Four Score: NBA Finals Preview

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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?

Iso What?

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.

Andre Iguodala

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



Juiced: Baseball’s Problem With Its Baseballs

David J. Philip/Associated Press

Look at the baseball above. Does anything seem different about it?

On the surface, the vast majority of the population would say no. It’s a baseball; how could the production of it be any different and/or affect the way the game is played?

Apparently, as we found out yesterday, it matters a great deal.

In a report published on Thursday, the league admitted to changes in the production of its baseballs, which has, in turn, led to a home run surge that has even outpaced the steroid era. The report stated that there were no changes to the ball itself, but that the new baseballs, which were put into use after the 2015 All-Star Game, have a lessened drag coefficient. Without getting too science-y (I don’t exactly get this stuff, either), this means that the behavior of the ball is no different off the bat; however, it is carrying further in the air than it used to, which would theoretically mean that more deep fly ball outs are turning into home runs. Sure enough, since these new balls have been used, that seems to be exactly what has happened.

In 2014, each team averaged 0.86 home runs per game. In 2017, that number was 1.26 per game. Of course, part of this rise has come from hitters trying to put more balls in the air, which has also led to increased strikeout rates around the league; this is a byproduct of the launch and popularity of Statcast, which was founded by MLB in 2015. However, player strategy hardly has everything to do with this, and when you watch these two “excuse-me” dingers from last year’s playoffs, you can’t help but wonder whether or not there was some tomfoolery with the baseballs. And if you did, you weren’t the first person to ask yourself that question.

Most notably, Justin Verlander, who was traded from the Tigers to the Astros last season, alleged that something strange was going on with the baseballs. He didn’t say or know what that was, exactly, but, as someone who pitches every fifth day, he saw what was happening and common sense tells you that home run rates don’t go up by more than 46% by a change in on-field strategy alone. As wild as this may seem, however, this is not the first time that those within the game and outside of it have accused the sport of giving its baseballs the juice.

Back in the early 2000s, pitcher Kenny Rogers, a man who was once suspended for 20 games after throwing a cameraman to the ground, complained that the ball’s inner core was made of rubber instead of cork, which is what it formerly consisted of. However, other than the balls being made of rubber and not cork, there were no other tangible or proven modifications to its manufacturing that led to more home runs. However, this gained traction because we were in the middle of the steroid era and during that period in baseball, it seemed as though literally everything was juiced. These allegations resurfaced after an 11-10 World Series game between the Angels and Giants in 2002. Last year, there was a 13-12 World Series game between the Astros and Dodgers. If this sounds all too familiar, it is, except this time, there is legitimate proof that something is going on.

Now, you may come to the conclusion that there is no harm being done here because everyone likes more home runs, and that is a fair conclusion to arrive at. However, imagine what would happen if the NBA changed the way its basketballs were produced so that players like Steph Curry and others could consistently make threes from 40 feet away from the basket. The game would, of course, be more fun to watch at that point, but once many players could do it consistently, it would take away from the incredible skill of a select few who can pull up from that distance and have a legitimate chance at making the shot.

That has already happened with the decreased drag coefficient; feats that were once accomplished by a select few are now being pulled off by many. In 2014, 37 players hit 20 or more home runs. Last season, that number ballooned to 89. I love the home run as much as anyone, but it used to mean something to hit that many home runs and hit for power consistently. Nowadays, everyone is doing it, and this wouldn’t be a problem if it only had to do with players making a conscious effort to hit more fly balls, which they have. That being said, the league-commissioned report shows two things:

  1. Baseballs are carrying more than they used to.
  2. The league, which steadfastly denied until this year that there was any difference in the production of the baseballs, has not done anything to curtail this trend.

Part of this equation is that, in the years prior to 2015, offense was on a steady decline throughout baseball, and more common-sense measures, such as lowering the mound, were tossed around. But what sense does it make to artificially inflate offensive numbers when part of the entertainment of baseball is the battle between the hitter and the pitcher? And why would you do this when you have a problem with pace of play? Games with more offense don’t tend to finish quicker than games with less, and what sense does it make to have an entertaining product if you can’t start and finish a game in less than three hours?

Baseball has a lot of problems on its hands, and it would appear as though the sport tried to fix its “entertainment value” issue by making it easier for the game’s power hitters to thrive. It takes a stunning amount of hubris to repeatedly deny that there are any shenanigans taking place with the production of baseballs and then have a report find out that everything you’ve stated publicly is wrong, while you think the entire time that no one will notice when a lazy fly ball turns into a home run. Frankly, commissioner Rob Manfred owes an apology to Justin Verlander and everyone else who noticed something strange going on with our National Pastime.

That’s what baseball is; it’s our National Pastime and it’s also the only sport where something this ridiculous could happen without anyone batting an eyelash. But we shouldn’t be surprised, considering that this is the same game in which two leagues play by separate sets of rules and fans can change the outcome of an entire season.



In Year 15 of His Career, LeBron James Doesn’t Need a Supporting Cast to Beat the Celtics

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It is no secret that the Cleveland Cavaliers have the best basketball player on the planet. It’s also not exactly private knowledge that the supporting cast they’ve given him is far from championship-caliber.

But despite trading point guard Kyrie Irving before the season for a pile of misfit toys, completely overhauling their team at the February 8 trade deadline, and having their newest players provide very little of anything constituting good basketball, the Cleveland Cavaliers are two wins away from the fourth straight NBA Finals appearance. You’ve probably heard this one before, but the Cavs’ success has absolutely everything to do with LeBron James and nothing to do with anything else.

But it’s not just that James is single-handedly trying to will his team to another NBA Finals. It’s that he is doing this at a level of play we may very well have never seen before in the history of the sport.

For starters, James is averaging 33.7 points, nine rebounds, and 8.7 assists per game in these playoffs. The only player in NBA history to match those figures in the postseason was Russell Westbrook last year; the kicker here is that Westbrook’s Thunder were bounced by the Rockets in five games in the first round of the playoffs. We have never seen a player produce this consistently over a full playoff run, but the raw production numbers are not the only sign of James’ historic greatness.

Because while some players have been insanely prolific scorers, passers, and rebounders throughout NBA playoff history, no player has ever done all three of these and combined them with ruthless efficiency.

There have been two postseasons in NBA history in which a player has owned a PER (Player Efficiency Rating) of 33 or greater and player in at least ten playoff games. LeBron James is the owner of both of them (NOTE: PER was not tracked until the 1988-89 season). Not Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Dirk Nowitzki, Karl Malone, John Stockton, et al. Just LeBron James. Just the greatest player of our generation. Just the greatest player of all-time.

The Cavaliers, though, are in a similar position to where they have been in the previous two playoff series. They’re playing a Boston Celtics unit that, as a whole, is probably better than they are. The same statement could be made about the Indiana Pacers, who pushed Cleveland to the wall in the first round and outscored the Cavs by 40 points over seven games. The Toronto Raptors could, theoretically, have given the Cavaliers a series, but they blew a 14-point lead in the first half of Game 1 and, on account of them being the Toronto Raptors, lost the next three games and even had ESPN announcers saying that they hailed from “LeBronto”. Now that is rock bottom.

The Celtics, though, are the best team Cleveland has faced to this point in the playoffs. In spite of losing their two best players, Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, to season-ending injuries, Boston has the best defense in the league and an ensemble cast that has carried them past the Bucks and 76ers to the Eastern Conference Finals. However, they depend on getting much of their offense from rookie Jayson Tatum, second-year player Jaylen Brown, and 2015 first-round pick Terry Rozier. The only experienced veterans currently playing for the Celtics are Al Horford and Marcus Morris, and while Horford made the All-Star team this year, he isn’t nearly the type of player James is and the Celtics depend just as much on their young players for production. It’s fair to wonder whether or not these three men can regain their mojo as the series returns to Boston for a critical Game 5. The reason this is brought up now is because the Celtics have just one road win in these playoffs, and it came in overtime against the 76ers in a game that nearly ended with a Philadelphia victory in regulation.

The Celtics obviously have a better supporting cast, but against a player like James, will it matter?

My belief is that if Cleveland gets good enough contributions from the likes of Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson, and Kevin Love, the answer to the question above will be no. You go into this game assuming that James will take what is his, and even if he has a bad night from the field, he’ll still set his teammates up with good looks. Cleveland shot 25-57 (.439) from three in two games at Quicken Loans Arena as opposed to 14-57 (.246) in two games at TD Garden. There may be some regression from Game 4 to Game 5, but if the Cavs continue to get open looks, at least some of them are bound to go in.

The other factor here is the Celtics’ ineptitude on the road. Even though they don’t need to win a road game to win this series, they are only forcing LeBron and company to take one game in Boston assuming their home/road trends continue. Remember, this is the same building in which LeBron dunked Jason Terry into next week and scored 45 in an Eastern Conference Finals elimination game. If tempting fate is your thing, the Boston Celtics are the team for you.

But no matter what happens, we should sincerely appreciate what we are watching on the court on a nightly basis. The greatest player in the history of basketball has been given one of the worst secondary units in the league, and despite that, he may lead this group make to their fourth straight NBA Finals and his eighth in a row. And if you think your profession is miserable, just remember that mine pays a guy $5.5 million per year to go on television, troll LeBron, and tweet out dumb things about him every time he does something good, which is very often.

The greatest basketball player of our generation and the greatest player of all-time has brought the Eastern Conference Finals to a tie at two games apiece against a collective unit that is evidently far better than his. He doesn’t have a very good supporting cast and the odds are that he can’t singlehandedly drag his team to another NBA Finals.

But who needs favorable odds when LeBron James is on your team? The Cavaliers haven’t before, and they certainly don’t now.