The narrative for this year’s NBA Finals has been cast as a choice between the best player or the best team. Do you take LeBron James to carry the Cleveland Cavaliers on his back to their first NBA title? Or will the 67-win Golden State Warriors, easily the league’s best, to bring home their first crown since 1975?
I won’t dispute that this storyline is the core question of the Finals, but there is a little more to it than that.
We need to begin by dispelling a popular misconception about Golden State, one that I regrettably held for far too long, and it’s that they were just a jump-shooting team. The Warriors are also the NBA’s best defense, as measured by efficiency (which tweaks the stats for pace of play).
The rebounding over the course of the regular season was spotty (12th in rebound rate), but Draymond Green goes to the glass, and when Andrew Bogut is playing well, Golden State can match up inside.
Golden State’s consistency throughout the year and again in their run through the league’s tougher conference playoffs, make them a known commodity at this level. Cleveland is harder to get a hold on.
It’s tough to make too much of some of the Cavs’ questionable regular season numbers—for example, their 20th ranking in defensive efficiency. We know it took them half the season to really get going. They were 19-20 at one point. There were growing pains in making the new pieces fit and LeBron took a couple weeks off to get rest and pace himself for the long haul.
Conversely, how much can we read into their strong run through the Eastern Conference playoffs? They played the Boston Celtics, a sub-.500 team. The Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks should have presented better challenges, but it’s apparent today that the Bulls were coming undone by internal dissension and the Hawks suffered injuries very early in the conference finals.
It’s nothing Cleveland has to apologize for, but there’s no point in denying that the Cavs are about to make a huge leap in quality of completion.
That’s the path each team has come and the question marks that lie within those paths. What about the matchup itself?
Kyrie Irving’s health is the big X-factor. He was good for 22ppg as LeBron’s righthand man during the regular season and delivered some electrifying performances in the playoffs before being slowed by a bad ankle. Kyrie is going to have guard either league MVP Steph Curry or Klay Thompson, both 20-plus ppg scorers themselves and more than capable of exploding off the dribble against a defender with a bad ankle.
If we assume Kyrie can at least be reasonably effective, the attention has to shift down low. Throughout the postseason, I’ve extolled the contributions of both Green and his counterpart for the Cavs, Tristan Thompson. Now they’re up against each other and which one can keep possessions alive with offensive rebounds and close out stops on the defensive end with the rebound is going to be a big factor in who wins. The battle between the centers, Bogut and Cleveland’s Timofey Mozgof is no less critical.
Another area to keep an eye on is the pace of play. Golden State likes to push it, playing all season at the fastest pace of anyone in the NBA. It’s much harder to defend the three-point shooters in transition and if Curry or Thompson can get to wings or the corner on a break, they can score a lot in a hurry.
Cleveland plays at a much more deliberate pace. They’ve got their own three-point shooters—J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Matthew Dellavedova, but they get their shots by LeBron drawing defenders in the halfcourt game and then using his exceptional court vision and passing skill to find the open man on the arc.
Finally, come to the stars themselves. LeBron is playing at a high level right now—his regular season averages were 25 points/6 rebounds/7 assists and he’s kicked it up a notch in the playoffs with an average stat line of 28/10/8. The one thing he’s not doing well is shooting jump shots, especially from behind the arc where he’s only 17 percent and taking five attempts per game.
Curry is averaging 29 ppg, along with six assists, while Thompson is averaging 20. Both shoot 44 percent from three-point range, an exceptional percentage, especially given the volume of shots. Golden State takes an average of twenty-seven three-point shots per game, and still converts at a rate exceeding over 40 percent.
In any other sport, you don’t hesitate to take the best team over the best player. But basketball is a game where one man makes an outsized impact, and the NBA in particular is a stars’ league–the polite way of saying the stars get all the calls.
To me, that makes this a basically even series, which is why I was surprised to see Golden State show as a solid (-220) favorite, with Cleveland available at the betting window at (+185). It makes it an easy decision to pick the Cavs from a purely handicapping perspective. And straight up? I still lean that way—Cleveland in a hard-fought six-game series.