On Thursday night, after an interminable waiting period, the NBA Finals finally begin, and it will pit the Cleveland Cavaliers, led by LeBron James in his sixth NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors, led by Stephen Curry in his first NBA Finals appearance. Despite LeBron’s eminent LeBron-ness, the Warriors are still heavy favorites, due to the fact that they’re a historically great team that’s healthier than the Cavaliers.
If Steph does win the title in his first NBA Finals as the star of the Warriors, it will put him in some heady company. Here are some other big names who didn’t need a second chance to win it all:
Let’s just start with the most obvious. By 1991, Michael Jordan was in a similar position as LeBron James in his first go-round with the Cavaliers – since he was clearly the best but hadn’t won a title yet, people wondered why. Was it his teammates? Was it his fault? Of course, the conversation wasn’t as loud as the one surrounding LeBron because no sports conversations were as loud back then as they are now.
There was also the matter of Larry Bird’s Celtics and the Bad Boy Pistons being in the Bulls’ way in the Eastern Conference until MJ knocked them aside. If you look at it a certain way, you could say that MJ should thank Larry and Isiah Thomas for keeping MJ away from the Showtime Lakers of the 80s so he could retire with that sweet 6-0 record in the NBA Finals. It wouldn’t be an especially smart way of looking at it, but it’s still one way.
Unlike MJ, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar found success at the highest level instantly upon entering the league. The Milwaukee Bucks drafted him first overall (as Lew Alcindor) in 1969 in their second year in existence, and they promptly made it to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they lost to the eventual champion New York Knicks. Then the Bucks brought in star point guard and triple-double machine Oscar Robertson to pair with Alcindor, and the Bucks promptly ripped off a 66-win season and an NBA Title. Lew won the MVP and the Finals MVP that year, and changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar the day after the Bucks won the title. It would actually take Kareem nine years, a move to Los Angeles and another star point guard (number one draft pick Magic Johnson, who’s another entry on the list of first-time winners) to win another NBA championship in 1980. The pair would win four more titles together.
Larry Legend won it all in his second year, just like Kareem did. The Celtics drafted Bird in 1978 and let him stay another year in college (you can’t do that any more, by the way). After an Eastern Conference Finals loss to Dr. J’s 76ers in 1979-80, the Celtics used the first pick in the 1980 Draft to trade for the third pick (which became Kevin McHale) and Robert Parish, thus igniting the Lakers-Celtics rivalry that defined the NBA in the 1980s and helped usher in a new era of popularity for pro basketball.
Man, doesn’t that picture look surreal now? Tim Duncan continued the tradition of appearing in and winning the NBA Finals in his second year in the league, and although he did so in a lockout-shortened 1998-99 season against a hilariously overmatched Knicks team (they were the eighth seed! What a strange year), history has obviously proven kind to Duncan. And it’s not like he let a veteran team carry him, either – he averaged 23 points, 11 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game in that postseason and was named Finals MVP. This title and the one the Spurs won in 2014 combined to make Duncan the only player in NBA history to win a championship in three different decades.
Bill Russell joined the Celtics midway through the 1957 season, and his arrival transformed the Boston Celtics into the single most dominant team in major American sports history. The Celtics won the title in that season, lost to the St. Louis Hawks the year after that, and then proceeded to win the next eight NBA championships, a run of consecutive titles that’s never been matched in basketball, baseball, football or hockey history.
Kobe Bryant also won the title in his first trip to the NBA Finals in 2000, but you and I both know that Shaq was the dominant force on that team. So, can Steph Curry join the ranks of some of the very best to every play basketball? Or will LeBron’s Cavs upset Golden State and start Curry down his own “will he ever do it?” path of sports-talk misery? We’ll have to tune in and see.