The 2014-2015 NBA regular season was a virtual coronation for the Golden State Warriors. They have the reigning NBA MVP in Steph Curry. They won 67 games in the regular season, losing only 15. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the Warriors won the regular season. The problem for them is that they don’t give out any trophies for the regular season, only playoff seeds. And now they have their last gift from their magical regular season, home court advantage in the NBA finals. The question for all of us looking on now is “Will that last gift be enough to bring them an NBA Championship?”
The Cleveland Cavaliers won 66 games in the 2008-2009 season. They had the reigning MVP in LeBron James. They also lost in the Eastern Conference Finals 4-2 and couldn’t get out of the “weaker” East to even appear in the Finals. Everyone knew that the Cleveland team in 2009 was mainly “LeBron and a bag of marbles” and yet they dominated the regular season and won those 66 games barely breaking a sweat. In that year, almost every Cleveland Cavalier other than LeBron wilted in the playoffs. No one could hit critical shots, which virtually negated LeBron’s masterful ability to create. Plus, LeBron wasn’t the player than that he is now in terms of knowing what it takes to win playoff games consistently. He admits that himself when asked.
So now those tables are turned. Don’t get me wrong. The Warriors have many very good role players and one, Harrison Barnes, has proven that he can hit tough shots when the game is on the line. They have a very tough “tweener” small forward/power forward in Green who has proven ability on both ends of the court. Bogut is a tough nose player who will not be intimidated in the middle. Everyone knows about the famous “splash brothers” and there is not much to say except that they are very good players. Thompson especially can defend as well as shoot. Curry played like an MVP this year and can hit contested shots with a quick release and deadeye accuracy. So the perception that Golden State is a very good team is deserved. However, they are not playoff tested from a tough minded defensive team that also has great offensive skills. That reality is about to smack them in the face and we will see if they can recover from the blow. I wrote recently before the Atlanta series that the Cleveland Cavs are coming together at the right time. Those words are even more true now than they were before the Eastern Conference Finals.
Once you give the Warrior’s their due that they are a very good team, the reality starts separating from the fantasy. The oft used word is that the Warriors are a “very deep team” and Cleveland is not. Well, the reality is that the Cavalier “roll players” (Shumpert, Smith, Delly, Mozgov, Thompson, and Jones) have all performed far better at the offensive end than the Warriors after Curry and Klay Thompson. The Cavalier roll players have had more games total with 15 points or more than their Warrior counterparts. The Cavs players minus each team’s “big two” have had 15 games with over 15 points and the Warriors have 11 games with over 15 points. If you take away both team’s starters (indicating depth of scoring), the Cavs have 7 games of 15 or more points and the Warriors have 2. The gaps close considerably when you include games by role players over 10 points but the Cavs margin of players with 15 or more points counters that easily.
Defensively, the Warrior role players are talented but not elite. Shumpert, Smith, Delly, Mozgov and Thompson have all been defending at very high levels and contesting shots on the perimeter and at the rim with high efficiency. The Cavaliers and Warriors are eerily similar in terms of rebounds both offensive and defensive. No difference in either area. The Cavs have about .8 blocks per game more than the Warriors but the Warriors have 2.2 more steals per game. To counter the steals, the Cavs have 3 less turnovers per game than the Warriors. The Cavaliers in the playoffs have a field goal percentage against of 41.2% vs 43.1% for the Warriors. In terms of 3 point percentage against, the Cavs have the edge 28.1% vs 31%.
In terms of advanced statistics, I could not do a better job than John Schuhmann did on NBA.com. His article titled: Numbers Preview: The Finals outlines the key advanced statistics. One statement basically confirmed what I am trying to show with standard statistics when he said “And the Cavs have been statistically better, both offensively and defensively, than the Warriors in the playoffs, even when you account for weaker competition. Cleveland has better marks in adjusted efficiency (taking their opponents’ regular season marks) on both ends of the floor.”
Based on the play of both teams in the playoffs, I strongly challenge the oft repeated contention that the Warriors have a “much deeper” team. They do play more players in their rotation (generally 10 vs 8 for the Cavs) but the productivity of those extra players, even combined as I noted above, is no greater than the Cavalier reserves. Plus, just because Cleveland plays Miller, Marion, and Perkins very sparingly doesn’t mean that those players are useless or do not account for additional depth that the Cavs do not use. The wild card for the Warriors is David Lee and, even though used very little, is a highly productive player when called upon.
If someone wants to drop the “East is so much weaker” you can’t compare the Cavs statistically to the Warriors, I would point out that the Cavaliers were 14-1 against the Western Conference after January 15th when the current team was fully assembled. Cleveland beat virtually every playoff team in the Western Conference during that span including the Warriors, Clippers, Spurs, Grizzlies, and Trail Blazers. The only game they lost was to Houston in overtime and the Cavs did not have Kyrie Irving on the floor during that game.
But statistical analysis can only take us so far when it comes to analyzing this series. The Warriors may have the best scorer in the series but the Cavaliers clearly have the most dominant single player in LeBron James. His ability to be a triple threat on any night is a separator in a playoff series. Cleveland has great team chemistry and, even without Kevin Love, they are a superior team in terms of toughness and have been challenged with large numbers of injuries during the playoffs. Most of these injuries are nagging and not completely resolving. Shumpert, Irving, James, and Thompson have all been dinged up by varying degrees. And Love was lost for the entire playoffs. This is an edge for the Warriors but an edge for the Cavaliers in terms of resiliency and ability to adjust to adversity.
Kyrie Irving’s health and ability to maintain a high level of play is critical for the Cavaliers to have a strong chance to win a championship. Even with Irving hobbled he has been reasonably productive but he needs to stay well to avoid being a defensive liability. That would be a hole that the offensively gifted Warriors could exploit. The Cavaliers will remain creative but really cannot hide Irving defensively as well as they could against the Hawks and Chicago.
In an NBA finals, unless one team is substantially better than the other team, both teams will go through adversity and be challenged in the series. It is the team that can respond best to that adversity who will likely prevail. By that measurement, Cleveland seems to have a huge edge. The tough “grind it out” style that the Cavaliers have played in the playoffs will not be easy for Golden State to counter. If the Cavaliers protect the ball and avoid silly turnovers outside the three point line, it will be difficult for Golden State to control the tempo and avoid a half court grinding defensive game. If that is true, advantage Cleveland again.
Baring major injuries to James or Irving, Cleveland wins in 6 games. The 50+ years of misery will end.