2016 Playoffs: Three contrasting journeys pursue the ultimate vindication
There is something to be said about a man's legacy in the NBA. Some players live and die by their championship rings, and, even though the Los Angeles Lakers are tanking at an all-time low, Kobe Bryant's handful of titles ensure the Black Mamba retires with grace and status. Not to mention, the 60-point haul on his final outing.
It's often the measuring stick. Michael Jordan is commonly regarded as the greatest player to ever lace up his now extremely lucrative sneakers. He has six championships to his name. But, that's not the pinnacle. In fact, it's quite far from it. In a very different time, Bill Russell collected 11 titles from his 13 seasons with the Boston Celtics.
The top seven players to have won the most NBA titles were all from the Celtics in the 1960's and 70's; that should come as little surprise. However, as great as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six titles) or Magic Johnson (five) were, there is also a list of sure-fire Hall of Famers who found the sweetest victory of them all elusive.
None of Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Allen Iverson or John Stockton have an NBA title on their resume, and in today's league, the likes of Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, and Kevin Durant are all franchise talents in danger of adding their names to the undesirable list.
That's one of the intangible factors that makes the NBA playoffs so exciting. It's the chance to go from good to great and players can cement their legacy with career defining accolades. Is it a veteran's last chance at glory? Is it a young star's arrival? Numerous factors contribute to generating passionate matchups and fascinating subplots in the postseason, and that's where true legends are made.
GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
On every NBA court, there is a pair of semi-circles at each end. The Golden State Warriors have become synonymous with them now; when you think of somebody dropping a bomb from deep, you think of the Dubs.
Stephen Curry was drafted in 2009, Klay Thompson in 2011 and Draymond Green in 2012. In addition to some phenomenal drafting, Golden State would acquire swingman Andre Iguodala in free agency in 2013 and all of a sudden, the history-making core was born.
Since then, it's been a whirlwind of logic-defying progress. Led by the backcourt pairing of Curry and Thompson - aptly named the Splash Bros - the Warriors created the perfect storm to show it's not all about piecing together a 'Big three', but, in actual fact, a rather large six or seven works much better.
They have beautiful balance and a firm identity they relentlessly play to. Head coach Steve Kerr is just as important as any other cog in the machine, and, as a five-time NBA Champion himself, he understands what makes a great team. They won the NBA title last season by defeating an injury-hit Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals, but this time around they've taken their accomplishments to new, never seen before heights.
RE-WRITING THE HISTORY BOOKS
Kerr's troops started the season by going 24-0, scorching the previous best set by the Houston Rockets in the 1993-94 campaign and making national history in the process. No team in U.S history, in any sport, had gone unbeaten that long to start a season.
Gregg Popovich is a man that has led the San Antonio Spurs to five NBA titles and actually spent a year as an assistant coach with the Warriors in 1992. He thinks the current champion's brand of basketball is 'inspiring'.
"I've spent more time thinking about Golden State than I have any other team I've ever thought about in my whole career. Because they are really fun. I'd go buy a ticket and go watch them play," Popovich said. "And when I see them move the ball, I get very envious. When I see them shoot uncontested shots more than anybody else in the league, it's inspiring. It's just great basketball."
The Oakland franchise also claimed the best road start in NBA history by going 14-0 during that period, and that is the third-longest away winning streak ever. Golden State also won 54 games in a row at home, blitzing the previous best of Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls from their record-breaking 1995-96 season. The Boston Celtics put a stop to that run at the Oracle Arena in late March, however, the Warriors still managed to break the Bulls' regular season record as they closed out the this term with a 73-9 record.
Quite rightly, they are now regarded as an era-defining outfit, and possibly, one of the greatest of all-time. But, it wouldn't be right to laud the Warriors without acknowledging the impact Curry has had on their fortunes, and the NBA as a whole. Barkley - who we established earlier unfortunately never enjoyed the good fortune of a championship ring - insisted: "Steph Curry is probably the best shooter I have ever seen off the dribble."
Today's players hold him in high regard as a game-changing talent, too. Dirk Nowitzki - who has one championship under his belt and currently plays for Western playoff inhabitants, the Dallas Mavericks - said: "I mean, I don’t think this league has ever seen anything like it. His range is basically as soon as he crosses half court. He’s making shots look routine that no other player can even make in practice consistently. He just makes it look effortless. He just kind of goes up from the dribble in one motion, doesn’t waste any effort there. Incredible."
The records support the hysteria. The reigning MVP smashed his own NBA-best for made three-pointers in a season by finishing the 2015-16 campaign with 402. He has also made a three-pointer in 152 consecutive games, which broke the previous mark of 127. Curry also tied the record of twelve efforts from deep made in a single game, jointly holding it with Donyell Marshall and the legendary Bryant. Furthermore, according to ESPN, the 28-year-old has four games with at least 10 threes this season; no one else in history has that many games in a career.
The Splash Bros' penchant from long range is the apex of the Warriors' powers, but Iguodala - who won the 2015 Finals MVP award - and Draymond Green - who has set the franchise record for triple-doubles this year - carry out vital tasks that enable the backcourt tandem to thrive. And that's not forgetting Bogut, and key role players like Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli and Shaun Livingston.
Pat Riley, who won five NBA titles as a coach and is now president of the Miami Heat, said the 'Splash Brothers' can build a dynasty. "They are in the beginning of something that can be dynastic," Riley said. "They're in the beginning stages of it, and that's the scary part, versus somebody that catches lightning in a bottle one time. They're at the beginning because all of their key players, all of them, are young and they're talented. The ones that aren't have what I call 'youth age,' like Andre Iguodala, Andrew Bogut, Shaun Livingston -- those guys bring an element to the team is incredible."
"I mean, I don’t think this league has ever seen anything like it. His range is basically as soon as he crosses half court. He’s making shots look routine that no other player can even make in practice consistently." - Dirk Nowitzki on Stephen Curry
There's nothing ostentatious or indulgent about the Warriors; they are a group of players fully invested in Kerr's game-plan and they have the tools to dominate. Such focus and talent meshed throughout an entire unit is rare, when, ostensibly speaking, they should be core values. The Warriors have beaten every side in the Western and Eastern playoff picture this year; only one other team can say that.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS
The five-time NBA champions might just be the hallmark of consistency since the turn of the millennium. The San Antonio Spurs have made the playoffs for the last 18 consecutive years and managed to tie the 1985-86 Boston Celtics' record for most NBA home wins in a regular season, notching 40 victories and one solitary loss.
It's no coincidence that head coach Gregg Popovich has been at the helm for 20 years. He's the longest serving coach in the league's history by some way, beating Doc Rivers' tenure at the Boston Celtics by a cool eleven years and counting.
Since appointing himself as head coach after Bob Hill's departure, he has led San Antonio to a record 19 consecutive winning seasons and is one of only five men to have led an NBA franchise to five or more rings. On top of that, he is one of nine coaches to win over 1,000 NBA games, but it's the family feel he has developed in San Antonio that has seen him retain the great core of his side for so long.
Tim Duncan joined the family as the number one pick in the 1997 draft and has remained by Popovich's side ever since. If the Spurs were to make the Conference finals, the legendary big man would be 40-years-old by the time they tip-off. The same notion applies to Tony Parker; a point guard who made the move from France in 2001 and has remained an integral Spurs man ever since.
The 38-year-old Manu Ginobili has also been a Spur since 2002, meaning that between the Argentinian, Parker and Duncan, the current Spurs core has 48 years of service between them. Sure, Kobe Bryant was a lifelong Laker - it still feels weird to say he 'was' - and there have been a few others, but to keep the base of an entire side together for over a decade is a major accomplishment. Continuing to complement them with All-Star supporting parts is an achievement beyond most teams' wildest dreams.
There's no coincidence here: these three have been the glue behind the success that Popovich has brought to San Antonio. In the Duncan era, the Spurs have won just over 80 percent of their home games. To be so strong in their own back yard for 20 years is unprecedented on its own merits. Although Duncan's influence may have decreased in terms of his minutes and output, his effect on the franchise hasn't appeared to wane at all.
On their way to 40 successes at the AT&T Center, the Spurs won 24 of those encounters by a double-digit margin. Moreover, they were only taken to overtime once during the whole campaign, and that was in their penultimate game of the season against the talented Oklahoma City Thunder. That asserts a certain type of superiority that even the Warriors - with their seven overtime duels this year - can't exert.
Bryant has called Duncan the "ultimate professional," while LeBron James hailed the veteran forward in an Instagram post prior to a meeting between the pair back in January. The 15-time All-Star has set the bar in San Antonio and ensured that any Spurs team he is on lives up to those lofty expectations, but there's no denying who is leading the Spurs into the future.
THE HEIR TO TIM DUNCAN'S THRONE
Kawhi Leonard, at just 24-years-of-age, is the current Defensive Player of the Year, a one-time NBA champion and finals MVP, an All-Star and was the steals leader in 2015. Considering he was picked 15th in the 2011 draft behind the likes of Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, Klay Thompson, Brandon Knight, Kemba Walker and the Morris twins - Markieff and Marcus - San Antonio will not only feel they got a steal - no pun intended - but, arguably, the player of the draft.
Much like Bryant - who keeps managing to crop up here - Leonard was originally drafted elsewhere before finding his true home. The Indiana Pacers selected the former San Diego State standout, before trading him and two other players away for point guard George Hill.
Back in the 2014 NBA Finals, Kevin Durant - who was the reigning MVP at the time - controversially said on Twitter that he thought Paul George was better than Kawhi Leonard, and that the latter was thriving as a result of a great system employed by Coach Pop.
Two years later, Durant had changed his tune when asked about his small forward peer. Speaking ahead of their matchup in March, the Thunder superstar said: "He's definitely grown as a player. He's not a system player."
Charles Barkley - weighing in once again - said on TNT back in January: "Kawhi Leonard is the best basketball player in the world, in my opinion." In a league without Curry, the 6'7" Leonard would probably be battling it out the for the MVP award with Russell Westbrook. However, Barkley has a point in terms of 'basketball player', because it could be argued that Leonard is the most effective two-way man in the league today, bar none.
As with any burgeoning talent, comparisons have been made to the stars of yesteryear and in Leonard's case, many people see Scottie Pippen in the Los Angeles-born talent. Whilst Pippen often operated in the shadow of the commonly regarded greatest of all-time, Michael Jordan, he was also a phenomenal defender whose offensive output matched his steel.
"A lot of people compare Kawhi to me & it makes sense. He's always been elite on D & now he's killing it offensively. Dominant all-around." - Scottie Pippen on Kawhi Leonard
With the sound foundations - that have been installed for nearly two decades - and the undeniable talent in their ranks, there's a terrific formula in place that has spawned a season where the Spurs won 48 in a row at home. The acquisition of LaMarcus Aldridge last summer was another stroke of genius, too.
In terms of points and rebounding, it's actually his worst season in nearly eight years as he boasts just 18 points and 8.5 boards, compared to his career averages of 19.2 and 8.4.
The former Portland star's effect on the Spurs deserves a mention, though. When the number two seeds in the West manage to have Leonard and Aldridge in the front court, Duncan at the pivot, with Parker and Danny Green in the guard spots, there's just a dazzling cocktail of power, intelligence and athleticism that has been the lynchpin of a franchise-best 66-win season.
The sheer chemistry the Spurs emit is enough to make basketball purists salivate. While both the Spurs and the Warriors have been built on core values and team philosophies, their other main rival is the proverbial anti-christ to their basketball ideals.
The number one seed in the East possesses one thing that neither of the other record-setting sides can lay claim to. For all the history books that have had to be re-written and the foundations that are older than much of this year's draft class, the Cavaliers have something that money can't buy.
That thing is LeBron James. I should clarify at this point that money definitely can buy LeBron James, as he's currently raking in over $23 million a season. That figure is set to jump this summer with the impending increase in television revenue, but one thing that will never change is King James' desire to bring a Larry O'Brien trophy to Cleveland.
The 31-year-old was born in Akron, Ohio - approximately a 20-minute drive from the the Cavalier's home, the Quicken Loans Arena - and traded the sunny weather and championship-built roster on South Beach to return back to Cleveland two years ago. The priceless quality that James brings to the table is his irrepressible thirst to literally bring a championship home.
The Miami Heat made four finals in a row during James' tenure with the franchise and that yielded two rings. The four-time MVP is a rare breed of player. His competitive drive underpins his vast array of talents, but he exhibits extraordinary IQ on the court. He's just cut from a different kind of majestic cloth, and the fact that at 31 no other forward has recorded as many assists as LeBron in history, and he's the leading scorer ever for the Cavaliers, just indicates what a superb all-around player he really is.
However, it's his leadership skills that have shone through in Cleveland and his desire to see his hometown team win their first ever championship. Shaquille O'Neal spoke to Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick about playing with LeBron, and said: "It was the first time I didn't have to do anything." This is a man who played alongside Wade and Bryant in championship winning teams, but when he came across a young James, who was 24 at the time, he knew he saw the real deal.
Bryant himself had similar praise for the man he won two Olympic gold medals alongside in Beijing and then London. The Black Mamba told Fox Sports ahead of a clash with James in February: "I think his greatest strength is his ability to communicate with others and instill confidence in others. He has a very big personality and one of the things I noticed about him, playing with him on the Olympic team, is his ability to communicate with others, get the best out of others and challenge them in a very gregarious way. It's one of the things I've always admired about him."
LEBRON'S GREATEST CHALLENGE
The 12-time All-Star's impact on the franchise is tangible. In the five seasons prior to James' original departure, Cleveland finished in the top four in the East, claiming the first seed on the final two occasions. During his four-year sabbatical to Florida they failed to post a positive record, finishing as low as rock-bottom the season after he left, and 10th the campaign before his return. When the prodigal son did come home, they came second and played their way to the NBA finals and have gone one better this time around by finishing top. His influence is that profound. That palpable. That great.
For all of his superstar qualities, perhaps King James' greatest challenge lies in gelling together this championship hungry organisation. With the emergence of young point guard Kyrie Irving and the arrival of Kevin Love the same summer as LeBron, all of a sudden the Cavs had a 'big three' on their hands. It's quite a captivating story; James returning home in his prime to deliver the title that the franchise needs and he craves.
"He has a very big personality and one of the things I noticed about him, playing with him on the Olympic team, is his ability to communicate with others, get the best out of others and challenge them in a very gregarious way. It's one of the things I've always admired about him." - Kobe Bryant on LeBron James
Exactly how much of the onus is on James to fulfill Cleveland's destiny? He basically single-handedly challenged for the title last year when Irving and Love were sidelined. One would think that with the duo back in the fold, the Cavs would be hot favourites for the crown. In any other era, you might be right. Yet, the Warriors' insistence on becoming a transcending outfit and San Antonio's refusal to be anything but top pedigree contenders is stifling the fairytale.
James is having another stellar campaign; averaging 25.3 points, 7.4 boards and 6.8 assists a night. However, questions persist around the chemistry of the three main stars in Cleveland and whether they can truly function on the court at the same time. Whereas the Spurs and Warriors are engineered for team success with clear respective visions, the Cavs appear to have acquired some stellar parts, with little idea of how to operate them in the to their best capabilities.
The firing of head coach David Blatt in the middle of the season was a testament to as much, and even though Tyronn Lue penned a three-year deal as his replacement, it's not known how long the powers that be expect him to stick around. The quality of James and some of his peers have carried them this far, but there's only so long that chucking good cogs in a mix will be the answer against the finest of well-oiled machines.
SO WHO'S GOING TO WIN?
Of course, there are 16 teams in with a chance of becoming NBA champions in June. With eight teams qualifying from each conference, anything can happen in these seven-game battles and the top seeds from the East and the West haven't met in the Finals since the Lakers and Celtics went head-to-head in 2008.
Only twice since the turn of the millennium, however, has a franchise seeded lower than third reached the finals. As the top seeds in the east, the Cavaliers head into the playoffs as the favourites to make it to the finals. They don't hold the unbeatable aura that the Warriors carry around, though, and the Cavs have lost to six of the seven other playoff sides in their conference this season. That includes the Detroit Pistons, who they face in the first round.
In the west, unless something sensational happens, it looks like the Spurs and Warriors will square off for the conference crown. The Warriors hold a 3-1 record over the Spurs this season, but over a seven-game series the Texas-based organisation will feel their invaluable experience could be a determining factor.
Ahead of game five of the NBA Finals between the Warriors and the Cavaliers last year, James proclaimed: "I feel confident because I'm the best player in the world. It's simple." Fair enough, really. King James racked up jaw-dropping averages of 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists during those finals, without the cream of his supporting cast.
Klay Thompson's comments following the Warriors title-clinching victory in game six are perhaps the most potent of all. "It just feels good to say, you know, we're the best team in the world with the best player in the world – this man sitting to my right," Thompson said, in reference to his backcourt partner, Curry.
And therein lies a curious truth: the Warriors have proven in the regular season they are indeed, the best team in the world. If it's a question of the world's best team versus it's best player, the numbers aren't on LeBron's side. His methods may be esoteric, particularly his social media habits and mid-season Miami workouts, but James is unquestionably a generation-defining talent. How that stacks up against two of the finest teams in history is for the playoffs to deduce.