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Could Warriors-Cavs Forge a Long-Term Rivalry?

Could this be the first of several years we see the Warriors and Cavs face off in the Finals?

Ben Dowsett profile picture
Updated 10 months ago on
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For a subset of fans pining for the glory days of NBA rivalries, when names like Magic and Bird or Chamberlain and Russell would meet at the mountaintop seemingly every year to contest the title, it’s been a rough couple decades.

Michael beat the Jazz in consecutive years in the Finals, but both were more mismatch than true rivalry; the early 2000s Lakers had no peers in their time; the Spurs have beaten five different teams for their five titles; Kobe’s Lakers and Boston’s Big 3 came close but fizzled with age; even LeBron versus KD has hit the backburner with the latter struggling through misfortune.

In an age where star movement is easier than ever and retaining the makings of a dynasty is made more difficult by shorter contracts and other smaller parity-inducing factors, the idea of a true year-in-year-out rivalry between teams or players on the league’s biggest stage is far from the minds of most. But what if this is finally the year we see a template for multiple runs?

It’s a long shot of course, and will always be. In a 30-team league, it’s exponentially tougher to make the Finals than not. But it’s indeed entirely possible that we’re witnessing the team in each respective conference with the greatest chance of prolonged dominance.

It’s more obvious in the East than the West, even if the Warriors are the better individual team of the two. This is LeBron’s fifth straight appearance in the Finals, and at this point it appears having King James on the roster is the sole prerequisite to winning three rounds in the weak sister conference.

The Cavs appear on the surface to have at least as great a chance as LeBron’s Heat at making repeat trips – assuming, of course, that James himself doesn’t depreciate in on-court value too badly, which is possible even for cyborgs. Kyrie Irving is the type of young star the Heat lacked to complement him, and Tristan Thompson is another youthful piece who could add a great deal assuming he’s retained in restricted free agency this offseason. Iman Shumpert is in a similar boat and has really excelled this postseason in exactly the sort of 3-and-D roll he was brought in for.

How they manage their cap situation over the next couple offseasons will play a large role, Kevin Love’s circumstance in particular. His status for this summer remains up in the air, and a departure would hurt Cleveland’s chances in an immediate sense – assuming they re-up LeBron at the one-year max as expected and attempt to bring back much of the rest of the crew, Love’s money coming off the books wouldn’t be nearly enough to open up any new room under the cap for an impact signing. There’s no doubt his lost talent would be felt, even if the Cavs have done a number of good things in his absence.

If Love bolts this summer, or even stays on for one more year before leaving town, things could open up quite a bit. Anderson Varejao’s silly $10 million and change yearly extension becomes partially non-guaranteed in summer 2016 (it’s fully non-guaranteed the following one) just as the cap leaps, making him both expendable and perhaps more trade-able if he recovers well from a torn Achilles. Shedding his deal plus Love’s expected max would leave only Irving as guaranteed salary, with James, Shumpert, Thompson and possibly JR Smith and Timofey Mozgov likely alongside. If they structured things well enough, it’s entirely possible a near-$90 million cap could allow them one more major signing.

The math will be tighter if Love sticks around, but a James-Irving-Love-Shumpert-Thompson-Mozgov-Smith core is imposing on its own and could almost certainly remain as long as desired under the cap. LeBron has been a free agent draw by himself in recent years, and there’s always a chance a ring-less veteran will take well below their market value to join up with the last few years of James’ prime. If the East remains as weak as it’s been in the last few years, the right set of moves could at least provide a rough template for the Cavs to be back in the Finals several years running.

The conference in which they play will be the largest obstacle for the Warriors, rather than any cap considerations. Not only are mainstays like the Spurs, Grizzlies and Rockets well-positioned to continue fielding strong groups (particularly if San Antonio can indeed sign LaMarcus Aldridge as rumors suggest), a couple challengers are on the rise as well. Oklahoma City will look to finally get their stars aligned simultaneously under Billy Donovan and might be the league’s most talented team when healthy. Anthony Davis and crew in New Orleans are ready to make their ascension with Alvin Gentry at the helm. Even the Jazz and Wolves, though both varying distances away from true contention, are lying in wait down the line.

Thing is, with the possible exception of OKC – who could see massive talent overhauls in the near future – none of these teams can match the Warriors’ collective talent and fit as currently assembled. The Spurs would be menacing with a Kawhi Leonard-Aldridge foundation, but with vets like Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili close to retirement and Tony Parker perhaps not far behind, it’s tough to say where their identity will go. Memphis may have hit their ceiling, and though Houston’s situation is always fluid under Daryl Morey, they appear to need another significant piece to really hit Golden State’s talent level.

Meanwhile, the Dubs are in prime position cap-wise to stay at that perch for several years. Klay Thompson is locked up through the 2018-19 season on a fair contract, and both Steph Curry and Andrew Bogut are on favorable deals (or incredible ones, in Curry’s case) for the next two years after this. It’s fair to wonder whether Harrison Barnes is worth a big long-term investment after his rookie deal runs out, but any money the Dubs do throw his way won’t come onto the books until the TV boom hits.

In fact, their toughest offseason cap-wise might be this upcoming one, with Draymond Green a restricted free-agent certain to get the max. They may have to do some gymnastics to retain him, especially if ownership is unwilling to dip into the tax for a season – in this scenario, it’s possible Barnes or Andre Iguodala is a casualty, Barnes as a sweetener to shed David Lee’s albatross.

If they get through that, though? Things could be devastating for Western challengers. Even with a max extension for Green, Golden State could be positioned with sizable space under the 2016 cap – a Curry-Thompson-Green-Bogut-Barnes core with enough room to add a veteran, perhaps even an expensive one? One can’t help but shiver at the thought.

It’s obviously highly unlikely in the aggregate that all these chips fall correctly for both these teams, all while other franchises around them fail to catch up. Perhaps the greatest deterrent, money and movement aside, is the raw on-court product – there’s no telling when LeBron might lose a step, or when either team might get hit with the injury bug to a vital piece at the wrong time. The same reasons it’s tough to even make one Finals appearance all apply in duplicate when looking at multiple trips.

These two might have the best shot in the current league, though. As they go head to head tonight, it’s fair to wonder if this might just be the first chapter in a longer saga.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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