Another huge summer of NBA free agency gaining momentum

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Over the weekend, The Athletic published an oral history of the Golden State Warriors‘ free-agent meeting with Kevin Durant in the Hamptons, which was 23 months ago.

LeBron James’ letter in Sports Illustrated announcing his signing with the Cleveland Cavaliers, which is about to turn 4 years old, still gets web traffic and is referenced routinely.

Players’ union executive director Michele Roberts is still asked in interviews about the decisions that led to the salary-cap spike in 2016.

At this moment, free agents like Paul George are deep in the planning of how to operate their recruitment process as a major life event, like a wedding.

There’s a reason all of this matters so much and lingers in the consciousness of NBA fans to the point that there’s obsession about minor details. And it’s not just because people love to follow along with the intrigue of transaction season on social media.

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Steph Curry and LeBron James have traded moments as the pair of superstars have vied for NBA championships against each other.

Since Durant signed with the Warriors two years ago, they are 9-2 against the Cavs, taking a once skintight rivalry and turning it one-sided. There have been occasional bouts of turbulence as he has dealt with injury and adjustment, but essentially since Durant authored “My Next Chapter,” the balance of power in the NBA has shifted.

No matter what defensive scheme the Cavs cook up, no matter what great performance James may be able to put together, no matter what set of whistles the referees dole out, none of that is going to change. With only occasional exceptions, talent wins in the NBA, and the accumulation of talent is the absolute most important thing for a franchise.

In some ways, it can be more important than the game itself.

After watching the Warriors shoot 57 percent and absorbing nine 3-pointers from Stephen Curry on Sunday night, James was asked about the daunting challenge that’s in his face. He’s looking at an opponent with four All-Stars, two of them former MVPs in their prime, and a system that takes advantage of all of them when it’s working properly.

In his artful way, James demurred.

“The odds have been against me since — I don’t know, since I was 5, 6 years old,” James said when asked about the predicament his team faces in the NBA Finals. “So we’re talking about basketball here. It seems like I come up here and tell you guys this all the time. The odds have been stacked up against me since I was an adolescent.”

James’ backstory does offer perspective. But in this case, he was just trying to get out of being blunt in the moment. He has described his viewpoint on this season as trying to “get the most out of it.” That’s coded language too. James knows he’s up against heavy odds, and he’ll play the hand he’s got and hope for some fortune. But he’s not expecting it. It’s not a way to go through a Finals scenario, but James has gotten used to it.

That’s why it’s hard to take in these Finals without recognizing the parallel tracks. There are these hugely important games with historical moments — JR Smith’s blunder, Curry’s long-range 3-pointers, suit shorts — being authored. The first two games peaked at more than 21 million viewers in the U.S. alone, and there were 50 million watching in China, not to mention those across the entire basketball-loving planet. This is basketball at its highest level in its highest profile.

Then there’s this other reality, where the plotting is unfolding about how to chase James in several weeks. Where Kawhi Leonard waits to discover his fate. Where George mulls his options. Where the Los Angeles Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics and others plot in the other huge competition that is playing out. The stakes on this are just as high, even if it largely happens well away from the spotlight.

The Cavs trail the Warriors 2-0 because they’ve struggled to make 3-pointers, because their best lineups have defensive weak spots that the Warriors exploit, and because vital role players haven’t delivered. But they’re also behind because they’ve been bested in the transaction game the past two summers, one year when Durant joined their rival and the next when they lost Kyrie Irving.

Because they’re limited in their options this summer, the Finals may not be the only major competition they struggle with. The fight to keep James and further support him is just as challenging as finding a way to defend the Warriors with Curry, Durant and Klay Thompson on the court together.

As he sat quietly at his locker in Oakland on Sunday night peeling off ice bags and bandages protecting floor burns, James had to be considering his lot in both battles. Losing on the floor is bitter enough — losing in the transaction game is frustrating too.

James has won them before, and he knows the score. The hard part is knowing exactly where he and the Cavs stand in both unfolding scenarios.

“It sucks when you go out there and you give it everything that you have and you prep and your mind is in it and your body is in it and you come out on the losing end,” James said. “It sucks to lose.”

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