This article is part of VICE Sports' 2016 NBA Playoffs coverage.
Here we are, ladies and gentlemen. The top of Sports Mountain. Our largest men, at the end of the twice-grueling road of a long season and the psychomechanic playoffs that follow, left now to stare each other down at the end of time. Victory in the NBA Finals is the greatest accomplishment in all of team sports. Baseball is a random number generator whose results are only sort of indicative over 162 games. Football's playoff is practically engineered to produce upsets. Hockey is a vortex of madness that only arcane ice mystics can come close to understanding. Only basketball's entirely-too-thorough multi-round gauntlet of death offers the 99 percent legitimacy that all professional athletes and a certain type of pedantic fan crave.
To win a championship is the only sure way to win power and love, and even a sort of offhand immortality. Think of all the borderline-to-subpar role players who are bronzed in the collective consciousness, just by dint of being attached to a title winning team. Off the top of my personal dome, I've got Fabricio Oberto, Bill Wennington, Deshawn Stevenson, Jason Maxiell, James Jones, Rick Barry, Kurt Rambis, Satch Sanders. These goofballs are eternal. Some lonely, cold, strange people people even want goddang Robert Horry to go into the Hall of Fame, just because his postseason situational triumphs have been scorched into their brains.
In less than two week's time, another marginal player will be enshrined in The Hall of Eh-ternals—the glorious collection of plain brown sweaters draped over the golden statues of Steph Curry or LeBron James. But who?
Mo Speights? Few players live in so many universes at once. No one would mistake The Majestic Mr. Buckets for a waterfall of skill or athleticism, but all of his movements vibrate with energy. In this drive, as in many others, his dribble isn't stable enough to look utilitarian, but it still appears to be of nature. Comparing the dribble to any other basketball player's basketball move is useless. The only proper point of comparison is the production of my own hand when I write in cursive:
See how it is readable, utilitarian, sort of beautiful, but still bloated and messy and highly imperfect? Letters appear as they're supposed to, but they are loosened at the edges. One tug at the beginning or the end of the sentence seems like it would cause this construction to collapse into a puddle of ink settled at the bottom of the line. But, as with Mo, that's impossible: you can't break the line or the man in equal measure. That cursive will say "Watermelon Donut Buttfart Dingo" until someone burns the page, and Mo will play like Mo until his body breaks and dissolves into the river of time, only to live once more when humankind takes a sip of the river and remembers what he did on that good wood.
Or will Matthew Dellavedova, that magic pixie of basketball injuries, make his mark as this Finals' upstart mediocrity?
Here we see the master himself, pressing on a rubber band and looking into the distance pre-game during last year's Finals. What can he see, beyond the chairs and the ceiling beams? Perhaps his Gods, commanding him to slide a foot under Steph Curry? Will he succumb to their dark whims and imprint himself on history?
Or is this series going down roads almost no one could imagine? The Warriors are a fabulous squad, of course, with their swarming switches and three-point shooting, but the previous series reminded us that a team that rides so hard on the edge of traditional professional basketball sizing can sometimes find itself yanked around on the boards. There is a six-inch vacuum, just waiting for some hefty beefman to find the spirit and exploit:
Sasha Kaun, this is YOUR Moment, my man. Get out there and unleash your eerily slow motion drives and general air of sleeplessness on the Warriors. Teach them, as Shaq and Wilt and Wennington did before you, that basketball is the realm of the large. It is your charge. Fuse your face on remembrances from the future.
LEBRON OF THE WEEK
The NBA tide has turned, and public perception of LeBron James as a golden basketball god amongst sweaty mortals is on the wane. "Steph Curry this," speaks the rabble. "Steph Curry that." Because LeBron has continued to be blazingly, crazily great in Golden State's supernova shadow, we explore at least one quality LeBron highlight a week.
You may have forgotten, in the dribble and drabble of your everyday life, but last year's FInals were on-the-low excellent. An apparent mismatch on paper—The Sleek, Murderous Warriors won 67 games and set point differential records, the Cavs kind of drunkenly stumbled into their spot as the Hawks fell apart in their cursory presence—was even more exaggerated by injuries to Kevin Love (Olynyk armbar) and Kyrie Irving (some severe lower-body thing in Game 1). Without Kyrie and Love, both injured in the course of the bracket proceedings, the Cavs were forced to depend on LeBron almost entirely. Everyone steeled themselves for a big, dumb blowout.
LeBron, facing what MUST have felt like an inevitability, somewhere in his higher reasoning centers, took poor circumstance and turned it into an opportunity. An opportunity to feed his inner-Iverson (Inverson?) and declare a one man, 2001-style war on the Dubs. Did it work? No, not really. He shot only as well as one can when being guarded by Andre Iguodala, and his team lost. But as failures go, it was a validating and thrilling one.
In the last, oh, five years, since the Mavs won in 2011, pretty much every successful NBA Team has abandoned the notion of loading every possession they have into one or two U-Haul High U-Sage players and asking them to please, drag us across the winner's line, please. LeBron, the best player of his generation and one of the most well-rounded high-usage players of all time, was instrumental in this shift. During his time on the Heat, especially, his personal emphasis on passing and facilitating ball movement set a new paradigm for big scorers, who were (are) now expected to provide something other than hefty scoring alone, be it extraordinary spacing (Steph Curry), high level efficiency (Harden), or faint strains of profound madness (Westbrook).
It's good. It's great! The NBA has recovered the spirit of basketball as a team game, and everyone loves it! Ratings are up, the league is firmly locked into the sporting discourse, writing and new thinking about league tactics and analytics is overwhelmingly available.
But even if it was bullshit, it's hard not to think back to the days of growling, Alpha-Dog-Madness and consider what we have lost. All this nuance is wonderful, but that visceral thrill of games being referendums on single players, however halting the basketball wound up being, delivered a referendum on who owns a particular win or loss that just isn't there anymore. Everything is about interconnectivity and systems and coaching, now. Where are the simple pleasures of midrange isos, those easily consumable chunks of visual information? Ego has abandoned the court. It lives in the locker room, now.
But for five games last June, in a kooky and desperate time and situation, it was back. LeBron was left with no other rational choice, so he went out there and he gunned and gunned and gunned until the roof was riddled with holes and the sun shone through. He knifed the the lane. He went turnaround without even making a sideways glance at his teammates. He pulled up behind the line. This great player, an epoch-defining player, the standard-bearer for efficiency and all-around play, discovered that he had no knives left and adopted the club in their place.
The beautiful thing about it was that he was still excellent. LeBron, channeling the spirit of the old NBA, lionized by nostalgists and condemned by forward thinkers, gunning just as well as any of those old blowhards on TV, taking two games from a truly great team. It was amazing.
Some essential highlight news: the wonderful Curtis Harris, proprietor of Pro Hoops History, opened a Vine account to share clips from the NBA's mysterious past. Accept it into your heart if you love wonderful shit. Some choice cuts:
Bill Russell, wearing a turtleneck, a sweater, and a chain for what is frankly a very Starfleet Diplomatic Attache' vibe, enters the building to play and coach in an NBA Finals game. There have been a lot of great players in the NBA, but, quite frankly, none of them have come close to Bill's level when it comes to living as an existential warrior.
Jerry West, in the midst of his ongoing failure of a playing career, taking a cross from a much cooler dudes no one remembers. Someday he would draw on the pain of this and many other failures to fuel his glorious victories in varied NBA conference rooms. Also Jerry's book sucked.
Elgin Baylor giving a clinic on just-barely-not-getting dunked on...
...and Jerry Lucas, doing the opposite. Did you know Jerry Lucas made a small fortune writing a series of novelty books about improving memory? Sports trivia is amazing.
NEXT WEEK: THE FINALS!