NBA finals: which fairytale do you choose when both teams are underdogs?
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Sports fans love an underdog. The operative word there is an, as in a singular underdog. When two traditional underdogs go head to head, choosing a team to root for can be difficult. While one historic failure will finally achieve glory (hooray!), the other will just have their heart torn out again (ouch!). It’s like saving one stray puppy while tossing another back into traffic.
Rooting interests are clear in a David v Goliath battle. David v David is a lot tougher. Yet it’s still not as difficult as the biggest underdog matchup of all: Cleveland v Oakland.
Not so long ago, basketball fans were forced to root for a meteor in a Lakers-Celtics Finals. Then it was four consecutive finals appearances by the Miami Heat, the last two featuring the perennially excellent San Antonio Spurs. Underdogs were in short supply. But now we’ve got one too many.
So which fairytale team should you support in the finals? Let’s break it down.
Cleveland’s underdog resumé
First, let’s make it clear that Cleveland winning a sports title would be a fairytale story even with LeBron James on the roster. In fact, LeBron’s presence bolsters Cleveland’s underdog status. This is a sports city so cursed to failure that they previously possessed LeBron – the undisputed greatest basketball player of his generation – for seven years and managed to win the horrid Eastern Conference one (1) time. Cleveland then followed up that moment of relative glory by getting swept in the finals.
It’s one thing to fail with Brian Hoyer or Josh McCown as your quarterback, as the Cleveland Browns have done and will do this year. It’s an entirely different thing to fail with perhaps the greatest athlete in the world on your team. Only the City of Cleveland can pull that off. Only the City of Cleveland can cause a beloved local hero to flee town and uproot his family in order to win a championship. In Miami, LeBron found a city as diametrically opposite to Cleveland, Ohio, as can be while still existing inside the same country. Miami’s weather and food is less foreign to Cleveland than its ability to win championships.
Cleveland entering the finals with a player of LeBron’s caliber also doesn’t mean they’re somehow less of an underdog than the Warriors. Don’t forget that Stephen Curry is the NBA’s reigning MVP, not LeBron James. LeBron possesses otherworldly size, strength and athleticism while Curry’s proportions are more those of a regular human. But the Warriors star is no slouch in the genes department either. Most mortals aren’t the offspring of a professional athlete father and a mother who stopped aging around 32.
Then sprinkle in all of the usual things that makes Cleveland so very Cleveland:
- no championships in the 45-year history of the Cavaliers
- no Super Bowl titles or even Super Bowl appearances in the history of the Browns
- no World Series titles by the Indians since 1948
Then there’s all the many goats in Cleveland history: Earnest Byner, Jose Mesa, Craig Ehlo, the homeless man who drafted Johnny Manziel. The list goes on and on and on, but eventually the internet runs out of bandwidth. Even Cleveland’s last “championship” is kind of pathetic, as only Cleveland could make a sports championship. It came in 1964, pre-Super Bowl era, when the Browns won the NFL title by besting a whopping 13 other teams.
So there are some 400 words spilled convincing you that the are underdogs when just four should have sufficed: they play in Cleveland.
Golden State’s underdog resumé
The only town that holds a candle to Cleveland when it comes to being a sports loser – excuse me while I congratulate myself for not making a joke about how holding a candle too close to Cleveland can cause the Cuyahoga River to catch fire – is Oakland, California, home to the Warriors, Raiders and A’s. Cleveland West.
The Warriors may try to mask their location to the rest of the world by using “Golden State” before their name, but they’re very much Oakland, with no championships or finals appearances in 40 years. The Raiders haven’t won a championship in Oakland since 1980 and the A’s won their last World Series in ‘89 – an occurrence that so disrupted the universe that the Earth trembled and shook. The NHL’s San Jose Sharks are 50 miles south of the Warriors, Raiders and A’s, but they’re spiritually at Oakland’s center thanks to an uncanny ability to lose in the playoffs.
Just west of Oakland, of course, is San Francisco: home to the 49ers, who have five Super Bowl titles, and the Giants, baseball’s even-year dynasty. San Francisco’s proximity and success taunts Oakland just as Pittsburgh’s does Cleveland.
It would be easy to chalk up Oakland’s sports failings to incompetent management across the board, but the suffering for the city’s fans is almost worse because they have teams on the extremes. It’s no surprise an organization run as poorly as the Raiders fails, but the A’s have Billy Beane at the helm and can’t even win the American League. If the Moneyball genius can’t save Oakland, who can?
These poor people can’t be teased by partial success again. They’ll have to be committed en masse.
Who needs it more?
One of these cursed cities will ends its long title drought this month. One will soon revert back to its natural state of total and complete misery, burned again by hope. The only compassionate way to choose which underdog to root for is to go with the team least likely to have a title shot again soon.
Is Cleveland’s window closing? LeBron will turn 31 next season, Kevin Love’s future with the franchise is up in the air, and the Cavaliers gave away the last two No1 overall picks. They have to be in win-now mode. On the other hand, Kyrie Irving is 23 and as long as the Cavaliers have him and a LeBron James south of 40, the Eastern Conference should continue to give them a free pass to the finals every year. If the Cavaliers don’t win it all this year, they’ll continue to have opportunities until the other Eastern Conference teams decide to combine into one super team to take them on. And even then the Cavs would win the East most years.
The Warriors are very much like the Oklahoma City Thunder of the 2012 finals. That Thunder team lost to LeBron’s Heat in five games, but with a roster full of young stars – Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden – conventional wisdom was that they’d be back year after year. The NBA’s new dynasty had arrived!
But that hasn’t happened. Durant has become injury-prone. Harden is on the Rockets. And the Western Conference exposes every team’s flaws. OKC didn’t even make the playoffs this year. (Their 45-37 record would have been good for the No6 seed in LeBron’s East.)
Stephen Curry is 27. Klay Thompson just 25. The Warriors may be at the beginning of a long run of success. Or they could be the new Thunder. Either way, playing in the Western Conference is going to make it difficult to reach the finals again. They have to win now.
The right choice, the compassionate choice, is to root for Golden State and hope their fairytale story ends with the Larry O’Brien Trophy. A missed opportunity this year and, before Oakland fans know it, another 40 years could pass.
Hoping the Cavaliers will fail may seem cruel, but rest assured: the people of Cleveland can handle it. Losing is what they’re best at.