Both teams made spectacular runs through the 2015 postseason, but both are actually well-equipped to find themselves in the Finals once again. According to the early odds from Odds Shark, the two teams have already been pegged as the favorites to lift the Larry O'Brien Trophy next season:
|2016 NBA Finals Odds|
|Golden State Warriors||4-1|
|Oklahoma City Thunder||15-2|
|San Antonio Spurs||10-1|
|Los Angeles Clippers||11-1|
Making multiple Finals in a row isn't a rare task in the modern NBA climate. Led by LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, the Heat were in the four previous finals. Before them, the Los Angeles Lakers were frequent Finalists, making three straight appearances from 2008-2010.
Here's the biggest reason that each team should be back on the Finals stage in 2016, along with the biggest obstacle they'll have to overcome to repeat history.
Why Golden State Will Be Back: Team Efficiency
Simply put, the Warriors were the best team in basketball in 2015. Their offensive and defensive efficiency rankings were through the roof. Lost in the hoopla of the MVP versus MVP matchup in Stephen Curry and LeBron James was the fact that Warriors are one of the best teams since Michael Jordan's Bulls, according to some metrics.
FiveThirtyEight's ELO metric, which assigns a point value for wins based on opponent and venue, ranks the Warriors among the best teams of all time:
When comparing them to the rest of the NBA field this year, the Dubs were one of the best teams both offensively and defensively. Here's a look at where they ranked in terms of efficiency, according to NBA.com's points per 100 possessions stats.
|Warriors Offensive and Defensive Efficiency 2014-15|
The best news for the Warriors is that every significant contributor is set to come back. Draymond Green is a restricted free agent, but that means they will have a chance to match any offer he receives.
The organization also has a chance to actually improve the roster. According to Marc Stein of ESPN, David Lee is likely to be traded in the offseason. The 32-year-old should bring back something in return, as he is just two years removed from an All-Star campaign even if he doesn't fit in Golden State's rotation.
Then there's this little tidbit from ESPN Stats & Info:
Those Bulls teams went back to the Finals a few times after 1991. The Warriors made their entire run without anyone with Finals experience. Now that they know what it takes to win a title, there isn't much that can stop them.
Warriors' Biggest Obstacle: A Crowded Western Conference
To say the Warriors won the title this year because they were lucky would be a gross inaccuracy. To say there was some luck involved would be disingenuous. Almost every NBA title team can thank some breaks that helped them get the title.
In Golden State's case, the road through the Western Conference was a little less taxing than usual. The Warriors only played one team in the Top 10 of NBA.com's net ratings on their way to the Finals in Houston. They successfully avoided the back-to-back Western Conference champions in the San Antonio Spurs and were fortunate the Oklahoma City Thunder were without Kevin Durant.
Again, the Warriors would still likely have been the favorite in a series against the Spurs or a healthy Thunder team. This simply illustrates the level of difficulty that usually comes with navigating the Western Conference.
There's a reason five of the seven favorites to win the NBA title next season are from the West. As good as the Warriors are, the road back to the Finals should be a tough one.
Why Cleveland Will Be Back: LeBron James
At this point, having LeBron James on your roster is a guaranteed pass to the NBA Finals. As Howard Beck of Bleacher Report notes, James became the first player to appear in five-straight Finals since Bill Russell and Co. did it with the Celtics in the 60s:
That's an impressive streak. And one that likely is favored to continue given the climate of the Eastern Conference. The Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks are the only other teams that show up on Odds Shark's top 10 odds for the Finals next season.
Team basketball wins titles, but having the best player on the court is a huge advantage in a series. As HoopsHype points out, despite the perception, few players have accomplished as much as James in the postseason:
Technically James can opt out of his current contract with the Cavaliers. In fact, he's expected to, according to Chris Haynes of the Northeast Ohio Media Group:
As long as James is still playing like himself and on the Cavs roster, they Cavs are going to be the favorites to come out of the East. That appears to be the case in 2016.
Cavs' Biggest Struggle: Adding More Depth Than This Year
The Cavaliers didn't win the title this year because they didn't have the depth, plain and simple. One look at the offensive numbers that Tom Haberstroh of ESPN shared illustrates that point:
The good news is that help is on the way.
First, as Haynes points out, Kevin Love is expected to be back. He missed the Finals due to a shoulder injury. Kyrie Irving, should also be healthy. That's 38.7 points per game worth of offense between the two of them.
James understood the difference the two could have made on the series. “You lose Kevin, an All-Star, lose Kyrie, another All-Star,” James said, as noted by Fred Kerber of the New York Post. “Try as much as we could to make up, we had a lot of talent sitting in suits. I’ve had a lot of playoff runs on both ends and know one thing, you’ve got to be healthy, you’ve got to be playing right at the right time. We had no luck. We were not healthy.”
The two stars coming back won't solve all of their problems, though. According to Spotrac, the Cavs only have three players officially under contract for next season: Irving, Anderson Varejao and Joe Harris. That provides the Cavaliers with a lot of options for proceeding, but it also means they'll need some cap space gymnastics to bring back Love, James, Tristan Thompson and all the pieces necessary to reload the roster.
If a healthy Irving and Love are part of even a mediocre supporting cast, the odds that the Cavs wind up opposite the Warriors in another Finals seem about right.