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After Title Fight, LeBron, KD to Wrestle for Balance of NBA Power This Summer

Ken Berger@@KBergNBAFeatured Columnist IJune 8, 2018

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James is defended by Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant in the first half of Game 3 of basketball's NBA Finals, Wednesday, June 6, 2018, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Tony Dejak/Associated Press

CLEVELAND — The theme for the Warriors on Thursday was not to look past Game 4 of the NBA Finals. That's the sensible approach on a lot of levels, especially for a team whose greatest threat may be taking shape this summer.

While it's true that Golden State is only one win away from its second consecutive championship and third in four years—and that it doesn't want a repeat of last year's failure to close out the Cavaliers in Game 4there is a much bigger battle to come.

Immediately upon clinchingwhether that's Friday night in Cleveland, Monday night in Oakland or some other nightthe struggle to alter the NBA's balance of power will begin anew. The handful of superstars and teams that can at least aspire to breathing the same rarefied air as the Warriors will begin plotting their demise.

The perennial cycle of building the next superteam in hopes of taking down the current one is something the Warriors should be bracing forthe way they brace for LeBron James at the top of the key with the ball in his hands.

"The league is really full of smart peoplesmarter than methat are competitive," Warriors general manager Bob Myers said. "I guess you just assume that everybody is going to try to come back a better team. So are we, for that matter."

Indeed, the Warriors have their own issues, such as Kevin Durant's looming player option. Though he told ESPN's Rachel Nichols he's re-signing with Golden State this summer, you never know. Durant did leave the door slightly open in an extensive interview with USA Today's Sam Amick this week.

Assuming he can keep the band together, that is far from Myers' only concern. After the Warriors added Durant to a 73-win team that already had reigning MVP Steph Curry and won its second title in three years in 2017, the rest of the league hardly stood idly by. Instead of resigning themselves to Golden State's greatness, the select few teams that could tried to mount a response.

The Rockets landed Chris Paul, pairing him with presumptive 2017-18 MVP James Harden. The Timberwolves teamed Jimmy Butler with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. The Thunder, abandoned by Durant, brought in Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to give some support to Russell Westbrook.

In the East, the Celtics signed Gordon Hayward and pulled off a trade for Kyrie Irvingsimultaneously strengthening themselves and poaching from their conference rival in the process.

Before Game 4 of the Finals, LeBron James discusses how winning an NBA title requires not only talent but a wisdom to think through game situations.
Before Game 4 of the Finals, LeBron James discusses how winning an NBA title requires not only talent but a wisdom to think through game situations.Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

It all worked to varying degrees. The Rockets pushed Golden State to seven games in the Western Conference Finals; the Celtics went seven against LeBron and the Cavs in the East.

Now, the next wave begins.

"They go 73-9, and then you add one of the best players that the NBA has ever seen," James said Thursday. "So now everyone is trying to figure that out. How do you put together a group of talent, but also a group of minds, to be able to compete with Golden State, to be able to compete for a championship?"

As always, James will be the central figure in the plotting to take down the Warriorsafter he's done fighting for every last inch in these Finals. James also has a player option this summer and thus holds leverage over the Cavs to improve the roster while also scanning the landscape for a new team with the "talent and minds," as he put it, to get past Golden State.

That's apropos, since James essentially started this era of the superteam in the first place.

In one of his most introspective appearances on the Finals interview stage, James went chapter and verse Thursday on how we got here: The Celtics teaming Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen with Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo, forcing James to conclude that he had no choice but to go elsewhere to beat them.

"I felt like my first stint here, I just didn't have the level of talent to compete versus the best teams in the NBA, let alone just Boston," James said. "When you looked at Rondo and KG and Paul and Ray, you knew they were great basketball players. But not only great basketball players, you could see their minds were in it, too, when you were playing them.

"So not only do you have to have the talent, you have to have the minds as well," he said. "I knew that my talent level here in Cleveland couldn't succeed getting past a Boston, getting past the San Antonios of the league."

Indeed, James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh finally toppled the Celtics in the 2011 conference semifinals, and James wound up with four straight Finals trips and two championshipsbefore returning home to team up with Irving and Kevin Love.

James said his desire to get past the Celtics of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce prompted him to join the Heat in 2010.
James said his desire to get past the Celtics of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce prompted him to join the Heat in 2010.Lynne Sladky/Associated Press/Associated Press

"I knew Kyrie had the talent, but I wanted to try to build his mind up to fast-track his mind, because I felt like in order to win you've got to have talent, but you've got to be very cerebral, too," James said. "Listen, we're all NBA players. Everybody knows how to put the ball in the hoop. But who can think throughout the course of the game?"

Side note: At least one teammate couldn't at the end of Game 1. Go ahead, LeBron…continue.

"So we come back here and we get the minds and we build a championship team," he said. "And then Golden Statebecause of Steph's injuries early on in his career and his contract situation, and then drafting Draymond [Green] and drafting Klay [Thompson] and them being under the contracts they were inallowed their franchise to go out to get KD."

Since James is first vice president of the National Basketball Players Association's executive committee, it's worth mentioning the most underplayed aspect of the Warriors adding Durant to a team that already had three All-Stars. If not for a flaw in the NBA's salary cap system, it never would've happened.

As a result of a massive and unanticipated increase in broadcast revenues after the 2011 lockout, the salary cap spiked by a record $24 million in 2016-17three times the previous highest increase. It was just enough to allow the Warriors to fit Durant under the cap with only the loss of a few role players.

Commissioner Adam Silver wanted to smooth the revenue into the player compensation pool over several years, which would have avoided a disproportionate one-year spike. It was rejected by National Basketball Players Association Executive Director Michele Roberts, a gaffe that may have disrupted competitive balance in the NBA for a decade. History may also show that the union's intransigence had as much as anything to do with James being saddled with a soon-to-be 3-6 record in the NBA Finals.

"Let's just speak truth," James said. "Kevin Durant. You've got two guys with MVPs on their team. And then you've got a guy in Klay, who could easily be on a team and carry a team, and has scored 40 in a quarter before. And then you have Draymond, who is arguably one of the best defenders and minds we have in our game. So you have that crew.

"Then you add on a Finals MVP [Andre Iguodala] coming off the bench, a [first-round] pick in [Shaun] Livingston and an All-Star in David West and whatever the case may be," he said. "So they have a lot of talent."

The Cavs did, too...until the Warriors got more and Irving forced his way out, and Cleveland now stands on the brink of a sweep.

Though the Warriors appear likely to win their third NBA championship in four years, another summer of significant free-agent movement may pose the greatest threat to Golden State.
Though the Warriors appear likely to win their third NBA championship in four years, another summer of significant free-agent movement may pose the greatest threat to Golden State.Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

"I think if you have a chance to win in this league, you have to go for it," Love said. "I can remember when I had missed the playoffs six straight years. I kind of decided that I wanted to win and ended up being in a bunch of trade scenarios and ended up here and winning in 2016. … In the offseason, I think you'll see a number of guys, a lot of movement. That's going to continue to happen until there is some sort of parity."

When Celtics president Danny Ainge traded for Garnett and Allen in 2007, Boston had won 24 games the year before. When James joined the Heat in 2010, Miami was coming off a 47-win season and first-round playoff loss to those same Celtics. Pat Riley had stripped the cupboard bare and was able to slot three max players under the cap and start over.

But the Durant move escalated the NBA arms race to a level no one had ever intended or anticipated. And once the Warriors went nuclear, there was no turning back. With the current collective bargaining agreement in effect until at least 2022-23 (when the owners or players can each opt out), the ripple effects of the superteam era that James started could endure until after he retires.

How long will it be before Anthony Davis in New Orleans or Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee decides he wants to follow the examples of James and Durant and form his own superteamor perhaps even team up together?

"I just feel like every player should be on a team that's going to maximize their talents and allow them to be the best player they can be," Durant told B/R on Thursday. "Everything else after that, I don't care. As a basketball player, I only have a responsibility to my talents and how I feel and where my career needs to go. I don't know what other players need, but I know what I need as a player and what group would be perfect for me to flourish as a basketball player. That is my only concern."

Sounds harsh, but this is the kind of superstar power and entitlement that the superteam era has produced.

While James will dictate the terms of the offseason assault on the Warriors, Durant will play a huge role, too. Assuming he opts out, will he not blink twice before re-upping with the Warriors in hopes of racking up more titles? Or will he be more intrigued by one of the teams that's assembling the talent (and minds) necessary to take down Golden State? As he looks across the floor at James, he can see a friend, foe and peer who was on the right side of the NBA arms race and now finds himself on the wrong side.

"We just want to be as good as we can be," Myers said. "But we always expect the league to keep pushing and striving and come back better than they were the year before."

As for James, the Rockets are the favorite landing spot this summer at +140 odds, according to OddsShark. Next are the Sixers, Lakers and Cavs at +350, followed by the Spurs at +1200, andgulpthe Warriors at +1600.

Back in December, Rockets GM Darryl Morey said he was "basically obsessed" with beating the Warriors. After falling short against Golden State in a Game 7 at home in the West Finals, that obsession has skyrocketed to a "10," he said recently on ESPN.

"I don't understand the teams that aren't obsessed with beating them," Morey said. "To win the championship, you have to beat the Warriors. Every team should be figuring out how to beat the Warriors."

The moment the horn sounds on the Warriors' final victory of the season, it's game on.

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