How big of an underdog are the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals? The betting odds say they’re a 6-1 longshot to beat the Golden State Warriors. By comparison, the Chicago Cubs are 5-1 to reach the World Series. Let’s put that in perspective—the best basketball player in the world is giving a lesser chance of winning one series than a baseball team is of making up a five-game deficit in the standings and winning two playoff rounds that are four months away.
From the sheer standpoint of value that makes LeBron James and the Cavs look like a reasonable bet. Given that the Warriors needed a timely injury to Houston Rockets’ point guard Chris Paul simply to reach the Finals, you have to believe that LeBron could find a way to beat the Warriors at a rate better than one time in six.
But as a professional handicapper I used to work with was known to say, there’s no value in any bet that doesn’t win. Translation—maybe the right odds on this series should be closer to 3-1, but the math still says that means it’s the Warriors who are pouring champagne.
LeBron simply can’t do any more than he’s already doing. The playoff averages are astounding—34 points/9 rebounds/8 assists per game, while shooting an efficient 54 percent from the floor and playing 41 minutes per game. But the best player on the opposing teams he’s faced thus far have been Victor Oladipo, DeMar DeRozan and Jayson Tatum. Now LeBron has the two-headed monster of Kevin Durant and Steph Curry staring at him, with Klay Thompson and Draymond Green in reserve.
Put another way, Golden State has four players who would have been the star on any team Cleveland faced in the Eastern Conference. That means a lot of role players who have been riding LeBron’s coattails to the prestige of Finals appearances are going to have to earn their paychecks these next two weeks. Here’s the short list of those players…
*Kyle Korver—the three-point marksman has been the most reliable of LeBron’s supporting cast through three rounds of the playoffs. He takes an average of 5-6 treys per game and hits 45 percent. That includes some of the most rapid catch-and-shoot plays under pressure that you’ll see. Korver is a professional shooter in the truest sense.
*J.R. Reid—he’s been up and down and shoots 37% from behind the arc, while also taking five per game. Reid needs to join Korver in hitting the outside shots that will space the floor and allow LeBron driving space against a Golden State defense that can be beaten at the rim.
*George Hill—the veteran point guard is only averaging a couple assists per game. If nothing else, picking up those numbers and giving LeBron a breather from constantly running the offense against what will be some intense backcourt defense, would be a big help.
*Jeff Green—the small forward was the man in Game 7 against the Boston Celtics, shooting 7-for-14 and scoring 19 points. The Cavs need him to basically replicate that performance every game for the next two weeks.
*Kevin Love—more of the second star rather than a role player, but his health status is uncertain due to being in concussion protocol. When Cleveland stunned Golden State in the 2016 Finals, Love’s 14 rebounds in Game 7 were a big reason why. He’s averaging double-digit rebounds in the playoffs and needs to be healthy and attacking the glass in this series.
On paper, Golden State should win this series in five or six games. Given their talent and how well-coached they are, I won’t bet against them. But given what LeBron is doing and how the Warriors struggled in close games against the Rockets, I’m not ready to bet on the defending champs either. This is a Finals I find intriguing. I’ll be cautious and say that Cleveland at least manages to split the first four games and get people talking about whether LeBron can pull it off.