As Much As We Love Steph Curry, A LeBron-Durant Finals Is Better For Basketball
Objectively speaking, a team from Cleveland playing against a team from Oklahoma City doesn't sound like must-see TV. The two cities have almost no shared history and virtually nothing in common outside their mutual lack of European tourists. Yet, despite the combined size of their media market populations being less than that of the Bay Area, an OKC-Cleveland Final would be way more exciting than one featuring the Cavaliers and Warriors. Sure, watching the winners of six of the league's last seven Most Valuable Player Awards in a much-anticipated rematch would be awesome -- I'm not arguing that. I'm just saying that a Cavs-Dubs Finals wouldn't be the best-case scenario we'd anointed it last June. What can I say? The Thunder got hot and I remembered that the NBA's chief rivalry is between LeBron James and Kevin Durant, which is partly why I want to see the Thunder play the Cavs next week (and you should, too).
Now don't get me wrong, watching the Cavaliers seek vengeance for 2015's shorthanded Finals loss would be riveting. The dethroned king returns to the walls of his former castle with his army intact, asking for his successor's head. I get it. That sounds fun. The trouble is, we all know how that story ends: the king dies because he thinks his domain was stolen from him when, in fact, he lost it fair and square.
Even with a healthy Kyrie and Kevin Love at his side, LeBron will again lose to the Golden State Warriors. They trounced his ass back in January and they'll do it again. You know it. I know it. He knows it.
But a surging Oklahoma City Thunder -- whom the Cleveland Cavaliers beat by a combined 27 points in their two meetings this year -- are a much more intriguing matchup for many more reasons. For starters, LeBron and Durant actually have to guard each other, which makes virtually every play a microcosm of the series as a whole. The same can't be said for watching LeBron guard Andre Iguodala or Matthew Dellavedova guard Steph Curry. But more importantly, when LeBron faces Kevin Durant, he actually plays like LeBron James, as opposed to when he goes against Steph, which seems to turn him into this bootleg jump-shooting version of himself. You want to see the best LeBron vs. the best Durant, which means watching them do what they do best: dominate on both ends of the floor. The fact that they have historically shut each other down should tell you enough about the kind of series they'd play against one another.
Steph vs. LeBron just ends up being a lopsided three-point shooting contest. Wack.
Then there's the argument that the Thunder have more to prove in beating the Cavaliers than the Warriors would. Right off the bat, let's point out that Durant (and Westbrook) would get a shot at redemption after LeBron famously mowed them down in 2012 as a member of the Miami Heat. (Remember, not all Finals rematches have to come back-to-back.) Avenging that defeat would be the fairytale ending to this Thunder team's injury-plagued, seven-year story. It'd be a testament to team building through the draft and a "fuck you" to the free agency superstar collusion strategy. Were the Dubs to make their second-straight Finals trip and win (which they would), it just wouldn't mean as much. The takeaway would be "could they three-peat?", which is boring, plus it'd contribute to the narrative that the league's top talent needs to aggregate on a single roster if they ever want to win a title. I hate that shit.
Were the Thunder to beat the Cavs, it'd prove to the rest of the NBA that the small-ball Warriors are beatable, which helps prevent basketball from devolving into a game played entirely from behind the arc. Better still, the underappreciated Durant would get to say he presided over the single-greatest playoff run in NBA history (vanquishing the Spurs, Dubs and Cavs?!?!), in the process netting him the ring most of us assumed he could only get by leaving in free agency to join one of those lab-grown superteams. That's fucking inspiring, as well. The second-best player of his generation could finally emerge from LeBron's shadow to receive the credit he's earned over his illustrious career (but never really gotten because he plays the same position as a guy who took a shortcut to two championships). That kind of drama never existed with a Warriors-Cavs Final because Steph has never been compared to LeBron.
Face it: the implications of a Thunder-Cavs Finals are much greater than they are for another Warriors' title, namely because both cities would have a shot at a, ya know, actually winning professional sports championship. On a individual level, however, OKC-Cleveland gives the Durant-LeBron rivalry immeasurably more depth. Were K.D. to win on the team that drafted him, as opposed to wandering from superstar triad to superstar triad in search of the path of least resistance, that'd be a massive win for integrity. Hooray integrity!
Steph beating the Cavs for second-straight year -- which, once again, he 100% absolutely would -- would look as incredible as spring turning into summer. That outcome feels inevitable, which isn't exactly the most compelling emotional undercurrent for the sport's most important contest.
So when you're trying to decide which team to pull for in this Golden State-Oklahoma City series, remember that the Warriors' season already is a feather in their fan cap -- they set the NBA record for most wins in a regular season -- and they'll have at least four more years to try for 74. The Thunder won't. In two years, Durant and Westbrook will be spread around the league to compete for a title with a bunch of strangers who will never offer the same kind of meaningful opportunity they have right now. Just ask yourself this: do you want to see another David and Goliath sequel, or two basketball Kaiju duke it out?
I think the answer is pretty clear. Go Thunder!
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