Do you think the Cleveland Cavaliers are making the NBA Finals?
If you said yes to both of those questions, you’re right in line with a probably unanimous feeling among NBA fans. It makes sense, too. They both just need to dispose of one lesser team each and it’ll come true.
Unless you have a rooting interest in the other four remaining teams in the playoffs, the Warriors-Cavs would be the best possible Finals scenario. A rubber match after a classic 2016 Finals with the addition of a top-three player in the world in Kevin Durant. That’s a helluva show.
But after the dust settles and the Larry O’Brien trophy is presented, the offseason will come for all 30 teams to improve themselves. Then the NBA is faced with the same issue it faced before July 2016: can any team catch up to the Warriors and Cavs?
The answer was no. Because the closest competitor would have been the Oklahoma City Thunder and their best player joined Golden State. The NBA’s power has always been in the hands of a select few, but it became even more consolidated. Durant has a player option and will opt-out to get a pay raise, but he’s staying in Golden State.
Ahead of a 2017 offseason where Gordon Hayward and Blake Griffin are the best available free agents and Jimmy Butler and Paul George seem to be the best available trade targets, can anyone improve their roster enough to catch up with the Warriors and Cavs?
Feasibly, no. The Celtics have the opportunity to add two All-Stars, one via cap space and another via trade, but I won’t believe it until I actually see Danny Ainge part with an asset with my own two eyes. Even if they get a dream scenario by adding Jimmy Butler and Blake Griffin while keeping Isaiah Thomas and one of their Nets picks, then the list of contenders would go from 2….to 3. Not exactly a beacon of parity. But the NBA is a lot more than just 3 teams, like how college football is more than just 5 conferences.
There are plenty of teams in the NBA who weren’t in title contention this year and won’t be the next year either with the way things are going. The Memphis Grizzlies are one of these teams. The Grizzlies aren’t bad-- they made the playoffs and pushed the Spurs to 6 games! They’re, in fact, good! But is Memphis going to be a Finals contender this time next year? Probably not. Even if Conley and Gasol keep up their play while a healthy Chandler Parsons finally contributes, the Grizzlies are still ways away from the Warriors and Cavs. But that’s okay. Because everyone else is, too.
Every off-season, front offices have to consider blowing the team up and starting from the bottom. It’s a quick conversation for some, but a genuine question for others. Teams like the Clippers are a perfect intersection of exhausted playoff disappointments and an opportunity to move on from their best players. The Raptors swung at the trade deadline and whiffed in the playoffs when they got played out of the building against the Cavaliers.
With Kyle Lowry a soon-to-be free agent and Dwane Casey perpetually on the hot seat, Team President Masai Ujiri also needs to consider starting over. He even stated that the team needed a “culture reset” which usually doesn’t mean everyone comes back and they try everything the same way, hoping a LeBron injury gives them an opening to make the Finals. The Clippers and Raptors aren’t winning the 2017 or 2018 championship, but that shouldn’t be the reason they make sweeping changes. Not those teams, or the others.
Teams should decide to rebuild when they’ve exhausted all they can do and believe that a high draft pick is better than their current status. A vocal section of Grizzlies fans have screamed “blow it up!” since the Earth was just single-celled organisms, but those calls have grown quieter over the past couple of years. The inevitability of two teams colliding every year makes Team X feel one of two ways: there’s no point in even attempting to compete (Kings) or we can be middling the entire time and no one will notice (Hawks).
As much as the Warriors and Cavs have crushed the hopes of teams in the upper-echelon of their conferences, they’ve forced some teams into some wild decisions trying to catch up. Portland guaranteed over $140 million combined over the next 4 years for Evan Turner and Allen Crabbe’s services. The Hornets are capped out for the next 2-3 years and there’s no guarantee they’ll even make the playoffs during that span.
The Grizzlies are capped out for the next 3-4 years, give or take some flexibility. Without Chandler Parsons, our ceiling might be being a tough out to an actual contender. With Chandler Parsons, our ceiling would be competing for a top-4 seed and giving the Warriors trouble in the playoffs, a la 2015. It doesn’t make this season or next a waste. If no team can catch up to those two, is it a failure when that turns out to be true? Of course not. There’s a finite amount of players that can help you win a championship, and the players that give you the best chance to do so play in Oakland and Cleveland.
One player ain’t moving the needle for any team *that* close anyway. You have to build a super team to beat these two. A super team needs All-Stars, and with every financial incentive nudging player towards staying with the team that drafted them, a lot less All-Stars are coming onto the market. As I said before, the Celtics have the best chance to make a super team. But will it happen? Will the Bulls or Pacers even be willing to trade their star? Will Gordon Hayward and Blake Griffin even hit the free agency market? No one knows-- it’s not guaranteed to be an option or to work if it does happen.
The inevitability of the Warriors and Cavs’ success will bring up an interesting fork in the road for a lot of teams in this summer. If Kevin Durant and Steph Curry stay (which 99.9% will happen) in Oakland, middle-of-the-pack teams will be forced to ponder “picking” a direction. And when they commit to one, they better be all-in or else they’ll be stuck in basketball purgatory for a while. Detroit is closer to the bottom than to contention, but the Clippers are closer to contention than the bottom. The Grizzlies might be dead center. Their choices might be telling for the rest of the league.
Does the inevitability accelerate the rebuilding process? LeBron’s Eastern Conference domination has motivated the 76ers to stay in the lottery as much as possible. Does the incredibly high bar set by Golden State and Cleveland inspire teams to try and go toe-to-toe with them by running the core back? The Clippers sure thought so, but will they continue to do so?
That is what’s so great about the Golden State-Cleveland domination. Theoretically, more teams in contention gives off an “anything can happen!” vibe, and parity is not necessarily a bad thing. But neither is this current era we live in. The Warriors and Cavaliers will have owned the NBA Finals between 2015-2018 most likely, maybe even 2019 too if everyone is still around. They deserve the success. The Cavaliers are blessed with the best basketball player I’ve ever seen, but GM David Griffin and Owner Dan Gilbert still had to convince free agent LeBron James to sign with them in 2014. They drafted Kyrie Irving. They traded for All-Star Kevin Love. They traded for J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver, and Channing Frye, all useful contributors to this team. They earned this success, and the impetus to compete with them in the East should be on the other 14 teams. The Cavaliers did everything right.
The Golden State Warriors might have been built even more organically. Three of their four All-Stars were drafted by the organization. The front office’s shrewd maneuvering, timing, and luck (Steph’s ABSURD contract) led to enough cap space to sign Kevin Durant. A team with cap space signing a free agent they shouldn’t be getting cries of unfair and pointless. If you feel bad about Durant signing with the Warriors, maybe your team should have drafted a 2-time MVP and 2 other All-Stars and signed them all to below market deals so during a salary cap spike you could add another MVP player. Yes, the Warriors got lucky. But this could have been any team and it was them; they earned this too.
If offseason moves this season don’t make a new title contender for 2018, that’s okay. As the Cavaliers and Warriors have shown, it takes building a foundation over time. LeBron wouldn’t have gone back if the Cavaliers didn’t have Kyrie and a chance to add another star. KD likely wouldn’t have gone to Golden State if they weren’t a contender with max-contract cap room. Those were built over time. The early 2020’s contenders will be partially built in this offseason through the draft and free agency. The inevitability of Cavs-Warriors III might make some fans complacent, but it can’t make NBA front offices complacent.
No one is building their championship team in one season, but trying to stay in place is going to hurt future chances. Teams need to decide whether to rebuild or reload, but it needs to be one or the other. How do the Clippers benefit from bringing back everyone while adding yet another former Doc Rivers bench-player? How will the Celtics stockpile their draft picks, knowing that a decision on a super-max for Isaiah Thomas is right around the corner, and young players + star in his prime = a very awkward championship window?
These decisions are going to be fun to watch. The Grizzlies might just be waiting on Chandler Parsons to get healthy before they make any major decisions, but surely they’ll be considering every avenue, even if blowing it up is unlikely. The Cavaliers and the Warriors have not ruined the NBA; they’ve thrown down the gauntlet. It’s forced teams into unorthodox team building. The Rockets are gaming the system with their three-point rate. The Pelicans have gone backwards, putting emphasis on two big men, albeit two extremely skilled big men. The Bulls want to have precisely 0 three-point shooters on the court at all times, or so it seems. Every team is just trying to play catch up or be different, but they’re all reacting the two up top.
As we likely head into another Warriors-Cavaliers series, another off-season will come with the same inevitable feeling. We’ve seen teams adjust to the extremes and other franchises might follow suit. None of it might matter in the end, but Golden State and Cleveland are the tastemakers of this league. What the rest of the league does might not affect them, but the changes will be significant; and the gauntlet will be thrown back.