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Finals Flip: Reversing the outcomes of the 2015 & 2016 NBA Finals

As we wait out the clock on this tortuously long playoff hiatus, let’s look back at the last two NBA Finals and play a game of “what-if.”

NBA: Finals-Cleveland Cavaliers at Golden State Warriors Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Finals are almost here, the hot takes are flying and speculation abounds as we wait out the last of this seemingly never-ending break in playoff action. So I thought I would partake in a bit of speculation myself.

One of the things that frustrates me the most about people who blindly hate the Warriors is how they seem to believe that the team has dominated the league for too long. People say they hate them because they “always win” or because they were “designed to win.”

First of all, this is faulty because the Warriors haven’t been dominating for that long, historically. And they’ve only won one championship. This narrative also presumes that any team with superstar talent is not doing the exact same thing in designing a team around their stars in order to be successful. The Warriors just happened to draft three of them.

Additionally, this will be LeBron James’ seventh consecutive Finals’ appearance since his departure to Miami and subsequent return to Cleveland. The Cavaliers won last year, not the Warriors — that’s a whole lot of winning. Nevertheless, many people seem to be happy to root for James and his team as underdogs against the Warriors. And that’s great. People should root for whoever they want.

It’s the narrative disparity that I find absurd. People seem to be willing to forgo facts to fit their perceptions. But I guess that’s nothing new.

So, what might be different about all of this if the outcomes of the last two NBA Finals were reversed?

In 2015, the Warriors were the darlings of the NBA. They had been a relatively unsuccessful, unlucky and unheard of franchise for decades but, over the previous couple of seasons, had become contenders. They stormed into the playoffs that year with the best record in the NBA. Throughout that time period, people became enthralled with Stephen Curry, enamored by his family and amused by the Warriors’ cast of characters.

Meanwhile, LeBron James had just returned to Cleveland (much to the delight of fans who had previously burned his jersey). With his help, the city of Cleveland had what seemed to be their best shot at winning their first championship of any kind in roughly 50 years.

It was a highpoint for both franchises that lacked a lot of the hostility and bitterness we saw in the 2016 Finals.

So, let’s say that the Cavaliers managed to extend and win that series and bring a championship to Cleveland a year earlier. It would have been a heartwarming tale and the Warriors would likely go home as lovable losers.

This would lead to a 2015-2016 regular season where the Warriors still dominated and broke the win record. At this point, most people still had Warriors’ fever, or Curry fever. The symptoms of which, in my opinion, peaked during the February 27, 2016 game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. This was the game that culminated with Curry drilling a buzzer-beater from half-court in overtime that made everyone lose their minds — including LeBron James himself.

And this is when the saltiness started to brew about the Warriors, with every retired player wanting to weigh in and declare that their team could have beaten them. I’m not sure this changes even if they lost in 2015 — their 2015-16 regular season was just that good.

Some people get talent-fatigued, others will always want to try to take away from greatness and that’s not limited to the Warriors.

I don’t know exactly how much winning in 2015 affected the levels of hatred people came to have for them late last season. But it seemed like the tides changed in the Western Conference Finals.

If the Warriors weren’t defending champions, would people have been so quick to judge Draymond Green as harshly as they did? Sure, part of that stemmed from Green’s style of play and personality, but it seems as though the reaction to the Steven Adams’ incident was heightened because the Thunder were seen as the underdog in that matchup, while the Warriors were seen as a juggernaut.

Mostly, I think whether you find a play to be “dirty” really depends on your perception of the player, not the play itself, so that one could go either way.

After that, let’s say the 2016 Finals go almost exactly the same. Green still gets suspended, injuries still occur. For the sake of the argument, let’s say Kyrie Irving’s shot misses, Curry’s shot goes in and the Warriors win Game 7. What changes (other than our collective sanity for the month of June 2016)?

Well, if Cleveland had already won it in 2015, perhaps there would be more of a thought that, “Yes, this was their time!” But it’s possible that such a huge winning season, and the issues with Green, would have changed people’s minds regardless of the 2015 Championship.

There would likely be less schadenfreude directed at Cleveland for losing in that scenario than the Warriors received because people seem to universally respect LeBron James. Well, reasonable people, I should add. There also wouldn’t be a 3-1 joke on their end, which helps.

The one question mark, though, is do the Warriors get Kevin Durant in free agency if they win in 2016, as opposed to 2015? My gut says yes, but that’s a fair argument to have because who really knows what his deciding motivations were.

I feel like the Warriors would be looking to move on from Harrison Barnes to get Durant, if possible, whether they won or lost. It’s hard to really know what he would have chosen, though, so that’s really up for speculation.

But I think regardless of whether they won or lost in 2016, the hate would have been there this season if the Durant signing still happens. In fact, it would likely be worse if they had won in 2016 and then gone on to sign Durant.

There’s not a huge point I’m trying to make here. I’m mostly pondering how things might be different, and trying to pinpoint the source of the intense hatred many people seem to have for the Warriors.

It seems odd to me that people complain about the Warriors winning too much, but seem to respect and root for LeBron James so easily. Again, nothing wrong with rooting for James. He’s a great player.

And, perhaps it is because he has been a great player for so long, and that people are still doubting Curry as a flash in the pan. Perhaps it is because James more physically resembles a traditionally great player, whereas Curry has always been judged on his size.

I don’t know.

But these are the things I think about when there is a nine-day span between playoff series.

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