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What the NBA Finals means for three superstars' legacies

Yardbarker logo Yardbarker 6/13/2018 Phillip Barnett, Yardbarker
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Video by USA Today Sports

Even with the fourth consecutive installment of the Warriors v. Cavs Finals matchup, this year’s postseason was still riveting and incredibly memorable. The Cavaliers had to win two Game 7s just to reach the Finals and the Warriors were pushed to a Game 7 for the first time by a Western Conference foe during their four year reign of terror.

The Raptors proved to be exactly who we thought they were, the Celtics, even without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward were just a game away from the Finals and the 76ers proved that The Process has put them in a great place, though there is still plenty room to grow.

Even with the anticlimactic finish to the season, the dynamic movement in how we’re going to view the legacy of some of the best players to suit up in the Finals is still wildly fascinating. Since we already thought about potential legacy shifts before the postseason began, let’s take a look at how this season has changed the legacy for three of the game’s biggest stars.

Stephen Curry

a close up of a person holding a wine glass: A third title for the Warriors has all but cemented Steph Curry's immortality in the Bay Area. © Ezra Shaw/Getty Images A third title for the Warriors has all but cemented Steph Curry's immortality in the Bay Area.

With the last game of the season now several days in the rearview mirror, I keep going back to a single moment following Game 3. Curry was coming off the single greatest shooting performance from beyond the arc in a Finals game when he set the record for nine made three-pointers in Game 2. In Cleveland in Game 3, he missed his first nine three-point attempts, finishing 1-10 from deep for the night.

His one off night effectively removed him from the Finals MVP conversation with Kevin Durant playing so well, which led to an incredibly sombering moment as he walked to the locker room after the Warriors Game 3 win.

Curry is in a space where he knows that he’s likely going to retire as the greatest 3-point shooter in NBA history with three titles (and counting?), a multiple-time All-Star and the one person responsible for a league-wide philosophical look at what gravity can mean when a guy’s range extends beyond 30 feet. There will be an entire generation of ballplayers who model their game, not after Curry, but what Curry has made us believe is possible. He has changed the NBA in ways no other player in the game’s history has before him, and yet he’s walking away from a fourth-consecutive Finals appearance without a Finals MVP trophy.

Curry’s legacy is already set in stone. He’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer if he retires tonight, but you can tell he wanted that Finals MVP in the worst way, and he knew he lost it to KD on that night. Andre Iguodala was in his ear trying to keep him positive, but that kind of hurt only happens to once-in-a-lifetime players. Chances are, he’ll have at least one more opportunity to end the season with the Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award, something that will mean more to him and the fans in the Bay more than it’ll mean to the rest of us, who have already cemented him as the best shooter ever.

Kevin Durant 

Kevin Durant standing in front of a crowd © Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

KD averaged just a shade under 29 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists during the four-game sweep. He gave the Warriors exactly what they needed, when they needed it. Even after the first two games in which Steph Curry was ostensibly the favorite to walk away with the Finals MVP award, Durant was quietly dismantling the Cavaliers with some of the most efficient basketball we’ve seen in his career — which is wild from one of the most efficient scorers of all time.

The turning point in the series, much like it was for Curry, was Game 3, where Durant exploded for 43 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists, Finals totals that no player has ever reached, and he became only the fifth player in Finals history with at least 40 points, 10 boards and five assists (joining LeBron, Jordan, Magic, Havlicek and Cliff Hagan). On top of all the wild numbers, Durant nailed the 3-pointer in the final minute of the game to put Game 3 on ice, and, in a sense, wrap up the series. He was a quiet assassin all series and a closer when his team needed him the most.

What these last two years have done for Kevin Durant is elevated the conversation around where he belongs on the arbitrary list of small forwards — and many have him moving into the top three with LeBron James and Larry Bird. While some feel Durant has a ways to go to catch Bird’s career, others feel that his ability to score whenever and however he wants is enough to place him right behind James.

Regardless of where he lands on anyone’s list today, Durant is building a career that will place him among one of the 10 greatest players in the game’s history. He has the individual achievements (ROY, MVP, FMVP, All Team selections, scoring titles, and All-Star selections); now it’s just a matter of how much more he’s going to add to his list of accomplishments and how high he shoots up on some of the all-time numbers.

What may be the most impressive part of these last two seasons is how he’s become one of the NBA’s best defenders. We saw hints of who Durant could become on the defensive side of the ball dating back to the 2010 postseason when he gave Kobe Bryant some trouble in Oklahoma City’s first-round loss to the Lakers. If Durant continues to become a disruptive force on the defensive end of the floor while continuing to score at an unreal clip, top five all time might not be out of the question.

LeBron James

a man looking at the camera © Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Could a single man do more for a franchise than LeBron James has done for the Cleveland Cavaliers over the last four seasons? Let’s run back what we’ve witnessed:   

  • Four Finals runs against a Warriors team that will go down as one of the greatest assembled teams of all time.
  • One Finals win against that Warriors team, bringing his Cavaliers back from a 3-1 series deficit.
  • The first to ever average a triple-double in a Finals series.
  • He found a way to lead all players in scoring, rebounding and assists in another series.

With each passing season, James adds a few more votaries who believe that he is, or will go down as, the greatest to ever lace up a pair of sneakers. Even in losses, he’s still gaining on Michael Jordan, which is a feat impressive in itself. The teams he continues to drag to the Finals should have no business playing June basketball, and the fact that the Cavaliers were competitive in two and should have won Game 1 off the strength of James’ ability to get what he wanted, when he wanted, is going to make it real easy for the rest of us to look back fondly on what he accomplished.

Another Finals loss is another Finals loss, though, and we’re going to remember his teams struggling against elite teams in the same way we’re going to remember his individual brilliance. Basketball is unique in the sense that it’s a team sport, but there isn’t a team sport where a single man can dramatically alter a moment, a game, a series or an era. Like no one else before him, save for maybe Jerry West, James’ career lies directly at the intersection of solitary resplendence and collective floundering. How one grapples with this depends on how much value you place on efficient greatness versus the value placed on how seasons end.

Related slideshow: First-round NBA mock draft (Provided by Yardbarker) 

1. Phoenix Suns: DeAndre Ayton, C, Arizona: The Suns are in a position to take the best player available and aren't expected to trade down with such a dire need of talent. Ayton is just one player in consideration. They've had plenty of time to scout the big man at Arizona, and Ayton won Pac-12 Player of the Year after averaging 20.1 points and 11.6 rebounds while shooting over 61 percent from the field in his lone college season. First-round 2018 NBA Mock Draft

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