An Analysis of the Celtics-Cavaliers Trade

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The NBA has officially lost its mind.

Last month, Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving requested a trade out of Cleveland to play outside of LeBron James’ shadow. When he did so, he listed the Spurs, Knicks, Heat, and Timberwolves as his four preferred destinations in a future deal. Rumors had periodically appeared about the Phoenix Suns trying to work out a deal that would have centered around Irving and Suns point guard Eric Bledsoe. But other than those five teams, it didn’t sound like anyone else would be involved in the Irving proceedings.

So naturally, Irving eventually was shipped to none of those aforementioned teams:

Wow. If you think there’s a lot to digest here, you’re right. Let’s start with the trade’s headliners (Thomas and Irving) and then branch out from there.

Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas entered the league at the exact same time; in fact, Irving was the first pick in the 2011 Draft while Thomas was the last. This trade marks the first time in NBA history that the first pick in a draft has been swapped for the last pick in that same draft. Because they have played for the same amount of time, we can conveniently and easily compare their careers to this point.

Possibly the best NBA stat to encapsulate a player’s full value is VORP (Value Over Replacement Player). Since the 2011-12 season, Irving has a slightly higher VORP than Thomas (16.2 to 14.9). Thomas, though, started his career with the Sacramento Kings and was traded to the Celtics at the 2015 trade deadline after a brief layover in Phoenix. Starting with Thomas’ first full season in Boston, though, he has a far higher VORP than Irving (8.2 to 4.4). Thomas, in fact, finished fifth in NBA MVP voting last season and was incredibly valuable to the Celtics in their, at times, seemingly improbable run to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Where Thomas is docked by critics, and rightfully so, is for his defense. Among those who played at least 1,500 minutes last season, Thomas was tied for third-to-worst in Defensive Box Plus/Minus (DBPM), coming in ahead of only Shabazz Muhammad and Nick Young. DBPM measures a player’s contribution to his team in points per 100 possessions, and Offensive Box Plus/Minus (OBPM) does the same thing on the other end of the floor. Part of the problem is that, in case you haven’t heard, Thomas is all of 5’9″ and is the shortest point guard in the league. There are very few matchups, if any, that Thomas can possibly win at the defensive end with his height. What some may not tell you, though, is that Irving, standing at 6’3″, isn’t significantly better at the defensive end. Despite his six-inch height advantage, Irving finished just one point better in DBPM last season, which tied him for fourteenth-worst in the league. Offensively, both players have been pretty much even since coming into the league, with Thomas having a slight advantage in Offensive Box Plus/Minus. If this trade were simply player-for-player, I’d probably call it about even with (maybe) a very slight advantage for the Cavaliers.

The issue for the Celtics, though, is that they didn’t just give up Isaiah Thomas in the trade. Let’s move on from Thomas and Irving and look at the other cool toys the Celtics forked over to get Kyrie.

Crowder is an enticing sixth-year player and the advanced metrics are largely split on how good he actually is. While VORP has him as a slightly above average player, win shares (which is exactly what it sounds like) is very high on him. That statistic rates his value very highly and says that he contributed fourteen wins for the Celtics over the past two seasons, a number slightly better than Irving’s win shares (13.9) over the same period. Another figure that casts Crowder in a very positive light is True Shooting Percentage, which takes into account all of a player’s field goal and free throw attempts. Crowder pulled in the top 20 in TS% (61.3) last season, and both he and Thomas finished in the top 20 and ahead of, wait for it, Kyrie Irving.

While Crowder’s exact value seems to be kind of hard to peg, his presence gives the Cavaliers plenty of lineup opportunities. If the team wishes to go small to try to directly mirror a lineup like the Warriors’, they could start Crowder at small forward, LeBron James at power forward, and then have a choice between Kevin Love or Tristan Thompson as the team’s starting center. The other option for the Cavs is to leave their starting lineup as is, with both Love and Thompson starting, and have Crowder come off the bench to spell James. This choice may be more likely, as James played over 42 minutes per game in last year’s NBA Finals. Either way, the Cavaliers and coach Tyronn Lue have no shortage of options for using their new wing.

And don’t forget that the Celtics also included Croatian big man Ante Zizic in this deal. While Zizic probably isn’t NBA-ready just yet, he is an interesting big man who averaged a double-double per 36 minutes in the Turkish Euroleague last season. When he declared for the 2016 NBA Draft, I compared him to Nikola Vucevic and noted his 25.7 PER in the Adriatic League, a league that features teams from several countries, most notably those comprising the former Yugoslavia. Zizic could be an interesting piece for the Cavs’ future, and even though he struggled at times in the Summer League, he could be a fascinating component of the Cavaliers’ haul for Kyrie Irving. He’s expected to play in the United States this year and will likely spend most of his time in the G-League, formerly known as the NBA’s Developmental League.

Last, but most certainly not least, the Cavaliers received the Celtics’ all-important and unprotected 2018 first round pick from the Brooklyn Nets. The Nets were the worst team in the league a season ago and the Celtics received their first-round pick in the Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce trade, otherwise known as the gift that keeps on giving the whole year round. The Nets are showing very few signs of improvement for next year, and if the team again has the worst record in the league, then the Cavaliers will have the best chance at acquiring the #1 overall pick in the 2018 Draft. Assuming owner Dan Gilbert and his son, Nick, can work their almost biennial draft lottery voodoo, the Cavs will have very good odds at reeling in the first pick.

While we’re likely a little ahead of ourselves with this one, if the Cavs have the first pick, they could choose from Missouri’s Michael Porter, Jr., Duke’s Marvin Bagley, Michigan State’s Miles Bridges, and a host of other intriguing prospects. Even if they don’t have the first selection, they could still get a very good player in the first few picks. This is all assuming that the Nets don’t somehow make a run to the eight-seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, which seems extremely unlikely with the state of their current roster.

Of course, this trade will lose value after next year if James leaves for greener pastures in free agency next summer; Thomas is also a free agent next year and may look to relocate if James leaves. Still, a superstar, a proven starter, a potentially solid international big man, and a potential #1 pick is just about as well as the Cavaliers could have possibly done.

The Cavs’ front office deserves all of the credit they could possibly get for pulling off this deal. When Irving’s trade demands became public knowledge, many assumed that Cleveland would get less than market value for him because Irving would be desperate to leave and the front office would be desperate to move him. Instead, the Cavs actually got above market value for him and the assets they received in the trade could appreciate over time. It is surprising, though, that Celtics GM Danny Ainge decided to pull the trigger on this move when he could have let the Cavaliers trade Irving elsewhere and take his chances going against a Cavs team likely led by James and Kevin Love. That being said, the Celtics still have a lot of assets in tow and Irving will give them valuable and significant contributions. But hats off to new and, until yesterday, relatively unproven Cavs GM Koby Altman for getting as much as he could for his disgruntled star point guard. And while this move probably isn’t enough to close the gap between Cleveland and the Warriors, it looks like the Cavs may have gotten better with yesterday’s trade.

The Cavaliers were in a situation with Kyrie Irving that could best be described as impossible. And yet, somehow, someway, they came out on top when they decided to deal him.

The Potential Effects of a Kyrie Irving Trade

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Yesterday, NBA Twitter collapsed on itself with the report from ESPN’s Brian Windhorst that Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving is asking for a trade out of Cleveland. Irving has been the second-most important player on a Cavaliers squad that has reached the NBA Finals in three consecutive seasons, and the news of his trade request comes as a complete shock to both the Cavs and the rest of the league. Irving’s reasoning for doing this is to get out of the shadow of LeBron James, who is somehow still the best player on the planet at age 32. The Cavaliers are reportedly none too pleased with the demands becoming public because the news lessens Irving’s trade value. Needless to say, there’s a lot going on here.

Irving has stated that he prefers four potential destinations: San Antonio, Minnesota, Miami, or the Knicks. Let’s just say that he would make any of those four teams better, with the degree of improvement being dependent on how much each team is willing to fork over in a deal. We’ll leave this space to what a possible trade would do to the Cleveland Cavaliers as they are currently constituted.

The present-day Cavalier offense is built around isolation sets for LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. While the Cavs averaged 110.3 points per game last season, James and Irving, on average, scored 51.6 of those points; combined, the two accounted for nearly 47% of their team’s points in every game they played. Kyrie averaged career highs in points and shots taken per game a season ago, and a 32-year-old James appears to have been ready to cede more of the offense to the team’s star point guard. In fact, Irving’s regular season usage rate was higher than LeBron’s a season ago.

Of course, Irving is not a true point guard in every sense. He has never averaged more than 6.1 assists in a season and has drawn comparisons to Allen Iverson both for his slick ball-handling and his isolation tendencies. This doesn’t mean that he’s a selfish player; he wasn’t even the primary ball-handler in Cleveland’s offense when he and James were on the floor together. But it would be a stretch to see him putting up numbers akin to the league’s best assist men (John Wall, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, etc.) anytime soon.

That being said, the impact of his impending departure from Cleveland cannot be overstated. Many of the problems Cleveland had last season, particularly against the Warriors, came because of the overuse of James and Irving. If you think LeBron James is currently overworked (which he is), you won’t want to see the Cavaliers without a legitimate second option to give him relief. There are numbers to back this up.

For example, in last year’s NBA Finals, James and Irving both pulled usage rates of over 30 percent. Translated: when both players were on the floor, they accounted for over 60% of the Cavaliers’ offense. Cleveland wasn’t playing two-on-five, but at times, it felt like they were. Irving’s usage rate increased when James went to the bench while James’ increased without Irving. The two players averaged a ridiculous 41.4 (!) minutes per game in this past Finals but without the defensive attention devoted to Irving, the Cavaliers offense simply does not operate as efficiently.

Together, James and Irving chipped in 77 points in Game 3 of the 2017 Finals. The Cavaliers won that game by…. that’s right, they lost. One of the best performances by two teammates in an NBA Finals game still wasn’t enough to topple the mighty Golden State Warriors. Even with Irving, the Cavaliers, as currently constituted, are not nearly good enough to win a championship. Without him, they’re still a dangerous team in the Eastern Conference (having the best player on Earth will do that to you), but they are not the unassailable force out East that they are right now.

Let’s say, hypothetically, that Irving is traded to the Knicks for Carmelo Anthony. Let’s also assume that the Knicks’ star power forward, Kristaps Porzingis, is not involved in any potential deal. Irving’s PER (player efficiency rating) last season was 23.0 while Anthony’s was 17.9 (league average in 15). Anthony’s VORP (value over replacement player) was 0.7 while Irving’s was 2.9. Irving ranked in the top 15 of all players last season in Offensive Box Plus/Minus, while Anthony barely scratched the top 50. Most interestingly, Anthony’s Box Plus/Minus last year was -2.2, a rating similar to players such as Derrick Rose, Arron Afflalo, Jamal Crawford…. and Kyrie Irving. The Cavs would essentially be trading away one of the best offensive players in the game for an aging player whose career trajectory is quickly hurtling toward a serious decline at age 33.  The Cavs would also not improve at all on defense, which was easily their weakest point last year. This trade would make perfect sense for the Knicks, which obviously means that there’s no way it’ll ever come to fruition.

The Cavaliers, though, are likely left with no better options. The team and new GM Koby Altman are faced with no good alternatives after Irving’s trade demands became public knowledge yesterday. Altman is taking over for the jettisoned David Griffin, who was fired on June 30, much to the dismay of the Cavs’ best player. The Cavaliers are also the biggest soap opera in the NBA today; their superstars are disgruntled, their owner is meddling in the team’s success, and their roster could be gutted by this time next year. In the short term, though, a potential Irving trade may put the Celtics ahead of the Cavs in the Eastern Conference next season. With all indications pointing to James potentially leaving Cleveland after next season, his second stint with the Cavs may end like the first one did: with a playoff loss to the Celtics. I’m not ready to say that for sure just yet, but Irving’s loss would be catastrophic to Cleveland’s championship hopes.

Kyrie Irving shocked the basketball world yesterday by asking for a trade out of Cleveland. Because Irving made the request, the trade is likely to happen sooner rather than later, and it will be interesting to see where he goes and what the Cavaliers can get in return for his services.

His demands truly put the Cavaliers in a peculiar place, but Cleveland has itself to blame for his wanting out.

Everything and Nothing Is Changing in the NBA

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Gordon Hayward is shipping up to Boston.

The former Utah Jazz forward will sign with the Celtics on a 4-year, $128 million deal, with the fourth year being a player option. Hayward is the asset Celtics GM Danny Ainge had wanted all along, and he didn’t have to give up any of his precious assets to get the best free agent on the market. This, ultimately, was Boston’s endgame; save the team’s stockpile of draft picks and most of its key pieces to acquire Hayward, who just last year was a 10-win player for the Jazz and a top-15 player in the league, having earned career highs in points and rebounds.

One would figure that Hayward’s decision would significantly change the balance of power in the Eastern Conference. If this is your opinion, you may want to seriously rethink it.

In order to make room for Hayward on their roster, the Celtics are expected to trade any one of Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley, or Marcus Smart; rumors are that the front office is looking to jettison one of the three players to Utah in a sign-and-trade to acquire Hayward. The most likely scenario is that Crowder is traded, as he would likely be cast as an undersized power forward in Boston’s new offense. However, his loss would be a bitter pill to swallow; Crowder ranked second on the team in win shares (6.7) last season and third in value over replacement player. While he probably wouldn’t be as productive if he stayed in Boston, don’t think that the Celtics are losing nothing if they trade him. Advanced statistics are not as friendly to Bradley or Smart, but the former was Boston’s second-leading scorer a season ago and the latter was the team’s sixth man. If it were up to me, I’d trade Marcus Smart; he only shot 36% from the field last season and just over 28% from deep. Smart, though, is one of the best defensive players on the team (tied for first in defensive win shares) and his departure would likely force Terry Rozier to step in as the Celtics’ backup point guard. While acquiring Hayward is definitely worth it for the Celtics, the team will likely be faced with non-trivial losses after his signing becomes official.

While the Celtics were the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference a season ago, their Pythagorean win-loss record says that Boston should have been 48-34 based on last season’s point differential of +216, or +2.6 points per game. Let’s say that the Celtics send Crowder to Utah in the sign-and-trade. In terms of win shares, the Celtics are getting a +3.7 net change, but if you take that number and add it to their expected win-loss record and not their real one (53-29), the team would finish at 52-30. Granted, this does not take the overall fit of either player into account, but it does provide a starting point to figuring out just how much better Boston is with Hayward’s addition. Personally, I’d say that the Celtics are about three wins better than they were last season if they don’t trade Crowder. If they do, they’re probably right back where they were a season ago, even though their roster is more talented and, simply put, better. The team is due for a market correction after essentially stealing an extra five wins last season, but Hayward will help them once he gets acclimated to his new surroundings.

Remember when I told you that Hayward was worth just over ten wins for the Jazz last season? Well, that isn’t the important thing when considering his move. The main question to ask yourself is this: is Gordon Hayward worth an extra three wins in late May?

That’s the amount of wins the Celtics would have needed to get past the Great Wall of LeBron in last year’s playoffs. Even with one of the luckiest and most surprising wins in NBA playoff history, Boston was absolutely no match for the James-led Cavaliers in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. Does the acquisition of a player like Hayward push the Celtics over the edge and past the Cavaliers? My guess, at least for next year, is that it doesn’t. It does make things more interesting, but it’s unlikely that Hayward instantly makes the Celtics the best team in the Eastern Conference; after all, the Celtics were immolated to the tune of a -100 point differential in last year’s Conference Finals, one that lasted just five games.

Now, Hayward’s signing is not solely a play towards 2018. The Celtics, assuming Ainge can re-sign star point guard Isaiah Thomas next year, are squarely in position to ascend to the Eastern Conference throne should James begin to decline (he turns 33 in late December) or leave the Cavaliers after next season. From that point of view, the acquisition is very smart; Boston gets a star player while giving up relatively few assets to do so. However, those picking the Celtics to win the East next year are probably at least a year ahead of themselves.

Of course, Hayward’s move isn’t the only significant development in this year’s free agency window. Let’s take a look at what’s been going on in the Western Conference, shall we?

In my view, the most significant move out west was the Minnesota Timberwolves’ draft day acquisition of Jimmy Butler from the Chicago Bulls. Chicago, for reasons passing understanding, only took Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and the seventh overall pick (Lauri Markkanen) from Chicago for a player who ranked in the top fifteen in both offensive and defensive win shares last season. Then, Minnesota signed Indiana Pacers (more on them later) point guard Jeff Teague and dealt Ricky Rubio to Utah. While the two are similar players, Teague is a slightly better shooter and, by extension, a slightly better floor-spacer for an offense that will likely run more isolation sets for Butler. Also, the addition of Butler should help budding stars Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony-Towns, both of whom are just 21 years old. Butler’s arrival should be beneficial to Wiggins, in particular, as he struggled mightily on defense last season. For added measure, the team later signed power forward Taj Gibson to play alongside Towns in the paint.

Here’s the catch, though: the most transformative acquisition of the past two weeks came to a team that finished 31-51 last season. While their Pythagorean win percentage says they should have won seven more games than they did, the Timberwolves have a ways to go before becoming a serious championship contender. While the Celtics can at least see the light at the end of the tunnel with the Cavs’ dominance, there still exists a gulf between Minnesota and the Golden State Warriors. And Golden State doesn’t have aging superstars who are likely to leave the team anytime soon. So while Butler makes the Timberwolves a lot better than they were, he shouldn’t be enough to make the difference between them and the Warriors.

Another huge trade in the West was the Oklahoma City Thunder’s acquisition of Pacers forward Paul George. George announced shortly before the deal that he had absolutely no intention of re-signing with Indiana when he becomes a free agent in 2018. This left team president Kevin Pritchard between a rock and a hard place; trade George and receive less than he should in return or keep George for one more year and let him walk, likely to the Los Angeles Lakers, next summer. Pritchard decided to cut his losses and deal George to Oklahoma City in exchange for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. George is a legitimate star in today’s NBA, and his numbers would suggest that the Pacers should get far more than they did in the trade. However, his preemptive decision left Pritchard with no good alternatives, so trading him for far less than market value was probably his only move to get himself out of check with his superstar. While many observers have chided the Pacers for getting fleeced in the deal, they had very few good options in this situation. They should be let off the hook just for getting anything at all for George’s services.

George, by all standards, is a very good player. He had a career year last year and has averaged over 20 points per game in each of the last three full seasons he has played. Where he has struggled recently is with his defense, as he accrued a negative defensive box plus/minus rating last season. This year, though, he’ll be playing with Russell Westbrook, the league’s reigning MVP. Chances are that he won’t be carrying all of the offensive load like he did with Indiana last season, thus giving him more energy to spend on defense. The two should have a symbiotic relationship next season, and while Westbrook probably won’t be averaging a triple-double next season, the addition of a player like George will take some of the burden from both players.

That being said, the Thunder won just 47 games a season ago. They were the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference playoffs and were bounced in an exciting but anticlimactic five games by the Houston Rockets in the first round last season. While the Thunder will try to keep George after next season, the Lakers are still the favorites to reel him in next summer. And even with him, the Thunder are likely not good enough to make a serious run at a championship this season. While George is an objectively excellent player, he shouldn’t move the needle enough to push the Thunder past the Warriors.

The one team that can claim to have a fighting chance at winning the West next season is the Houston Rockets. The team acquired star point guard Chris Paul from the Los Angeles Clippers in a monster trade that included the Rockets sending seven players back to L.A. The numbers, though, suggest that the hefty price Houston paid (Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, others) is more than worth it; Paul contributed just under 11 wins to the Clippers last year in all of 61 games. Even at 32, Paul is still one of the best point guards in the league, and his addition could very well make the Rockets the second best team in the Western Conference. While some have made the argument that Paul and superstar James Harden will struggle to coexist because, as they say, there is only one basketball, the Rockets now have two of the best guards in the game. Somehow, I’m inclined to think they’ll make it work.

But, again, can they beat the Warriors? Paul has never been to the Conference Finals and the Rockets couldn’t even get past the Kawhi Leonard-less Spurs in Game 6 of the conference semis last year. In a vacuum, this move would likely make the Rockets the title favorite next season. Instead, Houston will have to contend with the monolith that is the most talented basketball team ever assembled.

And also, the Warriors will be even more absurd than they were just last year. In free agency, the team has added shooters Omri Casspi and Nick Young (yes, that Nick Young) to their already-loaded bench. Meanwhile, they have also managed to keep all of their core pieces intact while making their roster even better than it already was. If a team is going to catch the Warriors for the NBA title next season, I haven’t found it yet. While CP3 makes the Rockets significantly better, Houston would need several things to go right for them to get past Golden State.

Many important moves have been made in NBA free agency and trades in the last few days. Several teams have gotten better this month, such as the Thunder, Celtics, Timberwolves, and Rockets. We haven’t even gotten to mention the Denver Nuggets, who will be a ton of fun next year after signing power forward Paul Millsap to a 3-year, $90 million deal. Also, the Sacramento Kings are pushing toward playoff contention (don’t laugh) with the signings of George Hill and Zach Randolph, as well as the drafting of Kentucky’s DeAaron Fox with the fifth overall pick in the draft.

Many NBA teams have gotten better over the past couple of weeks. Unfortunately for them, the moves made this June and July likely won’t make much of a difference come next May and June.

Are the Warriors Too Good For the Cavaliers?

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After Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the most talked about person surrounding the Warriors-Cavaliers showdown in Oakland wasn’t Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving, or LeBron James.

It was Rihanna.

The fact that the Barbadian singer stole the headlines away from the game itself shows that the contest couldn’t have been all that competitive.

Sure enough, it wasn’t. The Warriors easily took care of the Cavaliers, 113-91, in a game that was never truly in doubt after halftime. Kevin Durant led the way for Golden State with 38 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists; even more impressively, Durant did all of this without committing a turnover, becoming the first player to have 30 points and five assists without a turnover in a Finals game since Michael Jordan accomplished that feat in Game 1 of the 1997 NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz. Steph Curry poured in another 28 points on 6-of-11 shooting from beyond the arc.

LeBron James paced the Cavaliers with 28 points, 15 rebounds, and eight assists, and Kyrie Irving scored 24. As strange as this may sound, the individual performances of James and Irving were not nearly as good as their numbers would suggest, as the Cavaliers were -18 when both players were on the floor last night. The Cavaliers were thoroughly dismantled in the second half, and their defense had no answers for the Warriors’ multi-pronged attack, which was centered around Curry and Durant.

Cleveland’s performance in Game 1 begs an important question: is this version of the Warriors too good for these Cavaliers to beat in a seven-game series?

Let’s start by stating the obvious: the Cavaliers played far from their best game last night. The team combined to shoot just under 35% from the field (30 for 86) and made just 11 of 31 attempts from the three-point line. Cleveland’s turnover problem was exacerbated by the Warriors offense, which turned the ball over just four times in 48 minutes. The Warriors had a really, really good night and the Cavaliers…. well, let’s just say they didn’t. That being said, it is worth examining whether or not Cleveland’s struggles are an anomaly or a disturbing trend.

For example, the Cavs’ transition defense is something that can be fixed. Take this play from late in the first half last night. Watch as the seas part for Durant to finish the fast break with a thunderous slam (pun 100% intended):

If I’m Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue, I would play that clip on loop for the next 48+ hours before Game 2. The Warriors finished Game 1 with 56 points in the paint and could’ve had closer to 70 had they not missed or, in the case of Zaza Pachulia, passed up on several open layups. The Cavalier defense was so concerned about the Warriors’ vast array of shooters (Curry, Klay Thompson, even Draymond Green) that they completely neglected to protect the rim. This strategy, one that basically rejects every fundamental tenet of basketball defense, turned Game 1 of the NBA Finals into Kevin Durant’s own personal dunk contest. That strategy can definitely be adjusted/fixed before Sunday night’s Game 2 rolls around.

But the Cavaliers must sort out other issues if they want to win their second championship in as many years.

Even though James and Irving are the undisputed leaders of the Cavs’ attack, the team simply needs contributions from other sources in order to be successful. For example, Kevin Love shot just four-of-thirteen from the field last night and had quite possibly the quietest 21-rebound performance in NBA history. J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson, Cleveland’s other two starters, combined for just three points and one made field goal on seven attempts.

That’s not all, though, for the Cavaliers’ individual struggles. Deron Williams, who scored fourteen points in seventeen minutes in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Celtics, struggled to get anything going last night. Williams’ game was so truly awful that he amassed a whopping offensive rating of ten (offensive rating is a measure of how many points a player accounts for per 100 possessions while he is on the floor). In case you haven’t figured it out, ten points per 100 possessions isn’t that good. Similarly, sharpshooter Kyle Korver, acquired from the Hawks in a midseason trade to give the Cavs more of a perimeter presence off the bench, accrued an offensive rating of 21 in nineteen minutes; he didn’t score in the game.

The Cavaliers simply cannot survive the Warriors’ merciless onslaught without contributions from their secondary pieces. While Irving is one of the best point guards in the league and James is the best player on the planet, they cannot singlehandedly carry the Cavs to their second straight championship. Players like Williams, Love, Korver, Smith, and Thompson must stretch Golden State’s defense with their perimeter shooting if the Cavaliers want to take this series deep.

There’s also this to consider: the Warriors should have an off night offensively at some point in this series, as even an offense as talented as Golden State’s is prone to go cold from time to time. Last night, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green combined to shoot 6-for-28 from the field and score just fifteen points. However, both made an impact on the defensive end; Thompson performed the unenviable task of guarding Irving while Green held an 85 defensive rating in his 36 minutes of action (with the defensive rating statistic, a lower number equates to better performance). Near the end of last night’s game, FiveThirtyEight writer Chris Herring pointed out the difference in the teams’ supporting casts:

It’s true; while Thompson and Green struggled mightily on the offensive end, they still impacted the game with what they were able to do defensively. The Cavaliers’ other pieces have not been able to do that, and how did they impact Game 1 when their shots weren’t falling? Answer: they didn’t.

Granted, the Warriors played extremely well in Game 1. Their four turnovers tied for the fewest in NBA Finals history and conventional wisdom would think that the performance will be difficult to replicate. But consider this: for all of the praise Golden State’s offense is getting today (and deservedly so), they only shot 42.5% from the field last night. For as well as they performed on the game’s biggest stage, they had far from their most efficient game of the season. That’s part of why I picked them to win the series; even on a bad night, they can still destroy you offensively. And while last night wouldn’t necessarily qualify as a bad night, the numbers show that they can play even better than they are right now. That is a frightening and scary thought for Cleveland to wrestle with.

The Cavaliers have fixable, albeit major, problems to rectify before they hit the Oracle Arena floor for Game 2 of the NBA Finals on Sunday night. They need their bench to produce and their shooters to start hitting from behind the three-point line. They also need to play better transition defense, and they can accomplish that by simply standing in front of the player with the basketball at that particular time.

And they need to quickly make these adjustments to save the NBA Finals from turning into Kevin Durant/Jeff Van Gundy vs. Rihanna.

Cleveland Rocks: This Title Is LeBron James’ Greatest Achievement

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 19: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrates in the final moments of Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on June 19, 2016 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Photo Credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Ten days ago, the Cavaliers were dead.  Today, they’re NBA champions.

How and why we got here has everything to do with the savior of Cleveland and one of the best players to ever play this game: LeBron James.

In our country, we like to have debates about James’ greatness and whether or not he’s one of the best players of all-time.  We also question his ability to come up big in clutch situations; after all, he was just one game away from going to 2-5 in the Finals.

But frankly, these discourses are ridiculous.  They have become outlets for Twitter eggs LeBron haters to vent their frustrations about the best player in the game’s supposed “flaws”.  These people come in all shapes and sizes, and, as last night showed, from many different walks of life:

This is absurd.  Anyone who makes a sincere argument about James’ legacy compared to Jordan’s clearly doesn’t understand just how much basketball has changed over the past 20 years. These people also don’t understand that the two men are completely different players who do completely different things on the court.  LeBron has always been aware of this, thankfully.

He is LJ, one of the best individual talents the league has ever seen.  Nothing more, nothing less.  Let’s stop having preposterous debates about whether or not he’s better than Michael Jordan.  It really does not matter and I could not care less.

What does matter, though, is what he just accomplished with these Cavaliers: winning an NBA championship, the first for the city of Cleveland since 1964.

Moreover, it was the way they did it, coming back despite seemingly impossible odds to defeat the greatest regular season team in NBA history, that makes this so remarkable.  The Cavs demonstrated Cleveland resiliency with a flare for the dramatic, both during the playoffs and over the course of the regular season.

Let me put it to you this way: in mid-January, did you think there was any way this Cavs team could beat the Warriors?  On January 25th and in the wake of the firing of former head coach David Blatt, I wrote this about Cleveland’s prospects of winning a championship:

This is not a question about whether or not the Cavs can come out of the East. That question has been answered. However, Cleveland will have serious issues if they are matched up with the Spurs or Warriors in the Finals, and they may get beaten handily by either team.

Which is a fact that neither David Blatt, David Griffin nor Tyronn Lue can do anything about.

Okay, needless to say, I was wrong.  But I wasn’t alone; the Warriors defeated the Cavaliers by 34 the week before, and James’ team lacked any semblance of chemistry or connectivity; many saw this as a red flag for Cleveland’s title hopes.  Blatt was out as the head coach by that Friday and GM David Griffin immediately hired Tyronn Lue as the team’s permanent coach. Lue’s previous claim to fame was as the guy who got stepped over by Allen Iverson in Game 1 of the 2001 Finals.

The move paid dividends; Lue constructed his lineups to the team could play small.  Playing small is what allowed Cleveland to compete with the Warriors for seven games.

Another thing Lue did was take control of the locker room.  He did this by holding his star players, including James, accountable for their actions, something that Blatt always struggled with.  For example, in a huddle in the middle of a regular season game, Lue told LeBron to, well, you know.

Nevertheless, in spite of Lue’s control over the team and their new style of play, the Cavs would still need players to make individual sacrifices.  In some cases, these concessions came from their best players.  For example, Kevin Love missed Game 3 of the Finals with his concussion.  Prior to Game 4, he told Lue that if he was cleared, he would do whatever was necessary to win the game.  That included coming off the bench, which is exactly what he did in favor of a smaller lineup with Richard Jefferson.  The Cavs lost Game 4, but Love’s individual sacrifice of minutes and his usual starting role set the tone for the rest of the team.

With all of this being said, Cleveland still found itself down 3-1 in the Finals.  This deficit, exacerbated by the fact that Game 5 was at Oracle Arena, left the Cavs in a tough position; no team before this year had ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals.  James and sidekick Kyrie Irving would need to step up to keep the team’s season alive.

That’s exactly what they did, combining for 82 points in a 112-97 victory to force a Game 6 at Quicken Loans Arena.  Each player scored 41 points, marking the first time in NBA history that two teammates scored 40 or more points in a Finals game.

James continued his domination in Game 6, with a 41-point, 11-rebound, 8-assist performance to take the series to a deciding seventh game.  That game, and the NBA season, would come down to the wire in a fitting end to the Cavaliers’ year.

Game 7 was tight throughout, as the largest lead for either team was seven points.  A Klay Thompson layup with 4:39 to go in the fourth quarter tied the game at 89, and it would stay there for almost four minutes.  The Warriors’ best chance to score during this period came on a fast break with just under two minutes left.  As Andre Iguodala went up for the lay-in, James made what is likely the best block of his career and maybe one of the best in NBA history:

Roughly a minute later and with the game still tied at 89, Irving got a mismatch against Steph Curry.  The rest is history:

A Curry miss on the next possession gave the ball back to Cleveland.  James was fouled on a violent dunk attempt over Draymond Green and, in spite of hurting his wrist on the play, was able to sink one of two free throws to put the Cavs up four.

The Warriors missed two shots on the next possession, ending the game, the season, and Cleveland’s suffering.  After the game ended, many Cavalier players collapsed to the floor, overcome by the emotion of the moment and the enormity of the victory.

And after all that, the Cavs are, albeit improbably, champions today.

To conclude, the Cavs were a team of adversity this season. They faced issues with chemistry, coaching, and injuries to do something that’s never been done before: come back to win the NBA Finals after being down 3-1.  James was the unanimous Finals MVP; he averaged nearly 30 points, 11 rebounds, and 9 assists… for the entire series.  Yeah, not bad.  Not bad at all.

He may not be the best player of all-time, or even in the NBA today.  That doesn’t matter.  LeBron James just pulled off the greatest accomplishment of his career: bringing a championship back to The Land.

Let’s applaud him for that.

The NBA Finals Is Upside Down, So Let’s Just Enjoy It

lebron james game 6 stats nba finals 2016 points rebounds assists steals
Photo Credit: Getty Images

Nothing easy… we’re going to Game Seven baby!  Game Seven! GAME SEVENNNNNNNN! – Zaza Pachulia

I’m going to say something I never thought I’d say.  It took a long time to get to this point, but since we’re here, I might as well tell the truth.

I give up trying to figure out these NBA Finals.  The twists, the turns, the mouthpiece tosses.  I really don’t know how Game 7 will go and I’m still trying to figure out how we got here.  It’s not worth it to sort out the particulars of the first six games of this series because the Finals actually makes less sense to me when I do.

But we can at least try to decipher the first six games and look ahead to Sunday night’s Game 7.  The key word: try.

For one thing, we’ve found our Finals MVP.  Ironically, it’s the same person that should’ve won the award last year: LeBron James.  He’s actually leading every statistical category in this series, as noted by ESPN Stats and Info:

James has so clearly been the best player on the floor in this series.  Moreover, no player on the Warriors has distinguished himself nearly enough to wrest the award away from him, and that holds true even if Golden State wins Game 7.  If you’re only watching the Finals and didn’t follow the regular season, you would think that LeBron was the unanimous MVP and not Steph Curry.  That’s saying something.

And there’s more bad news for the Warriors.  Andre Iguodala, last year’s Finals MVP and primary LeBron defender, suffered a back injury in last night’s game.  While he’s definitely going to play on Sunday, his health may be the difference in the game. There’s another thing I never thought I’d say.

And Iguodala’s injury has other ramifications, too.  The Warriors are already thin in the frontcourt, with Andrew Bogut out for the Finals with a knee injury.  Without his minutes and the normal services of Iguodala, players like Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes would likely have to spend more time guarding James.

Green may be able to hold his own, but the bigger question mark is Barnes.  After I wrote about how Barnes would need to play better for the Warriors to win a championship, he promptly had the worst game of his life in Game 6.  Barnes went for 0 offensive rebounds, 0 assists, and 0 points last night.  This is hard to do (especially as a starter), but the legitimately did nothing on the offensive end of the floor.  So who knows where his mind is right now.

Yet another issue for the Warriors comes from an unlikely source: Steph Curry.  The back-to-back MVP struggled with foul trouble in Game 6, fouling out for the first time this season. After his sixth foul, he had this memorable reaction.  He would assuredly like to forget it:

Soon after Steph fouled out, his wife, Ayesha, tweeted out this thought.  I don’t even know what to say about it that would correctly encapsulate its stupidity:

Ayesha Curry puts out a theory (via Twitter).

Ironically, after saying she “won’t be silent”, she deleted the tweet.  It was a good move, as the tweet only received at least 28,758 retweets.  It’s not like the whole world saw it or anything.

But, regardless of his wife’s thoughts, Steph needs to stay out of foul trouble in Game 7.  The Warriors need his offense on the floor to win their second straight championship.  Even though he’s been outplayed by Kyrie Irving in this series, he is still capable of going off at any particular time.  His chances of doing so are exponentially greater if he doesn’t have to go to the bench with early foul woes.

And then there’s the issue of the Warriors’ “death lineup”.  While it had flourished earlier in the series, it was outscored 27-9 in Game 6.  Part of that is the injury to Iguodala, but the Cavs deserve a great deal of credit here.  On multiple occasions, the team used pick and roll action to switch Curry or Klay Thompson on James.  Curry’s foul trouble, combined with LeBron’s massive height and strength advantage over both players, led to several easy baskets for Cleveland.

The other problem is that without Bogut’s rim protection, the Warriors have no way of stopping these switches.  If Green (who plays center in the death lineup) helps on LeBron, he leaves Tristan Thompson open.  Because Bron is such a good passer and Thompson is so good at cutting toward the basket, the result often ends in an alley-oop dunk, as it did several times in Game 6.

Golden State has several issues.  These issues are so significant that they may make the difference in this series.  But this is about more than the Warriors; it’s also about LeBron.

We’ll never know why James was so much less assertive in the first four games as compared to his last two.  However, since he and Kyrie Irving decided to take things into their own hands the last two games, the Cavaliers have been a totally different team.

There is one Cavalier player, though, who could seriously step things up in Game 7: Kevin Love.  Last night, Love only played 12 minutes, plagued by foul trouble and ineffectiveness.  At this point, Tyronn Lue may want to bring Love off the bench outright, as he’s only getting role player minutes in his current capacity.  Richard Jefferson once again stepped into his role and outplayed him, and he may be worthy of the Game 7 nod.  Then again, the Cavs got here with Love, so their allegiance to him in their starting lineup is very understandable.

At this point, I’m about out of ways to figure out this series.  I don’t know how we’re here, with the greatest regular season team in NBA history on the verge of the worst collapse the league has ever seen.  But this series really is even; both teams have scored 610 points over the course of the last six games.  In spite of the fact that none of the games have been within single digits, the NBA Finals is as even as it could be.

I have a feeling Game 7 is going to be epic.  It will pit the league’s two biggest stars against one another in a winner-take-all bout to determine legacies and history.  I’ve given up trying to figure out this series, so I’m going to enjoy Sunday night’s game as the culmination of a fascinating NBA season.

You should too.

The Cavaliers Are Not a Better Team Without Kevin Love*

CLEVELAND, OH - APRIL 17: Kevin Love #0 and LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrate during the second quarter of the NBA Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Detroit Pistons at Quicken Loans Arena on April 17, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavaliers defeated the Pistons 106-101. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Photo Credit: Jason Miller/Getty Images

*But his absence helps Cleveland stack up against the Warriors.

When Kevin Love suffered a concussion in the first half of Game 2 of the NBA Finals, opinion was split on his impact to a Cavs team facing a 2-0 deficit against the Golden State Warriors. Some thought Love’s injury and, later, his inability to play in Game 3 would spell doom for Cleveland; others felt his absence would actually help the team.  Still others believed that the series was already over regardless of Love’s presence.

Sure enough, the Cavaliers rocked the Warriors by 30 in Game 3, inserting themselves back into the series.  They did so without Kevin Love.

So it was no surprise that after the game, many pundits pointed to Love’s absence as a case of addition by subtraction rather than a crippling loss.  Here are just some headlines from the postgame reaction:

The Cavaliers Should Trade Kevin Love This Summer, But Where? (SB Nation)

Let’s Face the Facts: The Cavs Are Better Against the Warriors Without Kevin Love (CBS Sports)

It’s Time for Cavs, Kevin Love to Decide If They Fit in or Fit Out Together (Bleacher Report)

It looks like some are already jumping ahead to this summer, one that should see the salary cap rapidly approach $100 million.  Whether or not the Cavaliers wish to keep Love may be impacted by the fact that the team is almost $24 million over the league’s $84.7 million luxury tax for this season; Love’s contract calls for a cap hit of over $20 million every year until 2020. While Dan Gilbert has exhibited the willingness to win no matter the cost, financials could play into the Cavs’ ultimate decision on Love.

But there really isn’t time to worry about this now.  What we can pay attention to is the Cavaliers’ NBA Finals matchup with the defending champions and single-season wins record holders, the Golden State Warriors.

And the fact is, Cleveland is probably better, at least in this series, without him.

In Game 1, Love shot 7-17 and scored 17 points.  However, he only shot 3-10 from inside the paint and 2-5 from inside three feet.  The Cavs’ offense was off all night, resulting in a 38% shooting performance which included a 23-60 showing from LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Love.  The Warriors took Game 1 104-89, a win that saw Golden State’s bench score 45 points.  By contrast, Cleveland’s bench scored a paltry 10.

Both teams would move on to Game 2.  In that game, Love went up for a rebound against the Warriors’ Harrison Barnes.  Barnes drilled Love with an elbow to the back of the head, leaving him down in a heap as play continued.

 

Why the game proceeded as Love was down in such a dangerous area of the floor is beyond me.  Luckily, Draymond Green was able to jump to his side and avoid landing on him as he elevated for the subsequent layup, avoiding more serious injury for the Cavs’ big man.  The game should have been stopped to give Love time to get out of the way before grown men of his size (and bigger) came flying at his twisted body.  But I digress….

The Warriors would follow up on the injury by pulling away and taking Game 2 by 33 for a 2-0 lead and undisputed control of the series.  Love would enter the NBA’s concussion protocol after re-entering the game in the second half as a dizzied, compromised version of himself.  Some thought the Cavaliers would be a compromised version of themselves in Game 3.  As it turns out, they were just the opposite.

With Love’s inability to start Game 3, the team would turn to soon-to-be 36-year-old Richard Jefferson to start in his place. While many (including myself) called for Tyronn Lue to start Timofey Mozgov, the team’s only true center, the move to Jefferson wound up paying dividends.  The team shot 52.7% from the field, including 12-25 from three, en route to a 120-90 drubbing of the Warriors.

While there are other factors at play (namely the struggles of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson), what the Cavaliers did on Wednesday night was nothing short of remarkable.  Jefferson’s insertion into the starting lineup made a big difference in several ways.

For one, the Cavs’ offense was run much more simply with Jefferson.  Kyrie Irving and LeBron James handled the ball on almost every possession.  Decisions were made far more quickly.  The ball movement was far sharper than it was in Games 1 and 2; 17 and 15 assists in the first two games, respectively, became 23 assists in Game 3.

Nonetheless, we do need to look beyond the numbers for a full explanation of the Cavs’ stunning turnaround.  For as simple as this sounds, James, Irving, and the rest of the offense executed in ways they didn’t in the Bay Area.  For example, look at J.R. Smith.  Smith, the alwaysenigmatic sharpshooter who has found a way to revitalize his career in Cleveland’s winning environment, struggled to patch together any offense in the first two games.  Lo and behold, Game 3 rolls around and Smith puts up 20 points on the strength of five threes.

That leads us to another theory: do the role players for each team play better at home?  In watching the Cavaliers in this series, the answer would have to be yes.  Role players such as Smith and Tristan Thompson, who struggled in Oakland, pieced together outstanding performances in Game 3, doing their part to turn the tide of the Finals.

That being said, the Cavs need to sustain their performance in Game 4 and beyond.  Curry and Klay Thompson will figure out their perimeter woes sooner or later, and when they do, the Warriors will be difficult to contain.

But while sustainability may be an issue, the Cavaliers are better equipped to win this series with Jefferson in the starting lineup. In Game 3, Jefferson’s offensive rating (140) and defensive rating (94) were just two figures of how his presence improved the rest of his team.  As I alluded to before, the Cavs just played faster with him in the starting lineup; that applies to both ends of the floor.  All of a sudden, defensive switches were far quicker.  The Dubs’ pick-and-roll wasn’t as deadly as it was in the first two games.  And, last but not least, the Cavs were able to run their offense through James and Irving, which greatly simplified Cleveland’s offensive sets and put less impetus on role players to create baskets.

And I’ll say this since we seem to like talking about this year’s Finals in the context of last year’s: is Richard Jefferson the 2016 version of Andre Iguodala?  Unlike Iguodala, Jefferson did start five games in the regular season, but the similarities between the two players and their teams’ circumstances from last year to this are interesting, to say the least.  Iguodala was undoubtedly asked to do more a year ago, from defending LeBron to helping the slumping offense go small; Jefferson’s main role is to knock down threes and defend the Warriors’ wings (Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, Green).  Golden State’s primary offense does not come from those players, so RJ’s assignment becomes much easier.

But Jefferson’s role in the Cavs’ (at least temporary) turnaround is nothing short of impressive.  The offense and defense run far more smoothly with him on the floor, something that can’t be said about Love.  Love is a better player than Jefferson at this point in their respective careers and in most matchups, the former helps the team win.

However, the best starting lineup for the Cavaliers to combat the Warriors is one that includes Richard Jefferson, not one with Kevin Love.  And after seeing how well Jefferson played on Wednesday, why shouldn’t he start again in Game 4?  It is a tough quandary for Lue (who, all told, is only 58 games into his NBA head coaching career), but how could you break up a starting lineup that went a combined +113 in Game 3?  I would think that Love has to come off the bench, wouldn’t you?

If he does, the Cavaliers would probably be better for it.  That’s not something that is usually said about Love, but his style of play and slow-footed defense is incompatible for this series and this opponent.

But the player who can hold his own against the Warriors and help his team succeed is Richard Jefferson.

And that’s why he should get the start in Game 4.

Here We Go Again: NBA Finals Preview

Warriors vs. Cavaliers: Score, Highlights and Reaction from 2016 Regular Season
Photo Credit: Tony Dejak/Associated Press

After four games of the Conference Finals, the respective fates of the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers were greatly in question.

Both teams experienced unexpected outcomes; the Cavs split the first four games of their series against the Toronto Raptors, including two losses in Canada, while the Warriors fell behind three games to one to the Oklahoma City Thunder.  Both teams were expected to win their respective conferences; Cleveland, in particular, was expected to sweep the Raptors or defeat them in five games.  Consequently, it was shocking to see both teams appear so vulnerable for such long periods of time.

Both teams also had notable regular seasons, to say the least.  The Warriors set the single-season wins record (73), breaking the previous record of 72 set by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls.  The Cavaliers, on the other hand, fired head coach David Blatt on January 22nd and replaced him with Tyronn Lue.  After Blatt started the season 30-11, Lue finished it 27-14; the combined 57-25 record was good enough for the Cavaliers to earn home-court advantage for the entirety of the Eastern Conference playoffs.  However, many questions still remained about the team’s ability to beat the best teams in the West.

And yet, here we are.  The Cavaliers took Games 5 and 6 in decisive fashion to beat the Raptors and get LeBron James to his sixth straight NBA Finals.  The Warriors improbably became just the tenth team in NBA history to overcome a 3-1 playoff deficit and took down the Thunder in seven hard-fought games.

Both teams overcame obstacles to get to this point.  Golden State endured a knee injury that forced point guard and 2-time MVP Steph Curry to miss two weeks in early May.  In spite of this, the Dubs went 3-1 in four full games without him.  The MVP would come back in Game 4 of the team’s second-round series against the Trail Blazers. With Golden State up two games to one, Curry came off the bench and dropped 17 points in overtime, an NBA playoff record, to carry the Warriors to a 3-1 series lead and full control over Portland.

Curry scored 40 points for the game and announced himself to the rest of the world as fully healthy.  That did not necessarily apply to his rhythm and comfort level in game action, however.

Curry would struggle to find his mojo in the first four games of the Western Conference Finals.  In those four games, Steph would shoot just 31-74 (41.9%) from the field and a pedestrian 16-43 (37.2%) from deep.  He surely did not look like the best player in basketball, and many were curious as to why.  This report from The Vertical shed some light on the situation, stating that Curry was not fully healed:

Curry has been a shell of himself – missing shots, throwing away passes, losing his dribble and completely unable to prove that there’s Curry-esque agility in that knee. “He’s playing at 70 percent, at best,” a source close to Curry told The Vertical. Curry refuses to make excuses, but privately the Thunder see something – no explosion, no ability to make the bigs switching onto him pay a price. Nineteen points on 20 shots Tuesday night bore no resemblance to the two-time NBA Most Valuable Player.

While it was nice to have a potential reason for Curry’s struggles, the Warriors needed to win the next three games to make it back to the NBA Finals.  Without having Curry’s usual production, this goal looked almost unattainable.  And then Klay Thompson happened.

Thompson, the other half of the Splash Brothers duo, has been the Warriors’ best player in the postseason.  He’s shot 45% from three-point range, averaged over 26 points per game, and carried the team at various times coinciding with Curry’s struggles and injuries.  After a narrow victory in Game 5 and the continuation of Curry’s woes to start Game 6, he would need to put the Warriors on his back once more to extend their season.

And Thompson would answer the call in grand fashion.  His 11 three-pointers set a new playoff record and propelled the Warriors to a 108-101 victory to force a Game 7.

The exhibition was one of the most memorable single-game playoff performances in recent memory.  It was almost as if Thompson wasn’t even looking at the rim on some of his deep shots, and yet it didn’t seem to matter.  He carried the Dubs to Game 7 all on his own, and the rest of the team would take it from there.  Curry erupted for 36 points in the clincher, Thompson added another 21, and the Warriors defeated the Thunder 96-88 to advance to their second straight NBA Finals.

The Cavaliers’ playoff journey has not been nearly as arduous.   Nonetheless, it has been just as impressive as their West counterparts. Cleveland started the playoffs with a sweep of the Detroit Pistons, a series that featured three close games and this Kyrie Irving dagger to finish off Game 3:

Kyrie, 🗡

A video posted by Bleacher Report (@bleacherreport) on

 

The Cavs followed up their first-round performance with an equally impressive second-round sweep of the Atlanta Hawks.  Wins in the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals pushed Cleveland to a 10-0 start to the playoffs.  The team missed its chance to tie the 1989 Los Angeles Lakers for the best start in playoff history (11-0) with a loss in Game 3, but starting the playoffs on a historic tear doesn’t usually guarantee a title.

Although the Cavs’ series with the Raptors went to six games, it wasn’t especially close.  Cleveland outscored Toronto by an average of 15.5 points per game; for context, the 2014 San Antonio Spurs outscored the Heat by 14 points per game in that year’s Finals, and that series only went five games.  Even though the series was tied heading into Game 5, the Raptors never really stood a chance.  Their fans were pretty darn awesome, though:

With the Game 6 win, LeBron James advanced to his sixth straight Finals and became only the eighth player to achieve this feat.  Here are the other seven:

  1. Bill Russell
  2. Sam Jones
  3. K.C. Jones
  4. Satch Sanders
  5. Tommy Heinsohn
  6. Frank Ramsey
  7. Bob Cousy

If you didn’t latch on right away, all seven players were on the Boston Celtics’ 1950s-60s teams that went to ten straight NBA Finals from 1957 to 1966.  The fact that James has joined their company with more parity in the league and with two different organizations is nothing short of remarkable.

With all of this being said, the 2016 NBA Finals should be a compelling series.  Oh, and did I mention it’s a rematch of last year’s Finals?  This, as well as the individual players and collective talent on both teams, should make this year’s Finals very competitive and entertaining.  Let’s preview the series with a couple of major keys to the outcome of the series.

Pick-and-Roll

Some would argue that last year’s NBA Finals turned in the 4th quarter of Game 3.  In that 4th quarter, the Warriors discovered David Lee, his passing, and the efficiency of the high pick-and-roll.  In 13 minutes, the cast-off former double-double machine was +17 and went a perfect 4-for-4 from the field.

Lee is gone now, but the pick-and-roll game of the Warriors remains. Whether Curry, Thompson, or Shaun Livingston is the primary ball-handler, roll men Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Andrew Bogut, and Festus Ezeli will present unique challenges for the Cavaliers. Bogut is one of the best-passing big men in the game and is almost always looking to pass when he rolls to the rim. Ezeli can finish with authority inside while Iguodala and Green can drive to the rim, take a jump shot, or make an extra pass to the Warriors’ dangerous shooters.

But there’s another reason why the pick-and-roll will be such a huge key for the Cavaliers, and it lies in the players who will be defending it.  As Zach Lowe of ESPN writes, the two-man combination of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love is not exactly adept at pick-and-roll defense:

But Irving and Love have been the central players in Cleveland’s worst breakdowns. Opponents in the playoffs have scored 1.09 points per chance when they involve those two as the primary pick-and-roll defenders in a play that leads directly to a shot attempt, drawn foul or turnover, per SportVU data provided to ESPN.com. That would have ranked last by a mile among 119 two-man combos that defended at least 250 pick-and-rolls in the regular season, per that SportVU data set.

Toronto was able to exploit this weakness with the two-man pick-and-roll combo of Kyle Lowry and Bismack Biyombo.  With the Warriors’ offensive firepower, they could rely on pick-and-roll action to stifle the Cavs’ defense.  Look out for this early on in Game 1 as a harbinger of how the game, and, for that matter, the series, will go.

LeBron’s Jumper, His Fatigue, and How They’re (Kind of) Related

It’s no secret that LeBron James’ jump shot is not quite as effective as it was in years past.  Statistics back this up: his three-point percentage this season was the lowest since his rookie year (30.9%) and his deep shooting has regressed every year since winning his last MVP in 2012-13.  Accordingly, Bron has adjusted: his average distance on field goal attempts is at a career low (9.6 feet) and he’s taking the most attempts from inside three feet in his NBA career (45.9%).

Part of this adjustment can be attributed to James’ realization that he must get better shots.  However, one can also credit the King’s improved shot selection with Tyronn Lue’s offense, one in which the ball moves as frequently as the players.  LeBron just isn’t asked to do as much in Lue’s system, and that’s a good thing: his Usage Rate in these playoffs is down significantly from last year’s.  Of course, last year’s Cavs were decimated by injuries, but a fresher LeBron means a better LeBron.

And a better LeBron means a better Cavalier team, certainly better than the one that lost to the Warriors in six games a year ago.

Pace…. And Space

The Cavaliers have possessed the most efficient offense in these playoffs, averaging over 119 points per 100 possessions.  Cleveland only averages 89.7 possessions per game, which is relatively low, especially compared to their Bay Area counterparts.  The Warriors average nearly 100 possessions per game and feast off the opponent’s misses and turnovers for fast break opportunities and easy baskets.

Aside from the pick-and-roll defense of the Cavs, this will probably be the biggest indicator of the outcome of this series.  If the Cavaliers’ offense is allowed to set up in the half court and run its sets, Cleveland will be in very good shape, especially considering how their offense has fared these playoffs.  However, if the game is played at a more up-and-down tempo, the Dubs should fare well.

While Tyronn Lue has sped up the Cavs’ offense since taking over as head coach, the team still needs to execute.  If they can execute, they could feast on a Warrior defense that has been susceptible to slumps this postseason.  Another reason why the Cavaliers’ offense has been so lethal is because of new additions.  Aside from getting Love and Irving back healthy, the team has added Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye via free agency and trade, respectively.  Frye is shooting 26-45 (57.8%) from deep this postseason while Jefferson has provided valuable minutes off the bench.

Needless to say, LeBron James won’t have to do it by himself this time around.  He has some very dangerous weapons beside him now.

The Prediction

I really struggled with this one.  There are good arguments for both teams winning the Larry O’Brien trophy, and either way, it should be an enjoyable, competitive, and (hopefully) long series.  There are so many interesting storylines to this year’s Finals (Cavs vs. Warriors rematch, Steph vs. LeBron, etc.) and I think I’m speaking for everyone in saying that I hope it lives up to the hype.

Nevertheless, I have to make a pick.  I’m taking the Golden State Warriors to win their second straight title.  I have the series going the distance, and I really think it could be one of the best NBA Finals series ever.

But here’s to hoping injuries don’t determine the outcome like they did last year.

**All Statistics courtesy of BasketballReference unless otherwise noted

Chef Curry with the Ring, Boy: The Warriors Are One of the Best Teams of All-Time

The Golden State Warriors completed their championship run last night with a 105-97 defeat of the Cleveland Cavaliers.  Andre Iguodala scored 25 67d124e856d72ff6bef91327bf32636f_crop_northpoints, dished out 5 assists and grabbed 5 rebounds on his way to being named Finals MVP.  Stephen Curry also scored 25 points to go along with 6 rebounds and 8 assists.  Draymond Green had a triple-double of 16 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 assists.  Festus Ezeli, Shaun Livingston, and Harrison Barnes threw in 10 points, 10 points, and 9 points, respectively.  The team’s depth finally wore out the persistent Cavs, and their lack of depth finally caught up with them.  However, this should not take away from this simple fact:

The 2014-15 Golden State Warriors are one of the greatest NBA teams of all time.

Take this stat that compares this year’s Warriors team to the Bulls team of 1995-96 and 1996-97:

There are a couple things to consider here.  To start, both of those ’90s Bulls teams did not have the benefit a best-of-seven first round series.  If those teams did have a best-of-seven first round instead of a best-of five, the ’95-’96 team would have won 88 games and the ’96-’97 team would have won 85 games.  However, two things separates those Bulls from these Warriors: the conference they were in and what they did to their respective competition on their way to The Finals.  In 1995-96 and 1996-97, when the Bulls won 72 and 69 games, respectively, exactly zero teams gave the Bulls trouble on their way to The Finals.  One team won a game against Chicago in the 1996 Playoffs from the Eastern Conference: the Knicks.  The Bulls went on to win those Finals in 6 games against one of the more underrated NBA teams of all-time, the 1995-96 Seattle SuperSonics.  The Hawks and Heat each took a game from Chicago in the 1997 Playoffs, and Chicago would go on to defeat the Utah Jazz in 6 games in the Finals.

Another thing to consider with these three teams is the one common denominator on all of them, as a player and as a coach: Steve Kerr.  On the late 1990s Bulls, Kerr, the player, was a key bench player who, in his 5 years in Chicago, never started a game. Sound familiar?  The MVP of this year’s Finals, Andre Iguodala, hadn’t started a game all season until Game 4 of this series, and his insertion into the starting lineup changed the series.  Like Iguodala, Kerr made big plays when it counted, like this one at the end of the 1997 NBA Finals to give the Bulls their 5th championship:

Also Coach Kerr made the gutsy decision to limit the minutes of his two big men, Festus Ezeli and Andrew Bogut, because their presence was limiting the Dubs’ transition opportunities.  Cleveland out-rebounded the Warriors in two out of the three games with the small lineup, but the Warriors played at a faster pace and got to 100 points in every game since the lineup overhaul.

Another great facet of Steve Kerr’s coaching is his absolutely genius inbound plays, like this one:

And this one:

The bottom-line is that no one gives nearly enough credit to Kerr for the team’s turnaround this year. Think about this stat: the Warriors went from 51 wins to 67 wins in the Western Conference.  Granted, there are other factors at play here that allowed them to make this jump (the fall of the depleted Thunder, the decline of this year’s Spurs, facing the Pelicans in the first round and not the Thunder), but that’s still very impressive.  It’s clear that the difference was made in the offseason with the hiring of Kerr and the unpopular firing of Mark Jackson, who won 51 games last year and turned the franchise around.  The team was first in offensive points scored at 110 and allowed less than 100 points per game defensively.  They had the top points per game differential as well, at +10.1.  This team was dominant on both ends.  For context, the ’95-’96 Bulls’ differential was +12.3 and the ’96-’97 Bulls’ differential was +10.8.

This being said, I don’t think these Warriors are as good as those teams were.  A more apt comparison for them, as a young, potentially all-time great team with no previous Finals experience, would have to be the Bulls of 1990-1991.  That team also scored 110 points per game and allowed 101, for a +9 differential.  That team also played 9 players consistently, and was more similar to these Warriors than you might think.  They played two bigs consistently, but they had comparisons to these Warriors.  They had their Draymond Green (Horace Grant) and their Andrew Bogut (Bill Cartwright). However, the comparisons end there for one simple reason: we’ve never seen a team quite like the Warriors before.

To sum it all up, this isn’t about whether the Warriors could beat an all-time great team in a one-game or seven-game series.  This is about the coronation of a new team in the new NBA with a new way of winning a title.  And they’re just getting started; most of their roster is back, and the only instability comes in Draymond Green’s impending restricted free agency, but look for the Warriors to match any offer Green gets.  This team could be the next Spurs, a great dynasty.  This, of course, is if they stay healthy, which, as we’ve seen in the NBA this season, is not the easiest thing to do.  However, if everyone important stays, this team has the potential to be a great unit that is right in the title conversation every year.  They will evolve and change certain pieces, but they could be back in the finals 10-15 years from now, and there may only be one constant:

Chef Curry with the ring, boy.

But let’s appreciate this year’s team for what it is: one of the best ever.

 

LeBron James Should Be Finals MVP, No Matter What

The Cavaliers wasted another brilliant LeBron James performance last night in Oakland, losing images104-91 to the Warriors.  The game was a perfect demonstration of why the Cavaliers are about to lose these Finals, why LeBron James is the best player in the world, and why LeBron should be named the Finals’ MVP, even if Cleveland goes down either in Game 6 on Tuesday or Game 7 on Friday.

One of the main reasons why the clear MVP of this series is LeBron is because there is no clear MVP from the Warriors.  The team’s two best players in this series may very well be the league MVP (Steph Curry) and the series-altering addition to Golden State’s starting lineup, Andre Iguodala.  Curry has averaged 26.2 points, 5 rebounds and 6 assists per game in these Finals; however, he was effectively shout down in Game 2 and for the first 3 quarters of Game 3 by Matthew Dellavedova. Iguodala has averaged 14.6 points, 6 rebounds. and 3.8 assists per game in the series, but has been +29 in the two games since being inserted into the starting lineup. James’ stats, however, are a different story.  Per game, he’s averaged a meager 36.6 points, 12.4 rebounds, and 8.8 assists.  While it’s true that his efficiency is at an all-time low, what other choice does he have?  Exactly; he doesn’t.  He has to put the team on his shoulders, and that he has and that this series is still going is simply amazing.

The last Finals MVP to not be on the winning team was the Lakers’ Jerry West in 1969.  That year, his Lakers lost to the Bill Russell and John Havlicek-led Celtics in 7 games.  Check out this stat that compares West’s performance that year to James’ this year, from ESPN Stats & Info:

That’s amazing.  It just goes to show you that he is doing everything he possibly can in this series to put the Cavaliers on his shoulders.  Due to injuries and a profound lack of depth on the Cavs’ bench, James has absolutely zero help from his own team. Also, to hammer home this point, SportsCenter tweeted this stat out today, demonstrating what LeBron has done in this series, in spite of his team:

That counts for 77% of the Cavaliers points last night.  LeBron James had a hand in nearly 80% of his team’s scoring on the offensive end.  The next stat again comes from ESPN Stats & Info, and it compares Curry’s fourth quarter with the games of Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and Matthew Dellavedova, the other three perimeter players that played heavy minutes for Cleveland last night:

All credit to the Warriors and Curry for stepping up after a demoralizing loss in Game 3.  They have been a different team since going down 2-1 and putting Iguodala into the lineup. However, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that the Warriors depth is winning out against Cleveland, who is still only playing eight a game.  However, they made a change last night in playing Timofey Mozgov, their best player in Game 4, for only 9 minutes in Game 5 compared to 33 minutes in Game 4.

It will be very difficult for the Cavaliers to come back and win this series.  However they have a chance.  They have a chance because they have LeBron James, and the Warriors do not. According to LeBron, they are confident in their chances. Listen to James speak about why he is still confident despite facing a 3-2 deficit and having to play a potential Game 7 in the loudest arena in the NBA:

It’s profound.  It’s bold.  It’s mic-drop worthy.  Most of all?  It’s true.  LeBron James is the best player in the world; that simple.

He’s the best player in this series.

He should be Finals MVP.