Trying to Make Sense of the 2014–15 NBA Season

The craziest NBA season that I can remember came to its conclusion last night with the Golden State Warriors snagging their third straight victory en route to a 4–2 series win against the depleted and, mostly fatigued, Cleveland Cavaliers. However, with now one night to digest the madness that was the 2014–15 NBA season, the final result feels strangely surreal.

While these Warriors were the best team in the league from start to finish, it still almost feels like they are new to the party. It’s as if I still need to time to recalibrate my perception of the league’s hierarchy to include them over perennial contenders like San Antonio and Oklahoma City. It would seem to me that fans who are invested in the narratives of the NBA do themselves a disservice upon the rapid, and inevitable, changes of that narrative. The Warriors were a team at the end of last season that, upon losing a heartbreaking seven game series to the LA Clippers, appeared to have a year full of adjustment ahead them. Adjusting to a new coach, a new system, all in preparation for the pitfalls and disappointments that normally await a young and talented team trying to carve out their path to the title. The Thunder, for example, have been stuck in that cycle since 2010, where a young Thunder squad led by Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Jeff Green lost to the eventual champion LA Lakers. Their next five seasons after that postseason welcoming: Western Conference Finals appearance, NBA Finals appearance, Western Conference Semi-Finals appearance, Western Conference Finals appearance, lottery appearance.

For some teams, they stand subjected to the context of a particular season’s injuries, trends, and momentum. The Warriors have a first round defeat to the Clippers in 2014 listed as a part of their championship trajectory. However, that defeat comes due in large part to the Andrew Bogut injury that caused the Warriors to vacillate between Jermaine O’Neal and Draymond Green at the center position throughout the series. It’s hard to ignore the injuries to Ibaka, Westbrook and Durant that will play a role, successful or not, in how we view this iteration of the Thunder. We would then be remiss not to mention the seasonal injury bug that the Warriors seemed to elude on their way to this championship. A consistency that hasn’t been so kind to the once-upstart Thunder.

Maybe that’s why this championship feels so surreal. Where I kept expecting the Thunder or hell, even the Clippers, to finally break the monotonous malaise of their respective championship trajectories, the Warriors ran up and punched me in the face. Brazen, unapologetic, and a true visual experience, the Warriors dominated this NBA season from start to finish, and it made no sense — but also it totally did.

The Warriors were arguably the most awe-inspiring aesthetic in the NBA since, well, the 2013 Heat, but if we’re being honest, the magnitude of their experience probably shatters anything that came after the 2000 Lakers. They fly around on the defensive end with lineups that feature five players sized between 6'3" and 6'9" and levy the attention and help-defense that Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson command into high-percentage looks on the offensive end. While it’s easy to say that the Warriors got lucky by avoiding the Spurs or the Clippers en route to the Finals, what isn’t mentioned enough are the wide variety of styles the Warriors conquered on their way to the title. The grind-it-out style of the Memphis Grizzlies, the “only threes or layups” Houston Rockets, the LeBron-centric offense of the Cavaliers. The Warriors never got less talented whether they downsized or played more conventionally, and they always presented more problems for the opposition than they welcomed.

So now it’s time to revise my perception of the league to make sense of the Warriors jumping the gun on the rest of the league in their title run. And it’s not hard to imagine them being here again. This team won the championship with smart drafting and salary cap manipulation all while playing a style that meshed perfectly with their very unique set of players. They have perhaps the most unique player in the NBA playing on a bargain contract — Stephen Curry is set to earn a total of $23,483,145 over the next two years of his contract — and are currently nurturing the most mutually beneficial symbiosis between star player and supporting cast.

All that and I haven’t even gotten to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the best player of the last 20 years and his gang of bar stools weren’t able to use their 2–1 series lead to springboard into a truly miraculous championship run. The Cavaliers, and specifically the new career arc of LeBron James, represent an even more jarring example of how emptying it is to get tied up in narratives when following the NBA. LeBron James has a 2–4 record in his six NBA Finals appearances. He’s lost to two memorable and consistently dominant Spurs teams, a Mavs team that rode an all-time great Nowitzki playoff run to a championship and these all-time great Warriors. Over the course of those four NBA Finals defeats, his best teammate was 2010–11 Dwyane Wade, who put up a 26p/7r/5a stat line over the course of those six games while shouldering the load for the Heat during LeBron’s funk. After that, his best teammate in his other defeats was probably 2013–14 Dwyane Wade who put up 15p/4r/3a line while resembling a shell of the Wade of three years prior. After that, the list goes Big Three-era Bosh, Timofey Mozgov, Drew Gooden, Mario Chalmers, Daniel Gibson, and *gulp* JR Smith. Not only is that not one of the sadder talent foundations that has befit a player of James’ magnitude in NBA history, it’s also a talent foundation that isn’t strong enough to eclipse the kind of dominance that we just saw from James in willing his team to six games against a historically dominant Warriors group.

That’s the thing with weighing context against “the moment” though. We just saw the Cavaliers take a 2–1 lead against a 67–15 team behind the strong supporting play of Matthew Dellavedova and Timofey Mozgov. Read that sentence again in three months and try to tell me you expected this from the Cavaliers. It makes about as much sense as it did for the Cavaliers to beat the Spurs in 2007 when we were fresh off of Daniel Gibson’s miraculous Conference Finals performance against the Pistons. And of course, with time comes the truth that impulsion hides. The truth that Daniel Gibson was a bench player masquerading as LeBron’s sidekick, that last year’s Heat weren’t just emotionally and physically exhausted but also over-matched on a talent level. And finally, that this Cavaliers team far exceeded even the most reasonable expectations after the injury of Kyrie Irving, and specifically because of LeBron’s play.

I guess my point is that in defeat there will always be examples of things that players can do better. The substantive thing to do when judging a player’s career is to look at the context of a specific player’s faults and try to decide what’s held true over periods of time long enough to make empirical assessments. Catharsis exists in those who look at a player in defeat and cherry pick the features that best suit their mood at a specif time. Stripped away from the clutter of hypothetical situations, LeBron is a truly great player who has consistently and emphatically taken his teams to greater heights over the course of his career than any other player in the league at those times could have. Try to get caught up in too many random variables and you’ll fall down the rabbit-hole of subjectivity and probably end up in the matrix, trying to put your own spin on the laws of gravity and the space-time continuum.

So now where does that leave us with LeBron. We just saw him, in his fifth consecutive NBA Finals appearance, put up a stat line that would make Jesus himself take notice. People like to say that if Jordan hadn’t taken that year and a half off from basketball, that he would have made eight straight Finals from ’91 to ‘98. While a fun thought exercise, it also might be one that LeBron may very well animate in you know, reality.

And to that point, this Cavaliers team has the potential to stacked next season with, hopefully, a healthy Irving, Love and Varejao to go along with whoever the Cavaliers are able to add through either trades or salary cap exceptions. They likely need more wing depth to spell LeBron for stretches during the regular season and playoffs as well as some more reliable outside shooting to punish teams for zeroing in on the Cavaliers’ stars.

There’s no reason to think the Warriors and Cavaliers won’t be back here next season, just like at the conclusion of last season there was no reason to think both of those teams would. I’m ready for the next wrinkle in the narrative.