catching LeBron's squad in the crossfire.
There was nothing the other 28 teams could do about what was already done, but they could make it more difficult to keep those superteams together — or to build them in the first place. Little moves, such as tying the mid-level and luxury-tax exceptions to the salary cap, were intended to squeeze the most stacked teams even further.
It will take another two or three years before those changes take their full effect. Still, rest assured. The day of reckoning is coming for these juggernauts.