Over the past five years, multiple teams have attempted to take down a LeBron led team and represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. During that time period, every single team has failed and it doesn’t seem like there is much of an opportunity for that to change in the upcoming years. Throughout the past couple years we watched as the Indiana Pacers rose to the top two years in a row only to lose to LeBron and the Heat in the conference finals both times. Before that it was the Chicago Bulls lead by Derrick Rose, the youngest MVP of all time, but they too were quickly dispatched by the Heat. This year, LeBron returned to a young but talented Cleveland roster and they essentially walked to the Finals, only losing two games in the whole postseason. They faced a young and inexperienced Boston Celtics who are multiple years away from credibility. They faced temporary struggles against Chicago as they adjusted to a setting without Kevin Love, who was injured for the remainder of the postseason, but even Chicago proved to be too injured and broken to pose a serious threat to The King’s throne. And finally they closed it out against the sensational Atlanta Hawks who had a franchise record 60 wins, but the Hawks team basketball philosophy proved ineffective against the force of LeBron as the Cavaliers swept the Hawks. It just seems that nowhere in the Eastern Conference is there a team with enough talent to face LeBron. Milwaukee and Orlando?Perhaps in a couple years but not quite yet. The Miami Heat could have a chance to pull it together, like the Indiana Pacers, but both teams have faced devastating injuries with their team’s star players. Year after year LeBron rises out of the East only to be crushed by the Western Conference competition, that seems to get deeper every single year, shown by LeBron’s 2-3 record in the Finals, with a strong likelihood he will be 2-4 as they face a historically strong squad in the Golden State Warriors. While the conferences stand the way they are, it could be many years before we see an NBA Finals without LeBron James playing out of the East.
As we take a look back at this past season of the NBA, we reflect on what was considered a sudden and unexpected rise of the Golden State Warriors. But when you really break it down, the Warriors have everything they need for a title and then some and they’ve had it for a while. All they needed was someone to put it all in place and they finally acquired that man last summer: Steve Kerr. He was brought in after the decision to fire Mark Jackson that angered many Warriors fans but ended changing the team drastically for the better. He brought in reserve Draymond Green as the starting power forward, which turned out to be a revelation that produced a 2nd place Defensive Player of the Year candidate. He reinstated Harrison Barnes to his starting spot and moving beloved veteran Andre Iguodala after convincing him to take a step back and be the leader of the second team, now considered the strongest in the league. Throughout the roster, we can see just how stuffed it is with selfless talented players. The Warriors have two All-Stars coming off the bench in Iguodala and David Lee. They have a wide variety of quick and lengthy defenders that allow a defense based on switching that won’t give any advantages to the offensive player. Everything has gotten organized and put into place that allowed the Warriors to crank out a 67-15 record from the regular season, the best by a large margin. They’re led by the reigning MVP Steph Curry, an All-NBA first and second team player in their starting lineup with Green and Andrew Bogut respectively. No matter where you look in the roster there is depth to spare at every single position. Their 2nd string of Livingston, Iguodala, Lee, Ezeli, and Leandro Barbosa that could be a strong starting five in the Eastern Conference. Through the season and postseason, we have seen a continued dominance that was one of the best season of all time. They lead the league in assists, defensive and offensive field goal percentage, as well as defensive efficiency with a second place finish in offensive efficiency. They posted a 10.1 net rating, only the 8th double digit one of all time. The all around team has truly shown off all sides of themselves as they’ve dominated throughout the league, and I don’t expect that dominance to end, even if it is LeBron in the Finals.
Although not officially set, it seems a given that the NBA Finals will pit the talented multi-functional Golden State Warriors vs LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers, with each team having a commanding 3-0 series lead over their opponent and the opposition showing little resistant. But if you look at the two teams, the ideology and method of moving onto the NBA’s greatest stage have varied to an extreme degree. Over in Cleveland, we saw the formation of a Big Three behind LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love. The rest of the team seemed unimportant as they were instantly pegged title favorites. But after limping out to an unimpressive 19-20 start to the season, the Cavs realized that they needed some backup firepower to propel this team to any degree of success. They made multiple mid season acquisitions in Timofey Mozgov, JR Smith, and Iman Shumpert that helped the Cavs catch fire and rocket to the second seed in the East and, with the decline of the Hawks, back into the spot for Eastern Conference favorite. However, as they entered the playoffs, disaster struck. Kevin Love was disabled in a brutish attack by Kelly Olynyk in the first round and it looked like the Cavs would be in trouble. But LeBron and Kyrie stepped up to fill the scoring load for the next series against the Bulls until it was revealed Kyrie had been playing on an injured ankle and would miss time. As the Big Three began to diminish, we began to see LeBron take over, willing his team deeper into the playoffs, and taking all responsibilities of scoring on himself. LeBron believes that he is the one who must take his team to the next level. Which is almost exactly the opposite of the Warriors. The Warriors were one of the most cohesive teams, cranking out assists and high percentage shots. Although their clear leader was MVP Steph Curry, the whole team made vast contributions all over to lead the team to a franchise best 67-15 record. Like LeBron, Curry can take over a game and torch the opponents with his vast arsenal, but he also has the ability to pass the torch to a teammate when he recognizes an opportunity. Watch any clip from Klay Thompson’s 37 point quarter, and there Steph is, trying to assist Klay. The Warriors team friendly offense has thrived and annihilated opponents by an average 10.6 points per game, one of the highest of all time. As these teams meet up, we get ready to watch a battle between two philosophies. On the one hand, the Cavs give the ball to LeBron and let him run, while on the other hand, the Warriors as a team work towards their ultimate goal. With the NBA Finals a mere week away, the excitement builds towards what is certain to be a match up no one will soon forget.
Recently in the NBA Playoffs, we watched the New Orleans Pelicans get swept by the one of the best teams in the league, the Golden State Warriors, in the first round. But this playoff result was far from a disappointment, as the Pelicans were able to fight through their whole season facing injuries in a brutal conference. Even with the Thunder losing Durant and the blow it caused to that team, these Pelicans fought and were able to slide in based on their own merits. They held strong, even with starting point guard Jrue Holiday out for half the season, Ryan Anderson missed 21 games due to injury, Eric Gordon had an extended absence in the beginning, and one of the greatest players in the league, Anthony “The Brow” Davis, missing 14 games due to various injuries. Despite these setbacks and being left out of nearly every single playoff prediction, they clung to life and were able to pull away with their first playoff berth since Chris Paul left the team back in 2011. This marvelous feat was possible only because the Pelicans had their own superhuman athlete to lead the crowd. Anthony Davis had a monster season that will go down in history. He posted a PER of 30.89, the 11th best in the history of the NBA. He’s averaging career highs all across the boards, and those numbers are still going up. He has the ability to take over a game with his mid range, his post ups, and, if necessary, the ability to hit a game-winning three from thirty feet out while guarded by two players. That three pointer over the outstretched arms of reigning MVP Kevin Durant would eventually prove to save their season, as the victory gave the Pelicans the tie breaker they needed after the two teams finished out the season with the same record, and OKC narrowly missed the postseason. And even though his offensive game is phenomenal, his defense is just as good if not better. He is one of the best defenders in the league, using his length to guard anywhere from the basket to blocking three pointers. And even with his monster stat lines that have literally never been seen before since the NBA began recording blocks, flirting with the legendary quadruple double, and averaging over thirty points in his first postseason appearance, we can’t mention Anthony Davis without bringing up the phrase that has seemed to latch onto him whenever his future in the NBA is mentioned: he’s only 22. His legendary seasons have been accomplished all in the third year in the league, and he is the youngest person to post a PER over thirty, which doesn’t even factor in his defensive edge. Scary things are coming from Anthony Davis, as he’s due to get an increase in usage. Right now, he only has a usage rate of 25% and is still posting stat lines that are better than the rest of the leagues superstars like LeBron James and James Harden, and if the uptick in usage this season has been any sign, next years increase will rocket him into an even higher level than the one he is on right now, which also happens to be a level he occupies all by himself. Anthony Davis is still only 22, and I can definitely say that this superstar has the potential to be the best basketball player ever, even passing all time greats like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan. With how much he has already given us, I can hardly fathom what he has in store.
At the beginning of the season, there is no way someone could have predicted all the injuries that would occur and what a strong effect they would have on the landscape. Every team throughout the NBA has faced these issues, although some have been hit much harder. Looking in the Western Conference, we see the OKC Thunder, a 2 seed from last year stacked with 2 superstars in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, good enough to make any team an instant contender. Instead, Durant went down in a preseason game and has missed most of the season coming back sporadically, while Westbrook missed 14 early games, causing the shallow Thunder to limp to a weak 5-12 start. Many strong teams have had their fair share of injuries, causing the playoff picture to completely warp from last year. The Spurs went a significant time without Kawhi Leonard and started off slowly. The Rockets lost Dwight Howard for a long time and now are missing two more of their starters as they head to the playoffs. The Pelicans have been absolutely hammered, missing Anthony Davis, Eric Gordon, Jrue Holiday, and Ryan Anderson for large chunks of time, that have left them fighting with the Thunder for the last playoff spot. Two of the strongest teams in the West are those that have been relatively injury free. The Golden State Warriors have only had one major injury with David Lee, but even that turned out to be a blessing as we saw the potent Draymond Green shine in his new starting spot, while the Grizzlies have had no real significant injuries to their roster. In the NBA, their is a constant unpredictability that makes it so the league is always competitive as they fight for the Playoffs, but you have to realize that part of the season just boils down to luck. Even with the strongest roster in history, it’ll have no effect if you can’t get these superstars off the pine. A teams hopes for the future can be shattered in an instant, like the Indiana Pacers after Paul George shattered his leg with Team USA and was out for the year. Without a leader to guide your team, even people that would regularly be a sure contender can slip, and fall right out of that playoff picture and straight into the lottery. In the NBA, it does take hard work, but it is essential to have a little bit of luck.
Recently this week, Steve Nash officially announced a retirement that everyone knew was coming after he sat out another year with back spasms and his contract with the Lakers was coming to a close. But even with his surprisingly disappointing finish, we can’t let that stand in the way of all the things that Nash did accomplish, being one of the best players of this generation. His highlight assists, as well as his shooting ability and the ability to take over a game and keep it at whatever pace he wants allowed him to revolutionize the point guard position. As he ends his career, he has 90.4% free throw shooting, which is the highest in NBA history. Any team with that kind of efficiency would be unbeatable down the stretch, as sending Nash to the line almost always resulted in two point. You could always trust Nash to make the correct play and hit his shot, especially with his 41% shooting from deep good for ninth best in history. Nash’s true skill was always in his pass, and came out most evidently during his two MVP seasons in 2005 and 2006, averaging 11.5 and 10.5 assists respectively. He didn’t always dazzle with high-volume scoring, and is the only MVP in the last thirty years to win MVP while scoring less than 20 points a game. Nash knew when the game needed him to shine, and was always willing to give up a good shot in order for someone else to get a great shot. Even though he had a long, illustrious career with Dallas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles, Nash was never quite able to get one of those championship rings. But this factor should not allow us to take away from this man and all that he has accomplished, including fronting the Phoenix Suns to an NBA-best record multiple years in a row, while controlling D’antoni’s high octane “seven seconds or less” offense. Even with these high amount of possessions, he always kept his efficiency, hitting the legendary 50-40-90 mark(field goal percentage-3 point percentage-free throw percentage) an astounding 4 times! Only Larry Bird has ever had two, and a handful have hit one, but no one has even come close to the terrific accomplishment by Nash. As we look back on his 18 wonderful seasons, you can’t help but respect this maestro and all the beautiful works he has created.
Throughout this season, we have all watched as the Knicks were crushed time and again by every opponent across the continent. The Knicks, who were once viewed as playoff prospects, have bottomed out with a league worst 13-53 record. This sets them behind the self-proclaimed tankers, the Philadelphia 76’ers, an injury ravaged Minnesota Timberwolves, and a lackluster Los Angeles Lakers. At this point it has gotten so bad that the culture seems to have become a losing one, with even Phil Jackson joking around about how they need to destroy the Knicks. But through all this, you have to wonder how much of a toll this is taking on the young players on the rosters. Coach Fisher is constantly worried, because NBA prospects are kids coming from the NCAA who were used to leading their teams to wins, only to now being on a team that is just counting down the days until they can call it quits and hit the draft board. Day in and day out, the Knicks are getting wiped across the floor. Since the All-Star break alone, they have lost 7 games by at least 18 points, with two of those coming by over 31 points. The players are getting worn out, as day in and day out they push it on the court, only to have the same negative results thrown back in their face. “It’s tough,”one of the rookies Langston Galloway has told reporters, “But at the same time, you’re just trying to continue to battle because you know this is going to continue to make us better.” These players have been humiliated, and are currently the laughingstock of the NBA. A visit to the once highly revered Madison Square Gardens has almost become a guaranteed check in the win column. The team tries to stay positive, but knows that this will follow them around, and remain a horrible start to what could have been for them if they had a real chance to shine, instead of just putting up meaningless points in a losing effort every night. As we move onto the future, we can only hope that these young hopefuls will be able to move past this enormous bump in the road, and find themselves a promising career in a place they aren’t just counting down the days until the nightmare is over.