Who Has the Edge at Every Position in the NBA Finals?
Is the fourth straight version of the NBA Finals clash between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers really as unbalanced as it seems at first blush?
Though LeBron James is emerging from the Eastern Conference for the eighth consecutive season, he's entering the league's biggest stage as a distinct underdog. Per ESPN.com's David Payne Purdum, they're actually the most significant underdogs in the Finals since at least 2002, and that's not where the historical lopsidedness ends:
"Cleveland opened as a +650 underdog against the Warriors in the series. The Cavaliers were around +360 underdogs against the San Antonio Spurs in 2007, James' first trip to the Finals.
"The Warriors opened as 12-point favorites in Game 1. That's tied for the largest point spread in a Finals game since 1991, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Los Angeles Lakers were 12-point favorites over the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 1 of the 2001 Finals, a game the Sixers won.
"Golden State never opened as anywhere close to this big of a favorite in the previous three Finals meetings with Cleveland. The Warriors were around -300 over the Cavaliers in last year's Finals. Golden State won that series four games to one.
"The Cavaliers were only +180 underdogs when they upended Golden State in the 2016 Finals."
Still, let's veer away from that narrative by diving into the series on a more granular level.
Bleacher Report's Dan Favale has already provided a tremendous overview of the clash as a whole, but we're now taking it one position at a time, referring back to the scores contained within my rankings of every player in the Finals (listed parenthetically here) and attempting to pick out any spots in the lineup that might feature a Cleveland advantage.
Cleveland Cavaliers: George Hill (1.10), Jose Calderon (minus-2.04), Jordan Clarkson (minus-2.30)
Golden State Warriors: Stephen Curry (7.84), Shaun Livingston (minus-1.40), Quinn Cook (minus-0.55)
If you remove Stephen Curry from the equation, this would become a far closer contest.
George Hill has started to finish plays around the basket and morph into a reliable mid-range shooter, which gives the Cleveland offense some hope of supporting LeBron James. His three-point stroke remains nowhere to be seen, found only on local milk cartons in grocery stores throughout Northeast Ohio, but he's still doing enough to be a positive presence.
That's more than Jose Calderon or Jordan Clarkson can claim during the playoffs, considering the former has forgotten how to connect from beyond the arc (allegedly his biggest enduring skill) and the latter has proved incapable of creating separation against tougher postseason defenses or holding his own defensively.
As for the Golden State contingent, Shaun Livingston is showing cracks as Father Time takes hold of his career. A step slower defensively, he's been unable to wreak havoc with his lanky arms, and his patented high-release, pull-up jumpers from mid-range territory haven't been falling with as much consistency. Quinn Cook, meanwhile, hasn't proved his excellence running the show at the end of the regular season can translate into higher-leverage situations, and his missed triple at the end of Game 5 against the Houston Rockets could become his enduring memory from this postseason.
Cleveland might have the edge when looking only at those five figures, but we can't just ignore Curry.
After battling back from an MCL sprain in his left knee, the sharpshooting floor general has picked up about where he left off. Averaging 24.8 points, 6.1 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 1.8 steals and 0.7 blocks while slashing 47.2/38.5/93.9, he's not quite at MVP form, but he's not far removed. And even at this level, he's one of the three leading figures in this Finals clash.
Perhaps Cleveland would have the nod if Curry were injured, but only by a slight margin because of Livingston's pedigree and Clarkson's unproven nature in the postseason. But the Davidson product is ready to go.
Advantage: Golden State
Cleveland Cavaliers: JR Smith (minus-0.67), Rodney Hood (minus-1.38)
Golden State Warriors: Klay Thompson (3.34), Nick Young (minus-2.18), Patrick McCaw (minus-1.94)
Let's play a game.
Which of the following players would you rather have?
- Player A: 20.5 points, 4.2 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.3 blocks, 1.5 turnovers per game while shooting 46.2 percent from the field, 42.6 percent from downtown and 88.5 percent at the stripe
- Player B: 13.4 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.4 blocks, 1.7 turnovers per game while shooting 37.4 percent from the field, 33.0 percent from downtown and 80.8 percent at the stripe
It doesn't seem close. The first player is obviously the superior one, even before we take percentages into account. He's far more involved as a scorer, generates more rebounds and has marginal disadvantages in assists, steals and blocks that are partially negated by his care for the ball.
Once the shooting figures are factored in, the competition isn't even close.
But I'm cheating.
Player B isn't really a singular player. Whereas the first listed contributor is Klay Thompson, the latter is the combined efforts of JR Smith and Rodney Hood, both of whom have struggled in the search for consistency throughout the Cavaliers' run back to the NBA Finals. Neither has excelled, and Hood has fared so poorly that he's been glued to the bench in big games, unable to get much run while he fails to adjust to a system that no longer allows him to create so many shots off the bounce.
The cumulative product falls well short of Thompson alone, and that's before we factor in Nick Young's gunning habits off the pine or the upside of Patrick McCaw, now recovered enough from his lumbar spine injury to log minutes in the Western Conference Finals and resuscitate hope for his two-way abilities.
Advantage: Golden State
Cleveland Cavaliers: LeBron James (17.10), Kyle Korver (1.59), Cedi Osman (minus-2.54)
Please don't take this as any disrespect aimed at Kevin Durant, but this competition isn't particularly close.
Kyle Korver has been the best of the backups at this position, thanks to more than just his enduring ability to knock down plenty of contested triples. The veteran sniper is connecting on his 5.4 three-point attempts per game at a 44.9 percent clip, but he's also continuing to showcase his relentless motor, ability to affect the proceedings with solid positional defense and strong hands—useful both when batting down at players gathering for interior attempts and when going up for boards in traffic.
Perhaps a healthy Andre Iguodala would change that. He's been the superior player on a per-game basis, throttling up his effort level well beyond what we saw during the regular season so that he can unlock the immense upside of Golden State's small-ball lineups. But availability matters, much to the chagrin of our parenthetical scores, and the team has already ruled him out for Game 1 as he continues to recover from a left leg contusion suffered in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals.
Let's go ahead and call those two a wash, which remains true even if we include Cedi Osman's garbage-time contributions during the tail end of his rookie campaign. That makes this a head-to-head clash between Durant and LeBron James, and we should all know how that's going to work out.
Though he's occasionally veered into some isolation habits, refused to look for open teammates on the perimeter as he drives into traffic and lost focus on defense, Durant is still a magnificent presence for the Bay Area hopefuls. He's a versatile scorer who can also excel as a distributor and defender, and he's impervious to the effects of any matchup when he catches fire and remembers he can just shoot overtop any set of outstretched arms.
But he's not James. No one is.
Cleveland's resident GOAT candidate is playing at (arguably) the highest level of his entire career, dominating virtually every facet of the game as he shoulders an immense burden for the Cavaliers. He single-handedly dragged his troops through the Eastern Conference, even if he had to take a few possessions off on the defensive end in order to do so.
James is the clear-cut best player in the world right now, to the point that equating him and Durant would be foolish. He easily lifts Cleveland to victory at this position, though it'll be far tougher for him to sway the totality of the actual proceedings.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Kevin Love (2.02), Larry Nance Jr. (2.94), Jeff Green (0.37), Okaro White (N/A)
Golden State Warriors: Draymond Green (6.70), David West (1.27), Kevon Looney (1.01), Jordan Bell (minus-0.05)
This is easily the most fascinating positional matchup.
Draymond Green alone gives the edge to the Warriors, but six other players are intriguing because of their abilities to either fade into the background or make significant impacts. Let's start with the other members of the Dubs who populate the depth chart behind the All-Star who somehow manages to find another defensive gear come playoff time.
Though he didn't even play during three different contests against the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Finals, David West is a savvy veteran who remains a bruising defender and gifted passer. He understands his role perfectly, and he's capable of executing plenty of different defensive schemes while waiting for give-and-go opportunities on the more glamorous end—so long as head coach Steve Kerr decides the matchup is advantageous enough to play him.
Then we have Kevon Looney, whose switchability and lateral quickness make him a vital piece on the preventing side against more mobile bigs and drive-happy guards. Further down the depth chart still is Jordan Bell—an athletic, spring-loaded rookie who plays an efficient brand of basketball on offense, jets around the half-court set on defense and always seeks out highlight plays. Both youngsters can tip the scales in Golden State's favor, though they're still limited presences.
As for the Cleveland contributors, Jeff Green is capable of explosive two-way performances like the one we witnessed in Game 7 against the Boston Celtics. Larry Nance Jr. only gets deployed against certain matchups, but he never takes bad shots and has the athleticism necessary to be a high-quality defender against virtually any foe.
Kevin Love is, of course, the most important piece. He's still going through the concussion protocol and hasn't performed like an All-Star throughout the 2018 postseason, failing to display any semblance of shooting efficiency while simultaneously functioning like a turnstile on the stopping side. But if he rediscovers his stroke and begins playing the part of Robin to James' Batman, Cleveland's ceiling rises quite a bit higher.
Draymond Green is easily the premier figure at this position right now. He is, after all, averaging an impressive 11.1 points, 11.6 rebounds, 8.1 assists, 1.9 steals and 1.5 blocks while playing better defense than anyone else in the playoff field.
But the other six figures—we're not including Okaro White, who hasn't logged a minute since Nov. 6, when he was still a member of the Miami Heat—provide enough variance that the convergence of the right factors could at least even the competition a bit.
Advantage: Golden State
Cleveland Cavaliers: Tristan Thompson (0.62), Ante Zizic (minus-2.02), Kendrick Perkins (N/A)
Golden State Warriors: Zaza Pachulia (0.22), JaVale McGee (0.56), Damian Jones (minus-3.63)
Here's where the traditional positional designations come back to bite us, because precious few of these players are true 5s. They might operate as such, but the amorphous nature of most lineups, coupled with a penchant for running out forwards at the pivot in small-ball outfits, makes things a bit wonky.
Per Cleaning the Glass, the following players lined up at the 5 for Cleveland throughout the 2017-18 season: Channing Frye (now with the Los Angeles Lakers), Jeff Green, Kevin Love, Larry Nance Jr., Tristan Thompson and Ante Zizic. Meanwhile, Jordan Bell, Draymond Green, Damian Jones, Kevon Looney, JaVale McGee, Zaza Pachulia and David West all spent time at center for the Dubs.
You could reasonably argue Love should be listed as Cleveland's primary player at this position and correspondingly classify Thompson as a 4. Maybe you consider Draymond Green a center—or just Bell and Looney. Those would be valid arguments. But just go with what we have listed here for the time being, because no two positions are more fluid these days than the 4 and 5.
And given our arbitrary delineations, Cleveland has a clear-cut advantage.
Pachulia isn't anything more than a big body used for some physicality, tough screens and deft passing in short spurts at this stage of his career. McGee is consistently inconsistent, coupling boneheaded plays with feats of length and athleticism on a regular basis. Jones and Zizic play sparingly, while Kendrick Perkins has yet to get on the floor for the 2017-18 Cavaliers.
That leaves Thompson, whose offensive rebounding and defensive switchability have proved invaluable for the Cavaliers. Almost by default, he's winning the position for his troops—something that would remain true if we switched him and Love around or inserted Bell/West/Looney into the center equation.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Tyronn Lue
Golden State Warriors: Steve Kerr
Maybe it's time we give Lue more credit for helming multiple squads that have advanced to the Finals, but it's hard to shake the feeling the Cavaliers are sometimes finding success in spite of the man on the sidelines. He's capable of making solid in-game adjustments—not consistently, mind you—and has no issue leaning on LeBron James until the latter is at the brink of exhaustion, but his rotations have served as a massive question mark throughout the playoffs.
"Well, initially, he's been putting [Semi] Ojeleye in," Lue said about Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens after Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, per ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin. "So that's been kind of Kyle [Korver]'s matchup when he comes in the game. He didn't play him tonight, so it kind of threw us for a loop."
That's the kind of strategic mishap we don't see from Kerr, whose rotations are much more sound. A failure to insert the man who's consistently served as your second-best offensive contributor throughout the playoffs is a major misstep, one you wouldn't expect from any coaches at this level. And that's saying nothing of the mishap three contests earlier—a mistake Lue himself owned up to after deviating from his game plan and letting George Hill, Rodney Hood, Korver, Jeff Green and Larry Nance Jr. share the court to open the second quarter.
Kerr's issues, meanwhile, stem from motivation. He can tell nice anecdotes during games and routinely draws up impressive plays out of dead-ball scenarios, but his team can still grow careless with the rock and start sleepwalking through games it feels are beneath the defending champions.
This matchup favors Golden State, but perhaps not as overwhelmingly as the largely pro-Kerr and anti-Lue narratives might lead you to believe. If the latter receives criticism for his rotation mistakes, he should also get credit for inserting Tristan Thompson back into the starting lineup, keeping his players motivated when they have to defer so many possessions to James and maximizing the output of the game's leading superstar.
Still, Kerr gets the nod, and not just because of his tactical excellence. His ability to manage certain big personalities—here's the plug for Bleacher Report's Howard Beck and his must-read piece on the Draymond Green-Kerr relationship—can't be overlooked.
Advantage: Golden State