If you’ve been watching the NBA this season, you’ve been treated to a lot of good action. We have a number of very strong teams, more balance between the East and West than we’ve seen in years, a competitive group of rookies, and a dominant class of superstars in their prime. It’s about all a fan could ask for. But if you’ve only been following the league casually, you might be under the false impression that this season has been rather dull, because really there’s only one major story going on: the utter supremacy of the defending champion Golden State Warriors.
Still undefeated heading into December and having set a new record for the longest winning streak to start a season, the Warriors are starting to enter the conversation as one of the best teams of all time. Heading into last year’s playoffs, the FiveThirtyEight sports section did an advanced statistical analysis on the best NBA teams ever (using something called Elo ratings that are generally used to rank chess players). The analysis rated the 2014-15 Warriors as the third best team in league history—and that was before they cruised to an NBA title and started the 2015-16 season 19-0 (and counting). Anyone watching this season can see that this team hasn’t just stayed steady, because they’re decidedly better than they were a year ago. This puts them squarely in competition with the great Bulls, Celtics and Lakers teams of history and a
clear favorite to win the title.
Yet somewhat surprisingly, the actual odds for the NBA title in 2016 are not as overwhelmingly favorable of the Warriors. At Betfair’s sports section, the Warriors are indeed listed as the likeliest winner. But the Cavaliers are close behind at 3/1 odds (compared to the Warriors’ 15/8 odds). This indicates that the betting companies aren’t quite sold that the Warriors can get by the Cavaliers for a second straight year in a hypothetical finals match-up. Such is the greatness of LeBron James that even when he appears destined to go up against one of the best teams ever assembled, we can’t seem to totally count him out.
And that’s precisely why this season is beginning to represent such an incredible opportunity for James. By most people’s measure, his Cavaliers are still the second-best team in the NBA, and they haven’t even gotten a game out of All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving yet. Irving has reportedly begun practicing as he looks to come back from injury. If he returns at anything near his top level, the Cavaliers could begin to look like a very real threat to the Warriors. It’s just that the credit likely won’t go to Irving, but to the team as a whole—and to its undisputed leader, LeBron James.
An editorial in Sports Illustrated delved into the 2015-16 season from the perspective of James with an eye on his unrelenting desire to bring a championship to Cleveland. In the article, it is suggested that this desire consumes James, and that he is still striving to accomplish his ultimate NBA goals, albeit surprisingly under-the-radar this time around. James is even quoted as saying he recognizes growing chatter about who the best player in the league might be, and that he uses such talk as motivation. Translation: he’s not quite ready to concede to Steph Curry or lose his Cleveland title dream to the Warriors just yet.
Watching the Warriors, the response to these thoughts from James might be as simple as, “tough luck.” Golden State looks nearly impossible to beat on any given night, let alone in four games out of a seven-game series. But let’s not forget James gave them a pretty good fight without his two All-Star teammates in the finals last summer.
Right now it feels extraordinarily likely that we’re headed for an NBA Finals rematch. And if James can win this title, he’ll regain his reputation as the undisputed best player in the world and accomplish his goal of bringing a championship to Cleveland. He’ll also quite possibly have done something even Michael Jordan can’t claim to have pulled off: beat the best team of all time.
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