Don’t believe the headlines. LeBron James did not win the 2016 NBA Finals all by himself ("King James dethrones Warriors," as one media outlet put it). He wasn’t even the difference for Cleveland, whose fans are basking in a long-overdue championship glow today.
That honor goes to Kyrie Irving.
We shouldn’t have believed the headlines about the Golden State Warriors, either. This was supposed to be a team of destiny, the team that would change the face of professional basketball as we know it.
In the end, it was the 2007 New England Patriots all over again.
This year’s Warriors will go down in history not as a champion but an aberration, a regular-season asterisk next to a postseason disappointment. The 2015-16 Warriors will forever be remembered as the little engine that couldn’t, a team that should have won the title – and easily – but nearly got derailed in the semis and ran off the rails completely in the Finals.
How does this feel to the Warriors? Ask the ’07 Patriots, who were 18-0 before losing to a vastly inferior New York Giants team in the 2008 Super Bowl. Or ask George Foreman, undefeated and billed as “indestructible” when Muhammad Ali KO’d him in Zaire.
Both the Patriots and Foreman rebounded, but in different ways. The Pats have been back to the Super Bowl twice, winning once, in 2015. Foreman was so shaken by his loss to Ali that he took a year off, then retired for good another year later when Jimmy Young beat him on a decision in 1977. Foreman stayed out of the ring for a decade before launching a comeback that resulted him recapturing the heavyweight title with a stunning knockout of Michael Moorer at nearly 46 years of age.
Foreman was never again “indestructible,” and the Patriots have never again been undefeated heading into the Super Bowl. They both missed a chance at history that never came around again. The same is likely true of the Warriors, who can’t be expected to win 74 games next year or the year after that or the year after that.
WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN
They’ll have to live with the emptiness of this year’s “what if,” just as Patriots have to live with that lost opportunity against the Giants, and Foreman struggled to come to grips with what he behind left in the ring against Ali. Both the Pats and Big George went on to distinguish themselves in different ways, though: the Patriots by winning their fourth Super Bowl of the century in 2015 – more than any other team so far – and Foreman by becoming the oldest man ever to win the NBA title.
Will the Warriors bounce back to similar greatness? Only time will tell. But in the meantime, they’ve been given the bitterest of pills to swallow: a might-have-been glory that never was and the irony that last year’s excellent championship team turned out to be better than this year’s “team for the ages.”
In part, that’s because Stephen Curry’s shooting touch largely failed him in the Finals, as did Klay Thompson’s. Draymond Green played up to his usual standards but missed a game because of a suspension, and 7-foot center Andrew Bogut was lost in Game 5 to a knee injury, leaving the Warriors totally reliant on their small-ball lineup and without anyone to counter Tristan Thompson or James in the paint.
Anderson Varejão, the former Cavalier who picked up many of the minutes Bogut would have played, was ineffective to the point of being a liability. It was during his time on the court in Game 7 that the momentum swung from the Warriors, who kept trying to feed him the ball (with disastrous results) to Cleveland.
The Warriors didn’t just lose the series, the Cavaliers won it, and they deserve all the credit in the world for coming back from a 3-1 series deficit, something no other team had ever accomplished in the Finals. But while James got almost all the credit in the next day’s headlines, he wasn’t the one who made the difference.
Yes, his play was outstanding, and there’s no way the Cavaliers would have won without him. But he actually played better in last year’s loss to the Warriors, when he averaged 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists. His numbers this year: 29.7, 11.3 and 8.9.
No, the difference wasn’t James, it was guard Kyrie Irving, who played just one game in last year’s Finals before being injured but averaged 27.1 points while starting all seven games this year, including 41 points on 17 of 24 shooting in the pivotal Game 5 and the three-point shot that won the decisive Game 7.
Take Irving out of the equation, and the result would have been the same as last year, even with Curry’s and Klay Thompson’s shooting woes. Put Irving back in last year’s lineup, and – if he’d have played like this – the Warriors could easily have lost.
But those are just more “what ifs” and “if onlys.”
The Cavaliers had to live with their own “if onlys” for this past year, but to be honest, they were never a team of destiny, an other-worldly entity that was supposed to transform the game of basketball. This year’s Warriors were both those things … until suddenly they weren’t. And win or lose next year, they’ll have to live with that for a very long time.