The conference finals were less eventful than the sloth exhibit at the zoo, but here we are folks, the moment we’ve all been waiting for: The NBA Finals. Before we get into it, let’s take a look at the BSB(R) standings:
As I had mentioned in the last update, Chaz has the tourney locked up. With the highest-scoring person to pick the Cavs being Mikey Ayat, who is a full 18 points short of first place, Chaz isn’t threatened by a Cavs’ victory. And given that he’s 4 points ahead of Mikey Cavicchi, the next highest scorer who picked a the Warriors to in a different number of games, Chaz isn’t threatened by series length. So congratulations Chaz—well done on a BSB(R) championship, a second-round victory over the Wiz for your Celtics, and the C’s winning the lottery. I hope you have a shitty summer you all-too-lucky bastard.
There are far more interesting things to read/write about other than Chaz, and we should focus on them. The order of those things: our collective picks for the Finals, a brief Conference Finals recap, and a lengthy Finals preview.
Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming majority of us picked the Warriors and the Cavs to meet in the Finals (29 out of 39, or 74%). Even more dominant of a trend was the rate at which these people picked the Warriors to win (27 out of 29, or 93%). Here are all the possibilities and how frequently they were picked among participants who correctly predicted both finalists.
|Cavs over Warriors (4)||0||0%|
|Cavs over Warriors (5)||0||0%|
|Cavs over Warriors (6)||0||0%|
|Cavs over Warriors (7)||2||6.90%|
|Warriors over Cavs (4)||2||6.90%|
|Warriors over Cavs (5)||6||20.69%|
|Warriors over Cavs (6)||12||41.38%|
|Warriors over Cavs (7)||6||20.69%|
That such a high percentage of people picked the Warriors isn’t surprising. Given even odds, how could someone reasonably pick the Cavs to win? That’s what we have to ask ourselves about Mikey Ayat and Oliver, the lone people to do it. Ayat’s reason isn’t such a mystery—he’s been a LeBron fan for years. For Oliver, I’m guessing he strategically saw it as a way to increase his chances of winning BSB(R).
Warriors in 6 was the modal pick, which makes sense given that the Cavs have proven that they can at least win games against this Warriors, between last year’s Finals or this past Christmas. I’ll make an official prediction in the NBA Finals Preview later on.
Conference Finals Recap
Cavs-Celtics: This series was less competitive than a 2007 game of mini-hoop between me and Jesse. It’s not just that it was a five-game series. It’s that the Cavs were setting records with their dominance. In Game 1, the Cavs played with energy from the beginning, accumulating a 22-point halftime advantage. Then the Celtics learned that Isaiah Thomas re-aggravated a hip injury sustained in March (and again in May), which forced him to sit out the second half in another Cavs blowout of the Celtics in Game 2. And boy was that a blowout, with the Cavs setting an NBA playoff record with their 41-point halftime lead. A delusional minority wondered whether the Celtics were better off without IT after the Celtics stunned the Cavs on their home court in Game 3. I’m not sure how one could believe this, but perhaps they believed that the injury had a butterfly effect, ultimately causing Marcus Smart to magically morph into Steph Curry or for LeBron James to turn into his June 2011-self. Whatever the reason, they were wrong. The Cavs won Game 4 and 5 by a combined 46 points.
So yeah, we know what happened, but why were the Cavs so dominant? Going into the series, I thought the Celtics would get two games. I mean, the Celtics had a better regular season, home-court advantage, and unguardable scorer in Isaiah Thomas, and a potential LeBron-stopper in Jae Crowder. Couldn’t these guys get at least two games with ball-movement and luck from behind the arc?
Apparently, not. We’ll never know how the series would have looked with a healthy and active Isaiah Thomas—he was clearly limited in the minutes he did play. And the C’s even proved they could win—on the road no less—despite IT’s absence. If they were to run it back, with healthy squads on both sides, I could easily see this series going six, or maybe even seven, games. On the other hand, the Cavs were really dominant. Even the sole game they lost required Avery Bradley’s game-winner and a stomach bug for LeBron James. So I don’t know what outcome best represents the gaps between the two teams. Suffice to say, I was disappointed that we didn’t get a better series.
Other than IT’s injury, the other causal factors were 1) Boston’s disappointing defense and 2) Playoff LeBron. Boston’s defense was ranked 13th during the regular season. Given their struggles to secure defensive rebounds and Tristan Thompson back-tapping everything under the sun, the Celtics were bound to struggle against a team well-equipped to exploit a scrambling defense.
That play also illustrates the second reason I mentioned: Playoff LeBron. Playoff LeBron is a real thing, even if 538 wants to say otherwise for clicks. It’s a copout to say there’s no such thing as Playoff LeBron just because this production is comparable to the best regular seasons he put together in his physical prime, or that because in earlier phases of his career his playoff numbers were unable to improve on ceiling-level regular-season production. LeBron has elevated MVP-caliber regular-season performance for 4 seasons in a row in the playoffs, all seasons resulting in Finals trips despite not being a #1 seed on 3 out of those 4 occasions. To me, that’s a phenomenon. At the very least, it was against the Celtics, who had no answers for the King.
- Hero: LeBron James
- Goat: Isaiah’s injury
Warriors-Spurs: If Celtics-Cavs was less competitive than a 2007 game of mini-hoop between me and Jesse, than Warriors-Spurs was less competitive than a 1993 game of mini-hoop between me and Jesse. The Warriors were always the favorites, and they continued to show why they are the best team in basketball. They manufacture good shots on every possession and rarely give up easy baskets. It will be discussed more in the Finals preview, but suffice to say, the team is healthy and humming, with the exception of coach Steve Kerr and a slumping Klay Thompson.
The Spurs would have had a fighting chance with Kawhi. We know this, because 61-win playoff teams with MVP candidates that can rack up 20+ point leads in Oracle meet a reasonable person’s criteria for “credible threat.” But Zaza Pachulia delivered the most controversial closeout in years, resulting in a Game 1 comeback for the Warriors, an easy sweep, and death threats for Pachulia’s family. The Spurs tried, and at times, tried to exact revenge. But Aldridge faltered as a primary scorer. Playmaking and easy shots were hard to come by. And their best defender was gone. It’s a good demonstration of why Kawhi is such a good MVP candidate. Along with LeBron James, Kawhi is the one guy in the NBA whose team with him stands a legitimate chance against the Warriors, and without him get surely swept. I can’t help but wonder qhat would have happened with a healthy of Kawhi, a 1-0 series lead, and newly acquired home court advantage. The Spurs probably would have lost, but at least we’d have had a series.
How to retool going forward is an interesting problem for the Spurs, much like it is for all teams built to win now. My guess is that teams around the league envy the position of the Bucks, Sixers, Wolves, and Nuggets—the teams that are built to become contenders after the Warriors run is over. Because no one wants to count on beating the Warriors. They are coming off the best three-season regular season stretch in history, with playoff success accompanying that record. They have three of the league’s ten best players (two MVP-quality players and a DPOY-quality player) all of whom can make plays, shoot, and defend. They’ll likely be the team to beat for the next two years, and if they manage to stay together and make the right personnel decisions around them, they could be dangerous for up to six seasons after this one.
The Spurs just had their first ever back-to-back 60+ win seasons behind a player who will likely be an MVP-level player for the next six years–the same massive window that the Warriors have. It’s tough to imagine them trading Kawhi, and more likely than not, they shouldn’t. It’s impossible to get equal return for a player like Leonard, and rebuilding introduces tons of uncertainty and losing for a franchise not used to it. Which means that they have to continue to build around Kawhi, doing their best to bring in sufficient talent to topple the Warriors. Other players also are probably aware of what it will take to be a non-Warriors champion over the next five years. For a guy like Chris Paul, whose window will not be long enough to wait for the Warriors’ demise, joining the Spurs might be his only chance to nab a ring. Which is why I predict Paul find his way onto the Spurs’ roster—it makes too much sense for both teams. If so, the Warriors will at least have an opponent that makes them sweat for the next couple years. But enough talk about people/teams whose seasons are over—let’s preview the NBA Finals.
- Hero: Star power
- Goat: Zaza Pachulia
NBA Finals Preview:
Not everyone wanted to see the same two teams in the Finals. New blood, new storylines, and new legacies are all fun. Part of me agrees—I want the Wizards to make the Finals, to see CP3 get a ring, and the unpredictability that would come with new teams.
Instead, we’ll be treated to the first ever third-consecutive meeting between two teams in the Finals. That’s something to behold and not to be taken for granted. In all the years of Celtics-Lakers, or Bulls-Jazz, or whatever other rivalries you can think of, this has never happened. Not only that, each team won one of the previous Finals, making this series a decisive one. This is history in the making, and no matter the outcome, legacies will be made.
The Cavs think they should have won both Finals, having taken the Warriors to 6 games without Love and Irving before losing in 2015. And the Warriors think they should have both, too, being hampered by a gimpy Curry and suspended Draymond in 2016. So yeah, both teams are playing for revenge and to become the defining winners of this era. The Cavs winning would make them the team that overcame the Warriors’ superteams as underdogs, making them timeless legends of the NBA Finals. And the Warriors winning would enter them in the conversation for best team ever. To repeat: this is a team sport, and this team winning would arguably cement their status as the best team to ever grace a basketball court. That is nuts.
As much is on the line for the players’ legacies. LeBron believes he’s the best player in the world, and if he wins, he can credibly claim to have maintained that label through the some of the best years from Steph, KD, Westbrook, Harden, and Leonard. More importantly, he’ll move from “is he the best non-MJ player ever?” to “is he the best ever, including MJ?” A new GOAT is a big deal in any sport, and the potential to supplant someone as iconic and dominant as Jordan is borderline unthinkable, even for uber-talented and confident NBA player. In that sense, LeBron has the most on the line this year, legacy-wise.
Steph also believes he’s the best player in the world. If Steph wins this ring and a Finals MVP, he’ll have completed a three-year stretch of basketball as impressive as any three-year stretch that game has seen. Consistent MVPs and championships are the currency of the best players ever, and a ring for Steph will move him one step closer to being considered among the likes of Duncan, Magic, Bird, Shaq, and Kobe. And I have a hunch that because Steph’s physique and style do not match the profiles of the other players in the game’s top 10 of all time, Steph will have to accomplish more than others to get his proper due in the pantheon of greats.
Klay and Dray are in similar positions to Kyrie and Love–they all have things to prove, and strong play and a ring could nudge their reputations. But it’s tough to imagine the Finals having a major impact on their legacies: Klay is an all-time great shooter, and will likely retire with that as his individual legacy. Draymond, as incredible as is he, will never be considered an all-time great as long as wins alongside Curry and Durant. So it goes with defense and versatility—they’ll never be given the same credit that offensive dominance is given. A strong finals for Kyrie along with a ring would add to his clutch, cold-blooded legend, but that’s already his defining quality in an era of other point guards who are outright better. Of the four, Love stands the most to gain—not long ago he was considered among the game’s best players. A strong Finals (and a win) would likely mean his career is evaluated as a holisitic, continuous success, from his days as a Timberwolf to his days as a winner in Cleveland. But if he loses or doesn’t show up, the questions around his true abilities and meaning the Cavs’ success will cloud his successes in Minnesota or his positive impact in Cleveland.
The most interesting narrative at stake is Durant’s. Basketball people know how ridiculously good Durant is. He passes the eye-test—there is literally nothing the man can’t do on offense. Not only that, he does it all efficiently. If he retired today without a ring, he’d be one of the five best scorers of all time and would be considered alongside Barkley, Malone, and Stockton as far as greats who failed to win a ring. Which is a fine place to be, but with a victory he’d leapfrog them and be back on track for an to be considered among the best handful of players to ever play. I mean, he’d be 28 years old and set up to win 2-3 more rings over the next six years. If Durant retires with 3 rings, he’s now in the same conversation as everyone not named Jordan, LeBron, or Kareem. Maybe Durant doesn’t care about that stuff—it’s tough to know what he does/doesn’t care about—but it matters to to most of us. First he has to show up, which he likely will, because Durant shows up about as much as the other greats, whatever the talking heads tell you. And he has to win. If he doesn’t, major question remarks will surround him. Maybe they’d be forgotten about with future Finals’ victories—we’ve seen with LeBron’s 2011 loss that anything can be recovered from with consecutive Finals, MVPs, and some rings. I don’t think Durant wants to bank on that. A Finals loss could catalyze the kind of inner turmoil that eats individuals and teams from the inside out. With guys like Barkley or Malone/Stockton, we get to blame Jordan for their woes. With Durant, there’d be no hiding.
As far as the keys to each team winning, I recommend the analyses from ESPN’s Zach Lowe, SI’s Ben Golliver, and The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor, although I’m sure there’s a lot of other great ink being poured out over this year’s Finals. Below, I’ll briefly highlight what I think to be some of the most important factors at play:
Factor 1: All things surrounding LeBron James
So much of what the Cavs do is dictated by LeBron. The Warriors can survive off games from Steph or KD, but the Cavs cannot withstand a slumping LeBron. Will he be aggressive getting to the rim, as he is when he’s at his best, or will he settle for jumpers or facilitating as we’ve seen at times earlier in his career? When he gets fouled, will he hit his free throws? When the Warriors pack the paint–the Warriors know that LeBron’s teams lose when the paint is packed and he’s forced to shoot outside shots–will LeBron make them pay? In 2015, for all of LeBron’s crazy numbers, the Cavs could have won if LeBron had scored more efficiently. How efficiently LeBron scores will also be hampered by the efforts guarding Kevin Durant. In doing so, he’ll be less energized on offense and less able to gamble for the steals and blocks that ignite their transition offense. The Cavs will be hoping that that’s all made up for by lockdown defense on Durant. I suspect, however, that KD will have no trouble finding the bottom of the net.
Factor 2: Three-point shooting randomness
Both teams have insane shooting across the roster. Obviously, whether the teams create the open threes that they live on will be most important. We can safely say the Warriors will get those looks, given the fact that Steph and KD can shoot them off the dribble. For the Cavs, it will depend on the crispness of their passing, Kyrie’s ability to distribute, and how the Warriors defend LeBron. But even if both teams get the looks they want, this is the type of series which could come down to whether your team makes its threes. Will guys like Iguodala and Draymond can their open threes? Will LeBron hit threes when they go under screens? Will streaky shooters like J.R. Smith go off? For all the talk about strategy, matchups, and individual players, team-level three-point luck will play a major role in this series.
Factor 3: The Cavs’ defense
The Cavs have yet to demonstrate that they have a good enough defense to beat the Warriors. Their regular season struggles were well-documented, and their defense was mediocre through the first three rounds. The success that their defense did have can partially be attributed to poor competition and the injuries of Kyle Lowry and Isaiah Thomas. In the end, it’s their porous defense that will probably do them in. If they manage to get half-court stops against the Warriors and limit their transition buckets, they’ll force the series six or seven games. But that will require improvement from most every single player, as well as team-level defense. It will require Tyron Lue throwing different looks at the Warriors. It will require communication as Golden State cuts and picks its way to the rim. I’m betting that their defense won’t be stout enough to stop the Warriors, but if it is it will go a long way toward evening the series.
Factor 4: Matchups
As players, coaches, and analysts frequently say, the playoffs are all about matchups. This is true on a 1-on-1 level, but also on a lineup vs. lineup level. Given the versatility of both teams and their tendency to switch on pick-and-rolls, this series’ matchups carry a lot of importance and intrigue, just as they have in years past. In 2015, the Warriors rattled off three straight wins with Iguodala’s insertion into the starting lineup, propelling him to Finals MVP. Last season, the Cavs found much of their groove–especially against the Warriors’ death lineups–with Love on the bench.
So, what about this year? The death lineup will against force the Cavs to decide whether Kevin Love sits or plays in such circumstances. The ability for the Warriors to just chess-match Kevin Love off the floor would be huge. When facing a too-slow defense, the death lineup can do no wrong on offense and defend well-enough because Draymond Green is Draymond Green. Honestly, the Warriors don’t even need mismatches on offense—Steph and KD can score efficiently enough against anyone. But the Cavs need mismatches to score against the Warriors. They need Love in the post against non-Draymond players. They need Kyrie to make big men look foolish on his way to the rim. Most of all, they need to manipulate Steph, Klay, and Zaza onto LeBron. Although LeBron can get buckets on Durant, Green, or Iggy, those guys don’t consistently need help to defend him. That allows for single coverage, and thus less opportunity for LeBron to do what he does best—find open three-point shooters. Finding mismatches and forcing reactions from the help defense will be critical for LeBron and the Cavs.
Predicting the winner:
Vegas gives the Cavs a 33% chance, PredictWise gives them a 28% chance, 538 gives them a 10% and ESPN gives them a 7%. Given the choice to merely predict a winner, without financial benefits for picking an underdog, I don’t see how a rational person sees the Cavs winning. Some people say, “never bet against LeBron.” Well, he lost in 2015, 2014 and 2011. Let’s not act like he’s infallible. Against better teams, he’s a good bet to lose. That’s not his fault, it’s just the reality of an individual going up against a team like the Warriors.
What’s interesting is that these four reputable projection systems, while all predicting the Warriors as a strong favorite, give highly variable odds of the Warriors winning. A 93% chance feels like a sure thing. You’d never Hack-a-Shaq a player who shoots 93% from the line—in fact, it’s so dumb that it’s the kind of thing that could get you benched or fired. A 66% chance of winning, though feels much less certain. A coach or player would be excused for Hack-a-Shaq-ing a player who shoots that free-throw percentage. To use another analogy, 93% is comparable to condoms’ success-rate (between 82% and 98%, depending on human error), the most widely used birth control method on the planet. A birth-control method that had a 66% success rate, on the other hand, would mean that I’d have already fathered many children. So yeah, the difference between 93% and 66% is large.
So, what gives? ESPN and 538 use some combination of point-differential, recent-play, and home-court advantage. But what factors does Vegas account for that the others don’t? And among those factors, which are factors that are smart to account for (e.g., LeBron James playing more minutes than in the regular season) and which are mistakenly used (e.g., the teams’ 1-1 record in their regular season series against one another)? The fact that Vegas gives the Cavs a 33% of winning despite the gaps in these two teams’ regular seasons means that they think some other factor—the pressure of the situation, the LeBron James factor, turning on the proverbial switch, or something else—levels the playing field between these two teams, making the outcome a question mark and leaving open the possibility for a close series.
But me? I don’t see it. I anchor myself between the extremes of the projections and estimate the Warriors to have an 80% chance of winning the series. There are so many reasons I think this. It starts with recent history. LeBron got crushed by the Spurs in 2014. His depleted team lost in 2015, but most likely they’d have lost even if they’d been at full strength. They won last year, but Curry was gimpy and Draymond missed Game 5. Not saying the Cavs didn’t earn it or questioning LeBron’s brilliance, but I feel confident saying that they also got lucky and if we replayed that series the Warriors would win. And this season? Some believe that between the roster changes, their recent dominance, and their continuity that they are even better. But some believe they are worse—LeBron is a year older and are average, defensively. I tend to believe that all those things cancel out and that they are about the same as last year. Which I don’t believe would be enough to give them a good shot against last year’s Warriors, let alone this year’s Warriors. The Warriors added Kevin Durant to a 73-9 team who were nearly back-to-back champs. The Warriors posted the fourth-best ever regular season, by SRS. The Warriors are a shoe-in, and I think they’ll win in 5.
Who are your picks to win, both the Finals and the AGR tourney? Comment on the article or e-mail us at AGRbasketball (at) gmail (dot) com. Don’t forget to follow @AGRbasketball on Twitter and to like us on Facebook