Although the road to get here has been filled with some surprising twists, at the end of the 2016 season we have arrived where most of us predicted at the start: with a rematch of last year’s Finals. We know Steph and Klay are going to make some ridiculous 30-footers, and we know that Lebron will be playing like a madman in pursuit of his third ring – but what about everything else in the series?
Before we get into the important factors in this year’s NBA finals, let’s discuss what won’t matter: the Western Conference Finals. The Thunder blueprint for competing with Golden State (namely, have extremely long, extremely athletic defenders while living on Westbrook fast breaks and second chance points) doesn’t work for the Cavs. The Warriors will be bigger than the Cavs in most lineups, and the Cavs don’t have anywhere near the length OKC had. With that being said, here’s what you should watch for in the Finals.
The Other MVP
It might be obvious to say that the Finals MVP from this exact matchup a year ago should be important in this series. Still, Andre Iguodala is often overlooked when we talk about this team. It’s easy to forget that at the beginning of last year’s finals a lot of basketball minds thought Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green would be Golden State’s best shot to stop Lebron. However, after a few games Iggy proved he could match up with King James as well as anyone in the league, and the Small Ball Death Squad lineup (Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Barnes, Green) was born. This group has since been a staple of Steve Kerr’s rotations and led the league in net rating in the regular season (among groups with over 100 minutes played). In fact, Golden State’s top three rotations by net rating (also the top three in the league, again over 100 minutes played) all included Steph, Klay, Draymond and Iguodala.
After game 6 of the Conference Finals, when Golden State had its back against the wall, Klay Thompson received almost all of the credit for the Warriors’ win – and he absolutely deserved it. Klay scored 41 points and was Human Torch-level hot in the second half. What media pundits didn’t talk about, however, was how Andre Iguodala’s play was almost as impressive at the other end of the floor. Time and again, near the end of the fourth quarter, Iguodala made big defensive stops against both Westbrook and Durant, including two on mirror image strips of Russell and KD (the Westbrook play is at the 2:46 mark of this video). Iggy should really patent this defensive play – a strip that occurs right at the moment an opponent starts his shot, somewhere between a block an a steal.
Iguodala started his first game of the season in Game 7 against the Thunder, and it will be interesting to see if Kerr goes back to that lineup that worked so well against the Cavs last year. The Warriors have plenty of bodies to throw at Lebron, and defending James is always a group activity anyway, but Iggy should start most possessions guarding the Cavaliers’ superstar.
The Big Question
Golden State guards make the lives of big men into nightmares. The OKC series was the first time another team has ever had consistent success playing big against GSW, especially the Death Squad. No bigs on Cleveland have the combination of size and quickness that Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams possess, though, with the obvious exception of Lebron if we count him as a “big”. Kevin Love and Channing Frye are great offensive weapons who struggle with on-ball defense and provide little to no rim protection. Tristan Thompson is the only big who I would trust to switch onto Golden State’s guards for short periods and he rebounds well, but he has very little offensive value outside of lobs and offensive rebounds. Unless Cleveland gets creative with back cuts, it will be difficult to function while he clogs the paint. It will be interesting to see how many minutes Timofey Mozgov will get. He has barely played this postseason and wasn’t great during the year, but he’s the only real rim protector on the team and was useful in most of the games in last year’s finals. Lue will have to find some way to balance the defense of Mozgov and Thompson with the shooting of smaller lineups for the Cavs to have a chance.
Hide and Seek
Hiding defensive liabilities has become a major part of NBA game plans in over the last few years. Both teams have players they will likely need to hide on defense, though their reasons are different. The Warriors will hide Curry, but not for the reason many around the league would like you to think. Steph has been derided as a very poor defender, and that used to be true. He has, however, improved drastically since coming into the league. He’s now an average to above-average on-ball defender who stays in front of his man pretty well and a very good off-ball defender (Steph led the league in steals this year). Steph is absolutely an underrated defender at this point in his career, even if Russell Westbrook thinks that’s a laughable question – despite Westbrook shooting around 30% from the field with Steph as his primary defender in that series. So, if Steph can really defend, why hide him? Defending players like Kyrie Irving can be exhausting, draining energy a star like Steph needs to shoulder a large load on the offensive end. And, while Steph is pretty good on the ball, Golden State boasts three elite defenders (Draymond, Iguodala, Thompson) that are better match ups for Cleveland’s best player. Steph will probably guard Kyrie from time to time, but I think Klay, who is an absolute destroyer when matched up with elite point guards, will get most of the minutes on Irving.
Speaking of Kyrie, the Cavaliers have to find a place to hide their starting point guard during this series. Uncle Drew is an incredible scorer with maybe the best handle in the league. His defense is another story entirely. Outside of one game against Steph in the Finals last year, there is absolutely zero evidence that Kyrie can competently defend even decent point guards. Steph is quite a bit better than decent. Due to size match ups and switches on screening action, Irving will still be forced to guard Curry for stretches, but look for Irving to spend significant time guarding Iguodala, Livingston, and even Harrison Barnes if the Warriors go big. Tyronn Lue will likely try out combinations of J.R. Smith and Matthew Dellavedova to slow down Curry when Kyrie is guarding someone else.
Perhaps even more concerning than Kyrie’s defensive shortcomings are those of Kevin Love. Love, while a decent defender in the post, seriously struggles to stay in front of his man when he is dragged out to the three-point line or put in a pick and roll. If he spends significant time on Draymond, this series will be over before it even begins. It’s likely that the Cavs will start Love on Harrison Barnes if the Death Squad starts and either Barnes or Bogut if Kerr decides to go big from the beginning. Even if he can defend these players well, though, he is likely to be forced into trapping or switching onto Curry and Klay frequently when his man screens for them. When this happens the players guarding the ball handler will need to get over the screen in a hurry or else the Warriors’ guards will put up points in bunches.
The 3-Point Machine
While Cleveland may not have the elite defensive stoppers to guard the Warriors’ big 3, what they do have is an offense that has been tearing through opponents during the playoffs. The best match ups for the Cavaliers come when Lebron is surrounded by four shooters. Lineups with Love, Channing Frye, or James at center will have to play big minutes and beat the Warriors at their own game: the long ball. With, for instance, a Delly-Irving-Smith-James-Frye lineup the Warriors will have to choose between leaving someone on an island with Lebron in the paint (untenable even for elite defenders like Draymond and Iguodala) or relinquish open threes to very good 3-point shooters. Screens won’t work against the Death Squad unless the Cavs can force Steph to switch onto Lebron, so expect these lineups to work primarily out of isolations and post-ups. Frye is the biggest piece of the puzzle for me. He is shooting above 50% from three during the playoffs and if he can play reasonable defense Lue might have to find extra playing time for him at the expense of Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson. If Iman Shumpert can start hitting threes he could really open up Lue’s options when the Cavs go small – he is probably their second best option on either Klay or Curry (Lebron is the best option on everyone, but if they had enough Lebron clones to guard the whole team this article would have been very short).
The Golden State Bench, Iguodala withstanding, had a tough series against the Thunder. Between Shaun Livingston, Barbossa, Speights, Festus Ezeli, and Brandon Rush the Dubs’ bench is usually a strong point of the team. Steph, Klay and Draymond make the Warriors a very good team, but this bench unit’s ability to bury you when those guys leave the game are what makes them great. Once again, Cleveland is a much better match up for this unit than OKC was. Livingston scores the majority of his points by posting up smaller guards who struggle in the post. Kyrie, J.R. Smith, and Dellavedova all fit that bill. Kerr should try to limit his use of Speights and Varejao (who was pretty bad all season) and instead stick with Bogut or Ezeli against Cleveland’s bigger sets. When the Cavs go small, Draymond at center will be the best counter to slow down the barrage of threes. Livingston and Brandon Rush could both have significant contributions providing solid defense when the Splash Brothers get a much needed rest. Barbossa should be used sparingly because of his deficiencies on the defensive end, but he gives Kerr another jitterbug scorer off the bench if the second unit gets into a slump.
Cleveland has an offense to compete with the Warriors’ steamroller but they have too many holes defensively and will struggle to hide guys all over the floor. Yes, having Love and Irving this year will take a lot of pressure off of Lebron on the offensive end but the drop-off defensively from the Dellavedova/Mozgov groups is almost as big. If Popovich or Rick Carlisle was coaching this team they might find a way to make these lineups work, but I don’t think Love and Kyrie can be on the court at the same time against the Warriors, and I don’t know if Tyronn Lue will figure that out soon enough to save the series. I’m picking Golden State in 6, but honestly I think the series is more likely to go 5 games than 7.