Who Has the Edge at Every Position in the NBA Finals?
If you're bored or turned off by the prospect of an unprecedented NBA Finals "three-match" between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers, you're missing the point.
Sure, these are largely the same casts of characters, in both name and core personnel, that have split the last two Larry O'Brien Trophies. But both teams have undergone changes since last June that go beyond cosmetic.
Where LeBron James might have been able to take breaks in the past against Harrison Barnes, he now has to stay locked and loaded at all times opposite Kevin Durant. The big guy setting screens and going goon for Golden State is no longer a leaping Australian (Andrew Bogut) but rather a ground-bound Georgian (Zaza Pachulia). The scrappy Cavs' second unit of old has been supercharged with aging All-Stars in Kyle Korver and Deron Williams.
That's to say nothing of a battle in the coaches' boxes that could tilt one way or another depending on whether Mike Brown has to stand in for Steve Kerr and match wits with Tyronn Lue.
Who will be stalking the sidelines in this series remains a mystery. Who will be contesting it on the court isn't. With another eon or so to go until the opening tip at Oracle Arena on Thursday, let's go around the horn to break down all the major player matchups in this championship trilogy.
Starting Point Guard: Stephen Curry vs. Kyrie Irving
I know what you're thinking.
That may be true for most point guards opposite Curry, but not for Kyrie Irving. To whatever extent the former has dominated during the regular season, the latter has been more reliable (if not more impactful) in the postseason matchups.
Over their eight previous Finals games against one another, Irving has scored more points, shot better from the field, made more defensive plays—including eight blocks at Curry's expense—and turned the ball over far less frequently while notching nearly as many rebounds and assists as Curry has.
For all Steph has done to separate himself from the competition through the bulk of the last three seasons, his signature explosiveness has yet to truly translate to the sport's grandest stage. They've each scored 30 points or more three times in the Finals, but only Irving has topped 40—and hit a game-winner, at that. Keep in mind, too, that Curry has scored fewer than 20 points in a Finals game five times to Irving's one.
Granted, the Cavs don't lean nearly as heavily on Irving as the Dubs have on Curry. Both have also been beset by injuries; Irving's busted kneecap in Game 1 of the 2015 Finals knocked him out of the rest of that showdown, while Curry's leg and ankle issues appeared to limit him throughout last year's series.
In an amorphous debate about who would be a better choice to start a franchise from scratch, Curry takes the cake. But in a more concrete context—like, say, an unprecedented Finals three-peat—Irving gets the nod.
Edge: Kyrie Irving
Starting Shooting Guard: Klay Thompson vs. J.R. Smith
In broad strokes, Klay Thompson and J.R. Smith aren't all that different on the court.
They both stand in the 6'6", 6'7" range, carrying between 215 and 225 pounds on their expansive frames. They're both streaky shooters who can turn a quarter, a half or a game with a few flicks of the wrist. Smith, to his credit, has in recent years shown both an ability and a desire to lock down his opponents the way Thompson has throughout his own rise to stardom.
"If you don't get offended by someone scoring on you, then I don't know what to tell you," Smith said shortly before he was traded to Cleveland in January 2015, per Sports Illustrated's Kenny Ducey. "That's like someone breaking into your house and taking your video game out of your hand, and you just let it happen.
"I know if you do that to me, it ain't gonna happen. I love my Xbox."
As far as anyone can tell, Thompson's performance on that end isn't at all tethered to any feelings for his gaming console. He's a more consistent defender than Smith, and though he's been cold throughout these playoffs (14.4 points on 38.3 percent shooting, 36.4 percent from three), Thompson's track record of explosive success suggests he's the better bet of the two to be a bona fide game-breaker.
But if there's any area in which Smith may prevail, it's in taking (and making) difficult shots—the sort that, with proper timing and placement, can swing a series.
Edge: Klay Thompson
Starting Small Forward: Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James
It’s been five years since Kevin Durant, then with the Oklahoma City Thunder, and LeBron James, then with the Miami Heat, faced off in the Finals. Back then, Durant outshot and outscored James but lost the series in five while LeBron dominated in rebounds and assists with a better supporting cast.
Much has changed for these two all-timers since their last championship showdown. No longer must Durant work so hard to create shots in isolation now that he's a cog in the Warriors' finely tuned scoring machine. As was the case during the regular season, his playoff scoring is down from his OKC days, but his shooting percentages are through the roof.
James, too, has been a picture of efficiency during Cleveland's postseason run. His 32.5 points per game are the second-highest mark of his career, and his attendant field-goal percentages (56.6 percent overall, 42.1 percent from three) would both be personal bests.
"I've worked on my craft," James told Bleacher Report's Howard Beck. "I've worked on my offensive game and my shooting and my posting and things of that nature over the years. But I've always felt like, listen, if you want to be as complete a player as you possibly can, if you have a game where you're not shooting the ball well, you can still be in the game and affect the game. That's what it's all about."
James has done just that with 8.0 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 2.2 steals and 1.4 blocks to boot. Durant is no slouch beyond scoring (7.8 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.9 combined steals and blocks), but for all his otherworldly ability, his command of the court still pales in comparison to James' iron-fisted jurisdiction.
Not that there's any shame in that. If seven straight trips to the Finals are any indication, LeBron owns the NBA. Everyone else, Durant included, is just renting.
Edge: LeBron James
Starting Power Forward: Draymond Green vs. Kevin Love
Kevin Love isn't exactly Superman for the Cavaliers, but Draymond Green may be his Kryptonite.
Last year, Love nearly averaged a double-double while shooting 44.6 percent from three during Cleveland's romp through the East. This time around, his numbers were remarkably similar across the board.
Against the Warriors, though, Love may be the closest thing Cleveland has to an Achilles' heel. During the 2016 Finals, Golden State, with Green at power forward, held the Cavaliers' stretch 4 to 8.5 points on 36.2 percent shooting (26.3 percent from three) and 6.8 rebounds while picking on him for his poor pick-and-roll defense. If not for Cleveland's squeaker-of-a-win in Game 7—and the importance of Love's 14 rebounds and late-game defense on Curry therein—we might be talking about a different third wheel playing with James and Irving right now.
Once upon a time, Green could've been trade bait for Love. Now, he's not only one of the NBA's premier defenders but also arguably the most irreplaceable Warrior. He's continued his run as Golden State's primary playmaker (7.2 assists), rebounder (8.7 boards), shot-blocker (2.1 blocks) and thief (1.9 steals) while stunningly emerging from a season-long shooting slumber to lead his team—which also employs Curry, Thompson and Durant, in case you've forgotten—in three-point accuracy (47.2 percent).
This time around, Green won't be saddled with the sort of baggage (e.g., technical fouls) that dragged down him and the Dubs during the previous Finals. Then again, neither is Love guaranteed to miss a game (and be at all limited thereafter) by a concussion the same way he was last June.
As Bleacher Report's Greg Swartz hinted, Love has a lower bar to clear than his Golden State counterpart: "We won't see him put up the 25 and 13 he's pouring on the Celtics now in the Finals, and that's OK. Playing high-level defense, rebounding and keeping his energy level up will still count as superstar status in Cleveland's book."
The Warriors, on the other hand, need Green to be even better than his previous best to put the Cavs away. They already know, though, what a pest Green can be in this matchup, so long as he steers clear of the extracurriculars that have gotten him in trouble before.
Edge: Draymond Green
Starting Center: Zaza Pachulia vs. Tristan Thompson
Salaries and national origins aside, Zaza Pachulia and Tristan Thompson aren't so different. They're both screen-setters and rebounders, finishers and mixer-uppers, bigs who do the dirty work so their superstar teammates can thrive on the strength of their skills. Both have also drawn unwanted attention in these playoffs for seemingly unsavory play—Pachulia for his hard closeout on San Antonio's Kawhi Leonard, Thompson for his Kelly Olynyk-esque yank on the arm and shoulder of Boston's Amir Johnson.
Pachulia, though, is more interchangeable than indispensable. The 33-year-old, who missed Games 3 and 4 against the Spurs with a right heel contusion, has averaged 6.1 points and 4.3 rebounds in 14.5 minutes per game while splitting duties at center with David West, JaVale McGee and Draymond Green.
In the East, Thompson has been nothing short of beastly. With Khloe Kardashian reportedly out of the picture, the 26-year-old has terrorized opposing frontcourts to the tune of 9.2 points on 60.0 percent shooting with 9.3 rebounds (4.2 on the offensive end)—not including the countless other loose balls he's gotten his hands on in some capacity.
Sizewise, Pachulia has about two inches and 30 pounds on his Cleveland counterpart. But what Thompson lacks in height and bulk, he more than makes up for in superior speed, agility, hops and, above all, durability.
Edge: Tristan Thompson
Backup Guard: Shaun Livingston vs. Deron Williams
One might've been an All-Star if not for gruesome knee injuries early in his career. The other might've been more than a three-time All-Star if not for ankle problems in his prime.
Either way, Shaun Livingston and Deron Williams have wound up in strikingly similar spots: as backup point guards on great teams loaded with talent.
Williams has flashed fleeting glimpses of his glorious past this postseason with 14 points apiece in closeout games against the Indiana Pacers and Boston Celtics. The 32-year-old may be overqualified as a second-stringer, but in 15 or so minutes per game, he can give Cleveland an emergency dose of ball-handling and shot creation off the bench.
Williams, though, isn't the 6'7" multipositional master of the midrange that Livingston has become. Where D-Will's occasional outbursts are a luxury for the Cavaliers, Livingston is critical to the very backbone that makes Golden State such a dangerous two-way team. His length and foot speed have helped to unlock the Warriors' small-ball lineups, particularly on defense, and his deadeye shooting inside the arc adds another dimension to the team's otherwise arc-oriented attack.
In time, Williams could become vital to Cleveland's operation. But Livingston has a two-and-a-half-season head start and the role to match.
Edge: Shaun Livingston
Backup Wing: Andre Iguodala vs. Iman Shumpert
Once upon a time, Andre Iguodala and Iman Shumpert were both regular starters in the NBA. They've each adapted to bench roles in recent years, but only Iguodala has turned his demotion into a Finals MVP and what may be a winning campaign for Sixth Man of the Year.
Not that Shumpert is some schlub in Cleveland's second unit. So far through these playoffs, he's knocked down 47.1 percent of his threes and played disruptive, physical defense for the Cavs. But even he can't compare to the jack-of-all-trades that Iguodala has become in service of a basketball juggernaut.
Warriors assistant coach Jarron Collins told Vice Sports' Michael Pina:
"He knows how to run the floor, run through if two guys are filling the lane. If he's the ball-handler, he's pushing the pace. He's almost like a point forward ... someone who's a playmaker when he has the ball in his hands, to find shooters or to find someone on the rim run. His intelligence on the basketball court and his basketball IQ is tremendous."
That's why Iguodala figures to play plenty of high-leverage minutes in these Finals. He's the missing link in Golden State's "Lineup of Death," a savvy veteran who can influence the flow of a game without any overt domination.
Edge: Andre Iguodala
Backup Forward: David West vs. Kyle Korver
Apples and oranges have more in common as fruits than David West and Kyle Korver do as basketball players.
Korver is one of the pre-eminent three-point shooters in NBA history. West has never attempted more than 27 triples in a given season.
"I just never could get, not necessarily confident enough," West told Bleacher Report, "but I never felt like that would be an effective way for me to play."
West has a point. He's long been remarkably efficient inside the arc (56.1 percent) and has caught the passing bug (6.9 assists per 36 minutes in these playoffs) that seems to infect every new Warrior these days.
Korver, though, has been no less lethal from long range. He's knocked down 41.5 percent of his 4.1 threes per game in these playoffs while using his 6'7" frame to hang with younger, quicker opponents on defense.
Where West has done well as a wide-open release valve for Golden State's stars, Korver's respected stroke has spread the floor even further for James and Irving to work their magic with the ball.
Edge: Kyle Korver
Backup Big: JaVale McGee vs. Richard Jefferson
For all the talk about how the Warriors have taken small ball to the next level, they actually have more big men in their regular rotation than the Cavaliers do.
In Cleveland, Richard Jefferson, who's spent most of his 16 NBA seasons as a slashing wing, qualifies as a big. According to Basketball Reference, the 6'7" Arizona product has spent 48 percent of his minutes at power forward in these playoffs.
To his credit, Jefferson has adapted well to life as a stretch 4. He's hit 40.0 percent of his playoff three-point attempts this spring after draining 39.3 percent from deep during the Cavs' previous go-round.
But even R-Jeff can't compare to JaVale McGee's colossal per-minute production. Where Jefferson has chipped in 2.9 points in 10.6 minutes during the postseason, McGee has more than doubled that scoring output (7.0 points) in virtually the same amount of time (10.5 minutes).
How has the clown prince of Shaqtin' A Fool pulled that off? By taking 90.0 percent of his shots within three feet of the hoop—and finishing 73.3 percent of those.
Anything McGee and Jefferson generate for their respective squads is practically icing on the cake. But in these playoffs, the latter has brought the buttercream in bigger and more frequent quantities than his counterpart in Cleveland.
Edge: JaVale McGee
Backup Wild Card: Ian Clark vs. Channing Frye
At some point in this series, at least one of the head coaches—be he Tyronn Lue in Cleveland or Mike Brown or Steve Kerr in Golden State—will have to dig deep into his bench for reinforcements.
In Golden State's case, Ian Clark has been that secret weapon. The Belmont University grad has shot at a 50/40/90 clip—52.4 percent from the field, 40.0 percent from three and 93.3 percent from the free-throw line, to be exact. He's played in each of the Warriors' 12 games, scoring 7.5 points in 14.6 minutes, but hasn't played any high-leverage minutes.
Neither has Channing Frye, who's contributed 7.8 points in 13.0 minutes by draining 52.6 percent of his 3.5 three-point attempts per game.
But Frye didn't appear in Games 3 and 4 against the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals and probably wouldn't have set foot in Game 5 had it not been a blowout from the beginning.
Nor is he likely to feature much in the Finals against the Warriors. He certainly didn't last June, when he earned three straight DNPs in Games 5 through 7 after getting gouged across the board by Golden State in the first four meetings.
Odds are, the Dubs haven't forgotten how to exploit the 34-year-old Frye, even if Kerr isn't the one pulling strings from the sideline. The Cavs can take their chances with him if they so choose. The Warriors, on the other hand, won't have to sweat it if they need Clark to sop up minutes, say, when Steph Curry encounters foul trouble.
Edge: Ian Clark