Several NBA Finals stand out as the most significant since the league’s inception 70 years ago, but this year’s series between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers might deserve its own place in NBA lore.
The 1969 NBA Finals between the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers featured nine Hall of Famers as Jerry West and Elgin Baylor missed another chance to win their first rings in Bill Russell’s final season. In the mid-1980s, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird met in three out of four finals. Michael Jordan defeated multiple league MVPs on his way to six rings, and LeBron James has been in a few memorable championship series, including last year against the Warriors.
But the 2016 NBA Finals don't take a backseat to any of those epic series. Golden State is the betting favorite, but it’s a series that could go either way. James and Stephen Curry have established themselves as the best players in the sport, and they face plenty of pressure going into Thursday’s Game 1 at Oracle Arena.
It's rare for two conference champions to have so much to gain, and yet so much to lose. And the same applies for James and Curry.
For James, he continues to be plagued by questions about his legacy. He was criticized for being unable to bring a championship to Cleveland in his first stint with the Cavaliers. Despite winning two titles with the Miami Heat, he continues to be held to a higher standard than any player in NBA history. The four-time MVP is already an all-time great, but another loss in the finals would be a stain on his prestigious career.
If the Cavs come up short against the Warriors, that will give James a 2-5 record in the finals. It’s a mark that pales in comparison to that of Jordan (6-0), Kobe Bryant (5-2) and Magic Johnson (5-4), the players with whom he’s most often compared.
Sure, James won two championships when he joined forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, but he hasn’t won a title without two of the game’s elite players at his side. Fair or not, it’s the criticism that will follow James until he brings a title to Cleveland—something he's never been done before.
As if being looked upon as the savior of America’s most downtrodden sports city wasn’t pressure enough, James is tasked with beating the best team in NBA regular-season history. But just as James will hear many of the same tired criticisms if the Cavs lose, bringing a championship to Cleveland would make him an immortal in the city.
Maybe James doesn’t get enough credit for bringing two titles to Miami, but one championship with the Cavs would be worth as much as both of the rings he won with the Heat. If James can deliver the first ever championship to Cleveland by defeating the best regular-season team of all time, the comparisons to Jordan will be louder than ever, and with plenty of legitimacy.
Having set a record with 73 wins brings along its own set of difficulties. Anything short of a second straight championship for the Warriors will be considered a massive disappointment.
Golden State didn’t enter the season as the favorites to win it all, but that quickly changed when the Warriors won 24 straight games and Curry started to put up numbers that didn’t seem possible. Not only is Golden State fighting to bring another Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy to Oakland, but the team is hoping to avoid occupying the same chapter in the history books as the 2007 New England Patriots.
The narrative regarding the Warriors’ demise started to form when the team fell behind the Oklahoma City Thunder 3-1 in the Western Conference finals, and it’s not something Golden State wants to revisit. All of their accomplishments will have been for naught if their season doesn’t end with a championship, and much of Golden State’s fate rests on the shoulders of Curry.
Curry became the league’s first ever unanimous MVP this season, helping him surpass James as the NBA’s most popular player. That means expectations are higher than ever, and unlike most of James’ adversaries, the Golden State point guard is supposed to come out on top. NBA MVPs are 23-8 in the finals, so what would it say if the player that received every vote couldn’t get the job done?
Even after Curry won his first MVP award last season, James was still widely regarded as the NBA’s best player. He can say that he doesn’t care about taking “LeBron’s throne,” but beating James in a second straight finals could firmly put Curry ahead of James in the NBA’s hierarchy. He nearly lost his chance to do so when he struggled in the first half of the conference finals, but completing this season with a championship, especially one against James, would help Curry reach a status that few players in sports history have ever approached.
The 2016 NBA Finals are a repeat of last year’s series, but things are much different this time around. The Cavs were missing both Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, and James received little blame for suffering his fifth defeat in the finals.
Much more is at stake this year, and after James willed the Cavaliers to a competitive series in 2015, the upcoming finals have the opportunity to be one of the most intense and memorable.