The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers have played each other nineteen times over the past three years. The Warriors have won eleven of those meetings, while on the other hand, the Cavaliers have won eight. In Golden State’s eleven victories, all but two have been blowouts. Further, in Cleveland’s eight victories, four have been blowouts, while the other four were close games.
These stats suggest what the media has been informing us of for three years: the Warriors are a better team who should have won the title two straight years. This theory, frankly, is false. Rather than looking at simple box score stats – and we also need to put “total wins” to the side – it is important to study how each team scores on the other. Put simply, an analysis of the two teams’ offensive sets is necessary.
Golden State Warriors:
First, let’s talk about what the Warriors’ offense is not: a low-post, big-reliant, grinding unit. Per Synergy, during both the regular season and playoffs, the Warriors run post-ups on only 5.3% of possessions, and score .825 points per possession, fifth worst in the NBA. Moreover, on the pick-and-roll, the roll man shoots on only 4% of possessions, and scores .964 points per possession, also fifth worst in the NBA. Further, Warriors are the second wort team in the NBA at scoring off of putbacks on offensive rebounds, averaging only 1 point here possession.
Draymond Green earns a lot of praise for being a threat off the pick-and-roll. This is because he is a strong screener who can pass to find the open man.
The dilemma is that, in the playoffs, teams gameplan for Green’s limitations as a finisher.
Essentially, while a great passer, a limited amount of shot contestation and physicality at the rim is enough to force Green to miss shots. This is because the Warriors’ elite defensive forward begs for foul calls at the rim, does not have great leaping ability, and is generally a weak finisher. This results in Green only scoring .843 points per possession as a shooting roll man. A stat that ranks in the bottom 16% of all roll men in the regular season and playoffs, per Synergy.
Additionally, Golden State’s bigs are bad at taking advantage of mismatches. For example:
More specifically, Zaza Pachulia ranks in the bottom 12% of all players at scoring off of switches, Draymond Green in the bottom 14%, JaVale McGee in the bottom 16%, and David West in the bottom 17%. This simply amounts to the fact that the Warriors’ big men are not good individual scorers.
Consequently, it is unlikely that the Warriors will try and use their big men to attack the Cavaliers’ defense. Furthermore, it is highly likely that Tyronn Lue will use creative rotations that dare Draymond Green, Zaza Pachulia, JaVale McGee, and David West to shoot the ball.
Rather, the Warriors will use a complex, triangle-esque offense to create spacing for cutters to penetrate to the basket, and thus force the defense to allow layups/dunks or open three-point shots.
Pointedly, during both the regular season and playoffs, the Warriors rank as the best spot-up shooting team in the NBA (1.118 points per possession), the second best transition offensive team in the NBA (1.182 points per possession), the second best at scoring off of off-ball screens (1.044 points per possession), the third best at scoring off of cuts (1.33 points per possession), and the sixth best at scoring off of the pick-and-roll ball handler (.905 points per possession).
But, it is important to look at the Cavs’ defensive ratings during the same period. They are the eighth best team at defending spot-ups (allowing .975 points per possession), worst at defending transition (allowing 1.156 points per possession), tenth best at defending off-ball screens (allowing .945 points per possession), fourth best at defending cuts (allowing 1.183 points per possession), and fifth worst at defending the ball handler a pick-and-roll (.893 points per possession).
Those stats are alarming, and show that while the Cavs may be able to limit spot-ups, off-ball screens, and cuts, they will still give up points from transition shots and pick-and-rolls. Yet, while Golden State’s offense has remained more-or-less the same (sans a decrease in points off of transition opportunities), Cleveland’s defense has improved. In the postseason, per points per possession stats, the Cavs are the seventh best at defending spot-ups, third best at defending transition shots, seventh best at defending off-ball screens, second best at defending cuts, and ninth best at defending the pick-and-roll ball handler.
Consequently, Golden State is faced with a dilemma: do they change their offense to a more pick-and-roll heavy system or do they stick with what they have done best all year? Zach Lowe has discussed this in a recent article, while explaining why the Warriors have not utilized the Curry/Durant pick-and-roll, he notes:
Additionally, Lowe discussed how teams have learned that Durant does not like setting screens, and instead will slip and run to the rim. This can be effective:
Yet, it is also predictable. This can result in the defense forcing a contested shot:
Or, if Durant chooses to slip and drive, the defense can set early and force a contested shot or turnover.
More than likely, this is why Durant has ranked in the bottom 25% of roll men in the playoffs. Per Synergy, he averages only .8 points per possession.
By that logic, it makes sense for Golden State to run their offense like they have all season: through spacing and ball movement. Considering that between Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Kevin Durant, the Warriors have the three best shooters in NBA and three top-ten shooters in NBA history, it makes sense for the Warriors to run their usual offense. Kobe Bryant provided a brief, simple analysis to ESPN before the second game of the Western Conference Finals:
More specifically, Golden State uses aspects of Tex Winter’s triangle offense to generate spacing and points. The primary way they have done this, during the year, has been through placing Draymond Green, Steph Curry, and/or Kevin Durant at the elbow. After this initial set, the Warriors run a series of off-ball screens and cuts to the basket in order to try and create a mismatch. When the mismatch is found, the player at the elbow passes to the player with the advantage, who then will attack the basket or shoot an open shot. If the player chooses the former and faces a difficult shot, the ball will be passed repetitively until an open shot is found.
Nick Sciria has provided a more complex analysis of this offense than Kobe did, and it is an excellent primer on how Golden State uses deception in addition to their ball movement to find shots.
The complexity of the Warriors’ offense makes it difficult to prepare for them, especially during the regular season. Moreover, when a team is unprepared, it generally results in a massive blowout, mainly due to the amount of three-pointers Golden State shoots. This explains why the Warriors have had – over three seasons – a higher margin of victory than the Cavs.
Furthermore, even with the Cavs’ noticeably improved defense, it will be difficult for Cleveland to maintain such focus over the course of a seven game series.
In opposition to the Warriors’ nuanced and complex offense, the Cavs are much more conventional, and will rely on two different things: pace and on-ball mismatches.
HotRocks34 at RealGM (or, as I know him, LeShaq at RealCavsFans) provided an excellent analysis of how a faster pace harmed Golden State in the 2016 Finals. Here is the data he found regarding the Finals:
WARRIORS VS CAVS
Game 1 ——— GSW wins ———– 089.5 pace
Game 2 ——— GSW wins ———– 093.2 pace —- (aberration game)
Game 3 ——— CLE wins ———— 093.7 pace*
Game 4 ——— GSW wins ———– 084.3 pace
Game 5 ——— CLE wins ———— 098.9 pace*
Game 6 ——— CLE wins ———— 093.9 pace*
Game 7 ——— CLE wins ———— 090.7 pace*
Thus, during the 2016 Finals, the Cavs were 4-1 against Warriors in games where more than ninety offensive possessions occurred. While ninety possessions is, in a vacuum, a slow pace, it was on the faster end during this Finals series.
My theory for this is that, when the games are played slowly, it magnifies the value of every three the Warriors make because, overall, there is less time for the other team to overcome that deficit.
Yet, I’d like to posit a bit of an addendum to that analysis. The pace stats are fairly corollary, and while there is something to them, it is difficult to quantify. The interesting stat, however, is points scored after made shot.
As everyone who has watched the NBA over the past three years know, the Warriors tend to score a lot of points. Generally, teams struggle to keep up with that offensive production, and this allows the Warriors to go on runs. Per InPredictable, during the 2016 playoffs the Cavs ranked as the second best team at scoring after an opponent made a shot (1.09 points per possession), and they are absolutely the best team at scoring after an opponent makes a shot during the 2017 postseason (1.23 points per possession).
What this means is that the Cleveland Cavaliers are superb at scoring with their opponents. They control pace to the degree necessary in order to score after their opponents do, and consequently, Cleveland prevents sizable runs. Thus, while the Cavs may struggle defensively against the Warriors, the team will be able to match Golden State on each consecutive possession by controlling the pace and not rushing or slowing down their own offense.
So how does Cleveland do this? By viciously exploiting mismatches.
Per Synergy, during the 2017 playoffs, LeBron James has attacked an opposing player off of a switch 121 times (averaging 1.23 points per possession), Kyrie Irving has 89 times (averaging 1.24 points per possession), and Kevin Love has 42 times (averaging 1.07 points per possession).
I wrote about this a few weeks ago in regards to Isaiah Thomas. If you would like to watch examples of the Cavs attacking off of switches during the regular season, this article has plenty.
Each of the Cavs’ “big three” have unique ways of attacking their opponents off of switches. Beginning with Kyrie Irving, the Cleveland guard generally uses a combination of his handles and stepbacks to create room for an uncontested shot, or additionally, will simply speed through bigger defenders. Below is an eight video compilation of Kyrie’s various moves.
On the other hand, similar to a guard, Kevin Love prefers to switch on smaller or slower defenders. This allows him to use his size and/or unusual speed to find open looks.
Finally, LeBron James will exploit whatever his defender’s weakness is on switches. LeBron is faster, stronger, and smarter than pretty much every defender in the NBA. Consequently, he is close to impossible to defend when he finds an offensive mismatch.
Eric Apricot, in a recent article at bballbreakdown.com, argues that the Warriors found a new way to defend LeBron when he gets Curry involved in the pick-and-roll. Unlike your basic switch or show-and-recover strategy, Apricot contends, the Warriors will use a “high tag.” Essentially, a high tag is when, “as soon as Curry’s man sets up to screen LeBron, Curry immediately rushes up to tag LeBron as far from the basket as possible. The other defender cuts off direct passes to the screener and contains LeBron’s straight line drive.” It looks like this:
Put simply, this strategy makes it impossible for LeBron to use his strength and speed to force the switch. Additionally, because of Curry’s foot speed, the point guard can recover quickly. Overall, this is a much better strategy than what Golden State created during the 2016 NBA Finals.
Yet, it is not perfect. There are two easy things the Cavaliers can do to negate this defensive strategy. As Apricot notes, the first way would be a Spain pick-and-roll where two consecutive screens are set to create the mismatch. As I noted during the first round of the 2017 playoffs, the Clippers used this marvelously to get favorable matchups against the Utah Jazz.
The other way, though, is based on LeBron James’s pick-and-roll partner. More specifically, if the Cavs can use earlier screens to get Curry switched onto Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, and/or Deron Williams (one of whom will be on the court at all times), and then have that player set the screen for LeBron. Because all three of these players can score and create with the ball at elite levels, leaving them open is not the same as leaving Iman Shumpert or Richard Jefferson.
Jeff Teague does not have the same speed as Steph Curry, however, the Pacers tried a very similar strategy to avoid the switch early in the first round. Ultimately, the combination of LeBron’s passing and Kyrie’s ability to score made this foolhardy.
Thus, while the high tag may have worked during the regular season, given time to prepare, the Cavaliers have multiple avenues to stifle its success.
Frankly, since I started watching basketball in the late 1990s, the Cavaliers attack mismatches with greater regularity and efficiency than any team I have seen. This also provides players like Kyle Korver the room to find these shots:
Consequently, the offense Tyronn Lue created – while not nuanced – is precise and lethal. The Cavaliers will attack any defensive weakness their opponent has on the court.
Furthermore, against Golden State, this should be exceedingly interesting. The Warriors’ defense is known for its insistence on switching in order to discourage motion offenses and ball movement. Synergy does not have data available regarding how well a defense does when it switches; however, given Golden State’s strong pick-and-roll and isolation defensive metrics, it is accurate to assume they are quite good at defending off of switches. Regardless, not one team they faced this postseasons has offensive players as deadly off of switches as LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love. Therefore it will be interesting to see if they are more capable than Boston, Toronto, and Indiana were at defending Cleveland’s attack on mismatches.
This is a difficult Finals to predict. Cleveland’s defense has often shown a lack of attentiveness to their opponent’s offense. The Warriors will attempt to punish this lack of poise, and if they are successful, it could be a short series. On the other hand, last Finals, Cleveland found out how to defeat Golden State’s switching defense. Further, the Cavs are even better at exploiting mismatches this season. If the Warriors cannot stop this attack, it also could be a short series. Ultimately, neither team should have much success stifling the other’s offense, which should result in a lot of high scoring affairs. Outside of that, though, I have no prediction.