Will the NBA Finals be more competitive next year?

The answer is yes, thanks to a variety of possibilities

The playoffs were a lot of fun. LeBron James carried the Cavaliers through a couple of seventh games. Both conference finals went full distance for the first time since the 1970s, the young stars of the Jazz and Pelicans scored playoff upsets, and the underdog Celtics came within a few minutes of reaching the NBA Finals without two of their best players.

The only thing missing was a competitive title series. Including their recent sweep of Cleveland, the Warriors have now gone 8-1 over the last two Finals. Here are a few ways we may see something better next June.

LeBron finds a better team. He was good enough to reach his eighth straight Finals while dragging the Cavaliers along, the way Michael Jordan would have done it. The enduring lesson of the final round is that James needs more. It drove him crazy to give so much to his teammates and get so little back from them in return. If you think winning future championships won’t be his priority, think about the anger he took out on the locker room white board after J.R. Smith forgot the score to lose Game 1, and how James wore a soft cast for the remainder of the Finals. His right fist explained just how much winning matters to him.

James insists that his family’s comfort will be the priority – a point of view backed up by his close friend Dwyane Wade – but it shouldn’t be asking too much to make everyone happy. LeBron proved this postseason that he doesn’t need to be surrounded by stars at every position. He just needs more than he had in Cleveland.

The options are obvious: He could sign with the Lakers outright (and convince fellow free agents Chris Paul or Paul George to come play with him). Or he could threaten to leave as a free agent in order to compel Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert to cooperate in a trade with any team of LeBron’s choosing (maybe Houston, Philadelphia, Boston, San Antonio, Miami or another mystery destination), which would enable the Cavaliers to retrieve value from his departure.

Or James could decline his option and simply play out the final year of his contract with Cleveland.

He could even agree to a new contract with the Cavaliers, if he and his family believe that would be for the best.

The NBA’s annual summer of speculation was created by James in 2010, when he used The Decision to announce he was leaving Cleveland in order to learn how to win championships in Miami. At that time LeBron limited his options to a half-dozen teams with maximum cap space. This time he could lever a trade to any team, including Golden State. If James said he would like to move to the Bay Area, wouldn’t the Warriors have to think about turning over their roster to make it happen?

LeBron’s level of play has never been higher than this past season, and he has never exerted more power than he will over the next month.

The Warriors stagnate. They will be seeking to become the first team to win at least four championships in a span of five years since Bill Russell’s Celtics earned 10 of 11 in the 1960s. With their best players all 30 or younger, and owner Joe Lacob promising to do all he can to re-sign them to long-term deals, the Warriors look like they should run away with the next three championships.

The reality is that their margin isn’t so overwhelming as their three titles would suggest. What if the Warriors were to suffer an untimely injury in the latter playoff rounds (as happened to Cleveland in the 2015 Finals, to Houston in the recent conference finals, or to several of their other less-notable victims in recent postseasons)?

In 2016 the Warriors lost Draymond Green for a single game, and that was enough for the Cavaliers to win three straight on their way to the championship. All it may take to doom them is an unlucky ankle or knee sprain suffered by Curry in late May.

Inevitably, they must also withstand the threats of regular-season boredom and fatigue that will come with trying to win championships at a rate unseen in the last half-century. Owner Joe Lacob insists that the Warriors will spend big to re-sign their stars over the next couple of years. But it also makes sense for them to be open to acquiring James or even Anthony Davis, if he should become available. Because fresh blood may be the only antidote to complacency.

The Celtics make no moves. There has been a lot of recent speculation involving a far-fetched three-team trade that would bring LeBron to Boston. But if that never comes to be, the Celtics may be on the verge of winning the championship anyway. The returns of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward from injuries will add 50 points of prime scoring to a team that just last month was a half-dozen minutes away from reaching the Finals. The Celtics have all kinds of vehicles for continued improvement, including two more potentially high lottery picks via the Kings (so long as it isn’t number 1 next year) and Grizzlies (which could be unprotected by 2021).

The Rockets hope for better health from Chris Paul. Even if they are unable to recruit James or George, Houston may be able to win the title simply by re-signing free agent center Clint Capela and hoping that Paul can go through one postseason tournament injury-free.

The 76ers take the next step. The word is that Ben Simmons has already begun work on improving his jump shot. Will they hire David Griffin to replace team president Bryan Colangelo in time for him to recruit LeBron or another free agent to Philadelphia? Or will they use their cap space for a trade that could be sweetened by including Markelle Fultz in the exchange? So long as Joel Embiid remains healthy, the Sixers’ 52 wins this season is merely a promise of better years ahead.

The Thunder adjust their chemistry. It is entirely in Russell Westbrook’s power to learn from this past season and come up with a better approach of leading the Thunder. If they re-sign Paul George and go into next season with a trio of players who rank among the top three at their positions (including center Steven Adams), then who’s to say that Oklahoma City can’t emerge as Golden State’s main challenger in the West? The Thunder’s issue is style rather than talent. Westbrook would not be the first star to learn how to trust his teammates in the late-going of his career.

Will one of the intriguing teams take the next step? The Celtics and 76ers aren’t the only up-and-comers. A new generation of contenders is emerging: The enterprising Pacers have Victor Oladipo, young Myles Turner and the potential for max cap space; the Bucks have coach Mike Budenholzer to bring structure to Giannis Antetokounmpo; the Jazz have a promising duo of Donovan Mitchell leading their offense and Rudy Gobert locking down the paint; the Timberwolves, in spite of their disappointing number 27-ranked defense, could move up; the Blazers are one good player away from making a deep playoff run, even after their opening-round sweep by the Pelicans.

It’s as if the rest of the league spent this season reloading. Next year they’ll be ready to attack. The Warriors will be their target.


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