The 2016 NBA Finals has been boring. Sure, as a Golden State fan you’re probably loving it, and rightfully so. Moreover, if you’re like me as someone who was born and raised in Cleveland, you’re probably depressed as can be. But, as an NBA fan, you’re exhaustingly bored. Outside of two quarters (third quarter in game one and first quarter in game two) the Warriors have completely throttled the Cavs. Let’s examine why by looking at differences in each team’s depth and Golden State’s defensive strategy:
First, it’s important to examine the general reasons why Cleveland has been outclassed to such a significant degree. The main reason is differences in each team’s rotations. I.E., Cleveland has two players who are significantly less talented than anyone on Golden State’s ten man rotation: Iman Shumpert and Matthew Delavedova. Let’s look at some numbers from this year’s playoffs:
Figure 1 Stats via NBA.com’s Stats Page
What this chart shows is that the Cavaliers’ duo of bench guards are significantly more “one-way” players – in essence, they only play well on one side of the ball – then the Warriors’ guards. But it gets even worse when you consider the types of shots Shumpert and Dellavedova are getting.
Figure 2 Stats via SportVU
Consequently, Iman Shumpert and Matthew Dellavedova are getting significantly easier shots than Barbosa and Livingston. In essence, they are not good offensive players, and other teams feel comfortable leaving them open. Furthermore, as shown in Figure 1, opponents are shooting noticeably better than their average when guarded by these two. Therefore, during the playoffs, Shumpert and Dellavedova have proven to be “no way” players.
This poses a problem when considering each team’s second quarter lineups. Throughout the NBA playoffs Tyronn Lue used a lineup of Dellavedova-Shumpert-Jefferson-LeBron-Frye at the beginnings of the second and fourth quarters. This group demolished their way through the Eastern Conference because Detroit, Atlanta, and Toronto did not have bench defenders who could stop LeBron. In fact, during that time period said lineup had a net rating of 46.6, meaning that they were 46.6 points better than their opponents per 100 possessions. In the finals, however, that lineup has a net rating of -57.2, meaning that Golden State has outscored that lineup by 57.2 points per 100 possessions.
Thus, the Cavs lack of depth is significantly harmful in this series. For a specific example, Golden State’s ten man rotation consists of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, Andrew Bogut, Shawn Livingston, Andre Iguodala, Marreese Speights, Leandro Barbosa, Festus Ezeli, and sometimes Anderson Varejao. Outside of the latter, all ten of those players would play significant roles in the Cavs’ rotation. Now, let’s examine what Cleveland does with their nine man rotation. Cleveland plays Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith, LeBron James, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, Richard Jefferson, Channing Frye, Matthew Dellavedova, and Iman Shumpert. Out of those nine guys, only five of them would absolutely have playing time for Golden State, but more than likely that number would be seven.
This gets worse when you compare the Cavs’ roster to the likes of the Spurs and Thunder as well. For San Antonio all nine would more than likely have playing time, but not in significant minutes, and more as a way to rest the starters than anything else. Whereas, for Oklahoma City, Frye, Shumpert, Dellavedova, and Jefferson more than likely do not see the floor outside of serving the purpose of expanding the Thunder’s limited rotation. But just know, none of those four players are better than any of the seven guys Oklahoma City plays on a regular basis.
Thus what is important to note is how limited the Cavs’ rotation really is. In my pre-finals analysis I assumed the star power of Kyrie Irving and LeBron James would be enough to mitigate this dilemma, however, I clearly miscalculated how strong Golden State’s rotation truly is. Additionally, the Warriors have ensured that there is always a minimum of one player who can defend LeBron and Kyrie when those two are on the court, consequently limiting Cleveland’s offense.
Golden State’s Defensive Strategy:
This has been the other main reason why Cleveland has gotten throttled the past two games. The Warriors’ season-long defensive strategy is and has been problematic for the Cavs. Essentially, Golden State seeks to prevent corner three-point shots while using a rim protector and/or double-teams to force drivers to pass out to above the break. Thus, to beat Golden State, it is important for the role players to make open shots and pass the ball well when they are not open. The Warriors allowed the second fewest amount of left corner three-pointers per game, lowest amount right corner three-pointers per game, and while they allowed the fifth most above the break threes per game opponents shot the third lowest field goal percentage on those opportunities. This poses great problems for Cleveland, as they shot the second most left corner three-pointers and most right corner three-pointers in the playoffs so far. Let’s examine some video to understand why this is problematic for the Cavaliers.
This video is Golden State’s defense at its most efficient. First, Klay Thompson does an incredible job staying in front of LeBron. Yet, LeBron uses his strength to get to the rim, where he is met by an Andrew Bogut block. The defense between Klay and Bogut shows why the Warriors are so difficult to drive against. To make matters worse, after Kyrie Irving collects the rebound, Steph Curry forces him off the right corner into a contested midrange shot, which he misses. This video is an example of Golden State’s defense all season, and moreover, why it gives the Cavaliers so many significant problems. With that said, Golden State does not always have a traditional center in the game, so what happens then?
Here the Warriors are playing their “death lineup.” Thus, one would assume a strong, interior player like Kevin Love would have the advantage. The Cavaliers pick up on this and try to pass the ball to Love in the post. What happens, though, is the Warriors use a double-team with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson to prevent Love from ever touching the ball.
However, a question that has been raised is how were Portland and Oklahoma City – two offenses that are both strong, but not as strong as Cleveland’s playoff offense – able to torch Golden State’s defense while the Cavs have had so many problems? The main answer is offensive style. The Warriors’ defense is designed to ensure that they are the best at their offense. Let’s begin by looking at Portland. In essence, the Warriors defense guarantees that they are the best team at playing their brand of efficient offense.
With the Blazers, it’s important to note that the Warriors’ rotations were off the entire series, thus resulting in different defensive schemes for Golden State. Regardless, the main difference is it was more difficult for the Warriors to lock down on Portland’s main offensive weapons because the Blazers rely on a lot of ball movement. But frankly, even that narrative falls apart when examining the statistics, as the Cavs average about nine more passes per game. With that said, the Cavaliers are significantly more reliant on Kyrie Irving and LeBron James than the Blazers are on Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Nevertheless, the best explanation is that Golden State’s defense has significantly improved since the Blazers series.
The Thunder, however, can be explained examining a different problem. Essentially, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are noticeably more athletic than any player on the Warriors. This resulted in the Thunder shooting 14.8 shot attempts in transition per game, thus preventing the Warriors from setting their offense, and thus allowing Oklahoma City to torch Golden State’s defense. During the finals the Cavs, on the other hand, are shooting the ball in transition even more (18.5 attempts per game), but at a significantly lower shooting percentage. This is due to their lack of top-end speed and athleticism. For example, Steven Adams, Andre Roberson, Enes Kanter, and Russell Westbrook all have higher average speeds, in terms of miles per hour, than any one player on the Cavaliers. This provides massive offensive problems for Cleveland against a fast team such as the Warrios.
So What Can The Cavs Do To Win?
The first thing the Cavaliers absolutely need to do to make this series competitive is play Channing Frye. He’s crucial for two reasons: first, Channing Frye has also been the Cavs’ best team defender this postseason, as he holds the only defensive rating on the team below 100 (97.6); secondly, he shoots 62.3% on above the break threes, which is best on the Cavs, and is the shot the Warriors are most content to give up as described earlier. Per coach Tyronn Lue, though, the reason Frye has not played is because he does not have the speed to guard most of the Warriors’ players. This is a solvable problem, however.
A much earlier example of a team using floor spacing to disrupt their opponent’s slower bigs was Larry Brown playing mid-range specialist power forward Matt Geiger as a “small-ball” (he was seven feet) center against Shaquille O’Neal in the 2001 NBA Finals. Essentially, 73.7% of Matt Geiger’s points during the 2000-01 playoffs came from mid-range. This posed some problems for Shaq. Let’s examine the videos below.
In both of these examples, Geiger capitalizes on O’Neal not leaving his position in the paint. In effect, Shaq’s biggest responsibility was to man the paint in case Allen Iverson drove to the rim. Yet, the solution was not to come out of the paint entirely, below is an example of why:
Thus, in this situation, Shaq comes out of the paint to guard the Iverson-Geiger pick-and-roll; yet, the Lakers’ big man was burned badly resulting in an open mid-range shot for Tyrone Hill. Yet, Phil Jackson finally went to a defense that was representative of greater zone coverage, allowing Shaq to be successful as a rim protector.
Thus, in this video, Shaq mains one area of the court and prevents any open shots close to the rim from occurring. Even though O’Neil does not have the speed to keep up with the man he is defending, he uses his length to prevent any open shots. The Cavaliers should approach the Channing Frye situation the same way. If Frye can play, Cleveland will be able to attack Golden State’s defense in a way they were not able to the previous two games.
Secondly, though, the Cavs need to build a lead early and maintain it. In the past two years of the playoffs, Golden State has lost eleven games. On average, in the games they have lost, they held the lead for only 4.5 minutes. This is significant, because it means the only way to beat the Warriors is to get the lead early and maintain it.
These two things are hard to accomplish, and frankly, may be impossible for the Cavs. But if Channing Frye can play significant minutes, and if the Cavs can hold a lead and not get discouraged during one of Golden State’s runs, than Cleveland has a chance to win games this series.
In conclusion, this series has been an absolute blowout so far. Cleveland has a much weaker rotation, the Warriors’ defense poses major problems for the Cavs, and Channing Frye’s lack of playing time and Golden State’s ability to hold onto leads has made this series discouraging for Cleveland fans. Nonetheless, it is not over until its over, and Cleveland does still have a few advantages outlined in the finals preview. Let’s all hope that this becomes a good series after two games in Northeast Ohio.