When the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors meet on Christmas Day, each does so as a heavy favorite to reach the NBA Finals for a third-straight season, something that’s never been done by a pair of teams in the NBA’s 70-year history.
But while it’s natural to focus on the current season, and to see if the clubs set a new standard by meeting for a third-consecutive summer, it’s also reasonable to think it could be years before anyone supplants them in the finals, because of their youth.
The last two teams to meet in back-to-back finals, the 2012-13 and 2013-14 Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs, were much older at the time of their first meeting than the Cavs and Warriors were for theirs. San Antonio had an average weighted1 age of 28.6 years; Miami’s was 30.3 years old. Before them, the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz of 1996-97 and 1997-98 were the only other set of back-to-back finals foes from the past two decades. The Bulls were 30.7 years old on average at the start of their championship-round showdowns, and the Jazz were 29.6, per ESPN Stats & Information Group.
The Cavs and Warriors, by contrast, were on average just 26.9 and 26.6 years old, respectively, when they first met in the finals back in 2015, making them the third-youngest repeat finalists ever, behind the Knicks and Minneapolis Lakers from 1951-52 and 1952-53, and the Washington Bullets and Seattle Sonics from 1977-78 and 1978-79. Put another way: The NBA hasn’t seen back-to-back finals foes as young as Cleveland and Golden State in about 40 years.2
|YEARS||EAST TEAM||WEIGHTED AGE||WEST TEAM||WEIGHTED AGE||AVG.|
|1951-52||New York Knicks||25.5||Minneapolis Lakers||25.9||25.7|
|1977-78||Washington Bullets||27.4||Seattle Sonics||26.0||26.7|
|2014-15||Cleveland Cavaliers||26.9||Golden State Warriors||26.6||26.8|
|1961-62||Boston Celtics||27.9||Los Angeles Lakers||25.9||26.9|
|1956-57||Boston Celtics||27.0||St. Louis Hawks||27.6||27.3|
|1964-65||Boston Celtics||28.3||Los Angeles Lakers||26.4||27.4|
|1981-82||Philadelphia 76ers||28.1||Los Angeles Lakers||26.8||27.5|
|1983-84||Boston Celtics||28.0||Los Angeles Lakers||27.5||27.5|
|1959-60||Boston Celtics||27.5||St. Louis Hawks||27.5||27.5|
|1987-88||Detroit Pistons||27.4||Los Angeles Lakers||28.9||28.2|
|1967-68||Boston Celtics||29.5||Los Angeles Lakers||27.8||28.7|
|1971-72||New York Knicks||28.8||Los Angeles Lakers||29.5||29.2|
|2012-13||Miami Heat||30.3||San Antonio Spurs||28.6||29.5|
|1996-97||Chicago Bulls||30.7||Utah Jazz||29.6||30.2|
Rematches in the NBA Finals aren’t all that unusual. There have been 14 back-to-back occasions throughout league history. But they were a lot more common in decades past, when the league had far fewer teams and little enough competitive balance to see the Celtics and Lakers meet in the finals six times in eight years.
It also helped that powerhouse teams from those eras could stay intact since salary caps and unrestricted free agency didn’t take root until the mid- to late-1980s. Far more player movement happens these days, forcing teams (even borderline dynastic ones) to make tough personnel decisions.
The Warriors and Cavs, despite their willingness to spend, aren’t totally immune to those choices. Golden State, for instance, may be forced to part with one of its better players (likely free-agent-to-be Andre Iguodala or Shaun Livingston) in order to give Steph Curry and Kevin Durant the max salaries they deserve.
And while Cleveland has almost all of its top players inked for the foreseeable future (LeBron James can opt out in 2018), Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert paid $54 million to cover the Cavs’ league-high luxury-tax bill. (Granted, the tax helped the Cavs earn the city’s first major pro sports title in 52 years. But a looming, costly repeater tax could eventually cost Gilbert more than $100 million if the Cavs opt to keep their roster together long term.) In the shorter term, the Raptors also are a threat. According to our NBA forecast, they have a 34 percent chance of winning the East, just behind the Cavs’ 37 percent, as of Thursday. (The Warriors have a 59 percent chance of reaching the finals, and there’s about a 22 percent chance of a Warriors-Cavs final.)
But stepping back for a minute, there’s still reason to think the Warriors and Cavs are a solid bet to face each other again in the finals for years to come.
For starters, there’s the fact that these clubs have already been playing at a high level for years. They currently rank second all-time among back-to-back finals participants in combined win percentage over a three-season span, just behind the Bulls and Jazz from the 1995-96 season to 1997-98, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Chicago and Utah had a .780 win percentage during their window; the Cavs and Warriors are at .770. (Similarly, with a look at the harmonic mean of the Cavs and Warriors’ Elo ratings — a system used to rate the strength of teams over time — we see that over the last two-plus-years, they trail only the Jazz and Bulls’ run in terms of teams that have played in consecutive finals.)
And obviously the magnitude of the Durant signing can’t be overstated. Aside from the fact that the Warriors vastly improved their starting five, somehow becoming even less guardable than before, it’s also important to look at how that signing changed the landscape of things out West.
By acquiring him, Golden State not only kept Durant from joining a 67-win Spurs team or a star-studded Clippers club (both of whom met with Durant as he mulled his options as a free agent) but also poached him from Oklahoma City, a team that nearly eliminated the Warriors last season and arguably stood as their biggest long-term threat.
In Cleveland’s case, James alone gives them a good shot at returning to the finals, given that he’s reached six in a row, and has shown before that he doesn’t necessarily need both his co-stars at full strength to get there. The real question is how long James, who’s never had a serious injury that forced him to miss considerable time, can play at an all-world level.
James turns 32 in a week, and has taken on a heavy load of playing time, both this season and over his career; one in which he’s already logged more career minutes than Larry Bird did during his before retiring at age 35. (The other top seven Warriors and Cavs’ players in win shares — Durant, Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson — have far less tread, and are 28 or younger.)
From the looks of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, which still needs to be ratified but which the owners and players’ union tentatively agreed to last week, it doesn’t look as if there will be real impediments to the Warriors’ and Cavs’ being able to stay together for the next few years. In fact, the framework of the agreement contains some elements that might actually help Golden State keep its star players despite the fact that some believed the opposite might take place after commissioner Adam Silver expressed concern with the rise of superteams after Durant chose to join the Warriors.
In any case, even with months to go, it wouldn’t be surprising to anyone if the Cavs and Warriors make history to reach the finals a third-straight time. At this point, the better question might be how long they can keep the streak going.
CORRECTION: (Dec. 23, 12:11 p.m.): A previous version of this article misstated the years the Bulls and Jazz and the Heat and Spurs played back-to-back Finals. The correct years were 1996-97 and 1997-98 for Chicago and Utah, and 2012-13 and 2013-14 for San Antonio and Miami.
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