Thursday, June 2, 2016

3 Questions Ahead of the 2016 NBA Finals

There were some critics last summer who didn't feel that the Golden State Warriors were truly worthy champions because they faced injured opponents in the postseason. If the resulting 73 win warpath hasn't silenced those critics yet, a Finals rematch with a fully healthy Cleveland Cavaliers team could provide a definitive answer. However, this Cavs team is quite different from a year ago, which brings me to three intriguing questions about this series:

How will Cleveland defend Golden State's backcourt?
Uncle Drew will have to have more surprises like this.

Masked by all the firepower new head coach Tyronn Lue has put on display during this dominant playoff run through the lesser Eastern Conference is the fact that the Cavs don't have as tough of a defense as they did a year ago. They ended up finishing 10th in the league by allowing just 102.3 points per 100 possessions overall for the year, but that number increased to 104.8 in the 41 games after David Blatt was fired, which is what the 18th best defense averaged. That's a problem when you're facing the #1 offense in the league, especially since you don't match up well with their All-NBA backcourt of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

Defensive stalwart Iman Shumpert was starting at shooting guard last year before a preseason wrist injury derailed much of this season for him, leaving the door open for the combustible J.R. Smith to take hold of the position with a strong year. Smith's been playing some of the best defense of his career of late, but he doesn't come near Shumpert as a threatening defensive option at either guard spot, putting star point guard Kyrie Irving in a difficult spot. Irving can show flashes of defensive intensity at times, including in Game 1 last year before breaking his kneecap, but he's always been a negative on that end. Leaving the 6'6" Smith's size on the 6'7" Thompson is probably needed for fear of the 6'2" Irving giving up clean looks at the rim to the player who just set the playoff record with 11 threes in a game, but he doesn't stand much better of a chance staying in front of the unanimous MVP, especially in pick and rolls. Shumpert and Matthew Dellavedova will get their chances at better defensive minutes off the bench, and switches or cross-matches in transition always occur, of course. Curry is a fine defender himself who makes smart reads in the passing lanes from the help side while Thompson will probably use his length to defend Irving often, so finding assignments in transition the other way could be a challenge. LeBron James is their best perimeter defender when he gives his full effort, but chasing around the smaller, quicker guards is a draining task if they try hiding Irving on whoever starts at small forward, which brings me to my next question...

What starting lineup will Steve Kerr choose?
The Death Lineup still has rim protection.

It's not the easiest thing getting benched on your birthday, but Harrison Barnes, who is now still just 24, responded with his best rebounding performance of the series by hauling in 8 in just 22 minutes, coming up big as a small-ball 4, especially when Draymond Green was in foul trouble. Andre Iguodala is one of the best defensive wings in the league, so starting him in the second half of Game 6 and for Game 7 to match up his minutes as much as possible with Kevin Durant made sense just like it did to insert him against LeBron in last year's Finals. Will Kerr revert to starting him again? If so, will it be for Barnes again or for Andrew Bogut, who was the one benched before?

After the lineup change to go without a traditional center was proposed by Nick U'Ren, a rising
assistant I've talked to who worked with Kerr in Phoenix previously, it created what has come to be known as the "Death Lineup." It became their best crunch time lineup after its success in the closing three games of the Finals, although you'd expect the opponent to be ready for a return to that alignment and get used to playing against it if they start out that way from the opening tip. Kerr also tried not to rely on it for too many minutes in the regular season because a lineup of Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Barnes, and Greens requires extra rebounding focus from the guards and a heavy strain dealing with bigger players inside for the front line. However, Green's versatility and the group's skill level usually allows them to run opponents off the court like last year, even if it did allow some offensive rebounds...

How will the battle for the boards turn out?

Facing the best rebounding team in the league during the Western Conference Finals posed a challenge for the Warriors, and they were eaten up on the glass in the Finals, as well. One of the Cleveland's big changes this season, though, is that center Timofey Mosgov hasn't been as effective after offseason knee surgery and isn't currently in the playoff rotation. Tristan Thompson is still one of the best offensive rebounders in the league, but Kevin Love and Channing Frye are often parked outside the 3 point line to space the floor. I'm curious how much we might see the offensive juggernaut look of Love at center since he can definitely still mix it up inside, but his two years in Cleveland have produced offensive rebounding rates of 6.5% and 7%, below his career average of 10.7%. James is an effective rebounder himself to go along with the pressure he puts on defenses by getting them to collapse on him and out of position for any misses, so Golden State will have to continue to get a collective effort on the glass.

So far in the playoffs, Bogut has been up and down as an interior presence, especially after being involved in a pick and roll, but the Warriors need him to be closer to how he was in Game 5 against the Thunder instead of in Game 7. Backup center Festus Ezeli may be the more active option if he can stay on the court, and I would expect to especially see minutes with Green at center whenever Frye is matched up there, as well. Kerr has been able to push the right buttons with the shaky minutes from Mo' Speights and Anderson Varejao for the most part at home, but he's got to have a short hook for them again. With Lue wanting Cleveland to run, you wouldn't expect a grind it out affair like last year, but the offensive glass can still be a dangerous weapon for them.

Klay's never afraid of the moment.
Prediction: I like the Warriors in 6 again even if 5 games usually makes more sense if picking the team with home court. Neither team is afraid of the other's arena given their history, so the +400 odds for that kind of series looks like a good bet, along with Klay at +450 as a dark horse Finals MVP given his hot streak and matchup. Potential small-ball lineups for Cleveland are intriguing, but along with having more explosiveness than a year ago, they also have more defensive gaps. Thompson can make stuff happen but is not a true rim protector inside, and the Dubs will try to get Love out in space as much as possible. Curry showed in the last couple of games that he is confident enough in his legs to be able to roast defenders of any size again, and Golden State's defense got back to playing to their potential on defense. Although it will be tougher for Iguodala to make James work with more offensive spacing around him this time around, the rest of the team is smart about their help to play at a championship level.

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