For five nights this June, I carved out time to watch the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers play in the NBA Finals. This was the the first time two teams faced each other three years in a row. Going into the Finals, the Warriors had swept their way through three rounds of the playoffs. The Cavs almost did the same. While many of us hoped for a close Finals, the Warriors dominated 3 of the first 4 games. They then closed out the series in the most watched non Game 7 in ABC history.
As it stands, the Warriors now have bragging rights in the current NBA rivalry. Much of this is due to adding Kevin Durant to their already loaded roster last summer. Durant joined the team after losing to last year’s Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. He received a fair amount of backlash for doing this. But, it was clear that he was joining a team to win a championship, and now, he’s done just that.
Switching teams via free agency to win a championship isn’t new in the NBA. One could debate whether this is a soft move or a boss move. Ultimately, it helps illustrate the tension in sports in general, but basketball in particular. Basketball, more so than other team sports, sits in the tension between aspirations to individual greatness and the need to rely on teammates.
Outside the sports world, each of us feels this tension to some extent. We desire to be self-reliant, yet we find ourselves needing our community. We want to do it ourselves, but we fall short and have to ask for help. It was not good for the man to be alone, but that’s often how he wants to succeed in life. We aspire to success, but there are no real self-made men.
There is a two way relationship between sports and life. In a way, they both shed light on each other. To study sports is to engage in anthropology because they are a deeply human embodied activity. Sports are trans-cultural and trans-historical. Dynamics that are true of us as humans are going to emerge in our sporting events.
We sit in awe of the athletic prowess of our game’s greatest players. But those same players value winning above theatrics. Players can strive to be the best in the game. But it won’t feel fulfilling unless they win championships (and even then, it is not ultimately fulfilling, e.g. Tom Brady).
Sports need a community of greatness to win championships. They are no solo winners, regardless of appearances. Michael Jordan is the best player of all time, but he won 6 championships by having a team and a coach good in their own right. His coach, Phil Jackson won 5 more championships without Jordan. One of his teammates, Steve Kerr, went on to win championships with the San Antonio Spurs, and has now coached the Warriors to two as well.
In contrast, Lebron James has never been coached by someone who will win a championship without him. At the same time, his stat line is ridiculous. He averaged a triple-double in the Finals. Last year, he led all players in all offensive categories throughout the 7 game finals. This year, his stats in the Finals were the best 5 game stretch of his career.
On paper, and even in game, watching Lebron James is like watching the Secretariat of basketball. His athletic endurance and ability just shouldn’t be possible. He probably hasn’t even peaked as an athlete yet, which is encouraging to me because we’re almost the same age and I don’t think I’ve peaked in the gym.
Yet, lacking the necessary teammates during his first stretch in Cleveland, he couldn’t secure a Finals win. He made the move to go to play with the Miami Heat (in the ill-fated Decision). He won two championships in three years there, but with a much better team (the so-called Big Three). He then decided to come back to Cleveland and has taken them to the Finals three years in a row now.
His current team is the best cast of surrounding players he has had. Kyrie Irving is going to be one of the all time greats. Kevin Love is an All-Star in his own right. But the depth drops off a bit from there.
The Warriors have two league MVP’s in their starting lineup (Steph Curry and Kevin Durant). They have two more All-Stars in Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. They also have a former Finals MVP in Andre Iguodala (who got that award in part because of how much he shut down Lebron two finals ago). There’s a good bit more depth, and their starting 5 is going to go down as one of the top 5 best.
Many people don’t like the idea of a super team. Especially when it is formed because Kevin Durant chose to join a team that beat him in last year’s playoffs. At the same time, it is hard to not enjoy watching them in flow. Unfortunately, when that happens it means there is no real competition happening. But, it is a level of athletic greatness we only see in a given NBA team once a decade. In a game where a super team will always beat a super star, it means the Warriors are going to continue asserting their dominance as long as they can keep their roster together.
As I watched ESPN’s 30 for 30 on the Lakers-Celtics rivalry, I realized this wasn’t new. From 1980 to 1989, here are the teams that played in the finals:
- Los Angeles Lakers
- Houston Rockets
- Philadelphia 76ers
- Boston Celtics
- Detroit Pistons.
Every year featured either the Lakers or the Celtics, and three times (but not in a row) both. During that span, the Lakers won 5 championships to the Celtics 3. The 76ers and Pistons each won one.
In the 90’s, the NBA Finals was the Bulls to lose. Had Michael Jordan not played minor leagues baseball for 2 years, they would have likely won 8 in a row from 1991 to 1998. When Jordan retired for good (more or less) the balance of power shifted west and from 1999 to 2010. In that time, the Lakers and the Spurs combined to win 9 championships and only failed to make the finals in 2006.
In our current decade, the Finals have felt like the Lebron James invitational. Yet, he has actually been on the losing end more often than not. He has played in 8 total on either the Miami Heat or the Cleveland Cavaliers. His has a 3-5 record. But, he is a clutch Ray Allen 3-pointer and a Draymond Green suspension away from actually being 1-7.
The norm in basketball is for teams with a collection of superstars to win as long as they can keep the team together. Unless a truly great player has teammates who can step up in key moments, they don’t usually win championships.
Yet, we praise the individual more than the team. We select MVP’s of the Finals and the regular season. We focus on individual stat lines, and make the most of the records of the individual. And long after they’ve retired, we vote them into the Hall of Fame. And that shows us a bit about ourselves. We admire the best, but the best is usually a group, not an individual.
I’m not entirely sure what to do with this tension. The Warriors may go down as one of the greatest teams of All-Time. But they’ll mainly be remembered for the Hall of Famers who play for them. Lebron will probably continue to lose in the Finals, somewhat because he’s too nice (every great team needs a solid jerk to win, and that’s not Lebron). But, statistically, he’ll probably be the greatest basketball player of all time. Yet, he’ll be judged by having a losing record in the Finals.
Is that fair? Definitely not, but sports, like life, isn’t fair.
(Image courtesy of NYT)