In the days leading up to Thursday’s opening game of the NBA Finals, the debate is on about which team is going to take home the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
LeBron James looks to break Cleveland’s infamous three-sport 51-year title drought — which began with the Cleveland Browns’ last championship in 1964 — and bring the Cleveland Cavaliers’ first title to the city. At the same time, the Golden State Warriors, led by the league’s MVP Stephen Curry, look to secure their first championship since 1975.
It feels refreshing to finally see some new faces and franchises on the world’s biggest basketball stage. Not only are most of the players new to the big stage, but there are also two rookie head coaches in the Cavs’ David Blatt and Warriors’ Steve Kerr. In the previous four years, we have seen the Miami Heat dominate the Eastern Conference, and in the past two seasons the San Antonio Spurs have come out of the West.
Although it is not new to see LeBron in the Finals, as he appears for the fifth straight year and sixth time overall, it is invigorating to see him lead his hometown team here. In a surreal scenario this past year, LeBron returned to Cleveland, joining two superstars in Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. During this playoff run, LeBron has been without Love and played alongside a very gimpy Irving. LeBron has exposed his greatness by adjusting his game and helping role players J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Tristan Thompson excel.
On the other hand, the Golden State Warriors have been dominant all season long with a deep roster and a core of Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. They completed the regular season with a 67-15 record, the best since the 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks — whom the Warriors stunningly beat that season in the first round of the playoffs — also went 67-15. Golden State plays a run-and-gun style game, looking for three-point attempts in transition, off offensive rebounds or in their half-court offense.
The candid way to look at this series is the best player in the world, LeBron James, against the best team in the world, Golden State. Although this is somewhat true, the keys to a championship could lie in the hands of other players than the game’s elite in James and Curry.
Here are two X-factors each for the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers:
Many people reading this might be asking why a player averaging about six points per game this season could be one of the X-factors in the NBA Finals. Especially since at times throughout the season the Warriors have been better without him, using their small lineup with four perimeter players and Green at center. The only answer to this is because of LeBron.
When on the floor, the Warriors are not running any plays for Bogut or expecting him to score. When facing LeBron, every team needs an interior defender who can protect the rim, where Bogut has been great, earning him a spot on the NBA’s Second Team All-Defensive list.
LeBron will see a lot of perimeter defenders such as Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Green and Andre Iguodala. Iguodala is the only player who has seen his fair share of guarding LeBron. Iguodala, a former All-Star, has played against him a lot during his time in the Eastern Conference and is a very capable defender, earning All-Defensive team honors twice. LeBron is going to get his points and assists every time he steps on the floor, but teams have to make it as difficult as possible.
A lot of teams will argue that the best way to defend LeBron is one-on-one with your best defender. Bringing a double team makes it too easy for LeBron to find the open shooter. Forcing him to shoot a jumper, or LeBron choosing to shoot, is the best-case scenario — and one where he has struggled this postseason. The alternative option is having him try to finish over a 7-footer, where he has struggled at times in the past, such when he went up against the Indiana Pacers’ Roy Hibbert.
Bogut has to stay healthy and out of foul trouble in order to protect the rim and make life difficult on the offensive end for LeBron.
Green is a scrappy player who needs to be just that in this series. One of his tasks will be keeping Cavs power forward Tristan Thompson off the offensive glass, where he has dominated throughout these playoffs to the tune of 4.0 offensive boards per game. Green will need to play tough with emotion to keep the crowd engaged while playing in Oakland and to win the much-needed 50-50 loose balls.
Kyrie has made quite the name for himself as a superstar with his wizardly offensive skill set. During these playoffs, a lingering foot and knee injuries have hobbled him. This series really depends on his defensive ability; whether he is healthy or not. If he is not truly healthy on offense, he can still spot up on the perimeter and be a threat due to his shooting ability.
Against the Warriors, Blatt has no place to hide Kyrie on the defensive end.
He is going to guard Curry and chase him around numerous screens as well. He cannot defend Klay Thompson, as his size will allow him to shoot right over Irving, and Barnes utilizes mismatches and takes the player into the post. Irving will switch over to guard Shaun Livingston or Leonardo Barbosa when they enter the contest, even though Livingston will be a tough cover as well due to his size and post play.
Even if Kyrie ends up being healthy, which is very doubtful at this point, he needs to force the Warriors into tough shots. James was recently quoted as saying, “Kyrie at 50 percent, Kyrie at 60 percent is better than (no) Kyrie at all.”
This is not true at all, as the Cavaliers cannot afford Curry getting good looks at the basket.
Cleveland has a few really good options to defend the Splash Brothers (Curry and Klay Thompson) in Shumpert, Matthew Dellavedova, Smith and even James.
No matter the health status of Irving, his defense is essential for the Cleveland Cavaliers even if he makes an impact on the offensive end.
James Jones is a player who throughout the season has been in and out of the rotation. However, he has been fully inserted into a role these playoffs after Love went down with his shoulder injury.
Jones is a less obvious choice due to his limited minutes, but his minutes are always crucial. The only thing he truly does well is shoot spot-up jumpers. He is not going to create plays on offense or pull down boards on defense. Throughout the first three playoff series, he has been an inconsistent shooter. He needs to hit a couple of shots per game when he is in for Timofey Mozgov or Tristan Thompson because the Cavaliers lose a lot on the defensive end with one of them out.
Outside of specific players, a key component to watch for is how the rookie coaches Blatt and Kerr strategically defend ball screens. Some teams will double the ball-handler in order to force the ball-handler to pass it, some will automatically switch defenders and risk a mismatch and some will have the defender fight over the screen and try to recover.
Curry will get a lot of ball screens and look to shoot over the top of a big with the extra space he receives. LeBron will look to either draw a big and blow by him, or take a smaller guard into the post and draw a double team. Look out for how the teams defend ball screens and how the coaches adjust as the series moves along.
Look for these NBA Finals to possibly be determined by the play of these players. Sit back and enjoy what looks to be a thrilling championship series. We will see if LeBron can bring that storybook ending to his return home, or if Curry can culminate his magical season with four more wins.
Just remember the words of LeBron James: “Nothing is given. Everything is earned.”
As the Finals arrive, it is already abundantly clear that the team that ends up hoisting the trophy will have certainly earned it.