5 Biggest X-Factors for Cleveland Cavaliers in 2017 NBA Finals
One thing that gets lost in the jokes about how the Golden State Warriors blew a 3-1 lead to the Cleveland Cavaliers during the 2016 NBA Finals is that the Warriors had a 3-1 lead to blow. If Draymond Green's suspension didn't open the door for a comeback—and LeBron James didn't kick the thing off its hinges en route to NBA history—Golden State very well could have repeated as champions.
In the offseason, the Warriors added perhaps the best player in the world not named LeBron James in Kevin Durant. They're better than they were last season. While it took time to work out the innate kinks that come with adding a major new cog, the Dubs have been clicking as of late.
Since losing three games in a row in March, the Warriors have won 27 of their last 28 regular and postseason games by an average of 15.2 points. If they spotted their opponents 10 points every night, they would still be 21-7 over that stretch. They're as hot as any team in history has ever been going into the NBA Finals, undefeated through 12 postseason games.
Point being: Toppling the Warriors again is no easy task for Cleveland. It's not an impossible one, but it's going to be harder than it was last year, and last year was hard enough. The Cavs repeating what they did in 2016 will not suffice.
The following five X-factors will be critical for Cleveland to achieve the repeat. All of them are about the defense—or at least defense-adjacent—because the Cavs are going to score points. That's not a concern. The struggle will be getting stops.
Win the Rebounding Battle
Winning the battle on the boards won't guarantee victory for the Cavs, but losing it is a near-foregone conclusion that Dubs will end up with the W.
The two teams have matched up 19 times in the regular and postseason combined over the last three years, and the Cavs are 2-6 when Golden State secures more misses. To avoid a similar fate this time around, Cleveland must Kevin Love and Tristian Thompson on the court at the same time as much as possible.
According to NBA.com, when Thompson is on the floor, the Cavs' rebounding percentage is 54.9. With Love, it's 54.5 percent. When Thompson sits, it's 45.7, and without Love, it's 47.5. For a frame of reference, the Oklahoma City Thunder led the NBA this year with 53.4 percent, while the Dallas Mavericks were last at 46.9 percent. So, the difference is essentially being the league's best rebounding team versus the worst.
To keep both players on the court, though, Love will have to execute defensively. This postseason, he's played as well as he has in a Cleveland uniform. He's locked in and handling switches well, even when he has to guard the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll. He's even doing a decent job of staying in front of the attacker.
The numbers seem to back that up, too, as he's surrendering just 0.822 points per possession overall as the primary defender, according to SynergySportsTech.com, which puts him in the 75th percentile league-wide. And he's yielding only 0.69 when guarding the ball-handler on pick-and-rolls.
He hasn't been getting switched onto the likes of Curry and Durant, though, and they will test him. If he fails that test, the Dubs will run all over him.
Protect the Rim
The Warriors often carry the perception of a "jump-shooting team." While the Splash Brothers do frequently splash and Durant only adds to the mystique, it's wrong to identify them as a team that only gets buckets from distance.
The Warriors averaged a league-high 13.05 assisted buckets at the rim per game during the regular season, according to NBAMiner.com. They also led the NBA in field-goal percentage inside the restricted area, according to Basketball-Reference.com. By contrast, the Cavaliers' defense was ranked 18th in assisted field goals yielded at the rim and 17th in field-goal percentage inside the semicircle.
This leads us back to Love and his defense. During the regular season, opponents shot 4.5 points better than their season averages within six feet of the cylinder when he was their primary defender. In the playoffs, that number has plummeted to minus-5.6 points.
Compounding the issue is how differently the Warriors' two primary defenders play. Zaza Pachulia is a gritty (perhaps dirty) player who will chip and claw away at Love with a tough, physical game. JaVale McGee is a one-trick pony whose trick—rim-running alley-ooping—Golden State has harnessed to resuscitate his career.
McGee has made 37 shots during the playoffs, 17 of which have been dunks and 15 of which were alley-oops. In all, 32 of his 37 makes have been assisted, and 33 have been inside the restricted area.
Tristan Thompson should help plenty here, as he's a great defender. But when the Cavs go small, they'll need to play Love at the 5. When he does so, he'll have to deny McGee the pass, because if McGee gets the ball down low, Love won't be able to stop him.
Capitalize on the Warriors' Turnovers Without Forcing the Issue
The Warriors' biggest weakness is their inability to take care of the ball. They were 20th this year in turnover percentage and 20th in points given up off turnovers. It's easy to highlight that, but it's much harder to capitalize on said weakness.
The Cavaliers haven't been top-notch in that regard, either. They were only 27th this season in points scored off turnovers, while the Warriors were first. Cleveland was also nearly as bad at letting its opponents score off its miscues as the Dubs, finishing 19th.
The Cavs tout an efficient offense, but they aren't fast. The Dubs have an efficient offense that is fast. The Warriors played with the fourth-fastest pace, while Cleveland was roughly 3.9 possessions slower and ranked 16th league-wide.
When a team starts trying to force turnovers, it's easy to speed up the pace of the game, so Cleveland would play right into Golden State's hand. If the series turns into a run-and-gun contest, the Warriors will crush the Cavs, as they have athleticism and youth on their side.
In Love and James, the Cavs do have two of the best outlet passers in the game. James is an incredible finisher, and Irving is about as creative with the ball around the rim as anyone in NBA history.
They need to score on the Dubs miscues—and they can!—but they need to do so without forcing the issue.
Kyrie Irving Must Remain Engaged
Kyrie Irving is a bad defender. The numbers don't lie.
His minus-2.24 Defensive Real Plus-Minus is 80th out of 91 point guards and 436 out of 468 NBA players, per ESPN.com. Opponents shot 5.1 percentage points better than their average when he was the closest defender on the play. He gave up .989 points per possession when he was the closest defender, according to Synergy Sports, which ranked in the 17th percentile. He was also in the 19th percentile guarding the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll, 18th percentile on spot-ups and 12th percentile when guarding in isolation. Those three play types represented 72.8 percent of his defensive plays during the regular season.
No defensive metric is perfect, but there is also no defensive metric which makes Irving look good. When they're all saying the same thing, there's likely something to it. Irving's job on Curry during last year's Finals was more a product of Curry being hobbled by a knee injury than Irving doing something spectacular. Take this play, for example. Irving just watched Curry shoot the three after getting completely lost. The shot didn't go in, but it was still horrible defense.
With Curry healthy this year, Irving's job will be that much harder. And with Durant now on the Warriors, Cleveland won't be able to hide Irving on the weakest offensive player on the floor, which they've gotten away with in postseasons past.
There is hope, though. There are two types of bad defender: those who lack the ability, and those who don't exert the effort. Fortunately, Irving is the latter. His overall defensive rating this year was 109.1, but that has dropped to 103.3 in the playoffs and 96.0 in clutch situations in the playoffs (albeit in a small sample size).
Irving can play defense; he just has to apply himself. He'll need to apply himself every minute he's on the court against this loaded Warriors roster.
The King Must Reign Over His Court
LeBron James has earned the right to be discussed alongside Michael Jordan. He's reached a level of play in the Finals that makes him appear invincible when he's fully locked in.
Over the last two NBA Finals, his numbers are ridiculous. In only 13 games, he's totaled 423 points, 159 rebounds and 115 assists. Since 1984, only six other players have notched those numbers throughout their entire Finals careers: Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant and Scottie Pippen. All of them had at least 25 games to accrue their totals.
The Cavaliers somehow might need more from him this year, as he'll need to be better defensively.
If you're Cleveland, where do you put him? Do you stick him on the playmaking Draymond Green, whose passing is helps fuel Golden State's ferocious offense? Or do you put him on Kevin Durant, who no one else on the Cavaliers is equipped to guard?
Mike Prada of SB Nation discussed the challenge, starting with what the Cavaliers did last year:
"Putting LeBron on Draymond meant the Cavaliers slid Tristan Thompson to Harrison Barnes and Kevin Love to the fifth Warrior (usually Andre Iguodala, but also whoever played center when the Warriors used more traditional lineups).
Barnes and Iguodala couldn't make the Cavaliers pay, either in isolation situations or with off-ball movement. Thus, the Cavaliers survived those mismatches. Replacing Barnes with Kevin Durant, the best bucket-getter in the NBA, makes it a whooooole looooottttt harder for the Cavaliers."
Prada goes through a variety of possibilities before arriving at the best possible scenario: "All of them."
The key to defending the Warriors' star-studded attack is the King's versatility. He won't have to defend everyone by himself all of the time, but he is the best option against virtually anyone. Regardless of who he's guarding at any given moment, his help defense will be the key to the Cavaliers taking home their second straight title.