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The nut-punch felt across the NBA

When LeBron James successfully lured Draymond Green into throwing a punch to his private region in Game 4 of the 2016 NBA Finals, it was James who delivered a much more devastating blow to the rest of the league. Yes, it was the crotch shot that brought Kevin Durant to the Bay.

NBA: Finals-Golden State Warriors at Cleveland Cavaliers
The aftermath of the fracas LeBron James started by attempting to step over Draymond Green in Game 4 of the 2016 Finals.
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

For anyone talking about how the Warriors ruined basketball by signing Kevin Durant and forming the greatest team in NBA history, consider that LeBron James bears a good deal of responsibility for the current state of affairs. Golden State is set to dominate the league for the foreseeable future as karma comes back to bite King James.

How did everything fall into place for the Warriors?

Let’s go back to Game 4 of the NBA Finals in 2016, a game that the Warriors won to take the now infamous 3-1 series lead that would soon be squandered. In the fourth quarter, James intentionally and antagonistically attempted to step over Draymond Green during play, inciting Green to lash out at James with a fist to the scrotum, in retaliation.

Officials likely didn’t see the faint contact that Green made with James’ private region and, thus, called nothing on the play.

But after the game, James was quick to complain about Green’s reaction to James’ insulting behavior but also implicitly challenged the league to take disciplinary action against Green. In a controversial decision, the league retroactively assessed Green a flagrant foul, his third of the playoffs, and suspended Green for Game 5.

For what it’s worth, James was retroactively assessed a technical foul for his unsportsmanlike behavior that led to the incident.

We all know what happened from there.

While Green attended the Oakland A’s game next door, the Warriors lost not only Game 5 but also their starting center, Andrew Bogut, to injury. The Warriors improbably lost the next two games to lose the series.

Many analysts acknowledge that the Warriors likely would have won Game 5 and, thus, the title, had Green not been suspended. Instead, an impressive display of power and finesse from James and Kyrie Irving, respectively, led to the first Cleveland title in any sport in something like forever.

James was willing to pull out all the stops to get the title he so desperately wanted for Cleveland. It was clever and it served him well in the short-run. But the 2016 Finals turned out to be an Obi-Wan Kenobi situation. By striking the Warriors down in that series, LeBron James made the Warriors more powerful than he could possibly imagine.

Durant learned it by watching James

Only by missing out on the 2016 title would the Warriors be able to lure Kevin Durant to Golden State. Durant confirmed that he wouldn’t have joined the Warriors had they won the 2016 title. Instead, James’ MVP performance in the Finals, while suckering Green into a suspension, opened the door to the unfathomable. It was the nut-punch felt across the entire NBA.

Perhaps unfathomable isn’t the appropriate word, as the NBA had seen players leave in free agency before to form “superteams.” In fact, James, himself, started the trend of superstars taking their talents to other teams in free agency in order to play with other stars.

While James incredulously denied this week that he had ever played on a superteam, James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh indeed agreed to take less money than they could otherwise get on the market to join forces in Miami in 2010. While Wade had already won a title with Miami in 2006, these three All-Stars subsequently won not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven ... but two titles before James returned to Cleveland to form another superteam.

Kevin Durant recently credited James for making it acceptable for players to sign with new teams that make them most happy. For better or worse, James started the trend and was among the first to benefit from it. James paved the way for Durant.

The players union gave the Warriors the cap room to sign Durant

James’ contributions to Durant’s signing don’t end with sponsoring the superteam trend. The Warriors needed an assist to save the boat load of salary cap space required to sign a star as huge as Durant.

The salary cap spike from new television deals for the 2016-17 season provided a large enough boost for the Warriors to sign Durant without making substantial sacrifices, but the league strongly suggested to the players that the cap be “smoothed” to avoid such a one-time jump in the cap. With a smoothed salary cap, the Warriors likely would have been forced to part with key players, like Andre Iguodala, in order to have enough cap space to sign Durant.

While league executives thought cap smoothing was appropriate and best for the league, the National Basketball Players Association opted for the flood of cap space (and money) all at once. LeBron James and his banana-boat friends are among the members of the NBPA Board, along with Stephen Curry, and Iguodala. The Board’s decision, knowingly or not, ended up giving Golden State the cap space it needed to bring Durant to the Bay.

I’m glad everyone agreed to help the Warriors (and, yes, many players throughout the league, for sure) out that way! The NBPA decided that the immediate financial interests of the players was more important than parity among teams, which is a perfectly reasonable conclusion. But let’s not forget that the players — with James in a leadership role — made this choice and must be willing to accept the outcome.

The bottom line

This all leads to so many questions. Had James never attempted to step over Green, would the Warriors have won the 2016 title? Where would Durant have signed in the summer of 2016 had James not paved the way in creating superteams? Had he known that Durant was interested in signing with Golden State, would James have pushed for cap smoothing?

The bottom line is that James and the Cavs unwittingly exchanged a title in 2016 for the Warriors’ domination in 2017 and beyond.

Already tops in the league in payroll by a mile, it’s hard to see how Cleveland will compete with Golden State until one or more of the Warriors’ stars leave. And every player on the Warriors seems to be having too much fun to leave without an incredible incentive.

As Durant, Iguodala, hopefully Shaun Livingston and, especially, Stephen Curry sign contracts to stay with Golden State next month, the rest of the league will be shaking their heads and wondering whether and how the Warriors can be stopped anytime soon.

Just as the ill-timed flap of a butterfly’s wings can bring about a hurricane across the world, one little nut-punch can unhinge the competitive balance of the NBA for years to come.

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