The Finals are here, and it’s time for everyone’s favorite NBA-related discussion: legacy talk! In all seriousness, while the constant yo-yoing of who is good, who is a fraud, who is dominant and who is just a “bus rider” is exhausting, the Finals are also undeniably a chance for certain players to calcify their place in league history. Special performances on this stage, win or lose, will be remembered for a long time. And we should want the best players in the game to reach new heights when the pressure is the most intense. So here’s what’s on the line for some of the major players in this series …
Even as a three-time champion, there’s a good amount for Curry to gain in this series, particularly his first Finals MVP. Steph deserved the award in 2015, and there are certainly arguments for why he should have won in ’17 and ’18 as well. That trophy cements what anyone who has been closely watching the Warriors for the last eight years knows intimately: That Curry is one of the most important players to his team in league history, and for him, dominating doesn’t necessarily mean scoring 30 points a night. (Though he’s capable of doing that for a whole season if he needs to.)
There’s also Steph’s place on the all-time list. The Twitter topic du jour is whether Curry’s fourth championship puts him in the top 10. I don’t know the answer to that, only that it will be fun to argue if it happens. I will say for Curry to possibly match LeBron James in rings and build on his lead over Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant would be a deeply impressive accomplishment, especially considering all the headspace given to those other guys. Curry leading the Dubs past this Celtics defense would be no joke. And if Steph wins the same number of championships as the greatest player of his era, what does that say about Steph?
While Boston state media has basically already made Tatum a top-five player and a better player than KD, a championship would go a long way in legitimizing those claims. A ring would also cap an absolute gantlet of a postseason from Tatum. While he hasn’t necessarily gotten the best of some of the superstars he went toe-to-toe with in this postseason, outlasting Durant, Giannis, Jimmy Buckets, and now Steph would be one of the better runs in recent playoff history. It would also set up a fascinating next act in his career. At 24, Tatum has a chance to match Giannis in championships, and pull ahead of guys like Luka Dončić, Nikola Jokić and Joel Embiid. Considering there’s room for both Tatum and the Celtics to improve moving forward, could Tatum’s contemporaries end up being the ones chasing him the next few years?
Udoka already holds the mantle for Coach in the NBA Who Looks the Coolest When Angrily Stepping on the Floor After a Timeout, and now he can add a championship to that distinction. Udoka winning a ring in his first season for one of the most storied franchises in sports would be massive. Brad Stevens was the NBA’s wunderkind of the decade in the 2010s and he never even made it this far. Doc Rivers is a top-15 coach ever and even he won only once with Boston. Udoka immediately becomes a legend if he can pull this off, especially given the caliber of the opponent on the other side.
If Golden State wins a championship while Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala podcasted through the playoffs, then the league’s podcast boom is only just beginning. Title contenders are going to start assigning guys to get in front of the mike. And if there’s anything the basketball ecosystem needs, it’s more drama created by podcasts.
The light-years comment
Joe Lacob’s comment that the Warriors were “light-years ahead” of every franchise in the NBA looked terrible after the 2016 Finals, was right on the money when the team signed Durant, looked foolish again in the summer of ’19, hit an all-time low at the end of ’20, slowly started to rise near the end of last season and now has a chance to hit an all-time high. It’s been a wild ride for one of the most meme’d owner quotes in NBA history. But here we are six years later, and the Warriors machine has outlasted every one of its competitors from that time. Add another Larry O’Brien Trophy on top of this return to the Finals, and maybe we can say once and for all Lacob was right.
Could this Finals be the end of superteams? Well, front offices aren’t going to stop trying to collect as many superstars as possible. And both the Warriors and Celtics benefited to some extent from perfect-storm scenarios that can’t easily be replicated. (Good luck finding a player as great as Steph with less of an ego.) At the same time, this series is a little bit of an antidote to the superstar team-ups we’ve seen in recent years. Think of all the players that joined up to be better than the Warriors and how all of them are still looking up at Golden State. Kawhi and PG. LeBron, AD and Russ. KD and Kyrie. Harden and Embiid. Again, teams aren’t going to pass up on elite talent in favor of something hokey like chemistry. But this Finals is a good example of how team-building, patience and a willingness to pay the luxury tax can pay off, especially once you have a star in place. There are stars around the league, frankly, that could learn from Curry’s patience and flexibility. This Finals will not end superstar partnerships. But in an era that’s become increasingly defined by dizzying player movement—which has largely been very fun!—it’s at least nice to know there are other ways to reach the mountaintop.