Is A Rematch Of The 2014/15 NBA Finals Inevitable?
With six weeks of the NBA 2015-16 season in the books, it’s hard to look beyond a repeat of last season’s NBA Finals, when the dominant team in the Eastern Conference, the Cleveland Cavaliers, met the West’s champion the Golden State Warriors.
The pair feature two of the league’s premier alpha dogs in LeBron James and Steph Curry, and they have quickly put their mark on the new season.
Hot favourites Cleveland sits atop the East despite missing star playmaker Kyrie Irving, who is easing his way back to full fitness after suffering a fractured kneecap in the Finals defeat to the Warriors.
Golden State meanwhile has been rampant, inspiring a plethora of gushing articles during its incredible unbeaten start to the season. The main Warriors’ absentee in the early going has been Head Coach Steve Kerr, who has been rendered incapable of joining the team after offseason back surgery.
Kerr has been watching from afar and, while he must be revelling in seeing his team perform so strongly, there is no doubt a part of him that would happily take a few difficulties now if he could guarantee they would be running on all cylinders in the postseason. The Warriors’ remarkable run (23 straight wins as of December 8th) won’t mean anything if they can’t get the 16 wins that they desire from April through to June.
Those people tired of hearing the media’s adulation of the Warriors point to their easy schedule in the opening weeks, and it is true to say that they haven’t yet met Cleveland, nor 2014 champ San Antonio. The Spurs were bounced in Round One of the 2015 playoffs as their quest for back-to-back titles, not achieved during the era of Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich, proved to be elusive again.
The Spurs reloaded spectacularly, tempting Portland’s star big man LaMarcus Aldridge into coming back to Texas in free agency, and their impressive young wing Kawhi Leonard continues to blossom, showing an expanded offensive repertoire to add to the skills that saw him take the 2015 Defensive Player of the Year award.
A matchup between the Warriors and the Spurs looks like the obvious pick for the Western Conference Finals, but the quality across the spectrum out West has tended to make the playoffs into something of a gladiatorial bloodbath where a favourable draw and the occasional helpful injury to an opponent can be a huge benefit.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have found themselves on the wrong side of that equation over the last few years, dealing with significant injuries to key players at inopportune moments. Through it all, there can be little doubt that the Kevin Durant-Russell Westbrook combo is the best one-two punch in the league, but the Thunder are painfully aware that the clock is ticking for their star duo. New Head Coach Billy Donovan has been charged with getting them over the hump, but it remains to be seen if his college prowess can translate to the big leagues.
Chris Paul is another who is desperately trying to disregard that ticking clock. The LA Clippers playmaker has long been seen as one of the league’s elite floor generals, but he will turn 31 during the 2016 postseason and has never quite been able to elevate a team to the top level singlehandedly.
His supporting cast this year might be the best that he’s ever had, but they remain flawed. Two painful early-season defeats to the Warriors have sown seeds of doubt amongst the Clippers, although they may prove to be a blessing if the team has gained an appreciation for what is needed to compete at the very top level.
Memphis is still trying to hang on to its place at the top table, and Houston is slowly recovering after a wretched start that cost Head Coach Kevin McHale his job – but outside of the Spurs, the best chance to derail a Finals repeat might well come from the East.
Sceptics will rightfully point to Cleveland’s easy path to the Finals as proof that no other team in the East can stand firmly in LeBron’s path. But after years of Western dominance, the tide may be turning.
Outside of the laughable Phildelphia 76ers and a Brooklyn Nets team that’s only slightly less pitiful, the rest of the East is looking pretty decent. Washington and Milwaukee, two teams that looked fairly certain to finish in the top eight, are currently on the outside looking in, while the emergence of the spectacular Latvian rookie Kristaps Porzingis has given New Yorkers a little pep to their step.
Orlando seem determined to steal Milwaukee’s crown for the team full of young potential that’s starting to pull it together, while Detroit’s beast in the middle, Andre Drummond, has the city dreaming of finally returning to a .500 record after the seven barren years that have followed its remarkable run of six straight Eastern Conference Finals appearances from 2003 to 2008.
But neither team can break into a crowded top eight for now as teams jockey for position. Charlotte has done well to withstand the loss of talented defensive wing Michael Kidd-Gilchrist so far, while Boston’s impressive Head Coach Brad Stevens continues to find small advantages for his improving squad. Rookie Head Coach Fred Hoiberg is learning the ropes in Chicago and seeing how far he can take the team, despite former stars Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah struggling to reach their previous levels.
Paul George has managed to recover after his horrendous leg-break in the Summer of 2014 to lead his Indiana squad back into contention, while Kyle Lowry continues to will Toronto to more wins than losses. Atlanta came up short in last year’s Eastern finals, but it may be able to use the experience to its benefit if it progresses to the latter stages again this season.
The trouble is that, despite a host of intriguing teams, there are significant flaws throughout most of the squads in the East. Miami is far from flawless itself, but on paper it has the most complete squad, as well as enough history with LeBron to at least make a potential Eastern finals series interesting.
A rematch of last year’s NBA Finals remains the most likely possibility – but there’s a decent queue forming of potential suitors ready to take their place if someone slips up.