No intro, let’s just dive right in.
- How Much Is Cleveland Willing to Prioritize Offense Over Defense?
The Cavs saved their all offense Kevin Love-Channing Frye front court for the playoffs, but once they unleashed it they rained a goddamn tidal wave of lighting on opponents. Cavs lineups with both on the floor have scored over 1.1 points per possession and made 48% of their three-pointers, offensive numbers so absurd most teams can’t outscore it no matter how many points they give back on defense.
But the Warriors aren’t most teams. They averaged nearly exactly the same amount of points per 100 possessions throughout the entire regular season, regardless of lineup, and that number would jump quite a bit against such ghastly Cleveland defensive units. Remember, the Thunder were so concerned about leaving even one defensive liability on the floor against Golden State that Enes Kanter played 10 minutes or fewer in the last four games of the Western Conference Finals. Cleveland has two Enes Kanters defensively. Playing them together against any Golden State lineup would be dangerous. Playing them together against the death lineup would be suicide.
And then there’s Kyrie Irving. He actually defended Stephen Curry fairly well in Game 1 of the Finals last year, but Curry lit him on fire when they met in January to the tune of 35 points in a blowout win. Irving’s scoring is and always will be important for Cleveland, but there is going to be a point in this series when the Warriors start draining three’s en masse and the siren song for Curry-stopper Matthew Dellavedova is going to grow pretty hard to resist.
Delly lineups have actually faired far better than units with Irving all season. The Cavs have a +10 net rating with him on the floor compared to Irving’s +5.7. He just seems to fit in better with LeBron. He’s one of the better lob passers in the league, giving Tristan Thompson more offensive value than he ever has with Irving on the floor, but he’s also a far bigger catch-and-shoot threat. He and Irving both took 2.1 catch-and-shoot three’s per game this season, but Delly made 46.9% of them to Kyrie’s 36%. LeBron is at his most dangerous when flanked by shooters, and Dellavedova just does that better than Kyrie without the ball in his hands.
Cleveland will start with their traditional lineup: Irving, James, Love, Thompson and J.R. Smith, but they’ll test the Love-Frye combination early, likely against Golden State bench lineups, to see if it’s at all viable. The Kyrie question is going to take longer to answer. Tyronn Lue will need a few games as a sample to see if Irving can reasonably defend Curry, and it wouldn’t be terribly surprising to see him use both point guards together if there’s a place for Kyrie to hide. But as this series reaches its later stages he might just have to bite the bullet and start Delly and cut off Golden State’s offense at the source.
2. How is Golden State going to defend LeBron James?
Yes, the one word answer here is Iggy. He won the Finals MVP last year as the designated LeBron hounder, and Steve Kerr did start him in Game 7 against Oklahoma City to do precisely that to Kevin Durant, but this year’s Cleveland roster is very different than last year’s. Ignore Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving for a moment, just look at James.
The Warriors treated last year’s LeBron with the utmost respect, doubling constantly, fighting over screens, trying to prevent any shots, even bad ones, because a bad LeBron shot is better than pretty much anyone else’s good ones. But he’s a different player this year, hitting less than 31% of his three-pointers. The Warriors didn’t even bother guarding Andre Roberson early in the Western Conference Finals, instead using Draymond Green as a rover to muck up any other action the Thunder tried to initiate offensively. Roberson hit a higher percentage of three’s this season than James.
Obviously using a rover on LeBron would be crazy. He’d go to the basket every time and that would be that. But just how conservative the Warriors decide to be on him is going to play a big part in who wins this series. At the very least, they’ll duck under screens on him, daring him to shoot long two’s that are wide open as opposed to allowing him the layups and dunks he’s found easily all postseason. But a big part of their strategy for James is going to come down to who guards Kyrie Irving.
The Warriors talk a big game about letting Stephen Curry guard point guards, but doing so with LeBron on the floor would just be stupid. The Warriors switch most screen and rolls, even with Curry involved, because most rollers just aren’t dangerous enough to hurt Curry anywhere except the rim. But if Curry starts on Irving, the Cavs would run 1-3 pick-and-rolls on them to death. The result would either be an enormous mismatch with Curry switching onto James, or free space for Kyrie Irving on his jumper as Curry desperately attempts to catch up off of a LeBron screen. Neither outcome is desirable for Golden State, which means Klay Thompson will probably get the Kyrie assignment from the tip.
But that creates its own set of difficulties. Klay is not fast enough to keep up with Kyrie for 30+ minutes, and switching constantly is extremely dangerous against the Cavs. Kevin Love and LeBron James are so good near the basket that one mismatch off of an errant switch is almost always going to lead to a good shot, and even if it doesn’t, their offensive rebounders are so good that the Warriors would spend the entire series suffering through Steven Adams flashbacks. And then there’s the energy commitment Klay would have to make in chasing Kyrie around. As we saw against Russell Westbrook, that makes life very difficult for him.
There isn’t a right answer for how to defend Cleveland. That’s why they got this far. If the Warriors maintain their usual aggressive scheme it’s going to get tested early and often, but if they choose to play more conservatively they lose what made that unit so special in the first place. Steve Kerr is going to have to find a workable compromise.
3. Will the Warriors Get Any Rebounds?
Steven Adams had so many offensive rebounds in the Western Conference Finals that all you’d see on a stat sheet would be a giant picture of a mushroom cloud. Well… Tristan Thompson is an even better offensive rebounder than Adams, but of course the Warriors know that already. He had 32 offensive rebounds in the six games of last year’s series. That’s three fewer than Channing Frye had this entire season.
That’s more or less Kevin Love on the defensive end. He has the fourth highest career defensive rebound rate of all time at 29.08%, and that’s pretty much going to be the extent of his defensive duties in this series. He’ll be hidden on Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli for the most part, leaving the daunting Draymond Green assignment to a combination of James and Thompson, and Cleveland wouldn’t dare let Love switch onto guards in space. If his man gets involved in a pick-and-roll (as he will often, as the Warriors love singling out weaker defenders), he’ll zone up behind it and try to protect the rim, giving Golden State’s guards all of the open mid-range jumpers they can handle. In other words, he’s going to be near the rim at all times, so he and Thompson are going to get a disproportionate amount of rebounds.
The Warriors punted on rebounding entirely in last year’s Finals, choosing instead to start the death lineup and just make shots at a high enough clip to render rebounding irrelevant. If they start slowly again this year, they might try to use that same tactic to play Love off of the floor. His best matchup in that scenario might be Andre Iguodala, a frightening notion for Cleveland. But even that plan isn’t foolproof. Draymond Green can’t just front the post against Love as he did against Timofey Mozgov last year as Love would just curl around and take three’s.
The more realistic worry for the Cavs is that Love just can’t protect the rim well enough to guard Bogut. Though Bogut himself isn’t a big threat, whoever takes him is going to be the last line of defense against drives and those deadly Warrior back cuts that have plagued Cleveland for the past two years. If he can’t the Cavs might have to sacrifice Love’s rebounding and mismatch him on Harrison Barnes. It would cost them open shots and rebounds, but if it’s the best way to keep him on the floor offensively that might be a pill they’re willing to swallow. But all Love needs to be is adequate as a rim-protector to prevent that scenario, plausible enough against a team that just doesn’t attack the rim all that often.
So in all likelihood, the Cavs are going to win the rebounding battle by a wide margin. It’s just going to be a matter of how much the Warriors prioritize keeping it reasonable against taking advantage of the other weaknesses Cleveland’s bigs present.
4. Who’s Cleveland’s Best Shooting Guard: J.R. Smith or Iman Shumpert?
In the starting lineup and potentially the closing one too, Tyronn Lue is going to have to plant a flag for one of his two shooting guards. Either J.R. Smith or Iman Shumpert is going to get the nod, and it’s likely going to come down to Shumpert’s shooting and Smith’s defense.
The smart money now is on Smith. Shumpert had at least been a serviceable three-point shooter for most of his career, and it’s a good thing too, because without it his excellent defense might not have been playable. Well, this year he fell below 30% from three. No matter how good you are defensively, that’s going to stall an offense. Even the Thunder had to bench Andre Roberson in a few big moments to free up some offensive space, and he’s a better defender than Shumpert by a comfortable margin.
But Roberson had a high-variance shooting series that kept him in the lineup against Golden State and actually nearly won Oklahoma City the series. Shumpert doesn’t have to make 25 three-pointers to win the series. He just has to make one or two every game, enough to force Golden State to defend him as it did Roberson. He had that series against Atlanta. We’ll see if he can have it again against the Warriors.
If not, this series might just ride on the Smith-Klay Thompson matchup. In Smith’s defense, he’s actually been better than usual defensively this season. Opposing shooters are only 0.5% better against him than the average defender, for example, far better than his usual 17,000%. He’s actually trying on that end this season, but effort aside Cleveland is still almost five points better per 100 possessions defensively when he’s sitting, and covering Thompson takes far more than effort.
5. What’s Cleveland’s Best Answer to the Death Lineup?
Well there isn’t exactly a good one. The ideal defense against Golden State’s unholy laser beam of a lineup is five Kawhi Leonards, and though Cleveland might have one in LeBron James, he’s going to be expending most of his energy on offense.
He’s the one lock to be on the floor against the death lineup. All four other spots are up for grabs, though I think it’s fairly safe to say that J.R. Smith will be on the floor as well for shooting purposes. That leaves three more slots, and the most interesting question at this point is whether Ty Lue prefers Kevin Love or Kyrie Irving as his second shot-creator in such units. They can’t both be on the floor at the same time, Golden State would force them into the pick-and-roll do-si-do they murder bad defenders with so frequently.
One of these two is going to be hiding on Andre Iguodala in the corner, and my early bet would be on Love. The Cavs have to out rebound the death lineup when it’s on the floor, they aren’t going to outscore the Warriors so their only chance is to take more shots.
That leaves Matthew Dellavedova and Iman Shumpert for the final two slots. The most interesting note on this lineup would be that LeBron is playing center. He’d be guarding Draymond Green, and though Love would be the last line of defense if Cleveland chose to blitz Curry on Golden State’s 1-4 high pick-and-roll the Cavs would do everything in their power to scheme as small a defensive roll for Love as possible.
6. Was Golden State’s Poor Shooting Against the Thunder a Blip, or a Sign?
In general, it’s stupid to ignore large sample sizes like the regular season in favor of smaller postseason data. So yes, the Warriors are probably far closer to the team that shot 41.6% from long range than the one that went 28-for-87 in Games 3, 4 and 5 against Oklahoma City. But this is something worth digging into at least a bit.
Generally, 750 three-pointers is predictive and anything less can be seen as an outlier. Well… several major Warriors shot high above their depth this season and took far less than 750 shots. Draymond Green was a 32% three-point shooter this season and then jumped all the way up to 39%. He’s fallen below 36% in the playoffs, and he took a highly non-predictive 258 attempts in the regular season. Is it possible that he just had an incredibly hot season and is now just regressing to the mean?
On a smaller scale, this is true of several other Warriors. Harrison Barnes has leapt meteorically from his college and Mark Jackson-era percentages over the past two seasons, and while the switch to Steve Kerr’s offense is a reasonable explanation, it could also be something of a regression for a shooter who has looked just a bit too good over the past two years. He has also seen a slight decline in his numbers during the playoffs. Even Mo Speights made 24-of-62 three’s this season after hitting only 19-of-79 for his career beforehand.
And then there’s Stephen Curry. His percentages are absolutely reliable and his numbers ironclad, but we’re in such unfamiliar territory with him in general. Before this season, no player had ever made 300 three-pointers. And he made 400! Even in the Western Conference Finals, possibly playing hurt, he made over 40% from long range.
I think it’s at least fair to wonder if it’s even possible for someone to have a season this good. There’s just no precedent for it. It’s reasonable to expect a variance-induced slump at some point, right? We have no way of knowing whether it will be this series or if it will ever come at all. But the old saying is if you live by the three, you die by the three. The Warriors haven’t died by the three yet. But there are at least the quietest of signals that it could be coming.
So those are the six biggest questions heading into the NBA Finals. Here are 11 smaller ones:
7. What’s the Best Bench Matchup?
Cleveland will do everything in its power to avoid this, but if Shaun Livingston ever winds up on the floor at the same time as Kyrie Irving he’s going to eat him alive. Rarely would any team be satisfied with a four- or five-minute stretch headlined by Livingston post-ups, but if they come against Irving that’d be the exception.
8. Are we Going to See Cleveland’s Old Guys at all?
We’d better! I demand a James Jones cameo. I don’t care that Mike Miller isn’t on the roster, if he doesn’t show up for three minutes in the second quarter of Game 4 I’m going to throw a hissy fit. Let’s take a moment and just enjoy the fact that Richard Jefferson has a major role to play in the 2016 NBA Finals. He played in more games this season than Derrick Rose has in any of the last five. Not gonna lie, I did not see that one coming. This is indeed a disturbing universe.
9. Speaking of Old Guys… Anderson Varejao Revenge Game?
Steve Kerr seems hellbent on playing Varejao. There’s no good explanation for why. The Warriors were statistically a worse team in the regular season with Varejao on the floor than the Phoenix Suns. No, really, their -7.9 net rating was lower than Phoenix’s -7.6. They are also a team that won 73 games. That shouldn’t be possible. But hey, strange things happen in the Finals. Last year an unexpected David Lee cameo ended up swinging the series.
10. Which Bench Warmer Would We Rather See Get a Ring: Sasha Kaun or Ian Clark?
The answer is empirically Sasha Kaun and I condemn you to seven years of hard labor if you say otherwise. He has the actual melted face of a failed clone. He’s Russian. I bet he has a pet grizzly tiger. And that’s not even a real animal.
11. What Would be More Insufferable: Draymond Winning 73 Games and a Title or LeBron Winning one for the ‘Land?
If he would just stop calling it “the ‘Land,” we could just give it to Draymond and call it a day. But no, I am not prepared for a whole summer of LeBron hero worship. At least Draymond makes it fun.
12. Who is Michael Jordan Rooting For?
I’m actually guessing Golden State. Even if Golden State wins 73 games and the title, he can hold onto the fact that they were down 3-1 and had a worse point differential than his Bulls. But, and this is going to be a hot take, I think we’re about two or three years away from a real public opinion swing on MJ over LeBron as the best player ever. As analytics become more mainstream, more and more people are going to realize that LeBron took better shots, that LeBron’s superior passing and rebounding hold significant and quantifiable value, and that LeBron’s teams really were crap early in his career. Statistically speaking he’s better, and that’s a fact. But MJ has him beat pretty handily with rings. That difference needs to remain in order for his status as the unquestioned great of all time to remain intact. Beating a 73-win team would be quite the legacy boost for LeBron, something MJ probably wouldn’t be thrilled about.
13. Should They Still Rename the Finals MVP Trophy After Michael Jordan?
Yes! I’m going to harp on this every Finals until it happens. BILL RUSSELL NEVER WON FINALS MVP BECAUSE IT DIDN’T EXIST WHEN HE WAS A PLAYER! You know what he did win plenty of? Actual championships. So name the championship trophy after him. But Jordan won six Finals MVPs and is emphatically the best Finals player ever. So name the Finals MVP after him instead. In fact, let’s make it simple. If anyone ends up winning more rings than Russell, great, the trophy gets renamed after them. Same for Jordan and the Finals MVP trophy. Whoever has the most of a trophy gets the naming rights. Period.
14. Speaking of Which, any Long Shot Finals MVP picks?
J.R. Smith! If the Cavs win it’ll be because he went bonkers from three. Throw five dollars on it and thank me later.
15. Any REALLY Long Shot Finals MVP picks?
I have this sneaking feeling that Timofey Mozgov is going to resurface in this series. He was so good last year in both the regular season and the Finals, and he’s a free agent next month. This sort of feels like the David Lee saga in that his time with this team can’t end this way. SOMETHING has to happen. Maybe one game Thompson and Love will both wind up in foul trouble and Mozgov will save the day. Maybe Tyronn Lue will just want some fresh blood. I don’t know, I just think he’s going to end up doing something in this series.
16. If the Cavs Get Swept, They Wouldn’t Fire Ty Lue… Would They?
No… no… probably not… no.
17. Are You Gonna Man Up and Make a Prediction for Once?
I picked the Cavs before the playoffs started. I’m now wavering on that pick. Had they drawn the Thunder this would be easier, that matchup is significantly better for the Cavs and I would’ve held firm. But the Warriors have beaten the crap out of them all year. The matchup is bad. And it’s hard to imagine any team playing better than OKC just did against the Warriors and they still lost. I’m gonna stick with my Cavs pick, Cleveland in 6, but I feel a lot worse about it than I did before the playoffs. Then again, I couldn’t possibly be any more wrong about this than I was about the Western Conference Finals, right?