CLEVELAND — With a victory here in Game 4 of the NBA Finals on Friday night, the Golden State Warriors will claim a second championship in three years and become the first team in history to go 16-0 throughout the NBA playoffs. It would be a fitting ending to what has been a remarkable season and the culmination of everything this team was supposed to be from the moment Kevin Durant chose last July to join the core of a roster that had just won 73 regular season games.
If there is anyone who should be frustrated by that sequence of events, it would be LeBron James. The Cleveland Cavaliers superstar remains the face of the NBA and is its best player even as his 14th season in the league comes to a close. Last June, it was James who was hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy, having led the Cavaliers from 3-1 down to beat these Warriors in seven games and finally break this city’s more than half-century championship drought.
In most seasons, these Cavaliers would be more than good enough to win a championship. Instead, they’re on the verge of being swept in the NBA Finals by a collection of talent the likes of which this league has rarely, if ever, seen.
Presented with the question of whether it was fair for Durant to join such a loaded team as a free agent, James dismissed the idea out of hand.
“Is it fair?” James asked. “I don’t care.
“I mean, I think it’s great.”
James, in many ways, created this circumstance by choosing to join the Miami Heat as a free agent in 2010, before coming back to the Cavaliers as a free agent in 2014. The same was true with the Boston Celtics acquiring Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett via trades in 2007 to set up their own Big Three, one James lost to twice in three years before going to Miami in the first place.
All of those decisions and moments have built upon each other — and the health of the sport has followed suit. The NBA has nearly doubled its salary cap over the past several seasons, and this is the first year of a $24 billion television deal. And while the playoffs have often been called boring — up to and including the first two games of these Finals — the ratings for this year’s Finals are higher than last, a sign that people are in agreement with the league’s best player about the NBA’s state of affairs.
“It’s great for our league,” he said. “Right now, look at our TV ratings, look at the money our league is pouring in. I mean, guys are loving the game, our fans love the game.
“Who am I to say if it’s fair or not? No matter who I’m going against, if I’m going against four Hall of Famers, like I said before the series started with Draymond, Klay, Steph, and K.D., or if I’m going against two or whatever the case may be, I’m always excited to play the game. And I’m not one to judge and say if it’s fair or not if guys are adding players to their team.”
On that point, James is in the minority. Ever since Durant chose to join Golden State last July, he’s endured all sorts of slings and arrows. From people saying he ruined the Oklahoma City Thunder — who seemed like a worthy adversary for the Warriors for years to come after last year’s hellacious seven-game series in the Western Conference finals — to those criticizing Durant for some combination of taking the easy way out or making the league into a boring, rote exercise, there’s been plenty of anger and resentment sent his way.
But the fact is that the Warriors benefited from a combination of factors — them drafting Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green and hiring Coach Steve Kerr and General Manager Bob Myers and the new television deal leading to a one year jump of roughly $24 million in the salary cap — that allowed them to sign Durant as a free agent while keeping their core intact.
And, even after all of that, they still had to go out and play the games. And the Warriors have blown past everyone in their path, putting them on the verge of a historic 16-0 postseason with one more victory Friday night here at Quicken Loans Arena.
“What this team has accomplished is remarkable,” said Kerr. “And we have had some good fortune, too.
“Every year is different, and we know that, but so far things have gone our way. Our guys have really played well and competed at a high level.”
The Warriors found themselves in a once-in-a-lifetime situation last summer, when they had the chance to add Durant, one of the league’s preeminent talents, to a team that was already arguably the NBA’s best.
It’s shifted the balance of power in the NBA — and put a gigantic boulder in James’s path to winning more championships for the foreseeable future. But rather than look at it as a frustration, James sees it for what it is: the Warriors going out and doing exactly what he would do if the same situation presented itself to him.
“So that’s what you want to do,” James said. “Is it fair that the New York Yankees in the ’90s was adding piece after piece after piece after piece? I mean, if you have the opportunity to do that … . Is it fair that the Cowboys added Deion Sanders?
“I mean, listen. It happens. It’s sports. You have an opportunity to sign one of the best players, and you can do it, go ahead and do it. Why not?
“If I become an owner, I’m going to try to sign everybody.”
The day for James to try to own a team is still some ways off. His more immediate task will come Friday, when he’ll try to do whatever he can to extend his season by another day, and another game.
He’ll try to do so against arguably the greatest collection of talent the NBA has ever seen, and one that’s trying to do something — going 16-0 in the postseason — that’s never been done before. But unlike so many others, James doesn’t see it as a frustration, or a cop-out.
He sees it for what it is: common sense.