Earlier this summer, shortly after the Cleveland Cavaliers fell on the sunny side of an enormous LeBron James decision, NBA TV launched into a string of The King and the Cavs’ finest playoff games during his first term. Take away a Game 5 iconic, “balls-to-the-wall” night in Michigan in 2007 or a Game 7 45-point shootout against Boston in 2008, Cleveland's run-ins with the Washington Wizards between 2006-2008 were perhaps the most entertaining.
Think for a moment what those series provided:
- LeBron's baseline ballerina game-winner
- Jared Jeffries guarding LeBron in crunch time
- Mike Brown's classic "I-might-need-LeBron-to-go-1-on-5" offense and LeBron actually doing it
- Gilbert Arenas' glory days
- The arrival of DeShawn Stevenson
- Jay Z making hip-hop history by dropping an entire diss record about an NBA player for another NBA player
- LeBron providing the "kiss of death" to Gilbert's career
The Wizards were somewhat similar to the 2012-2014 Indiana Pacers: talented, fearless, but the team without the guy who had “James” on the back of his jersey. After 2008, the rivalry died down mainly because the Wizards fell off the face of the map for a litany of reasons stemming from dysfunctional rosters, a bad Gilbert Arenas contract, and Arenas and Javaris Crittenton bringing guns in the locker room (and Gilbert later joking about it).
The Wizards fell hard. The Wizards fell fast. And the Wizards fell hard and fast in a very public fashion. What happened to the Cavs is infinitely more documented and part of a story that's chain of events became much larger than the game of basketball.
The point is this: The Cavs/Wizards dynamic fell off the face of the map due to a wicked elixir of bad luck and changing of the times. Fast-forward nearly seven years after the two franchises faced off in a game of any sort of importance, and the tables are set. LeBron’s return sent everything into overdrive. Washington’s chess move of signing LeBron’s “best friend” in Paul Pierce was done in part because the team needed veteran leadership, a guy with enough confidence to take a big shot on call and partially because no player in the game is linked to James in pressure moments as much as Pierce.
LeBron’s inaugural season as co-general manager/small forward also brought in names like Mike Miller, James Jones, Shawn Marion and Kevin Love. With Washington re-signing Marcin Gortat, while bringing in Kris Humphries and DeJuan Blair, both teams are immensely more talented than the years before.
Yet, signing veterans and big names wasn’t exactly a recipe for renewed disdain. Leave that to the young bloods. It’s 2014, and this is how lines in the sand are drawn. Drama begins in less than 140 characters on Twitter and six-second clips on Vine. The back and forth started innocently enough. Bradley Beal proclaimed he and John Wall were the best backcourt in the NBA.
Cavs shooting guard Dion Waiters responded, “That’s nonsense. (Beal is) supposed to say that, but I know deep down, he's not messing with me and Ky (Kyrie Irving). I think me and Ky are the best backcourt, young backcourt. That's all."
To which John Wall drew lines in the sand firing off a verbal cannonball, “Why he say that? They haven’t seen a playoff game yet, so when they make one they can start talking.” A punch to the ribs and solid jab had this been scored in boxing, Wall quickly delivered the haymaker.
“But if you’re going to be the best backcourt, you have to start. This is the year he’s probably starting, so let’s see who got the best backcourt. You got to be a starting backcourt to be the best backcourt.”
Despite what time has done for rule changes and the overall product on the court, trash talk has always provided a certain element of theater, especially in basketball. Stripes are earned by talking and backing up talk. An emotional game based as much on mental edge as it is physical, the squabble between Waiters and Wall isn’t media hype. Fans want players to hold some sort of aggression towards each other. Sports are fun, but sports are more fun when emotions are involved.
Here’s what Wall really wanted to say.
“This is coming from a guy who doesn’t even start. I mean, he’s going to start this year, but that’s a given. And he’s never made the playoffs. They’ll make it this year because they have LeBron and Kevin Love, but he and Kyrie couldn’t make the eighth seed in the East. He and Kyrie didn't even like each other last season, remember? And this is the guy who chooses to talk? He’s the fourth option.”
Nevertheless, Wall’s comments didn’t do much to knock the cool off Waiters, who retweeted a video of him scoring 24 points on the Wizards in February with the caption, “Men lie women lie BUCKETS DNT.”
The Cavaliers are the team with the bull's eye on their back, the grand prize that comes with winning the services of LeBron. Meanwhile, the Wizards are poised to build off a successful 2013-14 campaign that saw them fall within a bad quarter and a handful of bad bounces away from the Eastern Conference Finals.
There's a collision course, a meeting of the minds and clash of the styles that's inevitable. For Washington, advancing means slaying a dragon and runaway freight train no Eastern Conference team has done since Pierce's Celtics.
"Wherever he’s going to be you got to beat this guy at some point," Gortat told The Washington Post's Jorge Castillo. "So it’s not like I’m hating on him or loving this guy. I just don’t care. I look at our team and I look at myself and see who I am. What can we do to become a better team?”
Poetic irony defines both teams. Both hit rock bottom. Both became laughingstocks in the league. One drafted Jan Veselý. The other has an owner eternally associated with a Microsoft Word font. Yet, here we are again, on the verge of a new season and cities separated by nearly 400 miles, and a Johnny Manziel middle finger should have much to say how the conference shakes out come April and beyond.
Fifty-two days is an eternity. That's when both teams square off for the first time in Verizon Center on Nov. 21. Then again, for everything the Wizards and Cavs have experienced the past half decade plus, "eternity" isn't so bad of a wait.
@JustinTinsley is stuck halfway between a dream and reality. The plan? To make that dream a reality.