After an uncomfortably long break after the conclusion of the Conference Finals, we’re finally just one day away from the grandest stage in basketball: the NBA Finals, where it will either be the Cleveland Cavaliers or Golden State Warriors taking home the Larry O’Brien Trophy. In this almost unbearable eight day hiatus of basketball, all of the important narratives have been discussed: Riley Curry, Kevin Love‘s impending free agency, Mark Jackson calling the NBA Finals, etc. You know, the vital stuff. What’s also been a point of conversation is who exactly the favorite is in this series. On the one hand, the Warriors were a regular season machine and the clearly deeper and more versatile team. On the other hand, the Cavaliers have LeBron James and as LeBron himself has pointed out, it’s hard to ever consider him the underdog. Since there is so much uncertainty, I’ve decided to break down the NBA Finals in a very in-depth, and hopefully not too wordy, Bill Simmons-esque Dr. Jack Breakdown.
Jesus, let’s just flip a coin. LeBron’s been the league’s Alpha Dog since 2009 — alright, to be fair LeBron shared that title with Kobe in 2009 and 2010, and in 2011 while LeBron and Dwyane Wade were still working out the kinks in their partnership, the distinction of Alpha Dog was kinda sorta vacant unless you are really prepared to give that title to Derrick Rose (the league’s MVP), Dwight Howard (who should’ve won MVP) or Dirk Nowitzki (the NBA Finals MVP). In 2012 or 2014 Kevin Durant could have made a case had the Thunder won the NBA Title, but that just wasn’t the case. Now in 2015, a baby-faced MVP whose basketball ceiling seems to be a retractable roof has a real chance to unseat King James on the NBA’s metaphorical throne.
This isn’t a question of whether or not there will be some sort of passing of the torch moment or how perfect of a story it may be. It’s a question of which of these two, the top two players in the NBA, can be trusted to live up to this billing in the Finals. Stephen Curry has been consistently brilliant all season long and that hasn’t wavered once. LeBron, for the first time in the better part of a decade, has been pretty up and down compared to what we’ve become accustomed to. At the moment, even on the heels of a Conference Finals series in which he averaged 30 points, 11 rebounds and 9 assists per game, we can’t say he’s playing his best basketball (even though LeBron himself would disagree). His jumper is as broken as it’s ever been and he’s not the same guy physically as he was even two years ago.
Still, in this category it’s hard to go against the guy who has been to five straight NBA Finals. And for what it’s worth, since 2009, the first time that LeBron James has ever been on a team considered a title favorite, there have been exactly two postseason series in which he under-performed: 2010 against Boston (and he had only one really bad game this series) and 2011 against Dallas. That’s the list. I’ll narrowly, narrowly, go with the safer bet.
Slight Edge: Cleveland
Hold on, we’ll get back to this one.
It’s a bummer that this series, and many others this postseason, will likely play out so much differently than they probably would have had all teams been at perfect health. Just look at the casualties:
- Klay Thompson was bleeding out of his ear during Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals. Shit, even if he is good to go for Game 1, I’m still concerned. Any time you are bleeding out of your ear because of a head injury, that’s, um, that’s just not natural.
- Kevin Love hasn’t played since the Cavaliers 4th game of the postseason after Kelly Olynyk launched a vicious and premeditated assault on Love’s shoulder.
- Steph Curry took one of the most terrifying falls I’ve ever seen in a basketball game in Game 4 against Houston. It was so bad that when he hit the ground I let out a gasp that was so loud my girlfriend heard me from the next room over and asked me if I was alright. I was so nervous that I didn’t answer her.
- Kyrie Irving has been forced to miss two games due to a variety of nagging lower body injuries. With eight days rest, he’ll probably be at close to 100 percent for Game 1, but how long will that last?
- LeBron James is close to being as banged up as Kyrie, and it doesn’t help that he’s already dealing with those nagging cramps that have popped up in the 2009 Conference Finals, 2012 NBA Finals and 2014 NBA Finals. I’m confident that LeBron can deal with the bumps and bruises. The cramps are a totally different story. I know from firsthand experience.
For what it’s worth, the five players mentioned above, when healthy, would be the five best players in the series. Love won’t be playing. We won’t know where Kyrie is at physically until we see him run up and down the floor a few times. As long as all of the blood remains inside Klay Thompson’s cranium, he should be fine for the long run. Still, I haven’t even mentioned Anderson Varejao (lost for the year back in 2014), Marreese Speights (missed all of the previous round), Iman Shumpert (a groin injury), Andrew Bogut (a possible hand injury kept him out of the 4th quarter in Game 5 against Houston) and anyone who gets near Matthew Dellavedova during the series (I don’t think he’s a dirty player, but he’s definitely an accident waiting to happen).
Edge (For Now): Golden State
Not your typical bananas. These are the bruised (literally) bananas that are gross looking and even less appetizing than regular bananas are. In case you couldn’t tell, I hate bananas. Since both teams have had the benefit of at least one week off, I’m going to assume that Kyrie Irving will look close to 100 percent (even though David Blatt has said otherwise in recent days) and Klay Thompson will not be dripping blood from his right ear. If that’s the case, we need to figure out the answer to the following three questions to come up with a decision:
1: Can a healthy Kyrie play Steph Curry to a wash?
2: What sort of measures will Cleveland take to prevent Klay Thompson from catching fire?
3: Which guy do you trust more in a big spot in a big Finals game?
Offensively, yes, a healthy Kyrie might be able to match Steph from a statistical standpoint on a given night. Over the course of a grinding seven game series where Kyrie is being defended by not just Steph, but Klay Thompson, Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala too … we might need to re-calibrate our expectations. And conversely, where is Cleveland hiding a possibly gimpy Kyrie? Steph torches healthy defenders who are All-Defense candidates. Putting Kyrie on Klay Thompson and forcing him to run into six off ball screens each possession isn’t smart. And if he’s checking Harrison Barnes the Warriors will make Cleveland, and Kyrie, pay with a series of Barnes post-ups until the Cavs adjust their scheme. This is a problem.
As for question two, what I mean is what will Cleveland do defensively to deal with Klay Thompson? Aside from a two quarter stretch in Game 4 where it looked like Klay was about to have one of those 37-point quarter outbursts, Houston had Klay under control for that entire series. The defense of Trevor Ariza had a lot to do with that, but Klay still had some open looks, ones he typically knocks down, only he didn’t have his stroke. Klay won’t have the job of defending James Harden or someone in that Harden mold who can score in bunches and get to the line. That seemingly eases his burden. The question now is who does Cleveland throw at Thompson? It will likely be Iman Shumpert to start. J.R. Smith will surely see some time on him too, though if I were Cleveland I would worry about J.R.’s attention to detail here. Is it possible Blatt would give LeBron the task of taking Klay Thompson out of the equation?
Question three is the one that ultimately gives Cleveland the edge for second banana, and it was a question that was answered during the regular season when Kyrie Irving scored 57 points on the road in San Antonio and buried the Spurs late with a barrage of ballsy shots. It wasn’t a game with Finals pressure, or even postseason pressure, but for the first time it showed me that Kyrie was absolutely a guy who was ready to be put in any big spot and deliver.
Slight Edge: Cleveland
Probably not as one-sided as some who are expecting a Golden State romp would believe. The remaining three spots favor Golden State, but it’s not like Cleveland is trotting out a bunch of scrubs alongside LeBron and Kyrie (at least not in the starting five). Iman Shumpert is an actual NBA starting shooting guard; someone who can penetrate when healthy, knock down open threes and play above average defense on above average perimeter players. Expect to see Shumpert spending some time on Stephen Curry. Mozgov is a behemoth in the middle and even though he won’t close a single game this series (nor has he closed many in the Playoffs so far) he’s a serviceable big man who can grab rebounds and protect the paint. Tristan Thompson is the wild card here. Since he’s been inserted into the starting power forward role, Thompson has been a steady 11-11 guy, bailing out Cleveland nearly every time they stall and find themselves in the midst of a stagnant isolation possession.
There’s definitely a scenario where Cleveland’s trio of “other” starters outplay Golden State’s. Maybe Draymond Green wears down having to bang bodies with Tristan Thompson every Cleveland offensive possession. Maybe Andrew Bogut’s hand actually isn’t 100 percent. Maybe Harrison Barnes is overwhelmed with the one-on-one matchup with LeBron and no-shows the Finals.
I wouldn’t count on all three of those things happening, and unless that’s the case it’s hard not to favor Golden State here. The Warriors starting five has been too consistently potent all year for things to just break down as they are approaching the finish line.
Edge: Golden State
Really, we’re just talking about simple math here. Golden State can play somewhere between four and six different guys off of the bench. I would suspect that number is either four or five each game, depending on whether Marreese Speights can go or not. Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Leandro Barbosa and Festus Ezeli are all likely remaining in the rotation. And yes, that means Golden State’s highest paid player, David Lee, totally healthy by the way, might be reduced to slapping asses and waving towels on the bench.
David Blatt doesn’t have the luxury of a deep bench. J.R. Smith might be the most important bench player in the series, but after the aggressive sixth man, we’re right back in that dangerous 2007 Cavaliers sort of roster. Matthew Dellavedova has had moments of impact (and I’m not just referring to his encounters with opponents lower limbs) and James Jones … wait, James Jones is Cleveland’s third guy off the bench? Oh shit! It’s a wrap here!
Big Edge: Golden State
“I was supposed to take the ball out. I told Coach there was no way I’m taking the ball out unless I could shoot it over the backboard and go in. So I told him, `Have somebody else take the ball out.’ The play that was drawn up, I scratched it. I just told Coach, `Just give me the ball. We’re either going to go into overtime or I’m going to win it for us.'”
This was a post-game quote from LeBron James, following his game-winning shot against the Bulls in Round 2. For what it’s worth, Steve Kerr would never have put Stephen Curry in a position where he would have to say or do something like this. The coaching advantage swinging in favor of Kerr over David Blatt doesn’t come down to this decision alone, nor does it condemn Blatt as poor NBA coach. Blatt and Kerr both deserve a ton of credit for finding their way to the Finals in their first year as NBA coaches. It’s not an easy task for any individual, let alone two guys who aren’t accustomed to the rigors of a long season on the bench in the Association.
Edge: Golden State
For Cleveland, it’s a matter of figuring out which flaw is the worst. For Golden State, it’s a matter of figuring out if they even have any flaws. In this case, each team’s flaw isn’t all that fatal against most teams, only in this particular match-up it could prove to be costly. Cleveland’s lack of depth is a serious problem, but if LeBron and Kyrie could give the Cavs 40 minutes per game for one more series then it’s manageable. Cleveland’s bugaboo is the frequency in which the offense breaks down and turns into iso-ball. Golden State was the best defensive team in the league and they’ll easily swallow up stagnant offensive sets, even ones that are spearheaded by the best player in the league.
As for Golden State, I guess since they are a below average rebounding team we can call that their fatal flaw. If Tristan Thompson remains a terror on the offensive glass and if Cleveland can buy themselves ten to fifteen extra possessions per game, it might prove costly. Really though, it feels like I’m picking nits.
Home Court Advantage
This isn’t your older brother’s Cleveland Cavaliers home crowd. Back in LeBron’s first tenure, The Q was one of the NBA’s best home court advantages and the Cavs became the seventh member of the 72-10 Home Team Club since the merger — by that, I mean over the course of back to back seasons, a team compiled a record of at least 72-10 at home; the complete list: The 1985/1986 Celtics (75-7), 1987/1988 Lakers (73-9), 1989/1990 Pistons (72-10), 1995/1996 Magic (76-6), 1996/1997 Bulls (78-4), 1997/1998 Jazz (74-8) and 2009/2010 Cavaliers (74-8).
There isn’t any sense of invincibility when the Cavaliers play at home now, and before the season I was expecting Cleveland to be a home court juggernaut. On the flip side, the Warriors are as close to unbeatable at Oracle Arena as any team has been in their home arena, ever. They haven’t just taken care of business at home; they have steamrolled opponents, putting the league on notice in the process, letting everyone know that they aren’t just your run of the mill title contender. The Warriors are 46-3 at home this year in the regular season and postseason combined, four home wins away from the most all-time. They aren’t getting to fifty though. They won’t even have that opportunity.
Edge: Golden State
Prediction: Warriors over Cavaliers, 4-1