Warriors and Cavaliers are crafting their legacies in 2017 NBA Finals

FILE - At left, in an April 20, 2017, file photo, Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James smiles after hitting a basket against the Indiana Pacers during the second half of Game 3 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series, in Indianapolis. At right, in a Feb. 27, 2017, file photo, Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant looks on during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Philadelphia 76ers, in Philadelphia. Kevin Durant looks at LeBron James from afar and marvels at how the Cavs main man keeps finding a way to take his game to another level, year after year. (AP Photo/File)
AP Photo/File

Statisticians estimate that in the time between the end of the conference playoffs and the start of the 2017 NBA Finals, the world’s population will have doubled.

During this interminable wait, people naturally find ways to fill the time. Maybe you’ve taken up a new hobby, whittled down your growing DVR library of saved shows, spent additional time with loved ones, or banked extra hours of sleep in preparation for the upcoming 9:00 EST start times.

When Cavaliers-Warriors III finally begins Thursday, not only should it provide some exciting and competitive basketball (something largely absent from this year’s playoffs), but also plenty of storylines which will affect how we talk about the key figures involved decades from now. Fair or not, legacies are going to be forever altered by what happens over the coming weeks. Let’s examine exactly how.

Kevin Durant The big-name newcomer to the trilogy, Durant has the most to gain of anyone involved in this year’s Finals. He’s the only major player entering the series without a ring, and as history has proven, whether or not you’ve won a championship is the ultimate qualifier in how your career is remembered. Durant could go down as the best pure scorer in league history. Regardless, he doesn’t want to end up like Karl Malone or Charles Barkley, with somebody like Shaq flashing a ring in his face on a talk show.

LeBron James Prescient as usual, LeBron said it himself, he’s chasing the ghost of Michael Jordan. Seven straight Eastern Conference titles is impressive, but to the masses, a 4-4 NBA Finals record would look a lot better than a 3-5 mark. A fourth title would place LeBron two away from Jordan, and having just passed his Airness on the playoff scoring list on more than 100 fewer shots, the conversation for G.O.A.T. would become increasingly interesting.

Draymond Green — Despite his amazing performance in a losing effort in last year’s Game 7, Green is essentially charged with sullying the 73-win season. His punch to LeBron James caused his Game 5 suspension, which got the ball rolling on the 3-1 collapse and all the memes that followed. Another title here would be all about redemption for Green. With two championships in three years, you can start talking about a dynasty for the Warriors and his flailing arm to the King’s nether-regions would gradually fade into the background.

Kyrie Irving Here are the stat lines from the two starting point guards in the 2016 Finals:

  • Stephen Curry: 22.6 points on .403/.400/.929 shooting; 3.7 assists.
  • Kyrie Irving: 27.1 points on .468/.405/.939 shooting; 3.9 assists.

Irving unquestionably outperformed Curry and knocked down the championship-winning shot in Game 7 that will still be replayed directly into people’s cerebral cortex when that’s how humanity views highlights. Kyrie then roasted Steph in the Christmas Day game to the point that Steve Kerr sat Curry on a key defensive possession. If Cleveland wins and Irving pulls the trick again, I’m not saying we should view Irving as the better player, but some people will make that argument. Irving will have certainly established himself as an intriguing foil for the first-ever unanimous MVP.

Stephen Curry Speaking of Curry, the flip side is that he can keep climbing the ladder among the greatest point guards of all time. Already ahead of John Stockton, Steve Nash and Chris Paul, none of whom have a title to their name, a second championship would move Curry ahead of Oscar Robertson and Jason Kidd and into a tie with Isaiah Thomas and Walt Frazier. With only Magic Johnson (5) and Bob Cousy (6) out in front among the great point guards, Curry would have to be included in any discussion.

I’d also argue Curry needs a Finals MVP more than anyone in this series from a legacy perspective. After Andre Iguodala grabbed the honors two years ago in a season when it was supposed to be Curry lifting the team up, Steph being the best player in this series with seven current All-Stars would go a long way toward separating himself historically.

Kevin Love It’s hard to know how people will view Love down the road, but if Cleveland wins back-to-back titles, you won’t be able to argue with his decision to re-sign the Cavaliers. Sure, he was occasionally involved in a rocky relationship with LeBron, and nobody likes being treated as a third banana when they could be the man on half the teams in the league. Yet Love is still getting a max contract, and as people are so fond of saying, it’s all about winning championships.

Klay Thompson The man Andrew Bogut affectionately referred to as Smokey barely talks and it’s unclear whether he worries about anything, let alone what his legacy will be. Maybe if he wins a second title, Thompson will be able to get a real shoe deal. His latest Anta’s are an affront to the eyes and all modern sensibility. They look like someone stepped on a candy cane in Liberace’s living room:

Tyronn Lue Here’s the list of coaches who have won NBA titles* in each of their first two seasons: none. If Lue completes the feat, that would be the first thing that comes to mind with him, not getting stepped over by Allen Iverson in the 2001 Finals. You can say James is basically a coach on the floor, but he didn’t bring a title to Cleveland with David Blatt or the final guy on our list.

*Hall of Famer John Kundla won a BAA title with Minneapolis as a rookie head coach in 1949 before winning the first NBA championship in 1950 following the BAA-NBL merger. Kundla’s Lakers actually won four of the first five NBA titles, but you don’t really hear his name like you do Vince Lombardi in football.

Mike Brown While not technically the head coach, Brown will be the one pacing the sidelines for the Warriors. Despite making the playoffs in six of his eight seasons as a head coach, I don’t think many people view him as a good coach. Maybe it’s the memory of James running a toilet-bowl offense where he went iso from the top of the key seemingly every possession all those years in Cleveland. A title as the interim head coach with Golden State would help shift that perception and have him back on a sideline as an official head coach before long.

The trilogy is unique in the history of the league. While you’re watching James chase down blocks, Curry knock down step-back 30-footers, Irving cross people out of their shoes and Green do a little bit of everything possible on a basketball court, remember that these players aren’t just tallying points on the scoreboard, they’re scoring points in the court of public perception for decades to come. History starts now.

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