The NBA is a star-driven league and this year’s edition of its championship series, which begins Thursday night when the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors tip it off in Oakland, will feature two of the brightest.
LeBron James is already being hailed as one of the greatest players of all time and Stephen Curry, Golden State’s face-melting supernova of a point guard, buried enough circus shots to supplant him as the league’s MVP.
Basketball may be a team sport but the NBA Finals tend to be all about the biggest names making the biggest plays. Looking back on the last 35 years of Finals matchups, only the Detroit Pistons who won it all in 2004 and just missed repeating in 2005 didn’t have at least one singular — if not iconic — future Hall-of-Famer driving both the bus and the narrative.
Plenty of other compelling figures will take the floor in this series. The Warriors are fully stocked, with guys like Klay Thompson (who scored 37 points in a single quarter earlier this year), defensive demon Draymond Green and rugged former No. 1 overall pick Andrew Bogut dotting the roster. Meanwhile, Cleveland rolls with budding superstar point guard Kyrie Irving, junk man extraordinaire Tristan Thompson and real-life Entourage character J.R. Smith. All of these guys, as well as some others who we won’t see coming, will make plays that will influence the outcome of the series.
But really, it’s going to come down to Steph vs. LeBron.
Outside of a horrifying fall in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals and his subsequent absence due to concussion protocols, Curry has spent the playoffs basically clowning everyone not named Tony Allen who got anywhere near him just as magnificently and efficiently as he did all season en route to the MVP. He averaged 31.2 points per game in that Western Finals series against the Rockets, making 27 of his 55 attempts from 3-point range, casually pulling up from what felt like the distance between Oracle Arena and the Golden Gate Bridge to drill plenty of them.
Bad shots become good shots when Curry takes them. Even Celtics boss Danny Ainge, who played with a dude you may have heard of named Larry Bird, thinks Curry, who posted a silly 68 percent true shooting percentage against Houston, is the greatest shooter of all-time.
And it’s not just his ability to hit from anywhere in the arena off the dribble that makes Curry so incredible. He can dribble and create — for himself or his teammates — as well as anyone, which makes him even more dangerous as a shooter. The quickness with which he releases the ball means if you sag even a fraction of an inch out of respect for his ability to get into the paint, he will vaporize you, but he’s also so adept at betaing his man off the dribble that you’re basically screwed either way. It’s not every day that you will come across as shamelessly potent a gunner as Curry who can beat you in so many other ways. That’s one of many reasons he’s become such a transcendant player.
As far as LeBron is concerned, there’s not much more that needs to be said. He may not show up on the masthead but he is the unquestioned CEO of the Cavs and if you don’t believe that, check out a quote in which he compares his experience earlier this season with building a 1972 Caprice Classic from scratch. His usage rate of 36.4 percent in these playoffs lead the league and is his highest in the postseason since 2009. He’s the coach and the GM and the face of the orgainzation and the most important figure in Cleveland sports in 50 years all at once.
Keeping with Cleveland’s tortured sports history, LeBron is the underdog in this matchup, according to several oddsmakers. Based on 1,000 simulations, Basketball-Reference forecast an 83.4 percent chance of the Warriors taking the title. The Warriors are deeper than the Cavs and have been more dominant during the regular season than any other team LeBron’s faced in his five previous Finals appearances. Not since he dragged the Cavs to the Finals to take on Tim Duncan and the 2007 Spurs as a 22-year-old, has LeBron had done some much with so little.
That he could still do even more against Curry’s Warriors, ultimately, is why these Finals are so compelling. Lesser known players and unexpected narratives will emerge, but they will all exist in the orbit of LeBron and Curry, the two stars who will light the skies over Oakland and Cleveland for the next two weeks.
These Celtics made five straight Finals before LeBron