It doesn’t really matter in places like Buffalo, where fans are glued to television sets no matter which teams are involved. The region for years has been among the national leaders for TV ratings in the Stanley Cup Final, sometimes drawing bigger numbers than cities with teams participating.
Gary Bettman wouldn’t admit as much, but the businessman in him secretly would rather see the Blackhawks and Rangers battle for the title. Chicago and New York are two Original Six franchises from major U.S. markets. Anaheim and Tampa are fine places, but we’re not talking about hockey hotbeds.
Market size matters much less in the NBA, which is driven by its biggest stars. Let’s be honest, there are better, more charming cities that are richer in hoops than Cleveland and Oakland. The NBA doesn’t care. It’s getting its dream matchup with LeBron James going against Stephen Curry with a title on the line.
The playoffs couldn’t have unfolded any better for the NBA. The Lakers and Knicks missed the playoffs for the second straight season, while the Celtics were knocked out in the first round by Cleveland. Those three teams have won 33 titles combined. The two biggest names meeting for the championship is an easier sell than three basketball towns in the playoffs.
Yes, this is precisely what the NBA needed.
The league has its best player, James, returning home and leading the lowly Cavs back to relevance in his first season after returning from Miami. It also has its most valuable player this season, Curry, leading the Warriors to the best record in the league and their first trip to the Finals since 1975.
You probably knew James was born and raised in Akron, Ohio, just outside of Cleveland. He felt obligated to come back after turning his back on his own people to chase a title in Miami. He reached the Finals all four years in South Florida, won a pair of titles and wanted to bring the same success to his home region.
Curry also was born in Akron, although he’s from Akron the way Marcus Foligno is from Buffalo. Curry was born there while his father, Dell Curry, played for Cleveland. Stephen was raised in Charlotte and attended nearby Davidson before becoming the name and face of the Warriors.
Now, the NBA gets its most dominant player in LeBron and the most electric in Curry. James remains the most popular player, but Curry isn’t far behind. Fans are awed by James’ strength and athleticism. People identity more with a smaller, slighter underdog in Curry.
Together, they could lead the NBA the way Magic and Bird carried the league through the 1980s. Years ago, as it does now, it made for must-see TV that had been lacking in the NBA for far too long. Even diehard hockey fans in Buffalo find themselves flipping to playoff basketball.
It’s too good to resist.
James has been terrific in the postseason. In fact, he might be too good for the league’s own good. To casual fans, he validates the tiresome argument that the NBA is a one-on-one league. He took over after Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving were injured and carried Cleveland to its sweep over Atlanta in the conference finals.
It hasn’t been easy for LeBron, who reaffirmed his place with his performance in the first three playoff rounds. He’s the best player of his time and could be the most complete player of all time. He doesn’t score like Michael Jordan did, but he’s a better passer and rebounder than MJ and can play any position.
A championship this year, given what he had to overcome, would support the argument he’s better than Jordan. The Cavs had a losing record nearing the midpoint in the season. There was talk they would fire their coach. They already lacked depth when they ran into injury problems.
LeBron put them on his back, especially in the postseason. He averaged 30.2 points, 11 rebounds and 9.2 assists against Atlanta with Love sidelined and Irving missing two games and being limited in Game Four. The Cavs easily won the series because LeBron made sure his teammates were involved.
Looking back, it’s scary to think how good the Cavs would be if they kept Andrew Wiggins rather than ship him to Minnesota in the blockbuster for Love. Cleveland hardly missed Love, who will become a free agent this summer. Once considered a major component, he now looks expendable.
It speaks to LeBron’s greatness.
Still, if you asked young kids to name their favorite player, most would likely say it was Curry. He plays with an unmatched flair and is the more exciting player with his ball-handling and shooting ability from the perimeter. People have a hard time peeling their eyes away from him.
He’s a walking, talking, dribbling, shooting billboard for the league. He and his sidekick, Klay Thompson, could be the best shooting tandem in NBA history. The Warriors also play great defense. We’ll see if athletic forward Draymond Green can provide some resistance to LeBron in the Finals.
It makes for the most compelling series in years even if some of the names seem foreign to hockey-loving fans in Buffalo. Certainly, they know enough about LeBron and Curry to draw their attention. NBA fans are familiar with Patrick Kane but many don’t know the difference between Corey Perry and Katy Perry.