Posted by Jonah Gardner on June 1, 2017
Sometimes, what makes sports wonderful is the unpredictability. No matter what game you like, you've probably had plenty of that in the last year: Blown 3-1 leads, a century-long curse overturned, a 5,000-to-1 shot winning the richest league in the world's most popular sport.
But sometimes what makes sports wonderful is that it gives us exactly what we want. 346 days ago, when the curtain dropped on the 2016 NBA Finals, there was one thing every basketball fan wanted. More of that, please.
Well, after a year of arguing about triple-doubles, cap spikes, resting players, and process trusting, we're getting what we asked for. It may be in the most Monkey's Paw way imaginable, but the trade-off for having this year's NBA Playoffs sapped of any energy or suspense is this series. The Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors. The man who is perhaps the most talented player in NBA history squaring off with the team that is perhaps the most loaded the league has ever seen.
On paper, the Warriors should be enormous favorites. They enter the Finals with the best playoff point differential in NBA history, the fourth best regular season SRS in NBA history, and, oh yeah, four All-NBA caliber players including, arguably, the second and third best players in the league. It's a testament to the enormity of LeBron James' ability, and the ever-so-slightly underrated collection of complimentary players working in tandem with it, that it feels like the Cavs have a shot to do this.
But can they? Is it really possible for this Warriors team to lose four times in seven games? And what will the outcome mean for LeBron? For Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant? And for a league that's essentially spent an entire year on pause in order to pick up from the exact spot it left off last June?
Of course, it may be more accurate to say that the feeling of inevitability surrounding this matchup didn't really descend until last July 4, when Kevin Durant announced he'd be leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder and joining Golden State. At the time, it was hard to imagine a way the team could improve and yet, despite the fact that they didn't approach last year's record-breaking regular season win total, the Warriors have left little doubt about the the superiority of this year's model.
In the regular season, the Warriors had the league's highest effective field goal percentage AND the lowest opponent effective field goal percentage, to go along with the best offensive rating and second best defensive rating. Then, in the playoffs, ostensibly only facing teams that rank among the best in the league, the Warriors managed to improve on their regular season marks in all four of those stats.
A lot of that is because of KD, however it's also thanks to the way Durant's presence on the floor has allowed Stephen Curry to thrive. Steph has done the best work of his career in these playoffs and it's not especially close. He's on pace for the best playoff true shooting percentage (.675) ever posted by a player who also had a usage rate over 30% (with the caveat that usage rate cannot be calculated before the 1973-74 season).
Curry is averaging 28.6 points per game, a career playoff high, but what's more amazing is the fact that his scoring has actually been deflated by the fact that Golden State is in so many blowouts. On a per-36 minute basis, Curry is averaging over 30 points per game, something only LeBron, Russell Westbrook, and Michael Jordan have done since the 1990s.
It's easy to attribute Curry's shooting binge to Durant, whose presence on the floor demands extra attention from the defense in a way that Harrison Barnes' did not. However, it's actually tougher to prove that with the numbers; in fact, it seems like the opposite. In the playoffs, not only has Curry led the team in scoring and usage (shouts to JaVale McGee for being the third highest usage player on The Best Team In History), but the Warriors have been 28.7 points per 100 possessions better with Curry on the floor, as opposed to just +9.4 with KD.
In fact, aside from Curry, the only other Warrior to break +20 in that measure has been Draymond Green. What the numbers seem to be saying is that, despite the shiny new upgrade, this year's Warriors offense still has the same engine as last year's: the Curry/Green two-man game. While Curry leads the team in scoring and usage, Draymond leads it in playmaking, averaging 7.2 assists per game in the playoffs.
The bigger difference is on the other side of the ball, where the Warriors have improved from a 106.1 defensive rating in the 2016 NBA Playoffs to a 101.7 this year. That's a daunting number, but it's also important to consider it in the context of their opponents. Their first and second round matchups, against the Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz, contained a total of one All-NBA player and that player, Rudy Gobert, made the second team on the basis of his incredible defense. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are proficient scorers, and Gordon Hayward is the prototype for what you'd want in a modern, jack-of-all-trades wing, but neither team was in the top 10 in offense.
After that, they faced the San Antonio Spurs, a team that had a first-team All-NBAer...and then lost him to a lingering injury and a questionable play from Zaza Pachulia. In the 28ish minutes that the Warriors faced a team with a legitimately MVP-caliber player, they were outscored 78 to 55 at home.
Of course, Cleveland's opponents weren't exactly world-beaters either; in fact, none of the teams the Cavs played finished in the top half in playoff net rating this year (the Spurs at least wound up in 5th). Still, the fact that the Warriors got walloped so hard in the only sample we have for them against an elite offense should be encouraging for the Cavaliers, because their offense has been very, very elite.
In fact, despite Golden State's reputation for sharpshooting, it's the Cavaliers who have been the best shooting team in the playoffs, according to eFG%. In fact, they've posted the best playoff eFG% since at least 1984, the first year that I can run that query in the Basketball-Reference Game Finder.
The images of LeBron grinding the game to a halt in the 2015 NBA Finals still looms large in people's heads, but if the Cavs are going to win this year, it's going to be with a lot of high-octane offense. And on the other hand, it's the Warriors who will likely benefit if the game turns into a defensive slugfest. Dubs' opponents have shot just .467 against them per eFG%. While that number is not as historic as the Cavs' shooting, it is much better than Cleveland's defensive mark of .508 in the playoffs. For comparison, the Rockets, hardly known for their dedication to the defensive side of the game, allowed a .502 eFG% in the playoffs this year.
Effective field goal percentage is one of the four factors, a group of stats identified by basketball statistician Dean Oliver as being the keys to a team's success. The other three are turnovers, rebounding, and free throw rate and, even more than in a normal year, it's going to be extremely important to keep an eye on those factors.
Because of the reckless showmanship that fuels the greatness of the Warriors offense, they've been more prone to turnovers than other great pace and space teams like the 2013 and 2014 Spurs. The Dubs had the 8th highest turnover rate in the NBA this year, and in the stunning first half of game one, San Antonio was able to relentlessly exploit Golden State's looseness with the ball to build a huge lead.
However, aside from that half, the Warriors have managed to keep the turnovers in check during the playoffs. Their turnover rate fell from 13.2% in the regular season to 12.5% in the playoffs. The Cavs have also been a middle-of-the-road team in forcing turnovers, ranking 9th in the playoffs with an opponent rate of 12.1% (they also ranked a concerning 29th in the regular season, although they were much less engaged on defense then).
This is going to be important because in Games 1-4 last year, the Cavs and Warriors basically fought to a draw in the turnover battle. Cleveland had a net turnover rate of +0.3%, a virtual tie given the small sample size. In Games 5-7, that improved to nearly 1%, during a stretch which, as you may have heard, the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead.
Even more than turnovers, this series may swing on what happens on the glass. Cleveland grabbed 28.4% of available offensive rebounds in the 2016 Finals and, in Tristan Thompson, they have one of the league's best offensive rebounders. The conventional wisdom is that, especially when the Dubs put 6'7" Draymond Green at center, the way to beat them is by crashing the glass.
However, Durant provides an interesting counter for this year's Warriors. Durant grabbed 23.6% of available defensive rebounds this season, which is the best mark of his career and trailed only Russell Westbrook and Julius Randle for rebounding rate by non-centers. Harrison Barnes, in contrast, only grabbed 12.4% of available defensive rebounds last season.
Remember last year's Western Conference Finals, when the Oklahoma City Thunder dominated the Warriors over the first four games? A large part of that was because Oklahoma City could play lineups with Durant and Serge Ibaka and rebound like a team playing a big lineup while shooting like a team playing a small lineup. Obviously, Green doesn't have Ibaka's size, but slotting Durant in at the four instead of Barnes completely changes the complexion and shrinks the limitations of the Warriors' 5-out Death Lineups.
However, those lineups haven't been nearly as effective this year, despite the enormous upgrade in talent. The traditional Death Lineup (Curry/Durant/Green/Iguodala/Thompson) had a +23.0 net rating in the regular season, as opposed to a +44.4 in the 2015-16 regular season with the inferior Barnes slotting in for KD. The culprit here may be Andre Iguodala. While his regular season shooting numbers look good (.605, a career high), he's 33 years old and seems to have lost a step from his LeBron-smashing MVP form in the 2015 Finals.
Add to that a knee injury that's caused his eFG% to sink to .440 in the playoffs and, suddenly, the Warriors Death Star looks a little less than fully operational. If the Cavs have a hiding spot for Kevin Love, who's averaging 10.4 rebounds per game in the playoffs, they have a realistic chance of beating the Death Lineup on the glass and creating enough extra possessions to make up for the blistering pace that Golden State can play with when they go small.
Still, these nuances shouldn't paper over the big picture: the Warriors are one of the best basketball teams ever assembled. It will take a Herculian effort from LeBron, superstar turns from Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, and an enormous contribution from the Cavaliers' off-and-on bench to swing this series. But, on the other hand, the Warriors are about to face a team that's given them a lot of trouble over the past few years, one piloted by perhaps the smartest player and best all-around teammate in NBA history.
Remember that part about the Warriors having the best average point differential entering the Finals in NBA history? Well, the Cavs rank 6th in that measure. This matchup isn't David vs Goliath; it's Goliath vs Mecha-Goliath. Just please don't let it be another blowout.