Essay: Previewing The Finals
The Finals are here! Yay! And guess what? The matchup is more fascinating than any in my entire life, including the 2008 Finals that reinvigorated the greatest rivalry in basketball, and at the time looked like the beginning of something special (unfortunately, injuries to Kevin Garnett derailed what could/should have been a rematch in 2009).
Not only does this year’s championship include six of the league’s 20 best players, but diving deeper, we’re blessed with the MVP, the scoring champion, the sixth man of the year, a top five point guard, a top three shooting guard, the league’s best shot blocker (by far), and a goofy giraffe that’s really good at knocking down wide open jumpers.
This series feels important for several reasons, making it more significant than your average finals. It lends the feeling that whatever happens two weeks from now, the league will never be the same.
1) Whoever wins has the inside track to reign over the NBA for the foreseeable future. In a way, the first championship is always the hardest, as many professional athletes who’ve won multiple rings can attest to. After that initial ring is first placed on a finger, the pressure is gone, as is the stress of never knowing what that special champagne tastes like. Pat Riley believes that all the pent up frustration that exists inside LeBron will flow out once he wins his first title, and that first championship will lead to a string of others—which is exactly what happened to Jordan. The exact same thing could be said for Durant. It’s a scary thought for the league.
2) As a perfect contrast to the first point, this could be the beginning of the NBA’s next great rivalry. Despite this season being the beginning of the end for Dwyane Wade, and OKC facing a pick-and-choose dilemma with James Harden and Serge Ibaka next summer, this kinda sorta feels like the beginning of the NBA’s best rivalry since Magic’s Lakers and Bird’s Celtics, winners of eight of 10 possible titles in the 1980s. Regardless of how you feel about either team, it’ll be super exciting to watch these two franchises mature and carry basketball into a new era. Unfortunately Wade probably doesn’t factor into the equation because he isn’t the same player anymore, and keeping the Thunder together could be too great of a financial burden.
3) The Best Player Alive crown—currently resting atop LeBron James’ head—could be up for grabs. I (incorrectly) wrote during last year’s conference finals that the biggest star on whichever team won the 2011 title would instantly become the world’s best player. Maybe I was right for that summer, but once the 2012 season rolled around, LeBron still had that label square on his back. Now, in these finals, things are a bit more focused. The MVP and scoring champion (a title that differs from the MVP in that it lacks any subjective argument) are going head to head, and they play the same position. Depending on how each perform in the season’s final series (I’m not willing to say Kevin Durant is better than LeBron James if Russell Westbrook averages 25 a night and Wade barely shoots 35% from the floor) a passing of the throne could take place right before our eyes. It should make for great theatre.
4) If OKC wins do the Heat blow things up? Probably not, given Bosh’s injury, but it all depends on how they lose. I still think the most logical personnel decision this team can make is to trade Wade if they don’t win the championship this year. Think about it. He’s only getting worse, and everyone on Oklahoma City is getting better. If they don’t win it this year, keeping that three together, and stringing along with another year of Mike Miller and Shane Battier doesn’t make too much sense. Dealing Bosh doesn’t bring back the value they’d need to contend (unless it was a straight up swap for Pau Gasol), and parting ways with LeBron is wrong for so many reasons. Wade doesn’t make others around him better, but he still has a superstar’s cache. What if you dealt Wade to Golden State for Steph Curry, Andris Biedrins, and the No. 7 pick? The Heat aren’t getting back equal value, but they become a much more versatile basketball team.
5) If Miami wins do the Thunder overreact? And by overreact, I obviously mean “trade Russell Westbrook.” For a weak-minded franchise, this is a possibility. But unless he goes on some sort of unforgivable mutiny and the Thunder fall in four games, there’s virtually no chance,
6) Derek Fisher’s ridiculous legacy. Derek Fisher’s reputation as someone who matters has grown, no matter what happens in this series, and that makes me sad.
7) James Harden can officially leapfrog Dwyane Wade in the two guard pecking order. Let’s compare their stats in these playoffs. In 31 minutes per game, Harden is averaging 17.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 3.3 assists. In 39 minutes per game, Wade is averaging 22.9 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 4.1 assists. Harden’s True Shooting percentage is 62.6%. Wade’s is 52.9%. Harden’s PER is 23.7. Wade’s is 22.5. Harden is averaging 11.06 shots per game. Wade is chucking up 18.5.
Here are two things James Harden can do, at 22-years-old, that Dwyane Wade never could: shoot three-pointers with deadly accuracy (in 15 playoff games he’s bombing in 44.6% of his threes), and absolutely dominate in the pick and roll while making his lesser talented teammates certifiable offensive threats. When Harden uses Nick Collison in either a hand off or pick and roll situation, the defense is forced to honor both players as serious killers. Harden’s vision is superior to most, and his unselfish nature makes him one of the superstars of tomorrow. The sun hasn’t set on Wade, but it’s nearing the horizon. On the other end of the spectrum, this feels like a coming out party for Harden more than anybody else.
My obsession with Wade (see: here and here) comes from two places: my own curiosity and the general public’s ignorance. For some reason I feel a serious need to know why it is he morphed from pop-culture poster boy to egotistical jackass while nobody was looking, and, more importantly, why nobody seems to care all that much. When LeBron came to Miami he thought he’d have arguably the game’s best guard by his side. In their second season together, he hasn’t.
Prediction: LeBron seems to be in a good place right now, a different mindset than last year when the world put all it’s weight on his shoulders. He’s too good and too focused right now, and there doesn’t appear to be any visible weakness in his game. Miami lost last year’s finals primarily because nothing was left in LeBron’s legs, and it just doesn’t make sense for me to bet against that happening two years in a row. Also, the Thunder have yet to head into a series where they didn’t have the best player on the court. How they’ll defend LeBron, and for that matter, Bosh, just seems like too much to answer for. On top of all of that, I feel like the Thunder haven’t “paid their dues.” They more than deserve to be where they’re at right now, but it just feels too early, and unfair in a way. Teams that boast a couple 23-year-olds as their two best players don’t win championships for a reason. They’ll have their time, but right now isn’t it. Heat in 6.Follow @ShakyAnkles