The conference finals are underway, and so far they have been as anticlimactic as expected. The Warriors and Cavaliers are destroying the competition and seem on a collision course to meet in the NBA Finals for the third time in a row.
Whether that dominance is good for the league is an interesting question and one that will be discussed at length if indeed the two fight for the title for the third straight year. But there’s another, more practical question to ponder as well. Will the Warriors’ and Cavaliers’ present and future dominance affect the decision of free agents?
This level of domination of both conferences is not normal
There’s little precedent for two dominant teams, each owning a conference for a long stretch. When the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers of the late 1990s and early 2000s, respectively, were on their way to three-peats, their opponents in the NBA Finals changed. At least one conference seemed to be up for grabs. Even in the ’80s, a decade that the Celtics and Lakers owned, they never faced each other three consecutive times in the Finals. We haven’t seen this type of potential imbalance in the modern NBA.
Three straight Finals seems like an arbitrary number, and to an extent it is. If one of the two powers were in decline, this era wouldn’t be all that much different than others. What makes the Cavs-Warriors supremacy even scarier, though, is that it should continue.
Both teams have stars in their primes. LeBron James is the oldest of all combined seven All-Stars, but he’s an athletic freak who should age well. The Cavs also have the youngest star, Kyrie Irving, who should start to peak as James starts to fade. The Warriors, meanwhile, have everyone in the same age group and should be elite for the next four to five years. There are some concerns regarding contracts and the salary cap, but ownership on both franchises seems willing to spend to keep the cores together.
There’s a very real chance that the Warriors and Cavaliers not only will face each other in this year’s Finals but also in the next two or three as well, unless something big changes.
If a title is out of the question, money and comfort might matter more than ever to free agents
Free agents always seem to value the chance to contend as one of the major factors in their decisions. If that doesn’t seem to be in the cards for a while because of the Cavs and the Warriors, they will likely focus on the other key aspects: money and comfort.
Let’s go into practical examples. Kyle Lowry is entering free agency, looking for one last big payday. The Toronto Raptors probably want him back, but will try to re-sign him at a discount. To do that, they will remind him of the significant success they’ve had in his time there. But it’s become clear that Toronto isn’t on the same level as Cleveland, no matter how many regular-season wins they rack up. Because of that, if a lesser team offers Lowry more money, he might take it. He knows he’s not going to the Finals anyway, so why not cash out.
Someone like Gordon Hayward might decide to stay put instead of changing teams, for the same reason. He won’t be eligible to get the designated veteran player extension after failing to make an All-NBA team. That should make him more likely to leave the Utah Jazz. But are there any teams out there that can pay him and offer a better chance of success? The Boston Celtics come to mind, and they would surely be more competitive with him around. But even if they sign him they would likely need another piece to overcome the Cavaliers. Since they instead seem committed to their youth movement, why not get the extra money Utah can offer if a championship is just as likely there?
The belief that a title is out of the question right now is also the only thing that makes those Paul George to the Lakers rumors not as crazy as they sound. George won’t likely be eligible for the designated player exception the summer after this one when he enters free agency. He could still make more money — and the playoffs — in Indiana, but he’s reportedly always dreamed of being Kobe Bryant’s successor. He’s probably thinking that if his options are either having middling success somewhere he doesn’t want to be or having middling success with his preferred franchise, he’ll take the latter.
Players’ competitive spirit might bring more balance, but it won’t be easy
Fortunately for the league, players are typically too competitive to truly admit defeat and punt a couple of years. Some — including those mentioned above — might not be content with watching from the sidelines as Cleveland and Golden State dominate. They might choose to team up instead, which could shift the balance of power in the league.
The problem is that it’s never been easy to create the circumstances necessary to add and accommodate multiple elite players. Now that the cap is not expected to spike anymore, it’s even harder. It would likely take a couple of years to orchestrate things. The exception might be the Celtics, who could add a premier free agent and have the assets to potentially trade for another. Yet, as mentioned, they seem more interested in building for the post-LeBron era than they are in challenging him now.
Still, the NBA needs the second-tier teams to get reinforcements. Even if they don’t add enough talent to beat the incumbents in either conference, there needs to be at least some suspense about who makes the Finals.
That’s only going to happen if the players’ competitive spirit overwrites their common sense and convinces them that they are someone’s missing piece, even though no team seems only a star away from beating the league’s two juggernauts. For the sake of fun, let’s hope it does.