Led by LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, the Cleveland Cavaliers erased a 3-1 deficit in the 2016 NBA Finals to defeat the Golden State Warriors and give Cleveland its first NBA Championship in franchise history.
Almost a year later, a rematch is in place as Game 1 of the 2017 NBA Finals takes place Thursday night when the Warriors host the Cavaliers.
Both teams head into the Finals hot, as the Warriors are undefeated at 12-0, while the Cavaliers boast just one loss at 12-1.
The dominant run by the Cavaliers the past two seasons is reminiscent of the Los Angeles Lakers in the early 2000s, as Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant led the Lakers to three straight championships.
This Cavaliers team is similar to those Lakers in that they have an established, dominant superstar in James, much like O’Neal, and a young, hungry superstar in Irving, who like Bryant strives to get better each year and is not afraid to take big shots.
Irving recently commented on that comparison, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN:
“It’s a tough balance,” Irving told ESPN. “Because everyone knows, Shaq was really dominant and [had] a lot of the individual accolades … unbelievable. And that’s who he was. And Kobe was just consistently working on his game and consistently trying to prove everyone all the time. And you got to commend somebody for that.
Bryant and O’Neal were ultimately not able to coexist though, leading to O’Neal being traded to the Miami Heat in 2004. Irving added that he does not want selfishness to get in the way of him and James potentially winning more championships together:
That just shows the true testament of their will and what they’re willing to do and what they’re willing to sacrifice, but I know I don’t want to look back and say that I let my selfishness get in the way of us winning championships, because we have unbelievable talent on this team and unbelievable players, and so I don’t want to ever take that for granted.
“Whenever that time comes and it’s my time to be the leader of the franchise, then I’ll be well-prepared. But for now, I’m cool with just being — I’m very, very cool with being — a great guy on a great team.”
If the Cavaliers want to win back-to-back championships they will have to go through a Warriors team that added Kevin Durant to the mix this past offseason, along with their other three All-Stars Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. If they are able to do that then the comparisons to Bryant and O’Neal will likely continue.