OAKLAND, Calif. — The Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers are the toast of the NBA. There is really no debating that.
The tale of the tape features the last two NBA champions, seven of the league’s last eight MVPs and seven potential Hall of Famers. The Cavs have the association’s highest payroll and the Dubs might very well have the greatest roster ever assembled in professional basketball.
But even with all of this said, are the Warriors and Cavaliers the best rivalry in the NBA today? Are they the only rivalry? Hell, are they even a rivalry to begin with?
Let’s look at some key components that make for a historically great rivalry and assess if the Golden State-Cleveland matchup holds any water.
What do the players think?
Fans often have a different perception of opposing players and teams than the players themselves do. Rivalries on paper do not always translate to the court.
For instance, LeBron James downplayed the notion that the Warriors are his rival.
“I don't think we have a rival in our game today,” James said after their final practice before meeting the Warriors on Monday. “We’ve had two great Finals appearances the last two years, but I had the same with San Antonio when I was in Miami. We weren't rivals. And I think I played those guys more, so I wouldn't look at it as rivals.”
When I first heard these comments I thought it was typical LeBron holding himself to a higher standard. As if the Warriors were not capable of possibly being his equal counterpart.
But LeBron clarified his comments after the Cavaliers 35-point loss on Monday night.
“I don’t believe I’ve ever had a rivalry in the NBA; it’s just that too many guys move and go places and change different locations. It’s totally different from the 80’s when obviously we saw the Celtics and the Lakers go at it so much and I don’t look at it as a rivalry.”
James makes a fantastic point. Thanks to the increase in league revenue and free agency, more and more players are switching teams to either land a big pay day or better their chances of winning an NBA title.
This certainly shortens the window that teams have to create enough history between each other that is often seen in blood-boiling rivalries. For example, Kevin Durant’s move to Golden State completely demolished the foundation of the budding rivalry between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Warriors.
Regardless, the “I don’t have a rival because I change teams every couple of years” argument is pretty lame. I’m not so quick to buy into the King of Spin’s non-rivalry narrative.
Plus, newly-acquired Kyle Korver has only been on the Cavs’ team for a couple of weeks and he is already picking up on the rivalry vibes.
“It's a rivalry, it feels like,” Korver told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin. “I don't know how many of them there are in the NBA right now, but this feels like it’s at the top.”
But what about the Warriors? Do they think of the Cavs as their rival? Of course they do.
Draymond Green gave us his thought’s after the Warriors’ MLK showdown against the Cavs.
“Yeah, I think it’s a rivalry. It’s just me though,” said Green. “A team that you beat, that beat you, it’s definitely fun. If you look at the last two years and this year, we’ve been the top two teams in the league. I look at it as a rivalry and it’s definitely fun getting to play them but I don’t really care if anyone else sees the game the way I see it.”
It’s hard to dismiss LeBron’s comments. Actually, no it’s not. James also said that he is a football player after last night’s game, the same game in which he blatantly flopped to ensure that Draymond Green received a technical foul after a mid-court collision.
One thing the Warriors-Cavaliers’ rivalry doesn’t have is geographic proximity. It is exactly 2,456 miles from Oracle Arena in Oakland, California to Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.
It’s not your prototypical Boston-New York or San Francisco-Los Angeles contention.
But one factor that made the Los Angeles Lakers-Boston Celtics’ rivalry in the 80’s so great was their lack of geographic proximity. It pitted two coasts against each other in a classic battle of East vs. West.
I’m sure fans who reside in the cold and dreary plains of Ohio have their own views on the smug elitists who make up the Bay Area, just as fans living in California likely hold “special views” of Cleveland fans. But this is just another layer of the rivalry.
History of (passive) aggression
The Golden State-Cleveland rivalry has not featured much aggression. Both teams feature some of the most skilled players in the world to which neither team has been forced to result to physical bush-league tactics.
It should be noted that aggression played a huge role in the short lived Warriors- Clippers’ rivalry.
However, it’s the passive-aggressive manner in which Cleveland and Golden State operate that often adds fuel to the fire.
Draymond Green notably said that the Cavs suck at the Warriors’ championship parade in 2015. The Twittersphere blew up when Steph Curry said that he hoped the Cavs’ visiting locker room still smelled like champagne before their first trip back to Cleveland since winning their first title.
During the 2016 NBA Finals, LeBron James baited Draymond Green by disrespectfully stepping over him in Game 4, which led Green to swipe at James.
Although no foul was called, the league retroactively issued Green a flagrant foul for his role in the scuffle, which led him to be suspended for Game 5 of the NBA Finals. Multiple reports detailed both LeBron’s and the Cavaliers’ efforts to get Green suspended.
Then came LeBron’s petty Halloween party, which featured mock Warriors’ dummies and tombstones with “3-1” references on them. Now, of course, he says it’s “water under the bridge.”
We finally saw some sort aggression last night, when the usual suspects of Draymond Green and LeBron James collided at mid-court. What should have been a normal foul on Green was turned into a flagrant one due to LeBron’s flop.
It’s hard to blame James for his tactics. He catered to the refs and got what he was looking for. It worked for him in Game 4 of the Finals in 2016 and 2017 doesn’t look to be any different.
Historically big games
The most important factor in any perceived rivalry is the importance of the games that are played between the two teams.
Circling back to the Warriors-Clippers’ rivalry, it had passion and emotion but lacked big-time, meaningful games outside of an exciting seven-game first-round playoff series.
The Warriors-Cavaliers’ matchup, however, is a completely different monster in its own right. The fact that the teams only get to play one another twice in an entire season creates an enormous amount of build up for each game.
To make things even sweeter, the only way these teams could possibly meet again is on basketball’s biggest stage — the NBA Finals.
Golden State and Cleveland have met in the league’s championship series in each of the last two seasons. The Warriors ended their 40-year championship drought in 2015 and the Cavs ended their 52-year title-less run in 2016.
The Warriors famously blew a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals after finishing one of the greatest single seasons in NBA history.
The 2016 NBA Finals was the most watched Finals in nearly 20 years.
The GSW-CLE rematch on Christmas Day had the highest ratings in 12 years for that individual game’s time slot.
So, are the Warriors and Cavaliers actually a rivalry?
The answer is a resounding YES. It is obvious that both teams respect each other but even more obvious that they really, really don’t like losing to one another.
Both teams are on a crash course to meet in the NBA Finals for a third straight season, which by my research has never happened before in the history of the NBA.
This is not only the best rivalry in basketball, but currently the best rivalry in all of professional American sports. And depending how this season comes to an end, it has the ability to become the best rivalry in the history of American sports all together.