By Mikee Salud
After many thrilling weeks, numerous standout rookie performances, and some three-point chucking game 7's, we have finally reached the apex of the NBA season. Unfortunately, we might not be in for a real treat. The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers will be playing for the championship for the fourth consecutive year, the first time this has ever happen in NBA history. While there is unquestionably some fatigue that is rising among the public about having the same two teams playing in the Finals again, it still features a team that boasts four All-Stars and an offensive system that will impress even the most passionate NBA fans, and another team that employs arguably the most marketable athlete in the world doing his best one-man-show routine. Despite the moaning of some media outlets, there is no doubt that the series will still draw in massive ratings.
Despite lackadaisical and uninspired play throughout the regular season, they have appeared dominant through these past few weeks, and analytically, it appears to be no contest heading into the final round. The Warriors led the league with a 112.3 offensive rating while also having the ninth best defense in the league with a 104.3 defensive rating in the regular season. In the playoffs, the Warriors have ramped up their defense with a 99.7 defensive rating while still maintaining their top notch offense. They have also rebounded at an elite rate in the playoffs, grabbing 52% of available rebounds. The third quarter has been their strong suit all season and where they create separation from their opponents, outscoring them by 33 points thus far. Just like their reputation demands, their offensive system is very pass happy, averaging 25 assists per game, as well as 301 passes per game. Of course, their whole team is centered around their four cornerstones -- Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. Kevin Durant, who was last year's Finals MVP, has been sensational this time around as well, scoring 29.4 points per game these playoffs. Stephen Curry, who missed the first seven games of the playoff run, has been inconsistent at times, but really turned it on during the last two games against the Houston Rockets, scoring an average of 28 points to lead them to the Finals. Klay Thompson has been his usual self, shooting 42% from the three point line these playoffs while providing sensational defense. And one cannot forget about Draymond, who leads the team in rebounds (11.6), assists (8.1), steals (1.9) and blocks (1.5). The four of them, along with veteran wing Andre Iguodala, form their so-called "Death Lineup". With the Death Lineup, they are beating their opponents by 22 points. However, the one wrinkle that hurts the Warriors is the injury to Andre Iguodala, as he is still nursing a leg contusion and will be out for at least game 1. Due to this, the Warriors will have to rely upon the combination of Kevon Looney, Nick Young, and Shaun Livingston to provide the Warriors a fifth guy to replace the production that will be missed due to Iguodala's absence.
Speaking of the fifth guy, many already know what to expect from the Warriors' core four. With Iguodala out, the X-factor will have to be whichever one of Looney, Young, or Livingston the Warriors will look to as the replacement for him. Based upon what we saw against the Rockets, it looks like Kevon Looney will get the first crack to play center in this series. When Looney is inserted with the Warriors' All-Stars instead of Iguodala, they are five points worse, as while their defense improves, their offense noticeably dips. With Looney, the Warriors get a tough rebounder and added length down at the post, but lose the extra playmaking skills that Iguodala provides, which can lead the Warriors to pass less and become more isolation dependent. Furthermore, losing Iguodala for these first few games means that they will be without their best LeBron defender. The play of Looney can decide how fluid the Warriors will play. If not, someone like rookie Jordan Bell may takeover.
In many ways, it is surprising that the Cavaliers even got this far. From trading Kyrie Irving, to dismantling their team during the Trade Deadline, the Cavs have been through it all this year. In the regular season, the Cavaliers had a top-5 offense (110.6 offensive rating) but the second worse defense in the league (109.5 defensive rating), only behind the Phoenix Suns. While their defense has picked up a bit during the playoffs (105.9 defensive rating), they have been plagued by inconsistent performances by their role players. After a first round scare from the Indiana Pacers and a seven-game battle with the Boston Celtics, this is a true testament to LeBron's brilliance. Throughout these playoffs, LeBron leads the Cavaliers in minutes (41.3), points (34.0), assists (8.8), steals (1.4), and blocks (1.1), while also being second on the team in rebounds (9.2). He is truly carrying a team more so than any other player in NBA history. In fact, the Cavaliers' most used lineup that does not include LeBron is getting outscored by 23 points during these playoffs. Essentially, LeBron needs to play close to 48 minutes each game in order for the Cavaliers to have a chance against the Warriors, especially with Kevin Love not being 100%.
Speaking about the role players, the Cavaliers have a rotating cast of players that can only seem to turn it on when they are playing at home. When looking at home and road splits, the Cavs score 9 less points and give up 5 more points when playing on the road; this is a major problem, as they do not have homecourt advantage during this series. In order for Cleveland to win, they need more consistency out of guys like George Hill, JR Smith, Jeff Green, and Kyle Korver, all whom's effective field goal percentages drop considerably when on the road, if they want any chances of winning. On the other side, the Warriors will look to prevent any of the Cavaliers role players from getting hot, helping LeBron, and making this a series.
That being said, there are some positives that the Cavaliers can look to. The five man lineup of LeBron, George Hill, JR Smith, Jeff Green, and Tristan Thompson have outscored their opponents by 25 points when trotted out together -- the second best lineup among 23 lineups that have played over 50 minutes in the playoffs. Furthermore, they play at a a much slower pace than the Warriors, with the second slowest pace among all playoff teams, averaging about 93.85 possessions per game. In comparison, the Warriors have averaged 99.88 possessions per playoff game. Furthermore, the ball tends to stay within LeBron's hands, as the Cavaliers average 247 passes a game and 18.8 assists per game these playoffs, both numbers being the third lowest among all playoff teams. If the Cavaliers can manage to make the Warriors play at their pace, the Warriors suddenly become vulnerable, as four of their five playoff loses have been when the Warriors score 100 or less points.
Most Important Play: the LeBron Isolation
The play that will define the Finals is how the Warriors guard LeBron's isolation attempts. In today's switch-happy defensive schemes, LeBron will look to exploit the mismatches that the Warriors will give him. As shown in the video above of last year's Eastern Conference Finals against the Celtics, LeBron frequently punished the Celtics whenever they switched a slower or weaker defender on LeBron. During this year's playoffs, LeBron has been supremely efficient with isolation plays, averaging 1.04 points per isolation possession and having a 50% effective field goal percentage during these possessions. Even if the Warriors decide to double, it leave someone open for LeBron to pass to, whether it be a Tristan Thompson waiting near the rim or an open JR Smith or Kyle Korver out for an easy three. It is almost a guarantee that the Cavaliers will find a way for someone like Looney or Curry to get switched onto LeBron in order for him to get an easy layup, draw a foul, or find the open man. Whenever there is a switch, it is important for the Cavaliers and LeBron to take advantage of it as much as possible. For the Warriors, they will need to find a way to avoid these mismatches, which may mean that Curry could possibly get played out of certain stretches in favor of someone like Livingston or Young to avoid a huge mismatch against LeBron.
In the end, I do not see any chance of the Cavaliers winning unfortunately, despite how great LeBron James has been throughout these past few weeks, the Warriors have four stars who can carry them at any given moment, while also having a better defense and offense than the Cavaliers. In fact, there is not one thing that the Cavs do better than the Warriors in, as Golden State also has a higher rebounding percentage and both have nearly identical turnover percentages. However, I can see the Cavaliers stealing one at home due to LeBron's greatness and their role players stepping up in front of their home crowd.
VERDICT: The Golden State Warriors win the championship 4-1 over the Cleveland Cavaliers; Kevin Durant wins the Finals MVP.