Sunday, May 31, 2015

The NBA Finals Pick: All Or One

All Or One
With just another week or six before the start of the NBA Finals, it's time to get the prediction out there. And while I'm going to do my due diligence on this, in the hopes that it doesn't reduce to something just oppressively dumb, there's no getting around it... starting this round, you are either taking the team that has what is universally regarded as the best player, or the one that has the best team. The fact that this seems to be a relatively even split tells you all you really need to know abut the nature of hoop, and the nature of LeBron James.

So let's get into it...

GOLDEN STATE vs. Cleveland

The case for Golden State: The best team in the regular season. Home court advantage, and they've got an absurdly good record there, with crowd noise that's unmatched in the Association. Deep and strong bench that frequently separates from opponents, or at the very least, requires crushing starter minutes from the opposition, who tend to wear out over the course of a series. Might be the best long-distance shooting team in NBA history. Rookie HC Steve Kerr has been uncanny in his adjustments and ability to draw optimal performance from benchies and stars alike. Shooting creates a margin for error that most teams just don't have, and has allowed them to come back from big deficits, and to explode past teams in short bursts. Deadly in transition, and much better on the road than in the past. Good enough at the line to close out games and not give up leads. PF Draymond Green was the runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year, and SG Andre Iguodala and C Andrew Bogut were second-team. PG Shaun Livingston is long and good, and might end the Matthew Dellevedova run that terrorized the Cavs' earlier opponents. There's no one alive that can "stop" LeBron James, but Golden State has more guys that can slow him than anyone. Has Stephen Curry, who has been the best player in the NBA this year. They are 12-3 in the playoffs in the varsity conference.

The case against Golden State: Turnover-prone, especially against strong on the ball pressure. Have benefited from an optimal playoff schedule in the West, in that they played the inexperienced (New Orleans), the injured (Memphis) and the injured and thin (Houston) to get to the Finals. Had they ran into the Clippers or Spurs early, or Memphis at full speed, the 12-3 record might not be as pristine. C Andrew Bogut has been hit or miss, and C Festus Ezeli might be playing over his head. G Klay Thompson was concussed in the series ender against Houston, and hasn't been as effective as he was in the regular season. If PG Stephen Curry is turning it over and not hitting from distance, they can lose their way. Prone to going for highlight plays, rather than workmanlike. No Finals experience, outside of Kerr, and he's never been here as a coach.

The case for Cleveland: In LeBron James, they have the best player of the generation, and one of the five best in the history of the Association, fully rested and at the height of his powers. NBA playoffs have been won on less than "Team With Best Player Wins", especially when, like James, he's the best player on both ends of the floor. James hasn't had the best year, but he is, without a doubt, the best player. The nature of the travel schedule and television timeouts greatly diminishes the importance of a bench, which makes James even more vital.

PG Kyrie Irving might be healthy for this, and if so, he can make Curry work on both ends, and maybe even have games where he matches him on production. PF Tristan Thompson has been incredible on the offensive glass, and C Timofey Mozgov has been dramatically more effective with James feeding him. SG/SF J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert have been able to score on open looks, and defend all over the floor. Dellevedova is more irritating than a rat in an elevator, and has had a JJ Barea in Dallas level impact. They are 12-2, and haven't been tested since the Chicago series, and even then, not really.

The case against Cleveland: Make no mistake about this; this team operates without benefit of a coach, assuming you don't just give that credit to James as well. Smith and Shumpert can shoot them out of games, and might remember that they were Knicks at some point. If James can't ever get off the court, could wear down, and hasn't been efficient as a shooter in these playoffs. Iguodala has had some success against him in the past (see Sixers v. Heat, when Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were frequently the best Heatles on the court), and the Warriors just spent a series turning one outstanding offensive asset into a shell of himself by the end of the series. Some weak free throw shooters, and occasionally prone to foul trouble. James, for all of his merits, is only 2-3 in the Finals, having lost to the Spurs, Mavericks and Spurs, and beating the Thunder and Spurs. Keep in mind that the Spurs win all three of their encounters with James if Ray Allen doesn't hit a miracle three at the buzzer in Game Six... and the Warriors play a lot more like the Spurs than the Thunder. Finally, the Cavs' opponents in the East (Celtics, Bulls and Hawks) might not have won a series against anyone in the top half of the conference, and maybe not the bottom, either.

The pick: I think we're going long, folks. The time off will be terrific for the Cavs. Thompson might not be very effective at all for the Warriors, having struggled for much of these playoffs against more intense marking, and coming off the concussion. Mozgov and Thompson give the Cavs a fighting chance at parity on the offensive glass, and it's not as if James doesn't open up rebounding opportunities. The Warrior bench isn't going to have much of a chance to impact this series early, unless there are overtime games and/or foul issues, which is a major bonus that's different than the regular season. Cleveland Fan hasn't won a championship in forever, and realistically, hasn't been this close since Jose Fricking Mesa. We are, in short, in for a massive and incredibly compelling battle.

But at the end of all things, my heart says Dubs. It's been 40 years since the best basketball fans in the world had a shot at a championship so they aren't really giving up anything to Cleveland there. Had Atlanta gotten Game 3, I think they would have pushed the Cavs to six games, because there are major issues with this team, especially at defense on the point guard. That's not exactly the problem you want to have when you are facing Curry, and even if the Cavs throw James at him, the other Dubs are good enough at ball movement to get great looks and layups. James probably also can't stay with Curry at this point in his career, having had little success in last year's Finals when he tried to stop the Spurs at the head with Tony Parker. Finally, playing against the lEast has to count for something, right?

Warriors in seven.

Year to date: 12-2

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