Back from the Memorial Day Weekend break to break down the NBA and NHL finals and the state of both leagues.
Teams get called unstoppable all the time, but this time it’s fitting.
The Cleveland Cavaliers started this week in a 2-0 hole in the NBA Finals to their nemesis, the Golden State Warriors. The season both for the Land and the League has been building to these games all year. midseason slumps or surges were largely dismissed, the playoffs were a formality. This series was what it was all about, and Cleveland is watching it slip through their fingers, unable to even get a grip on either of the first two games in California.
And it’s tempting to blast Cleveland for failing to keep up with the new power that rules the NBA, but I can’t bring myself to do it. I’m not sure what Cleveland’s current roster, or really any roster, could do to slow down this Golden State team. It’s a natural, if extreme, conclusion of the NBA’s superstars arms race. It’s not revelatory to point out that it would take a superhuman defensive effort to slow down the trio of Curry/Durant/Thompson, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
So does Cleveland have any hope of winning this series? Barring an unusual and unforeseen event, probably not, and that’s a shame not just for the Cavs and their fans, but the league as a whole, as it renders almost a whole season into nothing more than a casual coronation.
While Cleveland and the league share that disappointment, it’s also hard to wonder what comes next for either of them. How does Cleveland attempt to reload for another round assuming Golden State does win, and how does the league move on from this two team existence? We’ll explore these thoughts later in the update, but know this: while the action on the court may seem uninteresting at times, the struggle of the past and future of the association is playing out at the same time, and that conflict is anything but boring.
We’ll explore these thoughts later in the update, but know this: while the action on the court may seem uninteresting at times, the struggle of the past and future of the National Basketball Association are playing out at the same time, and that conflict is anything but boring.
So, let’s start with Cleveland. What can the Cavaliers do to keep pace with the three-headed monster that is the Golden State Warriors in their current incarnation? Is there any player that you could add to this roster that could give LeBron and the LeBronettes a chance?
To be frank, there might not be – but that kind of spoils all the fun of exercises like this, so let’s press onward. Although any team trying to beat the Warriors cannot score enough, I’m not sure the Cavs need a huge offensive input, as they have more than enough scorers. What they need is someone that can help contain the onslaught from Golden State while also adding space and shooting on the floor. As you may have guessed from the photo above, the best player to deliver both of those attributes would be Kawhi Leonard.
Leonard is the best-case three-and-d type player, a must have in the NBA. Between LeBron and Leonard, the Cavaliers would boast a lockdown defensive pairing that should be able to frustrate the Warriors inside and outside if both are up to their game. With Leonard’s offensive skills improved to the point that he is a first option on the Spurs, it could be the missing ingredient to help LeBron reassume the mantle on top of the Super Team rankings.
Now, take all this with a healthy dose of salt. I’d be shocked to see Leonard in any uniform other than the Spurs black and white, and I’d be downright undone if he was in wine and gold.
But in this era of superteams, these are the pairings you can’t help but ponder. Who would have thought a few years ago that Curry and Durant would be teaming up? Perhaps it’s far-fetched to imagine Leonard and LeBron becoming perhaps the best two-way duo the league has ever seen.
While I’m not expecting Kawhi to buy property in Ohio anytime soon, one of the reasons it even seems possible is because it was LeBron who started this whole superteam thing in the first place. Boston may have gotten the ball rolling when they assembled Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to join Paul Pierce in the original Big Three, that was largely a front-office trade, rather than a free-agent signing.
No, the NBA’s superteam era was truly born when James made that fateful decision to take his talent to South Beach. After that ESPN special ended, the arms race began, and now we’re seeing the results. The problem is that LeBron’s monster is beginning to turn on its creator. LeBron no longer controls the most powerful Franken-team. His rival does, and they have him locked in their sights.
That’s why it’s tough to have any sympathy in this series, even if it’s not a fair fight.
If LeBron wanted a fair fight, he probably shouldn’t have gone to Miami in the first place. Once he teamed up with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, the copycat league that is the NBA was bound to follow suit after that trio started delivering on the promise of multiple championships.
Still, it can’t be fun to watch your own plan come back to bite you.
That brings us to our final thought on the NBA Finals and what they mean at-large, at least for this Update. It seems inconceivable now, but there’s going to time when LeBron isn’t LeBron anymore, unable to drag teams like the Cavs to compete with a behemoth like Warriors, and then there will come a time where LeBron isn’t playing at all.
As the NBA toils in the transition between truly transformative superstars there could be a lack of one true star, one man to own the title of the league’s best. Think the years between Michael Jordan and LeBron. Sure, there was Kobe, but he never quite reached the pinnacles those two did, with other players constantly nipping at his heels or teams knocking him off the top of the mountain. The way I see it, this can go one of two ways.
The superteam craze could spin out of control as a new crop of superstars enters the league, and teams try to combine talents again and again, with the best players becoming a ruling oligarchy of the Association. That’s not too far from what we have now.
Or, and this is a long shot, it could bring back a bit of a focus on team basketball, with teams realizing that while a great superstar like LeBron is a key factor, a strong team can topple that dominance.
Either way, the league is changing around us, and quickly. Even if this season lacked an interesting plot, the next few probably won’t.
The NHL is often thought of and described in terms of its opposition to the NBA. Hockey’s players are tougher and more team-oriented than basketball’s sacrificing personal glory or even health for the good of the team while basketball’s stars want the camera on them. The Stanely Cup Playoffs bring the drama and unpredictability that basketball’s version lacks, with no super team to rule them all.
That’s all well and good in theory. But the Pittsburgh Penguins are still in the driver’s seat of the Stanley Cup Final for the second year in a row, with a star-studded group of forwards, including two of the best 100 players in the league’s history in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (sorry NHL, your list without Malkin on it was wrong and dumb) and one of the best pure scorers in the game in Phil Kessel, leading the group to victory.
That sounds an awful like what’s happening in the NBA to me. The only difference is that the NHL does have an upstart underdog team talented enough to challenge for the title in the Predators—but most sports fans were probably unaware until this week because the NHL either won’t or can’t market its young stars.
Listen, I won’t contend that the NBA and NHL playoffs are one in the same, and no one with half a mind on these sports should. But the NHL’s superiority complex, about how its league is so much tougher and nobler than thou plebians watching the popular sports, is a part of the problem. Because despite all that talk of parity and randomness, the Penguins are in the promised land once again, and the same teams are found in primetime matchups every year.
Still, the NHL does have some parity and randomness on its side. It has exciting young groups like Nashville that are challenging the old guard of Chicago and Pittsburgh. So perhaps the Stanley Cup Final can be a springboard to stardom for a new generation of players, headlined by PK Subban and the rest of a young, exciting Predators core?
I’m not going to hold my breath. But if the NHL really does want to become more accessible, this should be its golden opportunity. Let’s see if it takes the shot.
And why is this year the perfect chance to springboard a new era into prominence? I mean, have you looked at the streets of Nashville the past few days?
From crowds to chants to catfish, the scene down south has been covered ad nauseum by people actually in the city so I won’t try to analyze it from a few hundred miles away. But suffice it to say that the rumors that hockey can’t work below the Mason-Dixon line should be firmly put to bed by now.
And the best part? It seems to be carrying over to the play on the ice. If you’ve heard the saying “when it rains, it pours,” then Saturday night’s contest should have been somewhat predictable—once Nashville took the 2-1 lead, it was clear the floodgates had broken, and the goals were about come pouring in. And seemingly willed to do so by the yellow-clad faithful, come they did, as the Predators cruised to an early lead after going down early.
Who’s to say whether home ice advantage or a raucous crowd really effects the outcome on the ice. I’m of the mind that it does, but the truth is in the eye of the beholder.
All I can say is that any hockey fan with a heart should be hoping the Predators find a way to finish off a four-win streak and raise the Cup on home ice. What a scene it would be.
Just like the way the crowd can raise the intensity and entertainment level of a game, some of the best moments of the NHL Stanley Cup Final in this constantly connected age inevitably have nothing to do with any pass, hit or shot. With players and referees constantly observed, mic’d up and followed with dedicated camera feeds, we’re seeing more of what’s happening on the ice than ever before.
Sometimes, that’s not great, like when we all found out exactly what Ryan Getzlaf had on his mind before he had to write a check to the league office. But other times, like when PK Subban tells us that Sidney Crosby was mocking Subban’s game-breath, it brings a great element of levity and even insight to the proceedings. It makes sports, which are an entertainment product, after all, more fun, and that’s a good thing.
Which is why it was a little sad to see Crosby asked about it at media availability between games. Do I think Crosby actually said that? Maybe, but probably not. But was it more fun to have that out there than to turn it into a “real” story that required comment and defense from Sid? Yupp.
Can we as a hockey community make an agreement to not make major stories out of every goddam chirp? Finding out some of these nuggets said on the ice are fun because they give us an insight into what’s really going on in players’ minds on the ice and how the game is played. But if they feel it’s causing a problem, the NHL and its players will default to the same course of action they always do in the face of controversy, and those nuggets won’t come out quite as often.
Let’s not spoil the fun here, everyone.
Enough with the fun stuff of the NHL’s final round. What’s happening on the ice?
To win the Stanley Cup, you need to win 16 games over the course of four series, which probably means playing in something closer to two-dozen-plus games over the course of a month. That’s a lot of time for a goalie.
We’ve seen just how long it is during this year’s campaign. Marc-Andre Fleury was the Conn Smythe favorite for the Penguins through two rounds, stepping in after a literally last-minute injury to Matt Murray to lift the Pens over a pair of dynamic and high-scoring teams in the Columbus Blue Jackets and Washington Capitals. But then, he wasn’t so great in the Conference Final against the Senators, and the net quickly shifted over to the control of Matt Murray, who’s now played nearly as many games as Flower, and with results that were just as good.
Over in Nashville, we’ve seen similar peaks and valleys. If Fleury didn’t win the MVP award after the first two rounds, it was Pekka Rinne, who suffocated the Chicago Blackhawks before dismissing the St. Louis Blues with relative ease. But he was shakier against the Ducks in the Conference Final, and worse than that in the first two games of the Stanley Cup Final. He seemed to regain his net and confidence a bit after returning home, but I’m sure most Predator fans are still wary.
So where does that leave us? In a series of goal flurries and low shot totals, these netminders are probably going to carry a heavier weight than usual through these last two to four contests. If Murray falls into his first slump of the playoffs or Rinne continues his, it will probably cost their teams a cup.
We’ll cap off this week’s entry with a little foray into our crystal ball and another mini-installment of the Psychic Is In, where I try (and usually fail) to predict the outcome of a future event.
It’s tough to imagine Pittsburgh dominating any game in Nashville, even if they did get out to a 1-0 lead in Game Three. Nashville’s crowd is just too impactful and the team is too confident at home to get blown away, no matter how good Pittsburgh is. But that doesn’t mean the Penguins will get run over once again.
Instead, I see this one being arguably the closest game of the series and its first overtime game. These teams have played each other close than the scorelines indicate, and it feels like we’re due for some extra hockey in this series. I think one of the Nashville blueliners not named P.K. Subban (maybe Ryan Ellis) ends it for the Predators in OT and we head back to Pittsburgh tied up.
Which almost certainly means that won’t happen. Sorry, Preds fans.