NBA Finals Analysis - Free
Finally, we have arrived at our destination. On June 1 at 9:00 ET, 291 days of NBA basketball without real stakes come to an end and the long-awaited NBA Finals trilogy resumes. Never before have we seen a trilogy in NBA Finals history. In fact, this is the first trilogy in any of the major professional sports since 1956, when the Montreal Canadiens and the Detroit Red Wings finished up their third consecutive Stanley Cup Final. The difference? There were only six teams in that era. Plus, Detroit had already won the first two meetings, greatly reducing the narrative drama of the third matchup. This year's NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors is a rubber match and thus a historically significant series regardless of outcome.
The Cavaliers finished their path to the Finals with a 12-1 record, besting each of the previous two seasons by one loss. Unlike in the past, the Cavaliers made it through the Eastern Conference without sustaining any injuries to its core roster. In each successive round, Cleveland grew stronger, bludgeoning opponents with a mightier and mightier sword. They beat Indiana by a meager 16 points combined in the first round; defeated Toronto in round two by a combined 61 points; and smashed the number-one seed Boston Celtics by a whopping 100 points combined in five games in round three. LeBron James in particular has been unstoppable, averaging 32.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 2.2 steals, and 1.4 blocks with 42.1% shooting from three on an incredible 40.9 minutes per night. His greatest achievements best be yet to come if the Cavaliers hope to topple the juggernaut that stands before them.
Golden State is the first team in NBA history to be 12-0 and the first team since the 2001 Lakers to be undefeated heading into the Finals. After dispatching an annoying Portland Trailblazers team in round one (even without Kevin Durant for two games) the Warriors introduced the new-look Utah Jazz to championship-caliber basketball, winning every game by double-digits. It wasn't until the Western Conference Finals that the Warriors faced legitimate competition. For the past two playoffs, Golden State has been dogged by accusations of fortunate paths through the Western Conference, eluding both the Spurs and Clippers in each postseason. The detractors could not cry foul with the Spurs matchup this year, that is until Kawhi Leonard injured his ankle in game one, adding one more stroke of good luck to the Warriors incredible three-year reign over the West. Golden State walloped their foes by a combined 197 points in 12 games, or by about 16 points per night – dominance.
Let's pause here and take a look back at how the previous two Finals matchups played out. Their first matchup in 2015 turned out to be a very bizarre affair. Crippled by injuries, the Cavaliers turned to LeBron James and his lovable crew of underdogs, valiantly pulling out two victories before succumbing to the force of the full strength Warriors. James averaged 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 8.8 assists per game, yet Andre Iguodala won Finals MVP largely for his efforts defensively on the King – LeBron shot just 39.8% from the field for the series. In 2016, it was the Warriors turn to catch the injury bug. After tweaking his ankle in the first round and missing a few games, Steph Curry never returned to his MVP form. Combined with Draymond Green's self-inflicted wound (getting suspended for game five) and two heroic performances by LeBron James and Kyrie Irving in games six and seven, the Cavaliers had enough to upset the 73-win Warriors and come back from a 3-1 deficit to take the championship.
It is difficult to extrapolate trends forward into this year's matchup given all the extenuating circumstances of the past two Finals. That being said, there are two constants in the series thus far. The fist is pace. Cleveland and Golden State play contrasting styles – the Cavs deliberate and isolation-heavy, the Warriors fast and free-flowing. In 2015 and 2016, the Cavaliers controlled the speed of the game, forcing the Warriors to play their slow-down pace. Cleveland has turned up the tempo a bit this season, but trust that the Cavaliers will look to muddy the waters for the Warriors and their unstoppable transition attack. The other constant in this series has been change, not just on the roster, but on the sidelines as well. The Cavaliers were coached by David Blatt in 2015 and Ty Lue in 2016 and now it appears the Warriors will be coached by Mike Brown this season due to Steve Kerr's unfortunate health condition. Zach Lowe of ESPN wrote an interesting piece about pick-and-rolls last week, but tucked near the end is an interesting bit about the strategic differences between Brown and Kerr. Coach Brown is seemingly more inclined to attack the mismatch and open up the isolation game, a specialty of the biggest change of all in this series – Kevin Durant.
When Kevin Durant joined the Warriors in the offseason, the whole conversation around this Finals series changed. While the Cavaliers brought back the band with a few veteran additions along the way, the Warriors leveled up into a new dimension. The previous two matchups are almost irrelevant now that Durant is in the mix. How can a team with Durant, Curry, Thompson, and Green be beaten four times in seven games? When all four of them have been healthy, the Warriors are 63-8, including the playoffs. They may be one of the greatest teams ever in NBA history. But they are not infallible. In fact, one of those eight healthy losses came against the Cavaliers on Christmas Day. The formula is there. On offense, it starts with great individual performances by James, Irving, and Love, especially when facing a favorable matchup off a switch or in transition (Love and James in particular missed many easy shots at the rim in the win on Christmas) and it ends with dominance on the offensive glass, the Warriors biggest weakness. Defensively, the Cavaliers were able to take Curry out of the game with traps and early help, forcing the others to make plays. Then, they were also able to read Draymond Green's sometimes overly revealing eyes for steals, capitalizing on the Warriors other major weakness – turnovers. This is all much easier said than repeated, but hammering the Warriors weaknesses is the best chance Cleveland has for an upset.
At the end of the day, Golden State is the heavy favorite. The Warriors are the more talented and better all-around team, with home-court advantage to boot. Both teams will be well rested and healthy on June 1. Cleveland has upset on the mind and perhaps the best player in the series still in LeBron James. Golden State has revenge and a chance at 16-0 in mind, it is their trophy to lose. In 50,000 simulations of the NBA Finals, the Warriors emerge victorious 78.2% of the time, with the most likely outcome being Golden State to win in five games (24.8%).
Here is a full breakdown of the probabilities of each team wining the O'Brien Championship Trophy: