5 things we learned from the Cavaliers' title run and the Warriors' collapse
The Golden State Warriors were supposed to march to the 2015-16 NBA title. It was supposed to be a coronation after a historic regular season that saw the Warriors win 73 games. They were supposed to be too fast, too skilled and too versatile for the Cleveland Cavaliers in these NBA Finals.
After an incredible Game 7 performance from LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and, yes, even Kevin Love, the Cavaliers are champions -- Cleveland's first professional sports title in over 50 years. Here are the five major takeaways from a historic NBA season for Cleveland and an unprecedented collapse from Golden State.
It bears repeating -- the last title for the city of Cleveland in any of the four professional sports came in 1964, courtesy of the Cleveland Browns. Fifty-two years of sports misery have passed in the interim, with more cursed outcomes than we can count. LeBron and his team undid all of that morose history with this NBA title, and they had to make history along the way to do it.
As you probably know, no team had ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals; heck, no team had even forced a Game 7 after falling into such a hole since before the NBA-ABA merger. To overcome those daunting odds took a special effort from the Cavs, of course. LeBron led all players in the five major statistical categories in the Finals, something no one has done in NBA history. No one. Not Wilt. Not Oscar. Not Jordan. Not Magic. No. One. You know, except for LeBron James.
The Warriors didn't want to hear any of that "luck" nonsense after they won their first title in 40 years last season, but now the shoe is on the other foot. Because the Warriors allowed the Cavs to hang around, in part thanks to Draymond Green's Game 5 suspension, they could only watch as center Andrew Bogut was lost for the final two games of the series. Andre Iguodala was also injured for Games 6 and 7, limited by a balky back that deprived him of the strength and quickness he had used to so expertly defend LeBron in two consecutive Finals.
More than the injuries, Golden State also let fatigue affect its championship run. The Warriors made a conscious decision to pursue a record 73 wins in the regular season, but this was always the risk. Between taking every team's best shot for 82 games, having to fight back from a 3-1 deficit of their own against the Oklahoma City Thunder, and trying to stop LeBron's Finals onslaught, they simply didn't have the energy to keep up their frenetic pace.
It's a make-or-miss league, true; that the Warriors missed so many open 3s in the final few games of their season can at least partially be blamed on tired legs. And for that, they can only blame themselves.
This one calls for a mea culpa. I thought Curry was the better player this season -- as most did, given that he was the unanimous MVP -- and I thought his Game 4 performance was the big Finals game his resume was missing to solidify his status as the game's best. The idea was that while LeBron could outplay anyone in the league for one game, Curry was the better player over the course of a season.
I was wrong. We were wrong. There's no need to hedge or argue that Curry's the better regular-season player because he's younger and a better shooter and whatever. This is LeBron's world. We're all part of his fiefdom. And any pretenders to the throne will be disposed of with a sneer across the King's face.
Harrison Barnes played well for most of Game 7; without his 3-point shooting, the Warriors might not have even been in the game. But he's not a max-contract kind of player, even with the salary cap going up over the next two seasons. That means Golden State probably has to let him go in free agency this summer and figure out how to replace his versatility within the rotation.
Festus Ezeli is a fine rotational big man in his own right; it seems likelier that the Warriors will find a way to bring him back next year. He too is a free agent, however, and could be gone if Golden State decides it's not worth matching an offer from another team, especially after coming up short as Andrew Bogut's replacement in Game 7. Speaking of Bogut, he's under contract for only one more year. And with his injury history, it seems unlikely he'll be part of the Warriors longterm plans.
Meanwhile, the specter of adding a certain high-profile free agent from Oklahoma City will loom over the Warriors for this summer and likely next season, assuming Kevin Durant signs a one-year deal to stay with the Thunder before diving back into free agency in the summer of 2017.
Remember earlier this year when we were all worried that the Warriors were ruining basketball? Here was a style of play without equal that was seeping into the playgrounds and making a mockery of the game as we know it.
Yeah, about that ...
The Cavaliers committed to one key defensive strategy in the Finals: We are not letting Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry beat us. Curry had one MVP-caliber game; Thompson had his moments of flamethrowing, too. But for seven games, the Cavs kept Golden State's backcourt in check like no other team this season. They showed that you can take jump-shooters out of a game if you're disciplined in the way you navigate screens, make switches and recover to shooters.
The tendency will likely be to call Curry a choker and to second Charles Barkley's contention that jump-shooting teams can't win titles. Maybe that's true. What's absolutely certain, though, is that LeBron -- one of the greatest players of all-time -- just led his team to one of the greatest championships we'll ever see.
Congratulations, LeBron. Congratulations, Cleveland. You're finally free of the curse.