The Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers are on a collision course for a third-straight meeting in the NBA Finals. At some point in the past month or so, this statement would have been a moot point. But as is often the case in the NBA, circumstances can change about as quick as a Stephen Curry buzzer-beater. Now, the Washington Wizards and the San Antonio Spurs are hot on the heels of the conference favorites and teams like the Boston Celtics and the Houston Rockets are making their own audible noises. The odds of Warriors-Cavaliers III may still be the odds-on favorite NBA Finals pair-up, but the sentiment is no longer overwhelming.
In the unlikely event that we don’t get to see the rubber match to end all rubber matches, don’t feel like you’ve been cheated out of it. Other potential Finals match-ups may not be as compelling, but they should hold some level of appeal to them, especially for hardcore fans of the league. After all, good narratives are the driving force behind awesome stories and these possible Finals match-ups over theirs in kind. Some more than others, but good ones nonetheless.
Boston Celtics vs San Antonio Spurs
Back in 2008, this would’ve been a dream Finals match-up between the Tim Duncan-led Big Three going up against the Kevin Garnett-led Big Three. Duncan, Garnett, Tony Parker, Paul Pierce, Manu Ginobili, and Ray Allen all would’ve been in their prime of their careers. There was the Gregg Popovich and Doc Rivers storyline. Today, only Pop, Ginobili, and Parker remain from the 2008 Finals-that-never-actually happened, but in the place of retired legends are two of the game’s best leading men - Kawhi Leonard and Isaiah Thomas and a mouth-watering coaching battle between Pop, arguably the greatest basketball coach in history and Brad Stevens, who many regard as the heir to that coaching throne.
From a casual fan’s point of view, a Spurs-Celtics NBA Finals match-up isn’t moving the needle. It might not even register on any scale. Leonard barely talks. Thomas could be seen as a purely novel act. Popovich’s name will ring a bell, but good luck trying to ask a casual fan to pick Stevens from a police lineup. There’s not much to go by here other than the appeal of the Celtics name and the recent run of success the Spurs have had.
But if you’re an NBA purist, this matchup could prove to be understatedly exciting, especially if Popovich and Stevens bring their A-games from the bench. Imagine the game-to-game adjustments these two coaches could make trying to beat each other. Imagine Thomas just going full scoring machine for the duration of the Finals. And imagine the damage Kawhi Leonard could do now that he’s the leading man on a team that’s dripping with championship experience?
Give this potential Finals match-up a shot. This has seven games written all over it.
Washington Wizards vs Los Angeles Clippers
Unlike Spurs-Celtics, this match-up has star power. Lots of it. You have John Wall and Bradley Beal representing the Wizards and Chris Paul and Blake Griffin leading the charge for the Clippers. Both teams are also from tortured franchises in massive TV markets. The “tortured” narrative already writes itself into the equation so you won’t have to worry about people not giving two shits about this match-up. The NBA can also build the storyline around Paul, who is considered the greatest point guard of his generation, but has never made it past the conference semi-finals. Wall could even be shaped as a younger version of Paul, who himself has yet to experience extended success in the playoffs. Having these two point guards headline the NBA Finals gives the series some form of credibility and when you have guys like Beal, Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan all playing big roles in the series, casual fans will pay attention to it.
That said, there is an angle of it being a cheap match-up since both teams have never, at one point in the season, been considered legitimate title contenders. The Wizards started the season disastrously and the Clippers are playing just that these days. If they do end up meeting, circumstances could’ve have happened to the favorites that paved the way for these two to end up in the Finals. That’s going to cheapen the intrigue a little bit, even if it shouldn’t.
Like it or not, a large swath of NBA fans are front-runners. They root for the best teams with the most recognizable players, neither of which can be said for the Wizards or the Clippers.
This one is unlikely to happen, but if it did, expect Chris Paul to finally get his long-overdue championship.
Boston Celtics vs Los Angeles Clippers
Ah, yes. It’s the tried-and-tested Boston vs LA storyline, except that it’s the Clippers representing the West and not the Lakers. On the surface, that narrative is arguably the most intriguing one we can get other than Warriors-Cavs III. Just get passed the ornery ridiculousness of having an LA team in the NBA Finals that isn’t the Lakers and that goes a long way in building up some excitement for this match-up. Plus, there’s also the “Doc Rivers vs Boston Celtics” narrative to look forward to. It won’t even be difficult to convince people to be intrigued enough to watch a CP3 vs IT4 point guard showdown. That in itself is going to be a spectacle, the likes of which we probably haven’t seen since that glorious Allen Iverson - Vince Carter showdown in the 2001 Eastern Conference Semifinals. And let’s not forget the celebrity angle to this match-up. Boston’s celebrities will come in droves, but wouldn’t it be fun to see how many of Hollywood’s best and brightest trade in their Lakers swag for Clippers gear? Imagine Jack Nicholson sitting courtside for this one.
And last but certainly not least, imagine all the glorious flopping that’s going to happen in this series! Put Paul, Thomas, Griffin, Marcus Smart, JJ Redick, and Jae Crowder in a seven-game series for all the marbles and you’re going to get some incredible flops in the course of four to seven games. We might even see the first-ever double flop between Smart and Griffin, who both go down clutching their faces despite standing 20 feet away from each other. Oh, the possibilities…
Toronto Raptors vs Houston Rockets
Ok, this one is a bit difficult to sell other than the whole USA franchise versus Canada franchise, but there is some intrigue here. We just have to dig really deep to find it. The two biggest draws here are James Harden and the whole Raptors franchise becoming the first Canadian team in history to play in the NBA Finals. Add the crazed fan bases of both teams into the mix and you have something to build on from a narrative perspective. Then there’s the whole “Mike D’Antoni Vindication” tour that’s really 10 years overdue. The man’s coaching philosophy of go, go offense has proven to be capable of winning an NBA title. All that’s left is for the architect himself to finally get his ring.
It would also be exciting to see how many threes the Houston Rockets take when it’s playing in the biggest stage possible. The team that prides itself on living and dying by the three-ball will have a chance to redeem every disciple of basketball analytics, a lot of whom are still waiting to get the acknowledgment they think they deserve for basically reinventing the easiest path to succeeding in the NBA.
As for the Raptors, well, it has all of Canada rooting for it.
Milwaukee Bucks vs Oklahoma City Thunder
Very unlikely to happen, but still, picture these scenarios playing out in a seven-game series: one-man fast breaks, quarter-by-quarter highlight-reel plays, all-around dominance, triple doubles, and the undisputed title for best scowl in the NBA.
It’s Giannis Antetokounmpo vs Russell Westbrook, everybody! ‘Nuff said.
Atlanta Hawks vs Houston Rockets
All the reasons mentioned about the Rockets, plus the whole Dwight Howard storyline. That’s two good angles to consider with a Hawks-Rockets NBA Finals series. Sadly, neither of these storylines are whatever else the NBA can squeeze out can compare to what really is the most important question involving an Atlanta versus Houston throwdown: which city has the best strip clubs? If you’ve been to both cities, then, you know what we’re talking about.
Indiana Pacers vs Utah Jazz
Yeah, no one’s watching this. You’d have to draw blood from a stone to find a storyline worth mentioning here. Unless, of course, you’re a family member of George Hill, in which case, the “return-to-Indiana” angle is a straw to grasp at.
Cleveland Cavaliers vs Golden State Warriors III
As appealing as some of those potential NBA Finals match-ups are, let’s all be honest with ourselves. This is the NBA Finals match-up we’re all dying to see.
None of the potential match-ups mentioned above can hold a candle to the buzz, excitement, hostility, and all-around stakes that come with a legitimate grudge match between these two teams. Star-power? Check. Casual fan interest? Check. History and animosity between the two teams? Check. Legacy-shaping consequences? Check.
Go back to however long you’ve been watching the NBA and try to remember an NBA Finals match-up that’s as highly anticipated as this one. Last one we can remember? 1987. Boston Celtics vs Los Angeles Lakers. Larry Bird vs Magic Johnson III.
30 years later, we’re on the cusp of having another trilogy on our hands, and just like that Celtics-Lakers series from ’87, nobody needs to make up any more storylines or narratives for Cavs-Warriors III. It’s already there. All of it.