The NBA Finals start on Thursday, which means everybody's excited about the big matchups. LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant! Stephen Curry vs. Kyrie Irving! Draymond Green vs. Kevin Love! But what if I were to tell you that this series won't be decided by those players? Sure, James will probably average 45 minutes, and of course it matters whether or not Curry is comfortable, but the battle of the benches -- and how the coaches manage their rotations -- could swing this thing.
Conventional wisdom dictates that depth is less important in the playoffs, especially when there are a couple of off-days in between games. Most teams wind up with something resembling an eight-man rotation in the postseason, and most stars play heavy minutes. Teams with deep benches, however, have advantages. They can go to different looks in different situations, and they have more options when it comes to making adjustments. There is also the simple fact that it is disheartening to watch poor reserve units fall behind or surrender a lead. Just ask the Washington Wizards.
In this case, neither team should be worried about their second unit completely falling apart. You might be sick of the Warriors' "strength in numbers" slogan, but they really have used just about everyone on their roster at some point this season. In Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, they have two genius-level playmakers who also happen to be versatile and long; just about every game, David West seems to find Ian Clark for a wide-open layup; JaVale McGee is the best redemption story in the league; and if Golden State happens to need an extra 6-foot-7 guy to play perimeter defense, it can call on rookie Patrick McCaw or veteran Matt Barnes.
The Cavaliers' bench looked thin at various points in the regular season, leading James to declare in January, "We top-heavy as s***." Now that they're healthy, though, it is formidable. Midseason additions Kyle Korver and Deron Williams have shot the ball sensationally. Channing Frye is one of the best pick-and-pop big men in the league. Iman Shumpert will spend some time guarding Curry. If Cleveland is going to topple this juggernaut, Richard Jefferson probably has to look ageless again. It's a shame that the Andrew Bogut and Larry Sanders signings didn't work out, but few people feel bad for the Cavs.
In the playoffs, the Warriors and Cavaliers have had the two best benches in the league, but they have been effective in different areas:
These stats are imperfect because both teams have had a bunch of blowouts, but they do illustrate what should already be evident based on the personnel: Cleveland primarily brings shooters off the bench, while Golden State mostly brings in ball movers and defenders. In general, the major question is whether or not the Cavs' most potent offensive lineups can do enough to survive in this series -- there are doubts about whether or not they can keep scoring like that against the Warriors' defense, and there are more serious doubts about whether or not guys like Korver and Frye can defend well enough to stay on the court. Last season, Frye became a spectator in the Finals; this season, all of Cleveland's playoff opponents have targeted Korver defensively. Here's a hypothetical argument between a Cavs fan and a Warriors fan on how all of this will play out:
Cavs fan: I have a couple of stats for you: In the 79 minutes that Love and Korver have played together in the playoffs, we've had an offensive rating of 131.7 and a defensive rating of 103.7. And in the 71 minutes that Love has played without Tristan Thompson, we've had an offensive rating of 147.8 and a defensive rating of 111.1. You might have the Splash Brothers, but we have lineups that space the floor even better than you do, and you don't have LeBron!
Warriors fan: Cool stats, bro. But that's not going to matter when you face a team that can actually challenge these guys' shots. As great as your spacing may be, we had the league's best half-court defense in the regular season and we aren't scared of Love or Korver. If either one of them gets hot, that's not even necessarily good for you -- it means they'll be on the court being exposed on the other end. As far as the lineups with Love at center, uh, have fun with that lack of rim protection against us.
Cavs fan: Let's say, theoretically, that you guys manage to make Love and Korver play fewer minutes than normal, which will only be possible if you get stops against them, which nobody has been able to do. If that happens, we will still have options. Tyronn Lue will not hesitate to go to small lineups with LeBron at center, and it's not like we needed Korver when you guys blew a 3-1 lead last year. If defense really becomes an issue, there's nothing wrong with playing Thompson 40-plus minutes.
Warriors fan: This is not last year, my friend. We have two MVPs now. You can't hide Love on Harrison Barnes anymore. We've been going with no-Durant, no-Curry lineups at the beginning of the second and fourth quarters, but if we need to, we can make sure one of them is on the court for all 48 minutes. We respect your starting 5, of course, but come on. This isn't close when it comes to overall talent.
Cavs fan: Why is everybody acting like your starting lineup or Death Lineup is going to be on the court for the entire game? We've been picking our poison all playoffs, and we're going to continue to do that. If McGee is in the game, he better be ready to either defend pick-and-rolls involving LeBron or cover a floor-spacing big man. Iguodala is 3-for-27 from 3-point range in the playoffs, so you can guess how we'll cover him. We don't have to defend Livingston at the 3-point line, either and, against us, Clark and West are too small for their positions.
The Cleveland fan has a point. While Golden State should be seen as the deeper, more flexible team, it is not quite as simple as saying that it has a massive advantage in this area. There are legitimate questions here: How will the defending champions deal with the improved Death Lineup? Will McGee continue to be a factor? What about Korver? The answers could go a long way toward determining what happens in Cavs-Warriors III.