There are things that seem inevitable until, one day, they are no longer inevitable. Take the current state of the NBA. For the last three seasons, the same two teams have met in the NBA Finals; the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors. Heading into this year, there were many who were predicting the same two teaming matching up for the fourth time in a row. Some thought it was inevitability. It’s not, though. There will be no repeat finals this season, because the Cavaliers aren’t going back to the finals.
You might be thinking: “This is some hot take, small sample size nonsense.” That couldn’t be further than the truth. If anything, the Cavaliers’ slow start to the season is just making manifest something that should have been clear anyway. Cleveland is currently 3-4, and although there is a lot of season left, there’s reason to believe the Cavaliers aren’t going to their fourth straight finals.
LeBron James is still a beast, and somehow it seems like going to a million straight NBA Finals (give or take) has barely slowed him down. However, he is older, and this is an older team, and basketball is a young man’s game. This is especially true now, as the league gets faster and more athletic. To that point, the Cavaliers got older this offseason, and it’s hurting them, especially on defense.
Defense is somewhere that even LeBron has languished in recent years. He simply can’t go all out for an entire season, and so he rests on defense because he has to exert so much effort on offense. That’s especially true this year, with Kyrie Irving having been traded, and with Isiah Thomas out with a hip injury.
The Cavaliers have allowed 109.8 points per 100 possessions, 27th in the NBA. They aren’t going to get better when Thomas returns. Kevin Love is struggling. The team added Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade this offseason, and they are both shells of their former selves. Cleveland will struggle all year defensively, and that won’t change in the playoffs, even if LeBron levels up.
So Cleveland is going to be worse this year. You may now be asking the question, “OK, so who’s going to beat them in the East?” The answer, to be somewhat glib, is “Somebody.”
To elaborate, though, it’s not about one team beating the Cavaliers. A specific team doesn’t have to beat Cleveland. All it takes is one team out of 14 to do it. Granted, most of them don’t have a chance, but a few do.
The Milwaukee Bucks are a trendy team, and with good cause. Giannis Antetokounmpo may win the MVP, Thon Maker is on the rise, and Khris Middleton is healthy this year. The Washington Wizards have perhaps the best backcourt in the East in John Wall and Bradley Beal. Gordon Hayward may be done for the year, but don’t count out the Boston Celtics. Hell, the Toronto Raptors have realized three points is worth more than two and have started shooting from behind the arc. Maybe they could pull it off.
In a vacuum, the idea of the same two teams meeting in four straight finals seems improbable. We probably shouldn’t be surprised if the Cavaliers and the Warriors don’t match up once more. It’s hard to shake loose from recent history, though. So the present is going to do the shaking for us. Or, rather, the future, because it’s a future where the Cavaliers aren’t going back to the NBA Finals.