Cavaliers vs. Warriors: The only NBA season preview that really matters
Cleveland got the best of the Warriors in last year's Finals, but how do they stack up this year?
There are only two teams relevant in the pursuit of the 2016-17 NBA title. Yes, the 73-win Warriors lost a 3-1 lead in the Finals, proving that no matter how inevitable things seem to be, nothing is certain in sports. The NBA, however, more than any other professional league, is always stratified and this year it is exceptionally so. Barring injury, the Golden State Warriors will represent the West in the NBA Finals for the third straight year, and the Cleveland Cavaliers will represent the East in the NBA Finals, in what will be LeBron James' seventh straight Finals appearance.
Sure, the Spurs or Clippers could come out of nowhere and grind down the Warriors when San Antonio couldn't beat the Thunder's athleticism and the Clippers have a mutant ability to get in their own way, or the Celtics or Raptors could find a way to catch LeBron James in the worst series of his life (and that includes the 2010 Celtics and 2011 Mavericks series). But the most likely scenario is that the Warriors and Cavaliers will meet for a rubber match in the 2017 Finals.
There are lots of interesting stories headed into the season, but if you're looking at the NBA title picture, the Cavs and Warriors are the whole conversation.
As such, we thought we'd preview their season separate, as they are, effectively, in a league of their own.
| Stephen Curry ||Kyrie Irving|
|Klay Thompson||J.R. Smith|
|Kevin Durant||LeBron James|
|Draymond Green||Kevin Love|
|Zaza Pachulia||Tristan Thompson|
The winners of the past three MVP awards play on one team, and they play on the same squad whose core won a record 73 games last year. So despite blowing a 3-1 Finals lead, we're going to give the edge to Golden State. Especially from the perspective of the regular season, the Cavaliers struggled to find an intensity and mental focus all year, and James is likely to take an even longer respite than his annual South Beach vacation the past two years.
The Warriors have positional flexibility, Pachulia may be a slight improvement on Andrew Bogut (this one's complicated), Love still hasn't found a consistent, steady role and the Warriors have multiple 50-40-90 volume shooters. And of course, this starting unit isn't even their most dangerous; the vaunted "Death Lineup" is where Durant moves to the four and Andre Iguodala comes in at small forward while Green mans the center spot.
On the other hand, all these things were true in the Finals, and the Warriors still couldn't seal the deal. Is Durant enough of a difference? That sounds kind of ridiculous to even ask, doesn't it?
Since playoff teams almost never go past 10-man rotations, we'll limit this to five-man units.
|Shaun Livingston||Iman Shumpert|
|Andre Iguodala||Mike Dunleavy|
|David West||Richard Jefferson|
|Ian Clark||Channing Frye|
|Patrick McCaw||Chris Andersen|
On paper, it's the Warriors. Iguodala was a Finals MVP, Livingston is terrific as a backup, McCaw looks like the real deal and West is a former All-Star. However, notice that four of those five are guards for Golden State. And when things got real in the playoffs, West struggled, and Richard Jefferson (I still can't believe this) thrived. Dunleavy is a big swing here, replacing James Jones as the shooter off the bench.
Golden State's center options are James Michael-McAdoo, Anderson Varejao and potentially JaVale McGee. Do you know how hard it is to make me look at Birdman and go "Wow, the Cavs really have an edge there?" And yet, here we are. The Warriors have shooters everywhere ... but they're not short on shooters. The Cavaliers' bench actually provides support in areas they need.
Steve Kerr: He has designed a system that has redefined basketball in the minds of many analysts. He's the reigning Coach of the Year, and manages to always balance support and a relaxed approach with a discipline to keep the team in a rhythm and routine. He's somehow unlocked Green's potential while keeping his emotional tension, and let Curry break all boundaries of "normal" basketball while promoting ball movement and defense.
On the other hand, he blew a 3-1 lead in the Finals.
Tyronn Lue: He didn't get enough credit for his gameplan in the Finals. Think about it. Cleveland went down 2-0, but if you remember, the starters for Golden State really struggled. The Cavs got beat by outlier performances by the Warriors' bench. Meanwhile, Lue managed to get the team back together through all the regular-season drama, kept Love tethered and helped keep Cleveland focused to go 12-2 through the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Kerr's clearly the better coach despite the outcome in the Finals.
Warriors: Speed, athleticism, shooting, passing, precision, super-human range, confidence, selflessness, positional defense, creating steals off drives, big-run capability, efficiency, pick-and-pop and transition scoring.
Cavaliers: They have LeBron James, shooting, size, versatility, resilience, experience, rim protection, efficiency, a higher playoff gear, post-play and athleticism.
The Warriors have a lot more things they're good at, but the things the Cavaliers are good at -- outside of shooting -- they're arguably the best at.
Also, they have LeBron James.
Warriors: Size, rim protection, defensive rebounding, resilience (i.e. they get rattled when things aren't easy, though the Thunder-Warriors series likely taught them much about that), temperament, reliance on 3-point shooting (i.e. they tend to struggle with frustration when the shots aren't falling, more so than the average team), holding a 3-1 lead.
Cavaliers: Roster constantly filled with drama, overly reliant on James to save them, continue to struggle with making all the pieces fit, defensively lax in the regular season, focus, two starters who struggle defensively in Love and Irving and depth.
On the rare occasions when things go badly for the Warriors, they go extremely badly.
Warriors: They play in a weak division in a tougher conference, with the Clippers as their only real competition. They have a tough opening schedule, with two four-game road trips vs. multiple playoff teams in the first six weeks, but they also play the Lakers three times in that span. January sees a big homestand vs. Eastern Conference playoff teams having to travel West, and they close with eight of their last 11 and six of their last seven at home.
Cavaliers: Eleven of their first 17 games until November 1 are on the road. Their closing schedule is light, facing Brooklyn twice and the Sixers in their final five games. The big key will be January, when they face a number of mid-tier playoff teams, and James is likely to take a break.
It's kind of hard to analyze given that both teams will be favored in every contest except against one another. But the Warriors' schedule does look a little easier with the ebbs and flows than Cleveland's.
Warriors: They love playing together, and they believe they're capable of something special. Last year's disaster likely taught them about resiliency and maybe some humility? OK, probably not. They do have incredible chemistry and the organization runs everything the right way. They've invested in technology without alienating the players, they run lax but competitive practices, they usually (when they're not chasing 73 wins) value rest over individual regular-season games, and they seem to embrace the idea of being villains this year.
Cavaliers: No matter what happens, no matter what goes wrong, no matter who they face or what situation they're in, they know two things: They have LeBron James, and apparently no deficit is too large for this team to overcome, and they proved that against the first team in history to win 73 games with the unanimous MVP.
Warriors: The SportsLine simulation model projects them to win 69.4 games. The over/under is 67.5, and that still seems low. They can rest two starters and still beat most of the league on any given night. They can lose a starter to injury and continue unfazed. They are the first team in history to have four All-NBA selections on the same roster. They are going to win an absurd amount of games, the No.1 seed and reach the NBA Finals again.
Over/Under 73 wins is currently +500 at Westgate's Super Book, and that number could look beautiful come March.
Cavaliers: The SportsLine simulation model projects them to finish with 59.7 wins. They will rest more than they have, and they don't need the No. 1 seed. They don't need homecourt in the Eastern Conference playoffs, and they now know they can go into Oracle and win. They'll likely win more than 55 even with a prolonged break from James and likely the No. 1 seed. They'll crush the East and reach the Finals again.
What happens when we get there? Well, that's a tale for June.
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