An Analysis of the Celtics-Cavaliers Trade

Ron Schwane/Associated Press

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

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

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.

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 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.

After Game 1 of the NBA Finals, Are the Cavaliers Done Already?

Last night in Oakland, the Warriors played the Cavaliers in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.  Cleveland jumped out to a 14-point lead late in the first quarter, which evaporated by late in the second.  The game was extremely tight in the second half, however, and it was tied with 32 seconds to go.  With the ball and a potential two-for-one situation, the Warriors moved quickly.  They set up a fantastic play which saw Steph Curry get the ball in one-on-one action against the ailing Kyrie Irving.  Curry got around Irving, looked like he had a layup secured, and…

On the next possession, LeBron James, while being defended by Andre Iguodala, stepped back for three, missed, and then the ball popped off the rim to Iman Shumpert.

This was the closest the Cavaliers came to scoring until the very end of the overtime session.  Neither team scored for the first 1:48 of OT, and the only points scored in the first 2:30 of overtime were Curry free throws.  Then this happened, which could be calamity for the Cavs:

The Cavaliers would not score in the overtime until a LeBron layup with nine seconds left, which the Warriors defense willingly yielded.

Irving is scheduled for an MRI this afternoon, and he is having that MRI performed as this article is being written.  If there is an official update on his injury and/or status for the rest of the series, this will be updated.  However, his Game 2 status looks grim, per USA Today’s Jeff Zillgitt:

If Irving cannot play in Game 2 or beyond, the Cavaliers are most likely done. This is why.

Without Irving, the Cavs would most likely turn to Matthew Dellavedova to start at the point.  In Game 1 against Golden State, Irving had the best +/- number on the Cavs, at +5.  Dellavedova had the worst at -13.  Worst of all, he did that in nine minutes.  If he would have played Irving’s 44 minutes at this rate, his +/- would have been -64.  Of course, that wouldn’t happen, because the game would have evened out after a certain amount of time, before those 44 minutes were up.  But Dellavedova’s complete lack of impact in those minutes is utterly concerning.  He had three assists and one rebound in those nine minutes, and that’s basically it. He did nothing to distinguish himself, and was also on the floor during the Warriors’ bench-fueled comeback in the second quarter.

Another issue for the Cavaliers is the question of who will help LeBron in the scoring department.  As Bill Russell once said in a Pepsi Uncle Drew commercial, “This game has always been, and will always be, about buckets.”  Sure, he scored 44 points last night, as well as 8 rebounds and 6 assists.   However, the Warriors are obviously not terribly worried about James’ scoring; they are more worried about that of his supporting cast.  LeBron also made some very tough shots, especially jumpers, against very good defense from Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, and others.  He will not make those shots forever, and without Irving, he may be the Cavaliers only productive offensive player.  Sure, Tristan Thompson had 15 rebounds and played an awesome game last night, but he can’t do too much on offense.  J.R. Smith played well in the first half, but went cold in the second.  Can he get his own shot without the passing and floor spacing that Kyrie provides?  Can Timofey Mozgov get the same pick and roll dunks he did last night, like this one?

And can the Cavaliers’ bench out-perform that of the Warriors if Uncle Drew is unavailable?  It would have been tough for all of these things to happen with Irving, but without him, they become nearly impossible.

In conclusion, the Warriors should get plenty of credit here.  They found a LeBron defender in Iguodala, who defended him extremely well the entire night, as well as on the last play of regulation.  In my Finals preview last week, I only mentioned Iguodala once, and that was a mistake; I forgot about ‘Dre.  However, we cannot forget about how this series is basically over if the Cavs don’t have Irving for the rest of the series.

Without him, the Cavaliers are done, already.

UPDATE: As I wrote this article, I said I would update it with potential Kyrie news.  Well, here it is.  Back to Zillgitt:

My guess now is that the series ends in a sweep.  The Cavs just don’t have enough to beat these Warriors.