One of my favorite NBA players growing up was Alex English. Nicknamed “The Blade,” English was a smooth, slashing forward who averaged more than 20 points a game for 10 consecutive seasons with the Denver Nuggets. He made eight All-Star teams and was a prominent enough player in his time that he starred in the 1987 movie “Amazing Grace and Chuck,” in which he played an NBA star who refused to play in games until there were no nuclear weapons on the planet. (It was not a good movie.)
But how much do you think about English now? Do you even know who English is? Only hardcore ’80s sneakerheads remember English because he had the misfortune to play at the same time as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, not only the two most charismatic (and greatest) players of the pre-Jordan era, but also the leaders of the two best teams, the Celtics and the Lakers, who had an annual rivalry so fierce it’s still the model for sports feuds today.
The Celtics and the Lakers were so much the signature teams of their era that when you think of ’80s basketball, you think of Bird and the Celtics and Magic and the Lakers, and everybody else is a minor character. English was born at the wrong time.
Last July 4, when free agent forward Kevin Durant announced he was leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder to join the Golden State Warriors, the matchup for the NBA Finals — which tips off Thursday night — seemed set in stone: The Warriors, who beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2015 championship, would play the Cavs, who beat the Warriors in the 2016 championship. And here we are, for the third consecutive year, with a Warriors-Cavaliers Finals.
Laments about predictability are misguided. Rematches in basketball aren’t like movie sequels, with lesser follow-ups to “The Hangover” making you forget what you loved so much about the original. They instead enrich characters you already know, deepen plotlines, expand the canvas for new stars and new twists. And more to the point: They cement the teams involved as the generational signposts for millions of fans.
Right now, you might be tired of seeing the Warriors and the Cavaliers play for the championship. But I bet you won’t feel that way by Game 4, and I know you won’t feel that way in 20 years. In 20 years, this might be all you remember.
These two teams have more than just familiarity to ensure their legacy. The Warriors, led by Stephen Curry, play in a wild, free-flowing style. They are compulsively fun to watch and represent the culmination of every prevailing trend in the NBA over the past half-decade: Shoot from distance, shoot quickly and then hurry back so you can do it again. They play such an attractive brand of ball, with such talent everywhere, that they seem poised to dominate the NBA for years to come.
Except … here is LeBron James, already one of the best five basketball players of all time. LeBron has played every style imaginable, from the old, plodding defensive slop of the Pistons-Knicks age — the only way LeBron and the depleted Cavs could compete with the Warriors two years ago — to the isolation game of Allen Iverson to, seeing the way the wind is blowing, the 3-point-tossing game the Warriors have mastered. Without LeBron still hanging on — he’s five years older than most of the Warriors’ stars — Golden State would be free to become the next Kobe-Shaq Lakers: so dominant that there are no serious challengers. But LeBron’s will, not to mention his otherworldly talent, has been the unmovable force standing in the Warriors’ way.
It was inevitable they would meet at this point. Again. This has been a terrific NBA season, with players such as James Harden and likely MVP Russell Westbrook putting up historic numbers. They are amazing players, but they ultimately will end up curios: Like Alex English, they were born at the wrong time.
This year, there was a sense that you could skip the regular season and just watch the Finals and still see all you really needed to see. History will show this notion was right. These NBA Finals aren’t all that matter now: They’re all that will ever matter. We are watching the Celtics-Lakers. We’ll remember this as long as we remember those matchups from the ’80s. It is likely all we’ll be able to remember. That’s sad for the rest of the NBA. But for the rest of us, who get to watch this series and then talk about it for years to come … well, maybe Russell Westbrook and James Harden were born at the wrong time, but we, as fans, absolutely were not. This is the golden age. This is the point of any of it.
Will Leitch is a senior writer at Sports On Earth, contributing editor for New York magazine, film critic for Grierson & Leitch and the founder of Deadspin.