Just How Far Can the Houston Rockets Go?

Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

The Houston Rockets have been the NBA’s hottest team through the first two months of the season and currently hold a Western Conference-leading 25-5 record. Until last night’s loss to the Lakers, one in which MVP candidate James Harden casually dropped 51 points, the team had won 14 games in a row and had also gone 15-0 with point guard Chris Paul in the starting lineup. Paul, though, left last night’s game with an adductor strain and is currently considered day-to-day.

Now that we enjoyed that little bit of fun, it’s time to return to reality and consider whether or not the Rockets can seriously stack up with the Warriors if the two meet in the playoffs.

Much of Houston’s success to this point in the season has been due to the acquisition of Paul from the Clippers this past summer. While Harden has been one of the league’s best players this season, the Rockets are a different monster with CP3 on the floor. To show you just how good Paul has been in just 16 games this season, I give you this table from the good people at Basketball-Reference that provides point differentials and field goal percentages of the Rockets’ lineup combinations to this point in the season. I have modified the table to remove the most common five-man lineups that feature Harden. The point differential, per 100 possessions, of some of these combinations may shock you:

Regular Season: 5-Man Combinations Table
Net Net Net Net
Lineup MP FG% 3P% eFG% PTS
R. Anderson | T. Ariza | E. Gordon | C. Paul | P. Tucker 17:18 -.059 -.071 -.012 +12.1
R. Anderson | T. Ariza | C. Capela | E. Gordon | C. Paul 16:43 +.208 +.292 +.279 +29.9
R. Anderson | T. Ariza | E. Gordon | N. Hilario | C. Paul 13:44 +.167 +.389 +.326 +49.8
R. Anderson | E. Gordon | N. Hilario | C. Paul | P. Tucker 13:26 -.035 +.063 +.019 +16.1
E. Gordon | N. Hilario | L. Mbah a Moute | C. Paul | P. Tucker 12:51 +.257 +.083 +.300 +59.4
Player Average 471:37 +.044 +.071 +.094 +18.1
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 12/21/2017.

Holy hell, Batman.

In reality, though, this shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. Paul has been a plus/minus god for the better part of ten years and is, for my money, one of the three best point guards in the game today. That makes his injury last night, the second significant one he has suffered this season, all the more concerning. While he isn’t expected to miss much time at the moment, the Rockets cannot possibly win a championship without him. After all, we’ve seen what can happen to the Rockets in the playoffs without him and it wasn’t pretty.

All that being said, this is not at all an affront to James Harden’s abilities. It is, however, a testament to the state of the NBA today that having just one of the best players in the league is not nearly enough to get a team into serious championship contention. The other problem for the Rockets last season was that Harden, without the presence of a true point guard, played the position admirably and nearly won Most Valuable Player honors. The issue was that, by the time the Rockets faced off against the Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals, Harden was asked to create his own offense and initiate most of Houston’s, as well. He barely shot over 41% in the series and the Rockets were dispatched despite the Spurs’ loss of star forward Kawhi Leonard at the end of Game 5. The Rockets don’t have that problem anymore, and while Harden can put the team on his back for periods when Paul is injured or on the bench, the team hopes that they won’t completely need him to come playoff time.

Since we seem to keep coming back to it, let’s address this next issue head-on. Can the Rockets dethrone the defending champions and beat the Warriors in a playoff series?

For starters, let’s take a slightly closer look at the performance of both teams to this point in the season. The Dubs are currently just a half-game back of Houston for the top spot in the West, and while much of the attention has gone to the Rockets’ start, the Warriors have ripped off 25 wins in their first 31 games with little to no fanfare. And you could argue that Golden State has not yet hit its stride, as superstar point guard Steph Curry will be out until the end of this calendar year with an ankle injury.

Simple Rating System, a statistic that rates teams based on point differential and strength of schedule, has the Warriors and Rockets rated just about identically, with Golden State holding the advantage by one one-hundredth of a point. If you want to be skeptical of this metric, you have my full permission; it currently has the Raptors rated as the top team in the East and made the exact same mistake a season ago. But while it may not be perfect, it does take into account most aspects of a team’s performance and gives a number correspondent to the strength of that performance. And according to SRS, the Rockets’ success has been impressive, but it still isn’t enough to put them past the Warriors as the Western Conference’s best team.

There is also no guarantee that the Rockets will keep up this pace, one that has them winning 83% of their games, for the rest of the season. While the Rockets’ offense shouldn’t be a problem as long as Paul and Harden are healthy (they currently lead the league in offensive rating), their defense could become a concern. A team coached by Mike D’Antoni for a full season has never finished in the top ten of the league in defensive rating; the lockout-shortened 2011-12 New York Knicks, a team D’Antoni resigned from with 24 games to play in the regular season, finished fifth in that category that year. The Rockets currently sit in 7th in the league in defensive rating, and while this may very well be the best team he has ever had in his coaching career, there is also reason to believe that their defensive performance could suffer as the season goes along.

I truly want to believe that the Houston Rockets could dethrone them as the best team in the NBA. I really believe that they are the second-best team in the league right now, and I don’t see that changing, barring injuries or unforeseen circumstances, before the season ends.

But I’ll believe in the Rockets as a championship contender when I see the Warriors lose a playoff series. I wouldn’t bet on it.

Are the Warriors Too Good For the Cavaliers?

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

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.

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.

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.


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.


James Harden is the NBA MVP, and Here’s Why

As the NBA season concludes, we are left to the all-important debate of who will win the NBA MVP award.  Four contenders have emerged: Stephen Curry (PG, Warriors), LeBron James (SF, Cavaliers), Russell Westbrook (PG, Thunder), and, in my opinion, the real MVP, Rockets’ SG James Harden.  There are many reasons to choose one of the other players on this list; for example, choose Curry for his electrifying display of shooting, passing and circus shots; choose James for how his team has played since he returned from myriad injuries in mid-January; or, you could choose Westbrook for his practically putting the entire OKC team on his back due to injuries to stars Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka.  But Harden is the best choice here.

Harden leads the league in points per game at 27.6.  Part of this is that Harden leads the league in free throw attempts per game; this shows his aggression and ingenuity in crafting offense for his team.  Before you go ahead and make the assumption that Harden is a selfish player, the Beard is also 9th in the league in assists per game at 6.9.  Also, the supporting cast of Harden is not nearly as good as Curry’s: 3 of Curry’s four teammates in the starting lineup are having the best years of their careers, and Curry comprises only half of the league’s best backcourt, alongside Klay Thompson.  Harden’s supporting cast? Jason Terry, filling in for injured defensive presence Patrick Beverley at the point, Trevor Ariza, who has been forced to emerge as a “second option” to Harden in the offense; Trevor is much better defensively.  One of the players the Rockets depended on going into the season was Dwight Howard, but he has missed around half of the Rockets’ games this year with back injuries.  And at power forward the Rockets use both Donatas Motiejunas and Josh Smith, who have both stepped up this year, but largely because of the attention opposing defenses have paid to Harden.  However, Motiejunas is out for the season with a back injury.

This article is not meant to state that the Rockets will definitely win in the playoffs or that Harden will step up in those games.  Out of the teams mentioned (GS, HOU, OKC, CLE) the Cavs are best suited for playoff success in my opinion.  But Harden has displayed the best individual performance throughout this season, and I think he should be the league MVP.