There is nowhere for Kyle Lowry to run. Some of this is probably him clawing for leverage against Toronto for max money, but there’s also some honesty when he says of the Cavaliers they’ve got LeBron James; nobody’s closing the gap on him. He’s discouraged, surely: the Cavs have clowned the Raptors in two consecutive postseasons. The Canadian franchise had the most successful season in their history, lost four Eastern Conference Finals games to the Cavs by a combined 114 points in 2016, then added Serge Ibaka this year and got swept one round sooner.
Scuttlebutt is Lowry is considering a move to the Western Conference, but the Warriors aren’t any easier to overcome than the Cavs and there’s not a franchise in the West that’s one star away. Lowry could join the Mavs or the Spurs and the only meaningful difference about the end of his season will be the name of the superteam that bounces his squad from the playoffs. Perhaps this is human nature, wanting to try something new even though you know it won’t work, hoping novelty distracts you from your big picture hopelessness for a while. Or perhaps Lowry senses that he’s close to a $35 million per year deal in Toronto and wants to make sure Masai Ujiri offers it.
The playoff bracket is thankfully big enough that it offers more to us than incremental affirmations of preseason predictions that the Cavs and Warriors were going to walk into a Finals matchup threepeat. The first round had its curiosities with the Bulls giving the Celtics some trouble, and the insurgent Jazz dispatching the dour Clippers, and the second-tier Conference Semis tilts between the Spurs and Rockets, and the Celtics and Wiz are fun and fascinating in their own ways even if they’re somewhat clouded over by inconsequentiality. The NBA isn’t a league that spits out out-of-nowhere title contenders, and seven-game series make upsets difficult and unlikely, but we’re as stuck in a rut as we have been in a while with these two juggernauts in opposite conferences blotting out lesser lights and finding true competition only in each other. And with the way these Kevin Durant-bolstered Warriors are humming, they might lance through the Cavs as well.
In the same fashion great books and movies are engrossing due more to their tone or their discursiveness than their plots or their endings, if you understand the NBA only as a champion-crowning exercise, you’re missing out on most of its appeal. It’s about highest-stakes titan clashes, and the marketing material will tell you as much, but it’s also about smaller and specific intrigue: a rookie renovating his jumper, a game-by-game divorce between player and coach, the slow coagulation of disparate talent into a bonafide unit. The pace and expansiveness of the regular season strips the game of grand meaning, giving basketball time to exist as itself and giving us time, if we’re so inclined, to think about the Milwaukee Bucks and Portland Trail Blazers, which is nice, because those teams reward deep readings, and by the time the playoffs are at their most roilingly crucial and spectacular, they’re likely to be on vacation.
But now that we’re past the part of the season for chin-stroking about the league’s middle class and all that’s left are games with built-in importance and pomp, it’s discouraging that they smack of obligation, like we should just hurry up already and get to Cavs-Warriors Part Trois. It siphons some of the oxygen from other series, and the possibility remains that we could see our first Finals in which both teams are sitting at 12-and-0 on the eve of Game 1, which would be both an accomplishment and kind of a bummer. There’s not a fix for this, really. The Warriors are a happy-malignant accident of sudden cap inflation and there’s only one LeBron James. If we instituted the increasingly popular reform of abolishing conferences and seeding all playoff qualifiers one through sixteen and re-rolled this season, we would probably get a weird, anticlimactic Finals-ish semi- or quarterfinal between the two teams, since the Cavs routinely slip into a mid-year slumber.
Of course, the inevitability of it is only a problem in the run-up to the actual event: Golden State and Cleveland are the two best teams in the league—which is what we want in a Finals, right?—and they often draw exquisite basketball out of each other. Last year’s Finals were twisty and well-played and exhilaratingly stressful and this season’s Christmas Day game was a regular season classic. Even LeBron plus the 2013 Knicks dragging the Warriors to six games had its gothic charm in 2015.
Kyle Lowry could be washed up by the time we’re done with Cavs-Warriors Finals. In the space of five years in Toronto, he’s turned himself from a serviceable starter with a reputation for prickliness into a buttery slash-and-kick guard who can carries a fifty-game winner for quarters at a time. That accomplishment shouldn’t be glossed over, but it makes sense that it’s not enough for him, that he might have aspirations to create a third contender somewhere else. Unfortunately, no such sleeping giant currently exists. You can’t make peace with that, if you’re Kyle Lowry, and that’s why he’s restless. For those of us watching: we’ve made an uneasy peace with these Warriors and Cavs. We can enjoy what they offer, but it’s not like we have any alternative.