The 2017 NBA Finals Reputations Index: Which legacies are on the line?

We’re here. As the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors look to settle their Finals rubber match, there are now only two possible outcomes for the 2016-17 NBA season. Yet, the ripple effect through those two rosters will have untold consequences for years to come depending on the result.

LeBron James is chasing Michael JordanKevin Durant is seeking affirmation, and that’s merely the table-setting. So, Ball Don’t Lie is here to weigh the legacies hanging in the balance. Consider this a Choose Your Own Adventure, only with the reputations of superstars, journeymen, coaches, owners, dynasties and even the league itself at stake, depending on the winners and losers of this series. 

IF THE WARRIORS WIN THE 2017 NBA CHAMPIONSHIP, from the imagination of Eric Freeman.

Klay Thompson sure would like to meet Larry O’Brien again. (AP)

For Kevin Durant, championships are not created equal.

A superstar’s first title is often a momentous occasion that confers upon him a special status afforded to all but a few players in NBA history. For Durant, though, the significance of a championship would be a matter of substantial debate. The circumstances of his first season with Golden State are unique.

When KD joined the Warriors last summer, it seemed all but assured he would win a ring in 2017. The conventional wisdom said that he took the path of least resistance — that Golden State was so clearly better than its closest rivals to prove anything about its superiority. The greatest team of all time has to be dominant, but the most memorable has to wed that excellence to an outstanding performance against a worthy opponent. If the Warriors defeat the Cavs too easily, then they’re likely to live on more as a history book entry than as a model future legends try to emulate. Durant could well learn that all championships are not created equal, even if he averages 30 points per game and takes home the MVP trophy. Legacies aren’t created by an accumulation of accolades — they depend on narratives.

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There is one clear path through which Durant can win back the adoration of the masses. The Cavaliers are likely to focus on stopping Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, which means KD could have the opportunity to put up big numbers in this series. If it goes to six or seven games and develops into a one-on-one battle between Durant and LeBron James (with both guarding each other increasingly often), then the Warriors wing superstar can vault back to a level above his teammates. But Durant can’t just be the best player in the series — he has to take on the importance of a bona fide legend.

Like many Warriors, the issue for Durant’s legacy isn’t only the difference between winning and losing this series. Losing would be important, of course, but merely coming out victorious isn’t enough to solve his every problem. The more difficult the series gets, the better chance he has to win fans back.

LeBron James falls out of G.O.A.T. consideration … for now.

What LeBron accomplished against the Warriors last June will be remembered as one of the greatest individual performances in Finals history. What remains to be seen is if it stands alone as his greatest achievement or becomes the moment he challenged Michael Jordan as the Greatest of All Time.

A loss would pretty clearly make it the former, if only for one year. No matter the Warriors’ favorite status, LeBron won’t be Michael if he doesn’t prove he can beat them again. Their strength relative to the teams Jordan beat is beside the point. In 2017, Michael Jordan is less a basketball player with an observable career than he is an idea. To be the best, James has to beat the best teams.

Jordan’s legacy has created barriers that defy reasonable comparison. LeBron could argue against these points, but he seems willing to play the game. Beating it can lead to rewards too great to ignore.

Stephen Curry can claim his signature playoff moment.

It’s now accepted that Curry’s 2016-17 season was a good one that would rank as career-best and MVP-caliber for anyone who hadn’t made 400 3-pointers in his previous campaign. After early indications that Curry was in the midst of a down year, his reputation has mostly stabilized. The disappointment of last June’s loss to the Cavs and his inability to score on Kevin Love late in Game 7 still looms over him, but Curry is a no-doubt superstar with major international popularity and a firm case as the best shooter in NBA history. No one can seriously argue he’s not a perennial All-NBA First Team candidate.

Most players would feel fortunate to be in that position, but for Curry it’s a step back from where he was a year ago. That’s a credit to his incredible 2015-16 campaign, when he was the first unanimous MVP in league history and spoken of as a revolutionary offensive force bound to transform the sport in his image. Curry isn’t especially not those things now, but the fervor over his ability has certainly subsided. His legacy is both more secure and less prominent — at just 29 years old, he seems like the kind of player who could win three more titles and still not change his status as a no-doubt Hall of Famer who sits a level or two below that of the LeBrons, Jordans, and other basketball gods.

Curry can reopen that discussion with a Finals MVP performance that includes a few games of unassailable brilliance. When Curry’s at his best, he plays with a joy and freedom that defies the supposed gravity of this series. While his past two series against the Cavaliers haven’t been terrible, they have lacked those soaring moments. The best players define championships instead of winning them, and that will be the challenge for Curry as he enters his third Finals.

Stephen Curry’s shot at playoff redemption is *this* big, and Draymond Green looks to raise the roof on his Finals ceiling. (AP)

Draymond Green searches for redemption.

Our Dan Devine already covered Green’s chance to repay his debts, and that piece remains a better exploration of what’s at stake for Golden State’s heartbeat than what I’ll reiterate here. Nevertheless, Green’s story deserves another airing, because he’s the key figure for the Warriors in this series.

Green accepted a significant portion of the blame for last June’s collapse, and many would have assigned it to him anyway after his Game 5 suspension. This is one case where the scapegoating made a fair amount of sense. Draymond has consistently been the Cavs’ toughest matchup over a seven-game series — when he plays well, the Warriors almost always win. His versatility and playmaking present problems Cleveland cannot easily solve without pantheon-level play from LeBron and Kyrie.

This series is Green’s opportunity to prove that making such a meaningful impact is his normal, and that his kicking escapades of 2016 were the outlier. If he succeeds, he could end up with a Finals MVP trophy and new status as one of the players who helped define the playing style of an entire era.

Mike Brown opens a closed door.

Mike Brown is in both an unenviable and truly fortunate position. Steve Kerr’s ongoing struggle with pain and headaches has thrust Brown into the role of Warriors’ acting head coach. As such, he has held the responsibility of steering the greatest collection of in-prime talent ever assembled to a championship everyone already expects of them. That’s a fair amount of pressure, especially for a coach who has never really impressed much on the league’s biggest stages. Brown hasn’t lost yet with the Warriors in these playoffs, but LeBron and the Cavs present a new challenge. Can he meet it?

If he doesn’t screw up, then Brown can at least open up the possibility of nabbing another head coaching job. Yes, it’s fair to say that teams will grade his title on a curve, especially considering that Kerr is helping with game-planning and addressed the Warriors at halftime several times during the Western Conference finals. But any coach who has a hand in such overwhelming success is bound to get a look, and that’s probably more than Brown could have hoped for in early April.

Joe Lacob moves the Warriors farther ahead.

Warriors owner Joe Lacob has received plenty of mockery for claiming his team was “light years ahead” of the competition, only to watch as Golden State blew a 3-1 lead in the Finals. After adding Durant last summer, this season has always held the potential to prove him right. The argument against the Warriors’ wealth of talent has been that they can win too easily, but that only jibes with Lacob’s belief that they have no real peers.

Dispatching the Cavs in four or five games with Kerr not on the bench would only drive home the point. It would be the clearest evidence yet that Lacob has built not just a great basketball team, but an organization that can dominate the competition with minimal interference.

The only saving grace for Warriors doubters is that he’d certainly celebrate by saying something equally smug and open to ridicule.

The 2016 Cavaliers add to their legend.

The most peculiar thing about this series is that the Cavs’ accomplishment last June can become more impressive even if the same group of players is obliterated in this series. A comfortable Warriors win would set up a potential dynasty and establish Golden State as the best team of this era, creating an air of invincibility around them.

Of course, the Warriors aren’t invincible, because the Cavs came back from a 3-1 deficit to beat them last June. And that accomplishment alone has the potential to become even more of an outlier — more of an incredible, career-defining accomplishment — if the Warriors look like one of the greatest teams of all time this series. The 2016 Cavaliers will be forever remembered as giant killers. The 2017 Warriors will just have championship rings.

IF THE CAVALIERS WIN THE 2017 NBA CHAMPIONSHIP, from the imagination of Ben Rohrbach.

The 2017 NBA Finals will once again decide whether J.R. Smith wears a shirt for the rest of June. (AP)

Michael Jordan’s G.O.A.T. status is in serious jeopardy.

LeBron’s 2016 Finals MVP performance changed the course of an already accomplished career, unlocking the entrance to a penthouse previously reserved only for Jordan. Gone was the argument that James needed the other talents in South Beach to reach the NBA’s promised land, and in its place was the indisputable fact that LeBron almost singlehandedly willed the Cavs back from a 3-1 deficit to defeat the greatest regular-season team in NBA history and end his city’s 52-year title drought.

That alone was enough to wonder if Jordan might ever relinquish the Greatest of All Time status he’s held since a shot over Byron Russell secured his sixth title almost 20 years ago. But if LeBron knocks off a 73-win team that somehow added Durant, we now have to entertain the idea that his body of work will at least someday be enough to unseat MJ on the G.O.A.T throne — six rings be damned.

James has already eclipsed almost every one of Jordan’s individual statistical playoff marks, including the playoff scoring record, and at some point we must consider whether four Finals appearances and two titles with two different teams could ever add up to Jordan’s six. If another win over the Warriors isn’t enough to warrant that consideration, it seems nothing beyond several more titles ever will be.

And that seems silly, especially as James, only 32 years old and showing no signs of slowing down, continues to peel off every other imaginary ring surrounding the celestial stature bestowed to Jordan.

There’s gas on the Kyrie Irving > Stephen Curry fire.

While Curry’s theatrics on his way to consecutive MVP trophies made him a global superstar, the remarkable ball-handling and shotmaking ability of another point guard went largely overshadowed, not only by Golden State’s wunderkind, but by LeBron’s stranglehold on this Cleveland team’s legacy.

Some of that changed when Irving made his series-clinching 3-pointer over Curry in the final moments of Game 7 last June, but any discussion about how Irving outplayed his Warriors counterpart in the 2016 Finals was easily dismissed with the knowledge that Curry was hampered by a knee injury.

But, if Irving outplays Curry again on his way to another title, we at least have to acknowledge the former has the latter’s playoff number. The knock against both has always been their defense, and Durant’s arrival makes hiding Irving on any Warrior that much more difficult. Consequently, Irving will draw Curry as an assignment even more in these Finals. Should Irving now outplay Curry offensively and slow him defensively, we’ll have to talk about the Cavs star having more than just Curry’s number.

Kevin Love picks up a few more Hall of Fame ballots.

Entering the Finals, Basketball Reference pins Love’s Hall of Fame Probability at 42.8 percent, squarely between Joe Johnson (50.6 percent) and Rajon Rondo (38.8 percent). Beyond Johnson — a seven-time All-Star who ranks ninth all time in 3-point field goals — the next-lowest HOF Probability among active players is the 92.3 percent likelihood MVP candidate James Harden makes it to Springfield one day. In other words, by this basic measure, there isn’t much separating Love from basketball immortality.

We’ve already covered Love’s evolution since locking down Curry to secure Game 7 last June, but another title would take that transformation well beyond the reputation he held in Minnesota as a 25-year-old three-time All-Star who couldn’t lead the Timberwolves to the playoffs in six seasons.

Before the end of Game 7, Love wasn’t much of a factor in Cleveland’s run to the 2016 title, but to repeat will no doubt require a monster effort from the power forward. That’s the sort of thing that can stick in a Hall of Fame voter’s mind, because at age 28 he would have a resume that’s kept few from induction. The list of players not in Springfield with at least four All-Star bids and two rings consists only of Bill Laimbeer, Bobby Dandridge and Willie Naulls — all borderline HOFers themselves. Love still won’t be a Hall lock if he wins again, by any means, but the odds will be better than 50-50.

This picture might not seem so awkward when they both have a pair of championship rings. (AP)

Tyronn Lue might deserve more credit than we’re giving him.

We joke about how LeBron calls the shots in Cleveland and Lue merely fills a necessary suit on the bench, but it’ll be impossible to argue the coach’s credentials if his first two seasons at the helm end in a seven-game Finals upset of the 73-win Warriors and the giant-slaying of that team with Durant.

If we are to hold Mike Brown partially responsible for losing a series in which his Warriors are so heavily favored — and we undoubtedly would — we must also give Lue his due if he orchestrates another shocker. And forget strategic moves like benching Love in favor of a 35-year-old Richard Jefferson in last year’s Finals; just ask David Blatt how difficult it is to manage the egos in Cleveland.

Whatever the adjustments — and it will require many if the Cavs hope to challenge Golden State this time around — we’ll have to recognize Lue as arguably the game’s brightest young tactician and certainly its most underrated. A month past his 40th birthday, he would be the youngest coach to win two titles since Bill Russell won back-to-back rings as a player-coach for the Celtics in the late 1960s. (Pat Riley was only slightly older when he won his first two of four titles with the Los Angeles Lakers.)

The NBA’s parity problem is tabled for another day.

These NBA Playoffs, to this point, have been predictable, with the exception of a seven-game series in each conference that did nothing to threaten our perception of the imbalance on either side of the bracket. Save for the outlier of Marcus Smart’s 3-point barrage in Boston’s Game 3 win over the Cavs in the East finals, Cleveland and Golden State swept through their slates. So, we’ve now spent a week talking ourselves into the Finals as the saving grace of an otherwise disparate competitive landscape.

Given the Warriors’ depth of talent, it seems unlikely the Cavs can win in anything but a long series — the excitement of which might be enough to leave the lasting impression that the 2017 playoffs weren’t so bad. NBA commissioner Adam Silver suggested the league’s lack of parity has a way of balancing itself out over the years, but a Draymond swipe at LeBron’s groin in Game 4 of last year’s Finals might be the only reason we’re not wrapping up Year 3 of Golden State’s autocratic reign.

After a salary cap spike allowed the Warriors to pair Durant with Curry on a team that now features four of the NBA’s top 20 players, only LeBron’s brilliance stands in the way of a short series that will undoubtedly raise serious questions about the league’s lopsidedness, despite a wildly entertaining regular season. Should Cleveland win again, we can take comfort knowing there’s balance at the top.

Put an asterisk next to the winners of the previous three MVPs.

It’s hard to believe James, whose legacy we’re currently comparing to Jordan’s, will not win the league’s MVP honor for four years running in the prime of his career. LeBron was 28 years old when he last won the award on the Miami Heat in 2012-13. This year might have been the most impressive statistical season of his career, and yet he was left off the list of three finalists for the 2017 MVP race.

Durant and Curry weren’t on the list, either, if only because their value is somewhat diminished as teammates, but as individuals they kept James from the previous three MVPs. Just as voters tired of Jordan winning the award in the 1990s, it seems we’ve undervalued LeBron’s impact this decade.

And just as Jordan made the regular-season honor seem superfluous by eliminating Charles Barkley and Karl Malone in the Finals after their respective 1993 and 1997 MVP campaigns, James can make the trophies belonging to Durant and Curry look doubly ridiculous by toppling them both as a tandem. As brilliant as Curry was in 2015-16, his unanimous MVP became somewhat of a punchline after his team blew a 3-1 Finals lead, so you can only imagine the reaction if the reloaded Warriors can’t get it done.

The lives of many NBA journeymen are changed forever.

With the spotlight on the superstars in this series, and there are many, we forget to recognize the role players lurking in the shadows. Cleveland now features two — 36-year-old Kyle Korver and 32-year-old Deron Williams — who have never sniffed a Finals, despite six All-Star appearances and 26 years of NBA service between them. Playing with LeBron offers untold opportunities, not the least of which is a shot at that championship ring so many players spend their entire careers chasing to no avail.

Jefferson knows that feeling all too well, having retired upon finally winning a title in his 15th season, only to un-retire weeks later for the chance to taste that glory all over again. Let’s not forget J.R. Smith, once the literal butt of NBA jokes, will be a two-time champ if the Cavs win again. And James Jones? He’d have four rings to go along with his seven straight Finals appearances, all thanks to James.

On the flip side, you never know when you’ll ever get this shot again, so this could be the final run at that elusive ring for Warriors vets David West, Matt Barnes, Zaza Pachulia and JaVale McGee — all of whom are also making their first Finals appearances and are unrestricted free agents at season’s end.

Any of the four may be expendable, since Golden State’s salary cap only gets more complicated from here on out, with both Curry and Durant likely commanding max contracts this summer. West, in particular, might be the most bummed after leaving millions on the table to go ring-chasing on veteran minimum contracts with the San Antonio Spurs and Warriors the past two seasons.

This is the beauty of the NBA Finals. From LeBron James to JaVale McGee, all their lives are forever changed in a fortnight. Now, let’s get to the games, because we’ve left enough to our imagination.

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