The fact that LeBron James is making his sixth NBA Finals appearance leads to an obvious question: Which previous NBA Finals series most closely resembles this one?
Several commonalities exist, but they’re evenly distributed among the possible choices. Is there one NBA Finals which obviously stands out above the rest?
It’s hard to say yes to that question… and that’s fantastic. This is new territory for LeBron, and a new reality within the larger course of NBA Finals history. The story of NBA basketball — not necessarily a stale one, but certainly a repetitive one, over the past 16 seasons — now receives an injection of freshness.
No more Lakers, Spurs or Heat.
No more repeat NBA champions or repeat conference champions.
No more NBA Finals in which the majority of the best players on the floor have previously experienced June basketball.
There’s mystery here, and as much as dynastic powers drive ratings and emotions, a sport needs an infusion of new blood from time to time. There’s a considerable subsection of sports fans who have grown tired of seeing the same teams in the Finals each year. That pattern has certainly been broken in Cavs-Warriors. This means that it’s hard to find a previous Finals series which serves as the perfect template for this one… and blessedly so.
At first glance, the 2007 Finals might seem to be the most natural point of comparison for the 2015 series. The Cleveland Cavaliers were involved. They brought LeBron James into a series against a favored opponent. However, it’s hard to equate young-stage LeBron with the far older, wiser, and more complete player we see now. In terms of maturity and leadership — more than physical attributes — LeBron has grown by leaps and bounds. It’s true that he’s carried a limited Cleveland roster (accounting for the Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving injuries) into the Finals, but the comparisons don’t reach far beyond that. Perhaps one could draw a line between Mike Brown and David Blatt, but Blatt’s NBA career is still evolving, and will be judged in the fullness of time.
The 2007 comparison with the 2015 Finals falls short for another reason: San Antonio played pro basketball in a way that’s markedly different from the Golden State Warriors’ brand of ball. The 2007 Spurs were happy to play games in the 80s. Golden State? The Warriors exist in a different universe.
The 2007 Spurs were also utterly familiar with the Finals spotlight and all the pressures of the occasion. Gregg Popovich was a coach who had been around the block many times. Steve Kerr is drinking in his first go-round in the month of June as a coach. Golden State is entirely new to the Finals, having not a single player with previous Finals experience.
Nice try, 2007, and you do offer some connections to the 2015 series, but you’re not a complete fit.
The 2011 Finals between Miami and Dallas also emerge as a series which can be readily compared to 2015. LeBron was making the Finals in a new situation with the Miami Heat. His coach, Erik Spoelstra, was making his Finals debut. LeBron and Spoelstra were facing another coach who was stepping into the cauldron of the Finals, Rick Carlisle of the Mavericks. Carlisle had played in multiple NBA Finals, much like Steve Kerr, but 2011 was his first Finals rodeo as a head coach.
Miami star Chris Bosh and many of the role players in that series (on both sides) were making their first Finals appearances. Miami and Dallas were making their second Finals appearances in their respective cities, much as Cleveland and (Oakland-based) Golden State will do next week. (The Warriors also made the Finals when in San Francisco and Philadelphia.) Those are all valid linkages between the two series.
However, for all the ways 2011 might parallel 2015, a perfect fit does not exist. LeBron was part of a Big Three, with Dwyane Wade still being (at the time) the leader of the Miami Heat. LeBron hadn’t won his first NBA title at the time, so he carried the pressure of that reality into the series against Dallas. LeBron had not yet made the biggest step in his evolution as a professional.
Dallas, though less accustomed to the Finals in parts of its roster, had a leading man — Dirk Nowitzki — whose inner yearning to avenge a loss in the 2006 Finals heavily influenced the way the Mavs mentally attacked the series. Golden State is not trying to avenge anything in 2015, and it doesn’t have a star player (or any player, for that matter) with prior Finals experience.
Sorry, 2011 — you’re not the new 2015 Finals… not fully, at any rate.
The 2012 Finals matched LeBron against an opponent, the Oklahoma City Thunder, which possessed a lot of offensive firepower and was making its Finals debut as a roster. Oklahoma City’s first trip to the Finals was supposed to be the beginning of a period of dominance, and it’s reasonable to say the same expectations apply to Golden State, regardless of the outcome of this series. Scott Brooks was dipping his toes into the Finals for the first time, much as Steve Kerr is (as a coach). From the viewpoint of the Western Conference champion, a 2012-2015 comparison holds up fairly well.
On the other hand, the LeBron/East side is what causes the comparison to fall apart.
LeBron was making a second consecutive Finals appearance, and he was doing so with the same team. Stung by an acutely profound and personal failure in the 2011 Finals, he still hadn’t won his first title. He was consumed by the need to become a champion and give his legacy the crowning moment it had to have. LeBron also had a healthier Dwyane Wade on his team, not to mention a refreshed Chris Bosh. The third member of the Big Three possessed a full tank of energy after missing nine playoff games due to an abdominal injury. The condition of the 2012 Heat entering the Finals stands in clear contrast to the 2015 Cavs, with Kevin Love unavailable and Kyrie Irving well below 100 percent. As an added detail, Mike Miller became a force for Miami in the 2012 Finals. If he sees any court time in the 2015 Finals, it will be in garbage time.
You came close, 2012, but the Miami-Cleveland split is too large.
The 2013 and 2014 Finals pitted LeBron’s team against an opponent that prided itself on its balance, diversity, agility, and ball movement, with a backcourt player — Tony Parker — the central engine of its offense. The San Antonio Spurs, so different from the team LeBron faced in Cleveland in 2007, own some genuine similarities when paired with the 2015 Warriors. Kawhi Leonard, though more suited to wing defense as opposed to low-post defense, was the guard-just-about-anyone chameleon Draymond Green is for Golden State this year.
Yet, as with the other examples mentioned above, there are too many contextual details to allow for a clean and tidy comparison with the 2015 Finals.
San Antonio was fundamentally a veteran team, despite its infusion of youthful energy with Kawhi and Danny Green, among others. The lingering reality that Miami had its Big Three intact — unlike Cleveland in the upcoming 2015 Finals — maintains a solid barrier between 2015 and the previous two Finals series. By the time 2013 rolled around, Spoelstra was a veteran Finals coach. He and Popovich created a coaching clash very different from what we’ll see with Kerr and David Blatt.
2013 and 2014, you put up a good fight, and you certainly share several characteristics with the 2015 Finals, but you’re not the perfect match.
The 2015 NBA Finals really are their own series in a way previous series haven’t been. The 2006 Dallas-Miami series was a truly fresh Finals, but for most of the post-Jordan era, the NBA’s championship round has been marked by repetition and familiarity. That’s good for ratings, but it limited the way a lot of casual fans viewed the sport.
The newness of Cavs-Warriors is a great advertisement for basketball. Now, Cleveland and Golden State need to create a product that will keep casual fans coming back for more.