After a tumultuous season with plenty of doubts about whether the top dogs of the NBA would be able to defend their conference titles, we find ourselves back in the same place we were last year… and the two years before that. For the fourth year in a row, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers will face the mighty Golden State Warriors, featuring All-Stars Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. LeBron James is playing in his 8th consecutive NBA Finals, as the 6th player ever to do so. (Only non-celtic from Bill Russell)
After a 7 game first round scare with the up-and-coming Indiana Pacers that almost sent the Cavs packing, they quickly disposed of the top seeded Toronto Raptors in a four game sweep. The Eastern Conference battle with the young Boston Celtics was a classic, with the Cavs battling with their backs against the wall in two elimination games, finally disposing of them in seven games after two incredible games from LeBron James. As we enter these NBA Finals, 3-time champ and 4-time MVP LeBron James is posting superhuman numbers in the playoffs, averaging 34.0 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 8.8 assists.
The Warriors easily found themselves in the Western Conference Finals once again, overwhelming the San Antonio Spurs and the New Orleans Pelicans in 5 games each. This set up for the long-awaited battle with the Houston Rockets, the top seed in the West. Even with a few rough games, the Warriors league-leading 3rd quarter offense propelled them back into the NBA Finals after a 7 game duel with Harden and the Rockets. The Warriors, led by Curry (24.8 points, 6.1 rebounds, 4.9 assists) and Durant (29.0 points, 7.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists), are looking to win their third title in the last four years.
Side by Side
Although these teams are meeting for the 4th year in a row, both sides have changed since their last encounter. Let’s take a look at each team side by side.
LeBron James has been universally seen as the best player in the world for about a decade. His continued dominance at age 33 is superhuman. With a 3-5 record in the Finals for his career, look for Lebron to take control of games and carry the Cavs like he has done almost all season. Even with all the stars the Warriors have, not having LeBron James puts any team at a disadvantage.
This season, the Warriors posted an offensive rating of 112.3, good for the best in the league. The Cavs posted a respectable offensive rating of 110.6, good for fifth in the league. It is hard to find flaws in Golden State’s offense. With two of the 5 best offensive players in the league in their lineup (Curry and Durant), and one of the greatest catch and shoot players in NBA History (Thompson), the Warriors are almost never in a position where they cannot score points for themselves. The Cavs’ weaknesses are far more evident, as often times they can struggle scoring on a rare night in which LeBron is not his usual self. The Warriors have been a paragon for a consistent and outstanding NBA offense, which ultimately gives them the edge over the Cavs offensively.
When it comes to defense, there is a larger, more glaring disparity between Golden State and Cleveland. The Warriors finished the season 9th in the league in defensive rating (104.7), while the Cavs found themselves ranked second to last in the NBA with a defensive rating of 109.5. A team in the NBA Finals was ranked worse defensively than teams like the Memphis Grizzlies and Chicago Bulls. Even worse news for Cleveland, the Warriors have a defensive rating under 100 this postseason (99.7) while the Cavs are standing with a playoff defensive rating of 105.9. The Warriors have a reigning DPOY and a 4 time All-NBA Defensive Team player in Draymond Green. In this category, the Warriors maintain a monumental advantage over the Cavs.
The Cavs’ second unit is comprised of Jordan Clarkson, Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Larry Nance, and likely Tristan Thompson once Kevin Love returns to play. On the other side, the Warriors’ second unit consists of Shaun Livingston, Nick Young, Kevon Looney, David West, and Javale McGee. According to hoopsstats.com, the Cavs’ bench ranks better than the Warriors’ in 3P%, 3P made, FT made, FG made, Offense, Defense…almost every major category. While both benches have struggled in the playoffs this year, I give the edge to the Cavs. Korver and Clarkson have, at times, provided a worthy offensive spark off the bench that the Warriors’ bench can’t match. Korver is characterized as a microwave – he can get hot quickly and is almost unstoppable when hot. If the Cavs’ bench can outplay the Warriors’, the Warriors may find themselves having to adjust and use their better players for even more minutes.
The Cavs defense:
In the regular season, the Cavs were the second-worst team in the NBA in terms of defensive rating. The Warriors were the second-best offensive team in the NBA by offensive rating, so the Cavs must be able to be strong on defense if they want any chance of beating the Warriors.
After missing 4 crucial games in the Conference Finals, the Warriors did not look the same without Iggy. Their “Hampton’s Five” Lineup – consisting of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green, and Kevin Durant – outscored opponents by more than 22 points per 100 possessions during the postseason. Playing without the 2015 Finals MVP puts more defensive pressure on Kevin Durant, the only defender on the Warriors outside of Iguodala that has had success guarding LeBron. The Warriors should hope that the bone bruise on his left knee doesn’t sideline him for a considerable amount of time this series.
LeBron’s playing time:
In this postseason, LeBron is playing over 41 minutes a game. In Games 6 and 7 against the Celtics, he played 46 minutes and all 48 minutes, respectively. He has played over 100 games this season alone. He has essentially but the team on his back at times. He is coughing up turnovers this postseason at an unprecedented rate for him. The Warriors are known to take advantage of such mistakes, as they rank 7th in the league in offensive efficiency off of turnovers according to Basketball-Reference.com. LeBron will need to protect the basketball and not play dumb, as the Warriors will use this to their advantage and have an easy road to another championship.
The Benches/Role Players:
Both teams have struggled outside of their starting lineups. Without Iguodala, the Warriors are a pretty thin team. The big men have been a problem, with Javale McGee, David West, and Zaza Pachulia not getting many rotation minutes due to the liability of them being on the floor. Without a strong player manning the post and the interior, the Cavs may be able to exploit this easily. The Warriors struggle immensely without any of their 3 best players on the floor (Curry, Durant, Thompson), so the Warriors will need Shaun Livingston, Nick Young, and Kevon Looney to take better shots and not allow the Cavs to fight back from deficits or pull away from a lead.
On the other hand, the Cavs have been criticized all year for the lack of a supporting cast this year. Without Kyrie Irving and with the current absence of Kevin Love, the Cavs starting lineup will most likely comprise of George Hill, J.R. Smith, Lebron James, Jeff Green, and Tristan Thompson. Overall, this starting lineup is not too intimidating (outside the fact that LeBron James is a part of it). Hill and J.R. Smith have struggled immensely this postseason, often times with Smith jacking up contested shots and leaving the Cavs with empty possessions. Green and Thompson could also be seen as liabilities offensively, leaving the weight or carrying the offense on LeBron. The Cavs will need to see strong offensive outputs from their bench if they want a shot in this series. Kyle Korver, Jordan Clarkson, and Larry Nance must be able to check in and take some of the weight off LeBron’s shoulders in order to force the Warriors to adjust.
The yearly battle between the Cavs and the Warriors has been a treat to NBA fans all over the world. Players on both sides have shone on the big stage. Last year, the Warriors overpowered the Cavs in every way imaginable, and that was when the Cavs had Kyrie. In every way, the Cavs are a worse team than they were at this point last year, while the Warriors have experienced little change in last year’s championship roster. Even if LeBron puts up career numbers every game in this series, the Warriors’ ability to play as a team and catch fire better than any other team in the league will prove too much for James and the Cavs to handle.
Warriors in 5