When the season began, LeBron James was flanked in the starting line-up by Anderson Varejao, Kevin Love, Dion Waiters and Kyrie Irving. Nine months later, Irving has been hobbled by a variety of leg injuries while Love and Varejao are out for the season and Waiters is in Oklahoma City. The Cleveland Cavaliers making the NBA Finals a year after having the No. 1 overall pick would have been remarkable - making it after reinventing their team again in the middle of the season is just crazy. What their 12-2 run through the Eastern Conference, even its diminished state, really speaks too is LeBron’s unparalleled versatility and his ability to mold his game to make everyone around him better. Whatever the team needs, LeBron can give them.
This version of the Cavs is built completely around LeBron, in much the same way as the 2007 team he carried to the NBA Finals. They have 3-and-D perimeter shooters who can spread the floor for him - Iman Shumpert and JR Smith - and bruising big men who set picks and attack the glass - Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson. With Kyrie coming in and out of the line-up and unable to consistently impact the game, everyone else on the Cavs' roster depends on LeBron to create open shots for them. His usage rate in the Eastern Conference Finals was at almost unprecedented levels.
That’s the gift and curse for a guy with LeBron’s talents, as he always seems to outshine his supporting cast, no matter how talented. Even in 2013, when the Miami Heat won 66 games, it still seemed like LeBron was carrying the whole thing on his shoulders by the end of their NBA Finals victory over the San Antonio Spurs. Those teams meet again in 2014, but by that point Miami’s increasingly thin roster couldn’t keep up with a deeper and more well-rounded San Antonio team, which didn’t have a defined weakness on either side of the ball at any point in the rotation. What an undermanned Cavs team has to hope is that the 2015 NBA Finals looks a lot more like 2013 than 2014.
The big theme of the 2013 Finals was the way both teams went increasingly smaller as the series went on. Udonis Haslem and Tiago Splitter started Game 1 of that series and they could barely get on the floor by the end of it. The Heat and the Spurs had needed their defensive-minded big men to combat the interior-based attacks they faced in their respective conferences but when they reached the Finals and faced mirror images of themselves they realized their was no one left for their big men to guard. The teams alternated blowouts in games dominated by small ball and three-point shooting.
A similar dynamic could happen in 2015, as there’s really no one for Mozgov or Andrew Bogut to guard in this series. While the Warriors needed Bogut to match up with guys like Dwight Howard and Marc Gasol, the Cavs don’t run a lot of offense through their 7’0 center. Conversely, while Cleveland needed Mozgov to fend off guys like Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol, the Warriors don’t feature Bogut in offense and their primary goal with him on offense is to keep him out of everyone’s way. Both teams want to go small and whoever falls behind in the Finals is probably going to want to take their big man off the floor and unleash the chaos of a four-out or even five-out attack.
The 2015 NBA Finals could take small-ball to its logical conclusion, as neither team has a Tim Duncan or Chris Bosh they run offense through at the 5 position. Maybe the scariest line-up the Warriors used in the playoffs was a hybrid small-ball unit that featured Draymond Green at the 5 and Harrison Barnes at the 4 with three three-point shooters surrounding them. Even when Love was healthy, Cleveland liked to close games with LeBron at the 4 and Tristan Thompson at the 5. If those units are squaring off, you could have no one on the floor taller than 6’9 and only one player on each team shorter than 6’6.
The result could be a free-flowing positionless form of basketball where the ball flies around the perimeter, every pick-and-roll is switched and just about everyone on the floor has a green light to hoist 3’s with abandon. That’s the style both teams want to play so the question is who can force the other out of their comfort zone. Can the Warriors throw enough guys at LeBron to wear him down over the course of the series? Can the Cavs win enough 1-on-1 match-ups to overcome the Warriors advantage in terms of depth?
From Cleveland’s perspective, the first question is who is going to defend Steph Curry. The Houston Rockets kept Jason Terry on Curry for huge chunks of the Western Conference Finals, a decision which seems insane on its face but the truly crazy part is they had nowhere better to hide their 37-year-old PG than on the MVP of the league. What makes Golden State so dangerous is every single perimeter player they put on the floor can absolutely roast a subpar defender.
If you move your PG off the ball against the Warriors, where are you going to put him? You can’t hide him on Klay Thompson, a 6’7 SG who came into the league as an elite shooter and whose turned himself into a well-rounded player who can create his own shot against smaller defenders. You can’t hide him on Harrison Barnes, a 6’8 small forward whose really come into his own in these playoffs. Nor does it get any easier when the Steve Kerr goes to his bench - you can’t hide guys on Andre Iguodala, a 6’6 former All-Star with a max contract and you can’t hide guys on Shaun Livingston, a 6’7 PG with a devastating post game and turnaround jumper.
Even if Cleveland wanted to put LeBron on Steph in the fourth quarter, that would still leave either Matthew Dellavedova or Kyrie Irving guarding a much taller and more athletic wing player who can shoot over the top of them or go by them off the dribble. The Warriors have so much shooting and playmaking that they can restructure their offense to attack the weak spot in the other team’s defense at any position on the floor. Everything goes through Steph but they can comfortably get offense through Thompson, Barnes, Iguodala, Livingston and Green. It’s a lot like a great line-up in baseball - Steph has so much protection in the order that you have to give him pitches to hit.
In breaking down the match-ups for this series, what jumps out at me is that the Cavs are ultimately one wing player short. Either they have to live with Kyrie or Dellavedova’s defense on Steph or they have to roll the dice and hope Iguodala, Livingston and Barnes can’t roast a smaller defender. Either way, Cleveland is going to need Smith and Shumpert to be playing at their absolute best to win this series. Unlike Golden State, who can find offense and defense at so many different spots in the rotation, Cleveland has almost no margin for error in this series.
There’s certainly scenarios where the Cavs can pull off the upset, most of them revolving around LeBron, Smith and Shumpert winning their individual matchups and Thompson and Mozgov dominating the glass and controlling the tempo of the game. It just seems like there are many more routes to victory for Steve Kerr and the Warriors. The NBA is becoming a wing’s league and there’s no team in the league with more quality wings than the Golden State Warriors.