Either the Golden State Warriors are about to become the two-time reigning NBA champions, or LeBron James is about to bring Cleveland its first major sports championship in more than a half-century. No matter what happens, one of those two things is guaranteed to come true on Sunday night. Just pause for a moment and let that sink in.
On some level, the above statement should be considered totally normal and unsurprising. After all, the Warriors have consistently been the best team in the West over the last two years, winning 67 games and then 73, and the Cavs have similarly dominated the East. There's nothing strange about seeing Golden State and Cleveland fight to the very end for a title.
On the other hand ... man. If you think back to where these teams were just two years ago, it's pretty amazing to reflect on how far we've come.
The Cavaliers in 2013-14 were a lottery team. They started the season 4-12 and never climbed out of that early hole, finishing with 33 wins and falling well outside of the East playoff picture. The Warriors, meanwhile, won 51 - a very nice season, but not enough to slot them higher than sixth in a competitive West. Your very own Portland Trail Blazers finished one rung above them with 54 wins and even won a round in the playoffs.
Of course, the rest is history. The Cavaliers got two huge lucky breaks that summer that led to LeBron James' homecoming - first James' Miami Heat lost the NBA Finals in a convincing five games to San Antonio, and second the Cavs selected Andrew Wiggins with the No. 1 overall draft pick and flipped him for Kevin Love, an additional star to entice James. With a new big three in place, the Cavs assumed their position atop the East. As for the Warriors, there was no singular personnel move that put them over the top, but rather a series of incremental improvements from young stars Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.
For fans who have grown tired of the Lakers/Spurs/Heat oligarchy that's ruled the NBA throughout the two post-Michael Jordan decades of the league's history, there's something gratifying about seeing these two new powers rise to the top. There's a feeling that if the Warriors and Cavs can do this, anyone can - it just takes a few breaks. All you need is to win three draft lotteries and hit on all three top picks (LeBron in 2003, Kyrie Irving in 2011, Love via Wiggins in 2014) or find three diamonds in the rough lower in the draft and develop them well, and you can break the mold and become the next NBA big thing. It's doable.
It's also kinda maddening if you're here in Portland. If you've followed the Blazers for long enough to have endured the ups and downs of the last two decades, witnessing all the teams that have come close to reaching the NBA's top echelon but never quite made it, it's hard not to feel quite a bit of jealousy watching the Warriors and Cavs compete at this level. Remember - there have been three different Blazers incarnations that have flirted with greatness in the post-Jordan era. There was that 2000 team, built around Rasheed Wallace and Scottie Pippen and a host of supporting characters, that pushed the Lakers to a seventh game in the West finals but couldn't quite pull it out. There was the late-2000s group that assembled a young, supremely talented big three of LaMarcus Aldridge, Brandon Roy and Greg Oden before succumbing to injuries. And then there was the team circa 2014, with Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum and the rest of the guys around Aldridge, that looked poised to reach the next level. Of course, that never happened either.
When you watch the Cavs and Warriors, it's tough to fight that feeling - why can't this be us? Why couldn't one extra break have gone Portland's way at some point this century? What if things don't fall apart for the Blazers in the fourth quarter of Game 7 against L.A.? What if Oden's knees don't give out? What if Wesley Matthews doesn't tear his Achilles in the spring of 2015? Change one little detail, and the whole timeline is altered dramatically. But it doesn't work that way, as we all know. The past is the past.
The Warriors are an especially tough pill to swallow from the Blazers' perspective. You were just better than these guys two years ago, and you got leapfrogged. There was no one major thing that happened to propel Golden State to the top - just a series of small improvements across the board. The cliché about Steph Curry is that he looks ordinary, "like your brother's college roommate" or what have you, but really, the Warriors' entire team is like that. They feel like an everyman's champion. That's both inspiring (we could be next!) and infuriating (why isn't that us?!). The Cavs are a little different because LeBron is a unique character, revered as a king from his teenage years on, but they too are tantalizing to an extent. This team just went 33-49 two seasons ago. Now they're here. It's hard to fight the envy.
Of course, the other way to view nouveau elite teams like Golden State and Cleveland is to see them as a source of inspiration, not jealousy. I've written before about the idea that the Blazers could conceivably use the Warriors as a model for building a title-contending team themselves. They have a similar sort of nucleus, with a solid group of young talent led by two high-scoring guards who are still improving. Having said that, Portland still has work to do in so, so many areas. Lillard and CJ McCollum still aren't Steph and Klay; Portland still has no Draymond Green. The bench still needs depth; the defense still needs a massive overhaul. There are missing pieces everywhere you look. That's what's so heartbreaking about the Warriors. They look just ordinary enough to fool you into thinking you can be them; then they shatter that notion. As for the Cavs, forget about it. Short of inventing human cloning, there's no finding the next LeBron James. That model isn't replicable.
In Portland, you can at least take solace in the fact that the Blazers are building a nucleus that can set them up for competitiveness over the long haul. In Lillard and McCollum, they have two cornerstone pieces. In Terry Stotts, they have a coach with a passion for developing talent; in Neil Olshey, they have a GM with a keen eye for finding it. They also have fantastic support from the top in owner Paul Allen - to a man, every Blazer raved after last month's playoff elimination about Allen's passion and commitment to building a winning team. Having bright ownership might not matter as much as Joe Lacob and the Warriors' leadership team likes to think it does, but it does count for something. With the braintrust they have in place, Portland has a good start.
As for the players, the Blazers are still working on it. But as you watch this postseason, you start to get this heartwarming feeling that maybe, just maybe, the top teams are vulnerable. The Spurs got knocked out of the playoffs the day after the Blazers did. The Warriors trailed one series 3-1 and now risk blowing a 3-1 lead and losing a Finals. The Cavs are dynamite now, but they've had some questionable stretches over the last two years. Even the best teams have chinks in the armor, and that's before you even get to injuries. The Cavs were without two All-Stars in the Finals last year. The Warriors now are trying to survive without Andrew Bogut (and Andre Iguodala is now ailing too). These things happen. A little plot twist can change everything. Portland knows that as well as anyone.
It's really, really hard to break into the top tier of the NBA. Few franchises ever do. I'm turning 30 this year, and the first 29 championships I've witnessed have all gone to the Bulls, Celtics, Heat, Lakers, Mavericks, Pistons, Rockets, Spurs or Warriors. That's it - nine titleholders in my lifetime. You need a lot of breaks to join that club. The Warriors were the latest team to join it, and the Cavs will have their chance on Sunday as well. In Portland, though, we're still waiting.
I don't know when the Blazers' chance will come. Anyone who says they do is lying. I do know, however, that a large part of being a fan is having the willingness to keep watching, enduring the seemingly interminable waiting, hoping that eventually something truly worth waiting for will happen. As recent history has taught us, you never know what can happen in a couple years' time.