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NBA Finals: We’ve Been Here Before

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What does a fourth straight Cavs-Warriors match up tell us about our favorite league?

NBA: Finals-Cleveland Cavaliers at Golden State Warriors Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA Finals start tomorrow night, and it’s a match up we’re all quite familiar with to put it mildly. The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. Again. For the fourth time in a row.

Plenty of much smarter people than me will break down the match up, consider the tactics and all that stuff. For what it’s worth, I agree with seemingly most of the basketball world that the Warriors are likely to cruise to their second straight title and third in four years.

But what does it tell us that we’re seeing the same two teams in the Finals for the fourth consecutive season? Is it good, bad, or indifferent for the league? Those questions are interesting to me, and I’m not sure I have answers.

I am a huge LeBron James fan—his accomplishments are just amazing. For that reason, I’m always happy to see him reach the Finals, especially in a year like this one when he dragged a pretty subpar group through the playoffs. That said, I have to admit I would have been happy if the Celtics won, just for some variety.

James has now made eight straight Finals, four with the Heat and four with the Cavs. The fact that nobody in the East has managed to put together a team that beat him in nearly a decade is a testament to his greatness, yes, but also something else. I wouldn’t say it’s a lack of ambition, though to some extent the truth that multiple teams each season fail to make an effort remains an irritant to me.

To some extent there’s been a unique set of circumstances. During the Heat years, it should have been the Bulls challenging them, but injuries ruined that team, leaving it up to a good but nowhere near great Pacers team and an aging Celtics team to fight it out, with expected results.

Back in Cleveland, only the Raptors have consistently tried to win over these four years, and it hasn’t been enough. James owns them, and their top-tier talent simply isn’t quite at the necessary level. The Celtics have been good, but also young and in “asset collection” mode for part of the time. Whether things would have been different this year had they been healthy I don’t know, but they came close. Beyond that, the East has been a bit of a wasteland. The Heat obviously needed to recover from James leaving. The Knicks are perpetually mismanaged. Brooklyn made a trade that set them back years. The Sixers were deep in tanking mode until this season. And on it goes.

And I suppose this is one of the points: I am to an extent disappointed that nobody in the East put together a team that would beat this iteration of the Cavs. Certainly they are not unbeatable, even with James, but a conference-wide lack of ambition and smarts has seen a deeply flawed team in the Finals for the fourth straight year.

On the other side of the league, the Warriors are putting together one of the great stretches in NBA history. They’ve been unassailable in the West since Steve Kerr took over. In part, they’ve had good fortune, with an underpaid Steph Curry and the salary cap spike leaving them in position to recruit Kevin Durant. But they’ve also been very smart. They’ve drafted well. Guys have developed there. They have somehow stayed focused.

Teams have tried to beat them—The Thunder with Russell Westbrook and Durant, before Durant switched sides were a worthy opponent. The Spurs have been the Spurs through most of the last few years. The Rockets have put together a group that came very close this year to toppling the Warriors. But it hasn’t been enough. And their top guys remain relatively young given the amount of success they’ve had.

The NBA has never been about parity. While I worry about this, it’s apparently somewhat misplaced, since the league continues to grow in popularity. There have always been dominant teams, and collecting multiple stars has always been the way to success. But we’ve never seen this—the same Finals match up four years in a row. When the Bulls won six titles in eight years, they played five different opponents (only the Jazz were two time Finalists against them.) During the great Celtics-Lakers rivalry of the 80s, those two teams met four times in the Finals, but it was spread over eight years.

Ultimately one explanation for this is just a random confluence. One guy nobody can beat in the East, and a team that came together in just the right circumstances in the West. Certainly, players are taking more control of their careers now, and trying to find situations that help them meet their goals, but whoever has agency, putting together great teams has always been about collecting as much talent as possible.

It’s very possible that James moves to another team this summer, which will change the landscape yet again. If he moves West, either he’ll make the Finals again or the Warriors will, not both. If he stays East, perhaps his new team takes on the mantle. At any rate, as great as he is, it can’t last forever. Neither can the Warriors dynasty.

The question is whether the end of this dominance is just replaced by new teams dominating in similar fashion, or if we get a period of real competition.