The Golden State Warriors may have set the NBA record with 73 wins this season, but Hall of Famer Julius Erving thinks the team they beat in last year's NBA Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers, is actually the title favorite, per Sam Gardner of Fox Sports:
There's always this consensus that the better teams are in the West, but Cleveland will be a tough matchup, offensively and defensively, for whoever comes out of the West. Because that's not the team that played in the regular season. This team right now, they're on to something that just kind of makes them a force to be reckoned with, and they'd have to be the favorites right now, in my book. ...
Currently, how they're playing, they're playing better than the Warriors, better than the Spurs, better than Portland and better than Oklahoma City, and better than Miami and better than Toronto. They are playing the best basketball right now.
The Cavaliers were 57-25 in the regular season, but they are the only team without a loss this postseason. Cleveland swept the Detroit Pistons in the first round and the Atlanta Hawks in the second round, and five of its eight playoff wins have come by double figures.
One reason Cleveland has played at such a high level is its three-point shooting. It made a head-turning 16.8 long-range shots per night through the first eight playoff games and has received critical contributions from a number of players. Erving highlighted the team's depth beyond LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love as a main reason he sees it as the favorite.
Erving specifically named Channing Frye, J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson and Iman Shumpert when listing where the Cavaliers were "getting more from more places."
Smith is making a team-high 3.9 three-pointers per game in the playoffs, Frye scored 27 points in the Game 3 victory over the Atlanta Hawks, Thompson is averaging five offensive rebounds per night in the playoffs and Shumpert has provided important defensive depth on the wing.
The balanced attack helped the Cavaliers set the all-time NBA record with 25 made three-pointers in one contest in their Game 2 win over the Hawks. The hot shooting was business as usual in the playoffs for the defending Eastern Conference champions:
|Cleveland Cavaliers' Postseason Three-Point Shooting|
|Detroit Pistons, Game 1||12-of-35 (34.3 percent)|
|Detroit Pistons, Game 2||20-of-38 (52.6 percent)|
|Detroit Pistons, Game 3||12-of-29 (41.4 percent)|
|Detroit Pistons, Game 4||13-of-36 (36.1 percent)|
|Atlanta Hawks, Game 1||15-of-31 (48.4 percent)|
|Atlanta Hawks, Game 2||25-of-45 (55.6 percent)|
|Atlanta Hawks, Game 3||21-of-39 (53.8 percent)|
|Atlanta Hawks, Game 4||16-of-37 (43.2 percent)|
Erving also praised coach Tyronn Lue—who took over the head coaching responsibilities when Cleveland fired David Blatt in January—and the way he has managed that depth: "When they go to the bench, if they lose something defensively, they gain it offensively. They've got a great starting lineup, they can play the small ball, they can play the big man's game and [Lue] has really established himself as way ahead of the game in terms of making adjustments."
While Cleveland's combination of depth, coaching, shooting and undefeated postseason record is impressive, the 73-win Warriors are still there as a potential roadblock in the NBA Finals. After all, the Cavaliers also swept the Hawks in last year's playoffs and still lost to Golden State in six games.
Additionally, the defending champs have a healthy Stephen Curry back at their disposal after he returned to the floor Monday for the first time since spraining his right MCL. All the two-time MVP did was score 40 points—17 of which came in overtime—and carry his team to a 132-125 win over the Portland Trail Blazers.
The Warriors also beat the Cavaliers in both regular-season matchups this year, with one coming by 34 points in Cleveland.
Still, Erving pointed out that "last year [Irving] was not healthy, and Love was not even there" and noted that the Cavaliers "lost but were far from being dominated."
The Cavaliers actually held a 2-1 series lead in last season's NBA Finals, with Golden State's Game 1 win coming in overtime. Cleveland theoretically could have been ahead 3-0 with slightly better execution down the stretch of that game, which underscores Erving's caution to those already penciling in Golden State as back-to-back champs.
The Cavaliers also struggled mightily from behind the three-point line in last year's Finals and shot 14.8 percent from long range in Game 4, 34.3 percent in Game 5 and 23.1 percent in Game 6. If they maintain their shooting momentum into the Finals this year, the Warriors (or another Western Conference representative) won't have the luxury of relying on such poor efforts from the outside.
Don't say Erving didn't warn you if Cleveland shoots its way to a championship.