When the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors take the court in the first game of the 2018 NBA Finals, it’ll be the first time in the four major U.S. sports that the same two teams have squared off four years in a row. The only thing more impressive than that is the fact that LeBron James will be playing in his eighth-consecutive NBA Finals.
After taking the Cavs there in 2007, LeBron took a few years off before starting this majorly impressive streak. He returned to the Finals in 2011 with the Miami Heat and would do so three more times, winning two NBA titles. In 2015, James returned to the Cavs and has taken them to the Finals four-straight years as well, winning the NBA Title in 2016. It’s considered quite the longshot for LeBron to take home another title this year but his streak is impressive enough to stand on its own.
To see just how impressive it is, and how much has changed since it began, here is a rundown of five notable things that have changed in the league since 2011.
The Boston Celtics went through an entire rebuild
LeBron’s streak has been going on so long it’s seen the epic fall and the epic rise of the Boston Celtics in its entirely. In between James’ first and second NBA Finals appearances, the Celtics were one of the top teams in the NBA, winning the title in 2008 and falling just short in 2010. Then, the wheels came off and the franchise decided to jettison Hall of Famers like Kevin Garnett and Pual Pierce and rebuild from the ground up. Brad Stevens took over as head coach in 2013 and, after some very lean years, the team has gotten back to being one of the best in the Eastern Conference. Unfortunately for them, LeBron James is in the Eastern Conference as well, which means the Conference Finals is as far as they’ve been able to go the last two years.
Brad Stevens was the Butler guy
Before he took the offer he couldn’t refuse to coach the Boston Celtics, Brad Stevens was the guy who took the Butler Bulldogs to two unlikely Final Fours in 2010 and 2011. The expectation was that Stevens might move on to a bigger college basketball program to build his resume even further, but he ended up sticking with the Bulldogs for two more years instead. Go back to 2011 and no one would have said Stevens should go straight to the NBA from here, let alone take over one of the most storied franchises. But here we are.
A lot of LeBron’s teammates and opponents were just kids
Looking at the 2018 Cavaliers roster, you’ve got Larry Nance Jr., Cedi Osman, and Ante Žižić, who were 18, 16, and 14, respectively, when LeBron’s streak started. Across the way on the Warriors roster, you’ve got Jordan Bell and Kevon Looney, who were 16 and 15, respectively. Around the league, it’s just as silly. The Philadelphia 76ers’ Ben Simmons was just 15. And Boston’s Jayson Tatum, who infamously dunked on LeBron in the ECF, was just 13.
The Warriors were just kinda there
Watching the NBA in the 1990s and 2000s, you were always pretty sure the Golden State Warriors existed, but it was hard to ever pinpoint anything specific about them. They were just kinda there. A perennial losing squad, they made the playoffs one singular time between 1995 and 2012. All of that changed with the arrival of Steph Curry in 2009 and the franchise finally started to resemble a winner. They put it all together in 2015 for their first NBA Title since 1975 and have barely looked back since. Now, they’re a basketball dynasty in the making and it doesn’t appear to be ending anytime soon. They’re also a big reason why LeBron “only” has three NBA titles (and will probably stay that way for now).
LeBron was a bum*
What a difference eight years makes. Before 2011, LeBron’s reputation was, for many NBA fans, mud. He’d only been able to take the Cavaliers to one Finals and lost and now he’d “betrayed” his fans with the ill-advised Decision that took his talents to South Beach. The feeling was that even if LeBron win titles in Miami, it was always going to come with an asterisk because he “sold out” to do so. Plenty of people took pleasure in rooting against James when the Heat lost in 2011 to the Mavericks and again in 2014 when they lost to the Spurs. However, when he returned to Cleveland, pretty much all was forgiven. All was absolutely forgiven when the Cavs won it all in 2016. And in recent years, James hasn’t been afraid to speak out against injustices he perceives in the world.
This eight-year streak has been impressive in how it redefined LeBron on the court, but it’s almost been more impressive in how he’s redefined his reputation off of it as well