For the past 24 hours, since Warriors-Cavs IV became a reality, there has been a steady stream of “Is this good for the NBA?” questions from the media, and then a little bit of “I can’t wait to not watch the Finals” among fans on Twitter. So we can answer at the outset: No, running this matchup back one more time is probably not ideal for anyone invested in the NBA’s success. And to any basketball fan who promises not to watch the Finals: I don’t necessarily believe you, but I can’t really blame you.
It’s just hard to imagine we learn anything new from these teams. LeBron James has already cemented his place as a top-three player of all time, but he probably can’t do enough to beat Golden State, because the Warriors with Kevin Durant are a team unlike anything we’ve ever seen. That entire sentence was true last year, as well.
The only differences 12 months later are that the Warriors’ dominance has been even less interesting than it was a year ago, while LeBron has fewer weapons around him to help battle Golden State. In fact, the most damning indictment of this matchup is that both fanbases would probably be more excited to cheer for the teams they had a few years ago. Golden State fans could return to a juggernaut that revolved around Steph Curry instead of an awkward partnership with Durant, while Cleveland fans could spend the next two weeks pulling for LeBron and Kyrie to do something incredible instead of praying that they get a handful of decent George Hill games.
So how does one go about selling this series? I can’t tell you that LeBron has a chance here. He’ll probably have a handful of phenomenal performances, but that Cavs roster is running on fumes. Kevin Love is dealing with a concussion and even when healthy is still miles away from providing the kind of firepower that Kyrie Irving gave Cleveland a year ago. Ty Lue has done a really nice job adapting his approach to each opponent along the way in these playoffs, but no amount of shape-shifting will give Cleveland another 30 points of scoring and/or two more reliable wings to slow down the Warriors offense. J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson are wily enough to stand strong against Jaylen Brown and Al Horford, but 48 minutes with Kevin Durant and Draymond Green will be less forgiving.
I also can’t tell you the Warriors are so dominant that everyone should watch to appreciate their greatness. There’s a version of this story where that’s true, and Golden State has spent nine months playing every game as a well-oiled machine. The ideal of the Warriors is a team that wins by moving the ball all over the floor, defending at every position, hitting shots from everywhere, and dominating in ways we never thought possible. Sometimes, for six minutes here and there, that’s who the Warriors are. But more often this year, they’ve been weirdly sluggish. The Warriors are supremely talented and mentally tough, and they know it, too. They can afford to go through the motions and toy with opponents for extended stretches of every game. Then they do just enough at the end—or in the third quarter—to remind the world they are untouchable.
I’d understand the “Everyone should watch the Finals to appreciate greatness” argument if Golden State were running teams out of the gym like the ’92 Dream Team. Instead, this year’s Warriors look more like 2016 Team USA, a team that never had any serious threats, but also one that only looked engaged for the handful of stretches when an opponent demanded it. And again, this pattern is familiar because we watched it play out in last year’s Finals—a few of those Cavs games were surprisingly close, but the series never was.
So here’s how to sell the rematch: Be honest. The more clear-eyed everyone is about how laughably one-sided this series looks, the easier it becomes to enjoy everything.
Not every Finals has to be a classic, and for a nation of basketball fans that is perfectly willing to tune in and watch summer league games (record ratings last July!), we don’t have to get too high-minded about what qualifies as entertainment. Warriors-Cavs IV probably won’t be as good as the past two weeks of PJ Tucker bodychecking the Warriors into a corner, or Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum taking turns at charging LeBron’s throne. The conference finals were mostly great. Blowouts aside, they were full of all the hyper-intense playoff subplots that everyone loves.
The Finals may look more like four or five exhibition games by comparison, but exhibition games between the greatest player of this generation and its greatest team. Drama will be minimal, but the atmosphere will be strange, and the lack of suspense at the top will shift the focus to the characters in the middle. How does LeBron respond if his Jordan-esque run through the East ends in a sweep? How will the KD and Steph partnership look as the dust settles on a weird Rockets series? With Andre Iguodala likely sidelined, does Durant guard LeBron the entire time? What version of Draymond are we getting? What about Kevin Love—will he be in Cleveland next year? And … (getting desperate) … Who wins Finals MVP? Will Klay Thompson win another hardhat? Will Nick Young or J.R. Smith swing one of these games? (OK time to stop.)
Warriors-Cavs may be anticlimatic, and there will be some straw grasping as we go. But like bad pizza, bad basketball can still be great in the right context. With so many already-legendary characters involved, there will be plenty of room for intrigue. The ratings will be fine, and so will the league. This column is mostly just an attempt to jinx us into something resembling real drama over the next two weeks. Because that’s the other benefit to approaching anything with low expectations—every now and then, you will be surprised.