No matter what happens in the NBA Finals, which start on Thursday at Oracle Arena, we know the takes will be hot. In sports, there is an urge to extrapolate meaning from games that often come down to the simple question of which team manages to execute better on that particular day, and this urge is multiplied by a million when a championship is on the line. Usually, all the talk about legacy and redemption is overstated.
But let's be real: The result of these Finals will have consequences beyond simply who parties for four or five straight days and who is miserable. The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers knew they were on a collision course, and they made moves with that in mind. This is when we find out how much those moves mattered, and more. Here's what's at stake:
Are the Warriors cohesive enough?
It seems like a silly question because Golden State has been so dominant this season. By just about any measure, Kevin Durant has been a snug fit in coach Steve Kerr's system, scoring a little less than he did with the Oklahoma City Thunder but giving the Warriors a new, ultra-efficient offensive weapon and another top-flight defender. They are better with him.
So far, the story of his chemistry with Stephen Curry has been a happy one. The new guy told Curry to be himself when he thought the back-to-back MVP was deferring too much. There have been brief moments where his tendency to isolate and attack his defender one-on-one has been at odds with Golden State's DNA, but in general the team understands that it's better when everybody is involved and Durant's shots come out of the flow of the offense.
The true test of all this, however, will be how this works against the Cavaliers. You can throw out the Warriors' season-long clutch stats along with their beautiful assist percentage. Just like last year, Cleveland is going to switch as much as possible, try to bully Golden State on the boards and do all it can to take Curry out of his comfort zone. The Cavs are also potentially going to launch more 3-pointers, now that there is more firepower coming off their bench. All that matters is how the Warriors respond.
Will Durant's presence mean that Cleveland can no longer disrupt their flow? Will it mean that they can be baited into giving him the ball and getting out of the way? If that results in more simple pick-and-rolls involving Durant and Curry, would that even be a bad thing? All of these questions will be answered soon enough.
Did the Cavs construct the right kind of roster?
Right after winning the 2016 title, Cleveland general manager David Griffin told ESPN's Zach Lowe, "This team did not fit particularly well for playing Golden State, and that's my fault." In order to come back from a 3-1 deficit last year, the Cavs essentially relied on seven players, with James playing all but 71 seconds in the deciding game. With the season on the line, Tyronn Lue valued versatility above all else, which meant even star Kevin Love saw his minutes and role decrease.
It took an amazing confluence of circumstances for the Warriors to sign Durant and shift the league's balance of power. Since the end of last year, Cleveland has done what elite teams usually do, making minor moves to try to strengthen the team. The Cavs have done their best to give the roster depth, nabbing sharpshooter Kyle Korver in exchange for a first-round pick and adding Deron Williams when the veteran was waived by the Dallas Mavericks. They tried to get another rim protector, too, but Andrew Bogut got hurt seconds into his Cleveland debut and the Larry Sanders experiment didn't work out.
Were the Cavs correct to go after guys like Korver and Williams? Both have been key cogs in their 12-1 playoff run, and their second unit is even more difficult to defend than it was last year. LeBron James has never been surrounded by more shooting, his Miami Heat days included. There is an argument, however, that Cleveland didn't address its bigger issue: it needed younger, more athletic and defensive-minded players, especially when going up against Golden State.
One of the unknowns heading into the Finals is how Lue will manage his rotation. Will he give sweet-shooting big man Channing Frye DNP-CDs again or will he go the Houston Rockets' route, attempting to make up for defensive deficiencies by bombing away from downtown? The battle of the bench is fascinating for this reason, and Griffin's dealmaking will ultimately judged by what transpires on the game's biggest stage.
What happens with Iguodala this summer?
Andre Iguodala won Finals MVP two years ago thanks to tireless defense against James and timely shot-making. The Cavs tend to leave him open on the perimeter, and he can swing games with his playmaking and shooting. Can Iguodala be a hero again? This is particularly important because of his contract situation. He will be a free agent this summer, and the 33-year-old has every right to expect to be rewarded for his three years of being arguably the best reserve in the NBA.
Iguodala played just 10 minutes in Game 1 of the conference finals and missed Game 2 because of knee soreness. In the playoffs, he is shooting just 3-for-27 (11.1 percent) from 3-point range. He said he feels good, but it's hard to forget how much worse the Warriors looked when he played through a back injury in the last couple of games of the 2016 Finals.
If Iguodala is healthy, shoots well and makes things difficult for James, then how could Golden State not give him a significant raise? There will certainly be other suitors, but he has been a crucial part of its core. If he struggles, what happens to his market value? The Warriors could be playing a dangerous game if they try to lowball him.
What kind of player is Irving, really?
In a way, this question is unfair. Cleveland wouldn't have won a title without Kyrie Irving's incredible scoring exploits -- when the buzzer sounded in Game 7, his 3-pointer over Curry immediately became one of the biggest shots in NBA history. Even his harshest critics should have long ago acknowledged that he raises his game in the playoffs, and his one-on-one scoring becomes more valuable against the league's best defenses. When he catches fire, as he did when he scored 42 points in Game 4 against the Boston Celtics, last week, there's not much any opponent can do about it.
I see this, however, as an opportunity for Irving to show that he has improved as an all-around player. His passing and defense are going to be more necessary than ever against Golden State, and these are the areas in which he has taken the most criticism. It's obvious now that he's special as a shot creator, but James isn't shy about calling Irving a future franchise player and MVP candidate. Let's see it.
Is the Warriors' center rotation good enough?
Golden State could not possibly have asked for more from Zaza Pachulia, JaVale McGee and David West. All three bring different skill sets, and together they have given the Warriors fine minutes at center when they are not using the Death Lineup. Of the three, Pachulia is the best screener, McGee is the best finisher and West is the best midrange shooter and high-post passer. Cleveland would be unwise to ignore them when they're on the court.
Many moons ago, though, there were doubts about whether or not Golden State had enough in the frontcourt. While Bogut and Festus Ezeli were not healthy in the Finals last year, at their best they were major parts of the program. The Warriors have less size at the position now, and there are those who think the Cavs will be able to render McGee unplayable by putting him in pick-and-rolls and making him guard stretch big men. Golden State must be thrilled with how these three have performed over the course of the season, but it's now all about this one matchup. The relentless Tristan Thompson could be a problem.