The 2015-16 NBA season has been historic on so many levels.
The Golden State Warriors, the current champions, broke the 72-10 regular season record of the iconic Chicago Bulls.
While they are the epitome of ‘team’, it was due in the most part to the unanimous MVP Steph Curry and his all-time record 402 three-pointers.
LeBron James then reminded the world he is the dominant player of our generation by waltzing into his sixth consecutive NBA Finals series. And the Western conference finals was an epic series, when the Oklahoma City Thunder took a 3-1 lead but were unable to hold off the rampant Warriors who took the series in seven games.
After all the history we are back to the same place we were just 12 months ago as the Warriors take on the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA finals.
The teams might be the same but the casts are different. The Cavaliers will have a fully fit Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, and have added key backup Channing Frye.
The Warriors look like they did last season, which is a long way from being a bad thing given their historic season and the fact they are defending champions. The road each team has travelled to get here could not have been further apart.
The Warriors defeated the Houston Rockets and Portland Trailblazers in five-game series and then got past the Thunder in a tough seven-game series in the conference finals.
The Cavaliers swept the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks and looked to be headed that way in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Toronto Raptors before snoozing at the wheel in Games 3 and 4. They finished in dominant fashion in Games 5 and 6.
The Warriors have home court advantage, again, and will start favourite, again and deservedly so.
Cleveland’s playoff run has been historic for many reasons. Not only are they the first team in NBA playoff history to make 15 or more three pointers in four straight games, but they are averaging an all-time high 14.4 triples at a league-leading 43.3 per cent clip.
If Games 3 and 4 against the Raptors are not included, the Cavaliers have won their other 12 playoff games by an average of 14.3 points.
Their offense has been strong and their defence has been more than capable, conceding the fourth-least points per game at 94.7 PPG and having the second best rebound differential. That rebounding differential has been based on their dominance and the subsequent ability to control the tempo of games and play the line-ups they desire.
Against the Warriors, they may have to adjust to the faster paced, versatile foe they will be facing.
The Cavaliers’ perimeter defence has been competent but will need to tighten up against arguably the best backcourt of this generation. While Cleveland ranks 12th in opponent effective field goal percentage and ninth in defensive efficiency, they are facing a unique monster in Curry and Klay Thompson.
The statistic which sums up the dominance of the Splash Brothers is remarkable – in the ten playoff games they have played together in this post-season, they have each hit five or more three-pointers in four games and have had just three games where at least one of them did not hit five three-pointers.
These guys live in video game mode; that statement is not made lightly, but their ability to make tough, contested, off balance and sometimes rushed three-pointers time and time again is unlike anything we have ever seen. For one player to be able to do that would be impressive; when teammates do it, it is historical by any measure.
As great as these two champions have been, the offense has not flowed as well on a consistent basis as we have grown accustomed to. The Warriors averaged a league-leading 28.9 assists per game in the regular season and they remain in the No.1 spot in the playoffs, albeit at 25.3 assists per game. They clearly ranked No.1 in the NBA in both true shooting percentage and offensive rating in the regular season, and have dropped to second and third in these categories respectively in the post-season.
Curry’s struggles with injuries contributed to these results, and while the offense remains elite it is not operating as effectively as it has done previously. Some credit goes to the Thunder’s vastly improved defence, but Golden State have plenty of room for improvement.
Golden State’s defence has been far from what it was in last season’s championship run. They have conceded 106.4 points per game in playoffs, which ranks fourth worst among all playoff teams. They conceded 100 plus points in five of the seven games against Oklahoma City and have conceded 110 or more points in six, and 120 or more in four of their last ten games going back to the Portland series.
Their defence has been mediocre and they have been bailed out by elite individual performances – oh and of course, the Splash Brothers. These are not significant concerns for this great team, but all the same it provides an insight into some of the areas in which they are slightly off.
Across the court will be the best player of the last decade and the best player alive today in James. The Cleveland native has played at an elite level throughout his 13-season career and was as close as the league has seen to a one-man show in last season’s finals. James averaged 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists in the absence of Irving and Love and should have been the series MVP.
Andre Iguodala was named MVP but for all the talk about his defence, the fact was that the entire Warriors team was able to focus on James.
He has played a career-low number of minutes per game this season and should be fresh. With career averages of 27.2 points, 7.2 rebounds and 6.9 assists comparable to his career playoff averages of 28.2 points, 8.6 rebounds and 6.7 assists per game it is reasonable to expect James to produce at a consistent level of excellence. Ultimately he needs support from Irving and Love, who will be hoping their offensive skills make up for their defensive shortcomings.
The defensive issues relating to the two lesser members of the Cavaliers’ Big three is a huge talking point. Calling these two players defensive liabilities may not be far from the truth, and it may force the Cavaliers to turn to their bench early in the piece, or shuffle their line-up.
Should Irving and Love struggle defensively, questions are posed at every turn – does Matthew Dellavedova play significant minutes? Can Iman Shumpert deliver his defensively versatile game on a consistent basis? Can J.R.Smith not only catch fire offensively, but remain locked in defensively given his likely assignment on Thompson?
While the Cavaliers can hide Irving on Harrison Barnes defensively, there will be nowhere for Love to hide. If his three point shot is not dropping, he may find himself bench-bound more often than not.
The addition of Frye and the regular season mismatch between these two teams in their second meeting in Cleveland makes the rotations used by the Cavaliers during the season series largely irrelevant. In the clash on Xmas Day, the Cavaliers played James, Love, Smith, Irving, Dellavedova, Iman Shumpert and Tristan Thompson between 25-40 mins each and those numbers remained similar in the second game.
The addition of Frye and his recently incredible three-point shooting provides the Cavaliers with the ability to stretch the floor. Frye has shot 26-of-45 on three-pointers and the ability of James and Irving to penetrate will provide Frye with plenty of opportunity to continue that hot form.
Of course, any advantage the Cavaliers might have here is tempered by the Warriors’ three point prowess. A closer look shows that in this series, Golden State’s advantage may not be so pronounced. In Games 6 and 7 against the Thunder, the Warriors hit 28 more three points than OKC. They won those games by a combined 15 points. Out of context those numbers mean little, but the fact that the Cavaliers have a good chance to match the Warriors from distance may negate the advantage they normally have.
While the Warriors have lost just one home playoff game, they haven’t been as dominant as usual at Oracle Arena this post-season. Granted, they are 8-1 in the post-season and 47-3 overall this season but Cleveland are 7-o with an average winning margin of 20.9 points per game. Road wins figure to be rare, and the challenge for the Cavaliers is to win the game or two they need to in order to win the series.
The Warriors small ball line-up has been tagged the ‘Line-up of Death’ and it has been historically good. Curry, Thompson, Barnes, Iguodala and Draymond Green provide speed, flexibility and amazing defensive versatility as well has having five legitimate shooters. Teams are unable to keep up with this line-up, and it figures to be a huge challenge for the Cavaliers – while their shooting big men present Golden State with a potential headache, these frontline players are below-par defenders.
The ability of the Cavaliers to successfully hide Frye or Love on Barnes or Iguodala will be critical to any success they have in this series.
If Golden State are forced to play big, due to either series flow or form then Andrew Bogut or Festus Ezeli will play minutes and will be comfortable against Thompson, who will start for Cleveland but almost certainly won’t finish the games. Cleveland struggled to attack the rim against Bismack Biyombo in the last series and while they won’t face the same challenges again, their preferred mode of attack will be a flexible, shooting team.
Games 3 and 4 against Toronto showed that Cleveland are prone to offensive struggles on the road and they will need to ensure they minimise their downtime in this series. While James will likely play 42+ minutes per game, the Cavaliers must ensure they do not lose control of the games in those few minutes. While the three-point shooting of the Cavaliers has been elite of recent times, the Warriors have a much more consistent body of work in this area.
All signs point to this being a long, closely-contested series and Cleveland must start strongly and win at least one of the first two games in Oakland. The Cavaliers may struggle to stop Curry and Thompson, but the Warriors will face similar struggles with James and Irving.
It may be underselling Draymond Green’s unique skillset and rabid intensity, the depth and versatility of the Warriors supporting cast or even the greatness of the Splash Brothers. But in any case, the Cavaliers are in a spot in which provided they can control the tempo and are able to get the line-ups they want, they can win this series which features the two best basketball players alive.
The Cavaliers will deliver Cleveland with its long overdue professional sporting title as it creates history and wins Game 7 on the road, a result which would cement James’ legacy as one of the five best players of all-time.
Selection – Cleveland in 7