This article originally appeared in a September 2017 issue of The Fordham Ram.
This article initially appeared in The Fordham Ram in September of 2017.
This article originally appeared in The Fordham Ram in September of 2017.
The College Football Playoff celebrated its fifth year in 2018. There have been ten semifinal games in its history. Only two have been decided by one possession.
Continuing college football’s annual tradition of being exactly what we thought it would be, Alabama and Clemson waltzed to easy victories in their semifinal matchups with Oklahoma and Notre Dame, respectively. The Tigers won their game 30-3 while the Tide beat Oklahoma 45-34 in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated. Now, Clemson and Alabama will meet in the College Football Playoff for the fourth consecutive season, and if you want a sense of their total domination over the sport, consider this: 10 of the last 11 College Football Playoff games have ended with either Clemson or Alabama on top.
And with this domination, the cries for an eight-team playoff to decide a champion are building, and they aren’t coming from the outside. In fact, some of the most powerful people inside college football seem to be willing to advance the discussion for playoff expansion as soon as 2020. The logistics are still being worked out, but it seems like this is going to happen, so let’s start off by looking at what that eight-team playoff would potentially look like.
In this scenario, it’s likely that there would be six automatic bids to the Playoff. Five of them would go to each Power 5 conference champion (including the Pac-12) and the sixth would go to the highest-ranked Group of Five team (UCF). The other two bids would be at-large berths, so you would almost certainly have a bracket that looks something like this:
- Alabama (SEC champion) vs 8. Washington (Pac-12 champion)
- Clemson (ACC champion) vs 7. UCF (highest-ranked Group of 5 team)
- Notre Dame (at-large) vs. 6. Ohio State (Big 10 Champion)
- Oklahoma (Big 12 Champion) vs. 5. Georgia (at-large)
The main critique of the four-team version of the Playoff is that it isn’t competitive enough. That is perfectly fair, and making the Playoff more competitive at this stage is a very difficult—if not impossible—task. And there are several fundamental problems with expanding it to eight teams that would suggest that doing so would not accomplish what we all want, which is competitive balance.
For one thing, Washington is not one of the eight best teams in the country, but they would get in as a result of winning the Pac-12. I think it’s pretty obvious that they would get annihilated by Alabama. Clemson would likely do the same to UCF, which isn’t an entirely fair judgment of the defending national champions because of the absence of star quarterback McKenzie Milton. In my view, Georgia would likely take down Oklahoma, which would set up a fascinating rematch of last year’s national title game. The only toss-up quarterfinal game, then, would probably be the Notre Dame-OSU tilt, but my gut says the Irish would come out on top.
But beyond looking at what it would look like this year, the big-picture question when it comes to an expanded Playoff is this:
Does it make the college football season more exciting while still rewarding the best teams in the sport? I would answer no on both counts.
First of all, I truly believe that even with an eight-team championship, you would still have the same national title game we have in real life. But that’s beside the point. The real problem with doubling the size of the Playoff would be that it would greatly diminish the importance of the regular season. College football may have the most important regular season because it is almost certain that if you want to contend for a national championship, you can only afford to lose one game. Even a 12-1 record does not guarantee a berth in the playoff (just ask this year’s Ohio State team).
Moreover, adding four more teams to the Playoff wouldn’t remove disputes over who should get the last spot in it. Currently, the argument is over who should be the fourth team in, but there will be seasons where two of the at-large spots will be disputed. It may be slightly less convoluted, but arguments will still exist in years where the two at-large teams are not nearly as obvious as they were this season.
There will also be years where the best eight teams don’t get in. One example of this would have been 2012, where an eight-team Playoff would have been, um, catastrophically bad:
Hypothetical 8-team CFP in 2012 with 5 P5 auto bids, 1 G5 auto bid and 2 at-large bids— Barrett Sallee (@BarrettSallee) December 22, 2018
1. Notre Dame
5. Kansas State
12. Florida State
15. Northern Illinois
9. Texas A&M
10. South Carolina
That’s not what you want to see.
My final qualm with going to an eight-team Playoff would be that it would prioritize automatic bids and “getting in” over being the best team that season. While the current Playoff does that to an extent, going to eight teams would not ensure that the nation’s best team is hoisting the trophy at the end of the season. In fact, it would turn the odds in the opposite direction. While everyone loves the NCAA Tournament (68 teams, chaotic first weekend, etc.), it is a fundamentally insane way to crown the “best team in the sport”, and more often than not, it fails in that regard. We would be heading in the wrong direction with the addition of more teams.
It’s almost like giving big contracts to pitchers doesn’t work in Colorado. I’m not a major league GM, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn last night.
At that point, what do you say when you shell out nine figures to three bullpen arms but your best reliever is in the final season of a three-year, $10.4 million deal? None of the pitchers who were supposed to be good for the Rockies this season have lived up to expectations, but the staff has been buoyed by starter Kyle Freeland and reliever Adam Ottavino. Freeland’s numbers suggest that he’s in for a regression sooner rather than later, but to this point in the season, he has saved a Colorado pitching staff that has the eighth-highest ERA in the league.
But let’s get back to the question at the beginning of the article: are the Rockies good enough, as they currently stand, to win the NL West?
Let’s start by looking at their schedule the rest of the way. The Rockies have 17 remaining games with the Diamondbacks and Dodgers, the two teams they’re chasing in the division. They’re only two games back as it stands, so either way, the outcome of these games may very well decide who wins the NL West. To make matters even better, 11 of these games will be at home.
There is another escape hatch for the Rockies if they can’t take their division. In addition to only being two games back of Arizona, they are also just two games back of the Braves for the second and last National League Wild Card spot. Luckily for Colorado, they have a four-game series in Atlanta from August 16-19, and depending on how things develop over the next nine days, the Rockies could set themselves up to leapfrog Atlanta if they take three out of four.
The rest of their schedule, though, is periodically challenging. After home series this week against Pittsburgh and the Dodgers, Bud Black’s team has a two-game set in Houston and the aforementioned Braves series. An easy week follows with San Diego and St. Louis coming to Coors Field, and the Rockies end August and vault into September with road series against the Angels and Padres. The Rockies also have six September games with the Giants, who should be firmly out of playoff contention by the time they face Colorado. The last week of the season, which could decide the Rockies’ fate, will see them host the Phillies for four games and the Nationals for three. Both of those teams could also be fighting for playoffs spot at that point.
If their performance to this point in the season is any indication, however, Colorado is playing in over its head. They have a run differential of -8, and Pythagorean W-L suggests that they should be 10.5 games back in the NL West right now instead of just two. The last team to make the playoffs with a negative run differential was the 2007 Arizona Diamondbacks, and they met their demise in the NLCS at the hands of, you guessed it, the Colorado Rockies. Both Colorado and Seattle are making playoff runs this season with negative run differentials. Seattle is 11-17 in its last 28 games, and if I were a gambling man, I would guess that Colorado would underperform the rest of the way, in spite of the fact that they have overperformed to this point in the year.
There’s also the matter of what the Rockies did, or, more accurately, didn’t do, at the trade deadline. For a team that has multiple needs, particularly with their pitching, making one trade (acquiring Seunghwan Oh from the Blue Jays) probably won’t cut it. Granted, the 36-year-old from South Korea is having an excellent year (2.38 ERA, 2.98 FIP, 9.8 K/9), but he alone may not be enough for the Rockies, especially when you don’t know how he’ll perform at Coors Field (Oh has pitched six scoreless innings for the Rockies since his acquisition). The Diamondbacks got Eduardo Escobar and two solid bullpen arms at the deadline. The Dodgers picked up Brian Dozier and one of the game’s best players in Manny Machado. Comparatively, Colorado got a rock. Pun completely intended.
The Rockies went into this season trying to prove that last year’s Wild Card berth wasn’t a one-off. The jury is still out on that, but Colorado is only two games back on August 7 with 50 games left in the season. That’s a lot of time left for things to go haywire, but it’s also a lot of time for the team to make up a minuscule deficit in their division.
With 17 games left against teams ahead of them in the race, the Rockies will have every chance to compete for a division title. Their underlying numbers suggest that they’re lucky to still be in the race, though.
The Warriors’ basketball monolith may have just gotten a lot more frightening.
Golden State’s latest may-God-have-mercy-on-your-soul maneuver is to add DeMarcus Cousins to a roster that already features four of the top 25 players in the world today. Cousins signed with the Warriors for the $5.3 million Mid-Level Exception, which is significantly less than what he is worth. The Warriors are a team that could legitimately give the Eastern Conference All-Stars a fight, and Cousins’ arrival has led many to rightfully decry the competitive balance issues a move like this presents while also giving people another excuse to vent about how the Warriors are too good.
But while hating the Warriors is one of America’s favorite sports, there is a fundamental problem with the argument that they are the ones ruining the NBA.
For starters, let’s remember how Golden State’s unbeatable monster was formed. In 2015, the Players’ Union rejected a proposal that would have smoothed the salary cap over a number of years. The cap was set to increase from $70 million to $94 million before the 2016-17 season (due to the league’s TV rights deal with ESPN/ABC), and the NBA wanted to spread out this hike over a number of years. The Players’ Union could not have been less interested in this, because it would have prevented that year’s free agents from getting massive pay raises. The unintended consequence of it, however, was that it gave the Warriors, who were coming off a 73-win season, the additional cap room necessary to snag Durant and not have to give up any of their key players. The NBA’s worst nightmare played out in real life.
This is a classic example of needing to hate the game over the player. The other problem we’re dealing with here is that, in this scenario, other teams inadvertently helped Golden State sign yet another one of the best players our world has to offer.
Cousins suffered an Achilles injury in January of last year and will miss part of this season because of it. Because he was hurt, though, his value to teams is dramatically lower than it would have been otherwise. With that thought, several teams that would not have been able to afford Cousins could try to sign him for less than what he would have been worth. Of course, this didn’t happen, and according to the New York Times’ Marc Stein, one of the teams that passed on Cousins will catch your eye, particularly when you see what his services would have cost:
Word also reached us Monday night that LeBron’s Lakers, after signing Rajon Rondo away from New Orleans and then losing Randle to the Pelicans, had an opportunity to sign Cousins at a one-year price point similar to the one that landed him in Golden State. But I’m told the Lakers passed, clearing the way for the Warriors to infuriate the basketball public yet again.
There are 29 teams in the NBA who could have had DeMarcus Cousins for less than half of what he’s really worth. There is no explanation, then, as to why Cousins got zero offers in the opening hours of free agency. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fine to be mad that the Warriors signed Cousins and, if he’s healthy, will be better than they were the past two seasons.
But if you’re just mad at Golden State for picking him up when no else wanted to, you’re misplacing your anger.
The NBA Draft featured some surprises this year. Luka Doncic was traded from the Hawks to the Mavericks for Trae Young, the Knicks took Kentucky’s Kevin Knox with the 9th pick, and Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr. fell to the Nuggets with the 14th pick. But, as always, there were winners and losers from Thursday night. Let’s tell some of their stories.
Winner: Phoenix Suns
The Suns are a pretty obvious choice here. They took DeAndre Ayton, the best player in this draft and an uber-talented 7’1″ big man who can play like a guard, with the first pick in the draft. Without doing anything else, the Suns would have had a good night. Instead, they decided to do more when they traded their 16th pick, Zhaire Smith, to Philadelphia in exchange for Mikal Bridges, the 76ers’ 10th pick.
Granted, while Bridges has several areas of his game to clean up, he is a versatile player who can shoot and defend. He’ll find a role with the Suns while Ayton is tasked with becoming one of the faces of a franchise that has won 68 games in the past three seasons. It remains to be seen what a young core of Devin Booker, T.J. Warren, Bridges, Josh Jackson, and Ayton can accomplish together, but the Suns can use anything they can get at this point.
While their general manager, Ryan McDonough, has an up-and-down draft record (he took Dragan Bender the year after drafting Devin Booker), the Suns should be very happy with what they did on Thursday. Now comes the part that has been much easier said than done in Phoenix: winning.
Loser: Michael Porter, Jr.
Before the 2017-18 college basketball season, Michael Porter, Jr. was widely considered the top prospect in this year’s draft. He had the size and athleticism to play in the NBA, as well as tangible skills that he would get to show off in his one year at Missouri… or so we all thought.
Porter was sidelined for much of the season with a back injury and even though he came back for the team’s conference and NCAA tournament games, he was clearly not at full strength, as he shot just 9-29 in those two games. He was bypassed on draft boards by other healthy college players, like Ayton, Marvin Bagley III, Trae Young, and others. Despite these concerns, though, there are not many current concerns with Porter’s health.
So why would this combination of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant still be on the board for the Nuggets with the 14th pick? The answer is simple: teams are worried about his potential back problems, both now and down the road, and don’t want to deal with that. Of course, the things that had people excited about Porter in the first place are still there, but it’s fair to ask questions about how his back will affect his overall health moving forward. After all, there’s a reason why someone who is this talented would fall all the way to the end of the lottery, and it has nothing to do with him putting his own name in the same conversation with two of the league’s ten best players.
Winner: Orlando Magic
This may come as a surprise because you probably haven’t seen “Orlando Magic” and “winner” in the same sentence since 2009.
The Magic didn’t do anything particularly special on Thursday; there were no trades up or down the board and they didn’t reach when they made the 6th pick. However, they did something they haven’t been very good at recently: take the best player available with their selection.
That person happened to be Texas’ Mo Bamba.
As you’ve heard from about 732 different outlets, Bamba has a 7’10” wingspan, which is relevant because it’s longer than those of Rudy Gobert (7’9″) and Anthony Davis (7’5″). Let’s remember that Orlando’s GM is former Bucks general manager John Hammond, who drafted some incredibly long players in Milwaukee without the stipulation that they all fit together. That being said, Bamba may have the highest upside of anyone in this year’s draft, and even though it may not seem like a lot, Orlando should be happy that they took someone like him with their first-round pick.
Loser: Washington Wizards
What, exactly, were the Wizards doing the other night?
Washington is a team that, without a word alive, can be competitive with anyone in the Eastern Conference at any time. They’ve had many a near-miss in the playoffs the past few seasons, and they always seem to be one of those teams that can never quite live up to the talent they have on the roster. It would seem, then, that they would need to take a game-changer with the 15th pick, or at the very least, someone who is ready to contribute to the roster right away. Zhaire Smith, Donte DiVincenzo, Lonnie Walker, or Grayson Allen all could have fit this bill.
Instead, Washington took Oregon freshman Troy Brown.
Granted, Brown could be a very good player down the line. But the Wizards are trying to build for right now (we think) and probably should’ve taken someone who would have been more impactful this season. It’s not just me saying this, either; Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld has been reluctant to declare that Brown can crack the rotation. Part of that has to do with a Washington roster that will bring back ten of its players, but a significant portion of that has to do with Brown himself.
Nobody knows where the Wizards are going. The Wizards may not know, either.
Winner: Adrian Wojnarowski
Let’s be real; you just came here for the Woj Bombs.
Wojnarowski is ESPN’s best NBA insider; think of him as the sport’s Adam Schefter. One of his recent specialties has been tipping picks on draft night before commissioner Adam Silver announces them live on ESPN. In a surprise to no one, the NBA didn’t exactly love reporters like Wojnarowski revealing these picks before their official broadcast could. So, as a result of a direct appeal from the NBA, the four-letter network announced that its insiders (mainly Wojnarowski, who was lured to ESPN from Yahoo last summer) would not be tipping picks this year. This was an edict that caused some controversy.
It was also one that our guy Woj raised a defiant middle finger to:
Source: Cleveland prefers Collin Sexton with the No. 8 pick.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) June 22, 2018
Source: Boston is tantalized by Robert Williams with the 27th pick.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) June 22, 2018
Phoenix is determined to select Zhaire Smith with 16.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) June 22, 2018
Source: The Lakers are unlikely to resist Mo Wagner with the 25th pick.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) June 22, 2018
Source: Utah Jazz have no plans to pass on Grayson Allen with the 21st pick.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) June 22, 2018
Source: Portland has a laser on Anfernee Simons.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) June 22, 2018
Woj is the best reporter in the NBA, and there’s a reason he’s so popular. Wouldn’t you like to go to work, have your boss tell you not to do something, find catchy euphemisms for the thing you’re not supposed to be doing, and get away with said thing?
We all would love to do that, but there’s a reason we can’t all be Woj.
Ever since Kevin Durant joined the Warriors in the Summer of 2016, the team has had enough talent to toy with the NBA whenever it wants. This year has been slightly different, though; the Rockets pushed Golden State to the wall in the Western Conference Finals and very well might have eliminated them if they had a healthy Chris Paul. The Cavaliers pushed the Warriors to overtime in Game 1 of this year’s Finals behind 51 points from LeBron James. But besides these two examples, the Warriors can knock out their opponents and pick the round, too.
Last night, they decided to knock out the Cavs.
Behind 33 points and nine three-pointers from Steph Curry, 26 points on 10-14 shooting from Kevin Durant, and 20 more points from a hobbled Klay Thompson, the Warriors crushed the Cavaliers 122-103 in a game where Cleveland was only down by five before Curry and company took it over. Last night, we saw the closest thing to last year’s Warriors dominance that we have seen since, well, last year’s Warriors. Even though it appears as if Golden State lacks motivation at certain points in games, they are still far more talented than any other team in the NBA and when they put it all together, the rest of the league gets put on notice.
That’s what happened last night. Keep in mind that the Warriors are doing this without Andre Iguodala, who is recovering from a bone bruise in his knee and has not played since Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals. While Iguodala may not necessarily seem like one of the most important figures in the Warriors’ dynasty, he absolutely is, and their occasionally absent-minded play without him should be proof of that. He one of the few people on Earth willing and able to consistently defend LeBron James, and if he returns in this series (which he might), the Warriors have a better chance of containing LeBron.
Until then, however, it will likely be either JaVale McGee or Kevon Looney occupying the final starting spot for the Warriors. Both men are capable bigs, but neither has the ability to guard James or space the floor on the offensive end. The Warriors, after starting Looney for the five previous games, decided to go with McGee in the starting lineup last night, and even though he had a +/- of 0, the move seemed to pay dividends; McGee had 12 points and most of his action came under the basket when the Cavaliers’ defenders were more preoccupied with Golden State’s three-point shooters. Whether you take McGee seriously or not, he is a live body who can cause havoc on the glass and makes the most of his opportunities in close. That’s all the Warriors need him to do until Iguodala returns from injury.
And think about the luxuries that Steve Kerr has with a team this versatile and talented. On the other side, Cavs coach Ty Lue doesn’t have nearly as many good options to go to off the bench (for instance, it’s more difficult for Lue to put Kyle Korver on the floor against a Warriors lineup looking to attack any defensive mismatch the Cavs have to offer). And, instead of having a steady presence like Shaun Livingston coming off the bench, Cleveland has Jordan Clarkson, who has shot 3-13 in the first two games of the series and makes multiple ill-fated attempts to take over the Cavs’ offense when he steps on the floor.
But instead of maligning all of the matchup problems the Cavaliers have in this series, it’s more important to look at what the Warriors have done right. That can be boiled down into one player: Steph Curry.
Last night, Curry broke an NBA Finals record last night by hitting nine three-pointers; he finished with 33 points but his impact goes beyond his scoring. The psychological impact of his hot shooting, particularly at Oracle Arena, cannot be quantified. And there is something to be said for the blow an opposing team takes when they play masterful defense for 23 or more seconds, only to have Curry drain a turnaround fadeaway from five feet behind the line. When you add that to the individual talents of Durant and Klay Thompson, the Warriors offense becomes virtually unstoppable when it’s clicking.
There should be at least a slight momentum shift when the series heads back to Cleveland for Game 3. But the Cavaliers will almost certainly need to win both games at Quicken Loans Arena to have a chance in this series; even though LeBron James and the Cavaliers have come back from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals before, there’s a reason it’s only happened once since 1947. Even with the greatest player in the history of the league on their side, Cleveland will have a very difficult time coming back against the most talented team the league has ever seen.
That team is the Golden State Warriors. Even though they’ve had their trials and tribulations throughout the season, we always knew that they could flip the switch and play to their dominant, ruthless potential whenever they wanted to. They did that last night, mainly with the help of their two-time league MVP. Oh, by the way, they may very well get the ex-Finals MVP they have lying around back before this series ends.
The Warriors have returned. Maybe they never really left. Either way, the NBA’s sleeping giant is awake, alive, and humming on all cylinders. That usually doesn’t end well for anyone in its way.
There is a pantheon of dumb plays in the history of both college and professional basketball. It has some awesome entries; Chris Webber trying to call timeout when his team didn’t have one, Rasheed Wallace leaving Robert Horry wide open to lose Game 5 of the 2005 Finals, and JaVale McGee’s entire career. These moments, whether they come in the regular season or the biggest games of the year, are the reason why “Shaqtin’ a Fool” exists.
But aside from the occasionally brain dead moments that happen during a basketball game, these are some of the best players in the world. They always get the basic stuff, like the time and score of the game, correct, and they know how to react depending on the game situation, right? Right?
To prove this, I present you with the human example that is Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith. Smith made headlines earlier in the season when he launched a bowl of soup at an assistant coach in what was definitely the seventh or eighth–weirdest moment in the NBA this season. Smith is an erratic player with an evidently erratic personality; his occasional moments of brilliance on the court are augmented by brain-neutral plays and mind-numbing decisions. With that context in mind, I present to you the end of the fourth quarter of Game 1 of the NBA Finals:
CLASSIC JR SMITH LOLOLOLOL pic.twitter.com/V609eAhWql
— gifdsports (@gifdsports) June 1, 2018
There is so much wrong with whatever happened there. First of all, George Hill is an 80% free throw shooter for his career and should have made the free throw. When Smith gets the rebound, he has the opportunity to lay it in, albeit over a 6’10” Kevin Durant, to give Cleveland the lead. When he pulls the ball out to the three-point line, the Cavaliers should have called timeout. Instead, none of these things happened and Cleveland didn’t get a shot off in the final 4.7 seconds.
And, after all of the stupid things you read in the last paragraph, you would think that it doesn’t get any dumber than that. I’m here to tell you that it does.
The only possible explanation for whatever it is Smith did in the closing seconds of the fourth was that he didn’t know the score and thought the Cavaliers were winning. Cavs coach Tyronn Lue seems to believe that’s the case; after the game, he said that Smith thought his team was ahead and tried to run out the clock. Smith, on the other hand, insists that he knew the game was tied at 107 and thought Cleveland would take a timeout. Choose who you want to believe in this situation, but Smith has made dumb plays in crunch time before, and that particular instance involved another episode of scoreboard amnesia. Therefore, I have to go with the guy who got stepped over by Allen Iverson over the guy who threw soup at one of his coaches. It’s just that easy.
As much as we should all collectively laugh at this, however, it is one of the most costly blunders in recent Finals history, and it may have cost the Cavs any chance they had at winning this series.
Think, for example, about all the things that went right for Cleveland last night:
- LeBron James goes for the 6th 50-point game in Finals history
- Golden State only goes +6 in the third quarter (team had averaged a +7.6 3rd quarter scoring margin in the playoffs before last night)
- Kevin Durant and Steph Curry score 55 points on 45 shots
- Kevin Love goes for 21 points and 13 rebounds
- Cleveland wins offensive rebound battle 19-4
Despite all of this, the Cavaliers lost in overtime. There were some breaks that didn’t go their way, like a controversial foul towards the end of the game on James that was changed to a block from a charge on Durant. After the game, Lue voiced his displeasure with the call, and even though it was a bang-bang play, he has a right to be upset, as foul calls are usually not up for review. However, the Cavaliers should not, in any way, blame last night’s defeat on poor refereeing. They had a chance to make a free throw, then they had a chance to get a basket, then they had a chance to call timeout to draw up a play to get said basket, and they somehow managed to do none of those things despite the odds being, for once, in their favor.
For Cleveland fans, that is the shame of what transpired last night. The Warriors are decidedly more talented than the Cavaliers but did not play their best game last night. The underdog had a chance to take out the favorite last night and put the defending champs in a 1-0 hole. They couldn’t get the job done, and even with the best player in the world performing at quite possibly the highest level of his career, the Warriors still found a way to pull it out.
Before this series, I picked the Warriors to win in five games. One of the ways Cleveland could have dragged out this series would have been by winning the first game and stealing some momentum out of Oracle Arena. Granted, they could still win Game 2, but against one of the all-time great teams in NBA history, it’s very difficult to win a seven-game series after allowing a golden opportunity like last night’s to slip through your fingers.
Let’s also remember that Smith, who blew the end of regulation, took an unnecessary gamble on a Curry heave at the end of the first half. It cost Cleveland three points and made a significant difference between them winning and losing the game.
What caused a bigger difference, though, were the events that took place in the final five seconds of regulation. But when you think about who had the ball, it’s not a surprise.
And thanks to J.R. Smith losing his counting skills and critical thinking powers, the Cavaliers’ margin for error in this series has gotten even smaller.
For a few fleeting moments, the fourth Finals meeting between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers seemed in peril. Both teams went down 3-2 in their respective Conference Finals and neither had home court advantage when each series went to a decisive Game 7. But, as has been said for the past three calendar years in the modern NBA, none of those things mattered.
We are getting a fourth installment of the Cavs and Warriors in the Finals, whether we want it or not. Frankly, most everyone knows how this will end. The Warriors are a lot better than Cleveland and just eliminated a 65-win team despite only playing to their potential for one quarter per game, at most.
Nonetheless, let’s do a little Finals preview, shall we?
When Kevin Durant left the Thunder to sign with the Warriors in 2016, he left one of the most stagnant and isolation-dependent offenses in the league to join one of the most free-flowing offenses in the history of the sport. It worked out that way last season, but it hasn’t been the same this year.
In last year’s playoffs, Golden State ran just 6.8% of their possessions in isolation; this would typically come in the form of a favorable one-on-one matchup with either Durant or Steph Curry. This would happen towards the end of the game if Golden State really needed a bucket or at any other time they did. Over their first three Finals runs, ball movement and player movement were the staples of one of the best offenses in NBA history, and that didn’t initially change when Durant entered the fold.
Now, however, it has.
In these playoffs, the percentage of possessions that Golden State uses in isolation action has risen to 11.2%, up nearly 65% from last season. That’s perfectly fine when you have Durant and Curry, but at some point, your offense stagnates and other players aren’t involved in the action. Of course, this is an uptown problem for one of the most talented rosters in NBA history; the Cavaliers have had higher isolation percentages the past two playoffs and they aren’t nearly as skilled as Golden State. But the Warriors destroyed Cleveland in the Finals last season averaging 29 assists and 121 points per game in just over 100 possessions per game. Against the Rockets, Golden State averaged 21 assists per game and just over 107 points per contest on an average of slightly under 94 possessions. When Cleveland beat Golden State in 2016, each game of the Finals averaged 92 possessions.
The only way the Cavaliers win this series is if they don’t get snookered into playing the Warriors’ style of basketball. The problem is that the Warriors are struggling to play like that themselves.
Worst Supporting Actor(s)
The Cleveland Cavaliers have always been a one-man show. This year, however, the gap in talent between LeBron James and his teammates is more frightening and stark.
In these playoffs, James is averaging 34 points per game and shooting just over 54% from the field. The rest of the Cavaliers are not faring as well; the supporting cast is averaging just 67 points per game and they have been bailed out in these playoffs by seven 40-point games from James. The problem for Cleveland, then, is this: how much more can LeBron do and how difficult will it really be for the Warriors to shut down the Cavs’ offense?
The fact of the matter is that the Cavaliers role players need to be better. While Jeff Green chipped in 19 and J.R. Smith had 12 in Game 7 against Boston, these performances were more of an anomaly than the rule in these playoffs. Kevin Love missed Game 7 with a concussion suffered in the previous game, and even though he provides perimeter shooting and quality rebounding, he will have a very difficult time trailing the likes of even Draymond Green on the perimeter. If the Warriors look to get Cleveland into switching action, he would likely have to defend either Curry, Durant, or Klay Thompson. If that happens (and it will, if/when Love returns), advantage: Warriors, particularly if Andre Iguodala is in the starting lineup (more on him later).
Honestly, the Cavaliers’ supporting cast has never been talented enough to win a championship, whether that was before or after the team nuked its own roster at the trade deadline. Sure, GM Koby Altman did the best he could at that point because the Cavaliers, at the time, were a directionless car moving aimlessly towards the chaotic intersection that is the NBA Playoffs. But even though Cleveland got younger and faster in February, that does not mean they necessarily got better.
LeBron James will have to carry the load once more for the Cavaliers if they want to advance to the NBA Finals. It may be too much for him to handle, not because he isn’t capable, but because the Warriors are too good and his supporting cast is too bad.
This one pretty much explains itself. Iguodala missed Golden State’s last four games of the Western Conference Finals with a knee injury. In the three games with him in the lineup against Houston, the Warriors averaged 116.7 points per contest. Without him, they averaged 100.5. The difference with and without him on the floor is drastic, as Iggy has a +11.1 rating per 100 possessions when he is on the floor in these playoffs.
It seems strange to say this about a team that has four of the 15 or 20 best players in the game right now, but Andre Iguodala is the adhesive that keeps the Warriors clicking on both ends. Golden State head coach Steve Kerr said today that the Warriors would have beaten the Rockets in five games with the former Finals MVP healthy, and I have to say that I can’t disagree with him. Golden State likely wins the knock-down, drag-out, 90s-esque battles in Games 4 and 5 with him on the floor, and the fact that the Warriors were able to overcome a 3-2 deficit against a 65-win team without him is a testament to just how much talent is on their roster.
The talent disparity between them and the Cavaliers would become even greater if he finds a way to play in these Finals.
I will admit that I’ve done more comprehensive previews for these series in the past, and apologies if comprehensive is what you were looking for here. The fact of the matter is, though, that the Warriors are at least ten times more talented than the Cavs and, even though it’s a far worse fate than he deserves, LeBron James will get bounced in short order by a team he can’t single-handedly take down for the second straight year.
I’ll give the Cavaliers one win out of respect for the greatest player of all time being on their roster. But I can’t fathom a way in which they win this series, unless the Warriors fall back on the same bad habits that nearly got them knocked out of the Playoffs by a shorthanded Rockets team.
Pick: Warriors in 5