Lakers vs. Celtics, Giants vs. Patriots, Ali vs. Frazier, Manchester United vs. Liverpool, Captain America vs. Iron Man, Guns N’ Roses vs. Poison, Real Madrid vs. Barcelona, Debate Team vs. Chess Club, Yankees vs. Red Sox, James Bond vs. Jason Bourne… and Cavs vs. Warriors? Does the latter really belong in the aforementioned list of rivalries where each side traded significant blows? Right now we don’t really have an answer, but this series could create such a rivalry, and with good reason.
Speaking personally, I believe this series could be one of the greatest finals of all time. There are areas where neither team has answers, areas where both teams are outstanding, and areas where nobody knows what is going to happen. Consequently, let’s examine the following three questions: “how the Cavs will defend Steph Curry?”, “what team has the better offense?”, and “what lineups will be most prevalent this series?”
How Are The Cavs Going To Guard Stephen Curry?
Nylon Calculus recently wrote about how Kyle Lowry’s has “exposed” the Cavs’ greatest flaw: Kyrie Irving’s defense. He creates the chart below.
Figure 1 Via Nylon Calculus
The author then notes that, “Within the context of the 2016 NBA Eastern Conference Finals, Lowry’s most common defensive matchup by position was the Cavaliers’ Kyrie Irving. Once again, using the shot-distance-specific regularized adjusted plus-minus model the defensive impact of an Irving led defensive team can be measured and is shown in the gold bars. Compared to league average, a defense featuring Irving performed at below-average levels in terms of expected points allowed per possession; allowing more points per possession than what is typically expected specifically in short to mid-range shot attempts. As described by the model, the most glaring weakness for an Irving-led defensive team stems from shot attempts taken within 12 feet from the basket, most notably within three feet, indicating that Irving led defenses are most exposed and least effective when shots are taken from these specific ranges.”
What this implies, and this is important, is that Lowry was not able to hurt Kyrie Irving from the three-point range; but rather, from close to the basket. Now, let’s be clear, Kyrie Irving is not a “good” three-point defender, opponents are still shooting 6.7% better in the 2016 playoffs when guarded by Kyrie as opposed to anyone else. When adjusted for the small sample size that is the playoffs, though, the numbers are not as bad. Over the course of the 2015-16 season, opponents shoot .6% worse from three when guarded by Kyrie than their average. Ultimately, as the Nylon Calculus article points out, Kyrie’s biggest weakness is guarding close to the basket, especially on driving lanes. Thus, how good is Steph Curry at scoring this way?
Figure 2 Stats Via NBA.com’s Stats Page
This chart is damning for Steph Curry. On one hand, he is arguably the greatest shooter from distance in NBA history. On the other, though, he’s a fairly mediocre one close to the basket. More specifically, out of players that have averaged at least five drives per game during the 2016 playoffs, Steph ranks eighteenth out of thirty-six players. Furthermore, using those same metrics, he passes the ball only twenty-fourth most out of the thirty-six players. Finally, and this is the most important statistic in this article, Steph Curry ranks in the bottom 5% of all players in points per possession on cuts to the basket during the 2016 playoffs.
What does this mean? Essentially, Steph Curry is a fairly mediocre player close to the basket. He does not have the tools to dominate on drives, and during the 2016 playoffs, has been atrocious at cutting to the basket. This myth that Steph Curry is the greatest offensive player in NBA history is patently false. He is leagues better at one skill than anyone in NBA history, but he, like other players throughout time, has weaknesses. One of these is getting to and scoring at the basket effectively.
The question, therefore, is can the Cavs force Curry to drive to the basket and rely on Kyrie to defend him? In a lot of ways, this is a crazy matchup, because Curry’s weakest offensive ability is also Kyrie’s worst defensive ability. Thus, the Warriors must decide if they do not want to attack Irving’s biggest defensive weakness and settle for three-point shots, even though Kyrie is a better defender against those plays. Whereas, the Cavs must decide if they want to drive Curry off the three-point line, even if it puts Kyire Irving in a weaker position.
During Game 1 of the 2015 NBA Finals, the Cavs decided to force Curry to drive, even though it is where Kyrie struggled. They did this by playing Steph very close on the three-point line and doubling him on screens. First you can see an example of the latter early in the first game where Steph exploits this strategy:
In this play, Timofey Mozgov and Kyrie double Steph and block him from shooting a three; and moreover, by preventing a Bogut roll on the screen, passing is no longer a viable option, consequently Curry must drive. In this example, the strategy backfires for Cleveland, and Steph sinks a midrange shot. Nonetheless, given the percentages it makes sense for the Cavs to continue to play Steph Curry this way, and that they did. Below is a video where the Cavs’ defensive strategy forces Steph into making a bad pass.
Here, again, the Cavs blitz Curry off the pick-and-roll and force him to drive. Tristan Thompson, who happens to be a very solid defender off of screens, stays in front of Steph and forces a pass. This pass is evidence of Curry’s problems, mainly because he almost turns the ball over because he does not have strength to move the ball cross-court. Therefore, at this point, Cleveland’s strategy was effective. And finally, the play everyone knows, the block:
As you can see, Steph Curry is forced off the three-point line and blocked by a running Kyrie Irving. This play and strategy speak to the overall strategy by the Cavs. More than likely, the Cavaliers will attempt to force Curry off the three-point line, even though drives are more difficult for Kyrie Irving to defend. Mitigating the opponent’s greatest strength, when possible, is always the go-to play, regardless of your team’s own players.
What Team Has A Better Offense?
In an article for ESPN Insider, Kevin Pelton contends that the team that shoots better three-point shots – which is related to how a team’s offense performs as a whole – will win the title. Thus, the above question is truly an important one.
On the whole, the answer is simple, yet twofold: during the regular season, the Warriors had the greatest offense of all time, and had an offensive rating (or points per 100 possessions) of 112.5, which was highest in the league. The story is different in the playoffs, though, because going into the finals, the Cavs have the best offensive rating of any team (116.2) over the past twenty-nine years, or since the 1986-87 Showtime Lakers. Put simply, the Cavs’ playoff offense is better than Jordan’s Bulls, the “seven seconds or less” Suns under Mike D’Antoni, the Shaq-Kobe Lakers, LeBron’s Heat, and all the Spurs teams. The fact, though, is this comparison is not that simple because it does not compare the two teams head-to-head.
First, let’s begin by comparing each team’s biggest strength on offense, the pick-and-roll, as well as the other’s defense on those same plays:
Figure 3 Stats Via Synergy
On the whole, the Cavs are better offensively than the Warriors at using the pick-and-role; however, the Warriors are noticeably better on defense. Part of this is due to the Cavs Irving/Love pick-and-roll defense. Zach Lowe elaborates:
Thus, a big part of the Cavs’ problems defending the pick-and-roll is the Irving/Love combination. Lowe also provides damning video to further substantiate his claim.
In this video, both Kyrie and Love lose positioning and get beat on the pick-and-roll. And it’s really bad. Neither Love nor Irving follow the ball and the Hawks score an easy basket.
This video demonstrates a situation where Love gets eviscerated on the pick-and-roll. Frankly, he had a smaller guard in open court and better positioning to defend the drive. But ultimately, Love just gets beat. This is reflective of Love’s ranking at the 37.5 percentile defending the pick-and-roll. Frankly, Kevin Love is just a bad pick-and-roll defender. The thing, though – as seen in Figure 3 – is that Golden State does not excel at attacking the role defender. Irving, on the other hand, is an even worse pick-and-roll defender.
Irving ranks in the bottom 13.5 percent at defending the pick-and-roll. That is all that needs to be said in describing this video. He simply does not stay in-front of the ball handler on drives Yet, in section 1, the article shows Steph Curry’s limits as a driving and/or paint scorer. In fact, Steph ranks only in the 66th percentile of players in scoring off the pick-and-roll in the playoffs. This is why, even with Kyrie’s deficiencies, more than likely he will be guarding Curry to start games.
Consequently, expect the Warriors to constantly attack the Cavs in the pick-and-roll. If it’s effective – i.e., as good as it was for Toronto in games three and four of the Eastern Conference Finals – then Golden State’s offense will be better this series. Let’s examine a video of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Andre Iguodala using a pick-and-roll to attack the Thunder’s defense:
Therefore, as you can see, the Warriors use two screens sometimes during a pick-and-roll to confuse opposing defenses. And frankly, if the Cavs cannot stop them from doing so, it probably means the Warriors would win the title for a second straight year. Yet, there is more nuance required to understand whose offense will look better this series.
This is because Cleveland’s offense turns the ball over less, creates more shot opportunities adjusted for pace using offensive rebounds, and moves the ball with greater efficiency (1, 2).
Figure 4 Stats Via NBA.Com’s Stats Page
While both teams are relatively close, the Cavs have a decent advantage when it comes to assist-to-turnover ratio, turnover percentage, and offensive rebound percentage. What this means is the Cavs will have more possessions over the course of a series. And, even assuming the Cavs three-point shooting reverts to its regular season form, this will magnify their outside shot to a level that disturbs the Warriors. Therefore, Golden State’s advantage in the pick-and-roll will be less pronounced than many are suggesting. Nevertheless, the two teams’ respective offenses are both elite and similarly effective, so do not expect this series to be low-scoring.
What Cleveland Lineup Is Best Poised To Take On Golden State And Vice-Versa?
A simple mind would view this as a simple problem. Golden State excel’s at going small, Tristan Thompson provides little-to-no offensive value, Kevin Love and Channing Frye are too limited defensively to play against Golden State, and Golden State’s bigs are too slow to keep up with Thompson and/or Frye. All of those, though, are misnomers.
First, Golden State’s best holistic lineup may be the “death ball” group of Curry-Thompson-Iguodala-Barnes-Green, but that does not mean it is the best solution against the Cavs. In fact, it hardly was against the Thunder. Versus a small-ball lineup in the Western Conference Finals, Oklahoma City’s group of Westbrook-Waiters-Roberson-Durant-Ibaka – a small unit itself, but still that plays an effective center – was +24.9 points per 100 possessions. This occurs because, when going small, Golden State surrenders rebounds, easy points in the basket, and interior defense. Let’s examine a few demonstrative videos below:
Thus, in this video, Oklahoma City uses Serge Ibaka as a rover who prevents the Warriors from getting an easy basket inside the painted area. The Cavs’ Tristan Thompson easily can perform this same role on defense against Golden State’s small-ball. Moreover, the “death lineup” results in the Warriors’ drives being more difficult, as demonstrated below:
Of course, in this video, Kevin Durant’s length gives the Warriors problems. The Cavs – nor any other team sans Milwaukee and San Antonio – have a player that can use their length to create havoc like Durant does. With that said, LeBron’s speed and athleticism on defense will create similar problems in the finals, especially against the “death lineup.” Below is evidence of how the Warriors’ small-ball lineups struggle with rebounding:
This is an astute example of how the Warriors sacrifice rebounding when they play small. While Serge Ibaka made a great play here, Draymond Green also does not get into rebounding position well, and that is something Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love – both top-twenty NBA rebounders – will take advantage of. Finally, an example of the Thunder having an easy drive because Golden State lacks an interior presence.
Not only does Westbrook have nothing resembling a man in his way to the paint, but the Warriors’ slow recovery frees up Westbrook to pass to Dion Waiters for an open three-point shot. This will pose problems for Golden State in the finals because LeBron James is a better scorer and better passer on drives than Westbrook.
Therefore, two conclusions about the Warriors’ small-ball lineups and how the Cavs will play them. First, it is very possible that the Cavs do play Tristan Thompson against “death ball.” Thompson’s rebounding – in fact, the Cavalytics Podcast has noted Tristan’s offensive rebounding percentage is statistically top-three throughout NBA history – will pose to be highly problematic for the Warriors when the latter goes small. In essence, the Cavs’ offense does not struggle significantly with Thompson in the game, in fact Cleveland’s second best offensive unit has the Texas big man playing center. Additionally, Thompson is the best defender against roll men in the NBA during the 2016 playoffs. Therefore, his play will be beneficial in stopping the pick-and-roll, a play which was noted earlier to be a kryptonite against Cleveland. Consequently, expect Tristan Thompson to log significant minutes against Golden State’s small-ball lineups.
Secondly, the Warriors best bet may be to play Andrew Bogut significant minutes. In fact, the Warriors’ three best lineups this postseason have Bogut playing. This is because the Australian center provides excellent rim protection and easy buckets in the paint. Furthermore, against Cleveland, Bogut’s presence will prevent Kyrie Irving and LeBron James from generating easy baskets on drives.
Thus, the general opinion of how both Cleveland and Golden State will stagger lineups this series is more than likely false. The three main assumptions are that Cleveland will play big when Golden State goes small, Golden State more than likely not play as much small against Cleveland as they did last year, and Cleveland will not be able to beat the Warriors’ death lineup. Frankly, these statements assume that this is the same Cleveland team as last year’s final team and/or as this year’s regular season team. Moreover, they assume that the Warriors are a one-trick pony, which they absolutely are not.
This NBA finals will arguably be one of the greatest in history. These teams are built to play each other. The storylines are numerous. Here’s to hoping the series lives up to its expectations, because seeing how Cleveland defends Steph Curry, how these two historically great offenses matchup, and how the coaches stagger lineups make this the series to watch.