In Praise of the Warriors-Cavaliers Rivalry

For the past three seasons, the trilogy of NBA Finals matchups between Golden State and Cleveland have been full of indelible moments and unforgettable storylines. One of those indelible moments could be found in the ecstatic and chaotic aftermath in the clinching moments of the Warriors’ second NBA title in three years and the final game at Oracle Arena.

Fresh off winning his first championship, Kevin Durant embraced his mother Wanda on the court in the center of a raucous celebration. It was a powerful, emotional moment between a mother and son who have remained close through the immense trials and tribulations of his NBA career. If for just a few brief, fleeting moments a torrent pride, joyful excitement and relief flowed through the embrace. It was a far cry from the embrace with his mom five years earlier after KD broke down in tears after a Finals defeat to the Miami Heat.

That is just one of the top indelible moments from a rivalry that is left an imprint on the American cultural and sporting consciousness, and has rapidly become one of the most memorable rivalries in NBA history.

The NBA has always been a league that measures its eras and epochs by the teams that have dominated the sport. 1950s and 60s defined by Russell’s Celtics and West’s Lakers.  The 80s by the Showtime Lakers and Bird’s Celtics. The 90s by the Bulls and his Airness. The 2000s by Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers and Duncan’s Spurs. And, now, the 2010s by LeBron and the Cavaliers and Curry’s (and now Durant’s) Warriors.

The only exception is the 70s, a rare decade of parity for NBA standards, with eight different champions. The 1970s NBA is not without its stars and memorable moments, though it is without a single identifiable dominant or dynastic squad.

Of course, the NFL is the only other American sports league where each decade can be associated with a specific team.

Baseball and the MLB differ from this dynamic in that certain eras are associated more with league-wide trends than with dominant franchises. For example, the 90s and early 2000s can be termed the “Steroid Era” and the early 20th century the Dead Ball Era. Sure, certain eras can be associated with dominant squads such as the Yankees from late 20s to the early 60s and again in the late 90s. Still, I would argue eras in the sport are not as closely tied to the teams that dominated.

As such, every area in NBA history immediately springs up a slew of images and moments.

1980s: Magic’s baby hook, Bird’s steal, Rambis’ clothesline

1990s: Paxson’s dagger in Phoenix, Jordan’s shrug, The Flu Game, Kerr’s shot

Similarly, the Warriors-Cavaliers rivalry has boasted its share of moments that will still be remembered 30 years from now.

2015: LeBron carrying a beaten and battered Cavs team, attempting to bring a championship to Cleveland. The Warriors bringing an NBA title back to the Bay Area for the first time in 40 years.

2016: LeBron finally bringing a title back to Cleveland, coming back from a 3-1 deficit. Green’s Game 5 suspension. Kyrie’s clutch shot in Game 7. The barrage of “Warriors blew a 3-1 lead” memes. LeBron’s tears of happiness.

2017: Golden State avenging 2016’s debacle. KD getting his first ring. LeBron averaging a triple-double.

Each of these moments and storyline, some more than others, have become seared in the collective memory of this generation of NBA fans, and in the process become cultural touchstones beyond basketball and into the American cultural landscape.

It may not seem so now, but once we have the benefit of hindsight this rivalry over the past three years will swiftly vault itself into the pantheon of great basketball and sporting rivalries.

To this day, NBA fans there to experience the rivalries and dominant teams of the past still speak of them in reverential tones. That is what the league has always prided itself upon: a mythic ethos of titanic squads facing off in battle and the heroic journeys of its most treasured stars.

To connect things back to baseball, that sport, for nearly the past decade, has mostly lacked a identifiable dominant team in an identifiable superstar. There are stars in the sport today, no question. Bryce Harper, Kris Bryant and Manny Machado come to mind, but those names are not transcendent cultural phenomenons in the same way as LeBron James, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant. The most recent crop of MLB stars that one could identify as transcending beyond the sport to the wider popular culture were David Ortiz and Derek Jeter.

There hasn’t been a rivalry in baseball that can match the Warriors-Cavs since the Yankees and Red Sox circa 2003 and 2004. Furthermore, with a few exceptions can the layperson name one World Series in the past 10 years that has boasted one moment more indelible than the past three NBA finals?

In fact, that is what made the 2016 Fall Classic between the Cubs and Indians so memorable and so widely viewed. It is nearly impossible to have a more intriguing storyline than two classic Midwestern city franchises fighting in a seven-game series both gunning to make history; one winning its first championship in over a century and the other needing to wait at least one more year.

A transcendent cultural moment, indeed.

***

Many NBA fans to love to complain about the supposed lack of parity and competitive balance in the league. In the abstract, it is true that the NBA does not have the parity of other sports leagues and that increasing competitive balance would be beneficial — though that ignores a few facts.

First, at the current moment, the NBA is very likely at its historical apex in terms of the overall talent level, its popularity and its cultural significance around the globe.

Second, as illustrated earlier, the NBA has always been elite dominated by a small number of franchises at different times throughout its history.

Lastly, over the past three seasons, would anyone really have want to seen any other NBA Finals matchup? I highly doubt it.

What NBA and sports fans in general are most attracted to are the best of the best matching up and the narratives those matchups bring.

No other NBA finals over the past three years could have done for those two things of sports fans crave most, and, for that, the Warriors-Cavaliers rivalry has been a massive boon to the NBA.

No wonder the last three Finals have gotten the best TV ratings since between 1996-1998.

What else would the average NBA fan rather want than a fourth consecutive finals matchup between the two?

Luckily, odds are that we get that once again in 2018.

Wells, really, could make it? Maybe the Spurs if they Chris Paul. Maybe the Celtics if they trade for Jimmy Butler or sign Gordon Hayward. Even then, I wouldn’t count on any other Finals matchup.

With that, I say to the Warriors and Cavaliers, let’s bring it on next season.

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About Sportocracy

I am a college-aged journalist exercising my First Amendment rights to rave on sports and politics.
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