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NBA Preview: Cavs face roadblock in fortified Warriors

Long-suffering fans in Cleveland, who for decades spent summers moaning about the Indians and winters moaning about the Cavaliers, welcomed a strange predicament on a brisk autumn Tuesday. They must have been shaking their heads over their unprecedented embarrassment of riches.

The Indians, in search of their first World Series title since 1948, were starting their best-of-seven series against the Cubs. Less than 100 yards away, the Cavs were celebrating their first NBA title before their season opener against the Knicks. Fans with tickets to both events had options.

1. Celebrate the Cavs, sell Indians tickets and keep tabs on the game.
2. Watch the Indians after celebrating the Cavs since June, sell Cavs’ tickets.
3. Catch the Cavs’ ceremony, leave for Indians game.
4. Sell tickets to both, pay off mortgage.
5. Embrace history, complain about Art Modell.

Clevelanders still had the winless Browns to keep them grounded and remind them of a time when losing was expected. Three years ago, the Cavs had a 33-49 record, their best season after LeBron James left for Miami. Cleveland won 97 games during his four-year hiatus in South Beach.

In the two years since his return, the Cavs won 110 games, reached the NBA Finals twice and won a championship. Cleveland looked like a longshot to take down Golden State in The Finals last year. The Warriors won their first 24 games, finished with a record 73 victories and appeared destined to repeat their 2014-15 title.

Anything can happen, but here’s hoping Cleveland laps up every ounce of success over the past year because it’s unlikely to continue. The Warriors could be better than they were last season after adding Kevin Durant, who averaged 28.2 points per game and was the NBA’s third-leading scorer.

Talk about an embarrassment of riches.

Golden State has the two-time reigning MVP in Steph Curry, who led the league in scoring last season at 30.1 points per game. He became the first player in NBA history to average at least 30 points, six assists and five rebounds while shooting better than 50 percent from the floor and 90 percent from the foul line.

OAKLAND, CA - OCTOBER 04: Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors points to the crowd during their game against the Los Angeles Clippers during their preseason game at ORACLE Arena on October 4, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Kevin Durant is out to help point Golden State back to the top. (Getty Images)

Durant led the league in scoring four times before bolting from Oklahoma City and alienating the fans there much the way LeBron did when he left Cleveland. The difference, of course, is that Durant wasn’t from Oklahoma while LeBron was the pride of Cleveland after he was born and raised in northeast Ohio.

Fun fact: Curry and LeBron were born three years apart on the same floor at Summa Akron City Hospital, which clearly knows how to deliver the clutch.

If the maternity ward at Summa Akron City was the birthplace of an NBA generation dominated by multidimensional players, the U.S. Virgin Islands was the last link to a previous era in which big men ruled and players remained with the same team for their entire careers.

This season marks the first San Antonio will be without Tim Duncan since 1997-98, when Bill Clinton was president, gasoline was about a $1 per gallon and Todd Collins was starting quarterback for the Bills. Duncan made $2.9 million his first season, spent 19 years in the NBA, pocketed $239 million and won five titles.

Duncan retired as the best power forward in NBA history.

Here are my top five:

SAN ANTONIO, TX - JUNE 16: Tim Duncan #21 of the San Antonio Spurs reacts in the first half while taking on the Miami Heat during Game Five of the 2013 NBA Finals at the AT&T Center on June 16, 2013 in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Tim Duncan (Getty Images)

1. Tim Duncan
2. Karl Malone
3. Charles Barkley
4. Dirk Nowitzki.
5. Kevin McHale.

The NBA today is dominated by players who can score from anywhere, starting with James and Durant. LeBron plays more like a guard while K.D. is considered a forward, but neither is actually true. LeBron could play five positions in five consecutive possessions, if not one possession.

James often dribbles up the floor and switches to the wing in the half-court offense before posting up inside. Durant is 6-foot-11 and can score inside, but he’s among the best perimeter shooters in the game. It’s what makes players who play similar styles so dangerous in the up-tempo NBA.

Years ago, top NBA centers were like NFL quarterbacks in terms of value. Teams had a difficult time winning championships without someone capable of playing around the basket. The Bulls were known for Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, for example, but they also had Bill Cartwright, Bill Wennington and Luc Longley.

Shaquille O’Neal was the last true center to win a title.

Here are my top centers in NBA history:

1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
2. Wilt Chamberlain.
3. Bill Russell.
4. Hakeem Olajuwon
5. Shaquille O’Neal
100. Dwight Howard

You can thank the European influence for the shift since the pre-Duncan era, when big men were stationary. They have encouraged better ball movement, better shooting from the outside and better team defense over the run-and-gun, one-on-one style fans had grown accustomed to during the 20th century.

Basketball exploded as an international game after the 1992 Olympics, when the Dream Team confirmed the United States’ dominance in basketball. Kids watching have grown up. The NBA has become a melting pot. It’s decorated with impact players from other lands who aren’t considered household names in the U.S. Here are five to watch in 2015-16:

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 20: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks goes up for a shot over (L-R) Joakoim Noah #13, Jimmy Buter #21 and Pau Gasol #16 of the Chicago Bulls during the first round of the 2015 NBA Playoffs at the United Center on April 20, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agress that, by downloading and or using the photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Giannis Antetokounmpo drives the hoop. (Getty Images)

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Greece: He averaged 18.8 points, 8.6 rebounds and 7.2 assists after the All-Star break and emerged as a star for the Bucks.

2. Kristaps Porzingis, Latvia: At 7-3, he’s a threat from behind the three-point line and a good passer. The Knicks are salivating over his potential.

3. Evan Fournier, France: He emerged late last season and averaged 15.5 points for the Magic, his second season in Orlando after two uneventful ones in Denver.

4. Danilo Gallinari, Italy: Very good shooter who averaged a career-high 19.5 points for Denver before missing the final 23 games.

5. Nikola Vucevic, Montenegro: He has averaged 18.7 points and 9.9 rebounds per game over the past two seasons for the Magic.

Indeed, the game has changed.

Curry is the best point guard in the NBA, but really he’s a shooting guard who can run the offense and distribute. He has been the MVP the past two seasons mainly because he’s deadly from the outside. He made a record 402 three-pointers in 2015-16 and improved his scoring average by seven points over the previous season.

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 14: Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors celebrates in the second quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers during Game Five of the 2015 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 14, 2015 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Stephen Curry (Getty Images)

And he sat out the fourth quarter 18 times.

Look around, however, and you’ll see guards who made strong cases that they’re just as valuable to their teams. Point guards are no longer defined in a traditional sense in which they pass first and shoot less. The same is true for shooting guards. Either can quarterback the offense, and both are expected to shoot.

James Harden is considered a shooting guard but handles the ball and gets to the rim as well as anyone in the game today. Klay Thompson is a pure shooter and terrific passer who can defend. The Bulls have two shooting guards in Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade and a point guard in Rajon Rondo who can score.

The three-point line has encouraged better outside shooting while fewer big men making an impact has encouraged more team rebounding.

Twenty-four players, the most in NBA history, combined for 75 triple-doubles last season, the second-most in NBA history. Russell Westbrook had 18 triple-doubles, breaking Magic Johnson’s single-season record. He had seven while carrying the Thunder in March, the most for any month in 30 years.

John Wall averaged 19.9 points and 10.2 assists last year for the Wizards. Damian Lillard averaged 25 points per game but is often overlooked in Portland. Same with Kyle Lowry in Toronto. Kyrie Irving, not LeBron, hit the three-pointer for Cleveland last year that clinched the title over Golden State.
Cleveland will find out, in this year of extraordinary success, the hard part is repeating. It leads me to my final list, the top five teams in the NBA:

1. Golden State
2. Cleveland
3. San Antonio
4. L.A. Clippers
5. Boston

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