There’s no other way around it: this year’s NBA playoffs have been a dud. There have been a few memorable moments, namely the Clippers-Spurs series and Houston’s stunning comeback against the same Clippers, but as a whole, the postseason has been mostly a letdown. Teams with home-court advantage have won 11 of 14 series, and the exceptions were matchups pitting two closely-seeded rivals (a couple of 4 vs 5, one 1 vs 2). There have been only two games 7, and instead we’ve seen 4 sweeps, including one in the Eastern finals. The other conference saw its final go only five. And still, we can’t help but be excited for the Finals.
In many ways, having the defending MVP winner against the best player of this generation should present a great matchup up-front. And yet, there are a large number of alternative storylines that are bound to make this Finals interesting from start to finish. There are the Warriors, reaching their first title round since the 70’s, while we also have the Cavaliers, trying to bring a championship to Cleveland for the first time in 50 years. There’s Steph Curry’s confirmation as the NBA’s top player in 2015, versus LeBron’s redemption and the return to his hometown. We have two rookie coaches, one celebrated for making his team reach his full potential, while the other has been questioned most of the time. Both teams come from small markets, but carry big stars and should get a ton of viewers.
However, there is an ugly truth lurking on the horizon: this can turn out to be a huge mismatch.
Before the postseason started, we called the Warriors the best-equipped team to win it all, at least when we compared their numbers to the ones achieved by previous NBA champions. And if their historic regular season was impressive, so has been their run through the playoffs, where they started by dismantling the Pelicans, then figured out the Grizzlies, and finally made quick work of the Rockets. Counting the full season, the Warriors are 79-18 (.814), while being almost unbeatable at home (46-3). And yes, they have home court.
The Cavs may have finished 7 games behind first place in the East, but they were still considered the best team in the conference heading into the playoffs. They peaked at the right time behind LeBron and their key mid-season acquisitions, finally reaching the potential many projected during the offseason, when King James again rigged the system to build a super team. We have to apply the big Eastern caveat for Cleveland, as they have cruised through the postseason, first blitzing through the young Celtics, then getting some opposition from the Bulls, and finally sweeping the hobbled Hawks, who were far from their mid-season form.
The full-force version of the Cavs may have been a formidable opponent for Golden State, but their current state simply has no chance. Losing Kevin Love to a shoulder injury was the first strike, but then seeing Kyrie Irving with a bum knee, which forced him to miss time in the Eastern finals, may be just too much for a team that is facing a juggernaut. Irving will be back, but presumably on a limited capacity, while LeBron will try to carry his team. If history is any indication, it is doubtful that the formula will work.
This will be James’ fifth consecutive trip to the Finals (and sixth overall), and this one looks eerily similar to his first trip with Cleveland, and also a lot like the one he had last year in Miami. In those cases, LeBron carried a team with a limited supporting cast against a much more polished Western team, much like it will happen in this case. What is scary is that the Warriors are clearly a step above those squads, both in terms of system and weapons.
In terms of wins, net rating, and scoring margin, the Warriors are the best Western representative in the Finals in a decade, and certainly the best LeBron’s ever had to face. The biggest factor of all then becomes Stephen Curry, who is having a postseason to match his regular season prowess. His playoff slash line of .461/.437/.820 is a tick below his norms, but he has already broken the playoff record for three pointers, all this while averaging 5 rebounds, 6.4 assists, and two steals per game. Even while it has been strangely difficult for reigning MVP’s to win titles, the Warriors are much more than just Curry.
The system perfected by Steve Kerr, unlike what the Cavs feature, has the benefit of nearly a perfect bill of health. Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Andrew Bogut & Co. should have no problem in playing their first Finals, and so presenting an advantage in nearly all aspects of the game in favor of the Warriors.
While we can count on Cleveland’s rebounding as a big strength against the smallish Golden State lineups, the Dubs have many ways to compensate for that. With the defense that was already capable of slowing down Anthony Davis and James Harden, the Warriors have a strength to rely on in case of a tight game, while also having enough shooting weapons to master a high-scoring affair. The same cannot be said for Cleveland, which will rely on a grinding-out type of play to slow things down and try to get enough from the likes of JR Smith and Iman Shumpert to back LeBron.
That formula may have worked against lesser opponents in the East, but the Warriors are on a whole different tax bracket. This version of the Cavs would have probably been an underdog against any team in the Western playoffs outside of the Pelicans and Mavericks, but it becomes doubly so against the undisputed best team in the league.
The Warriors enter the Finals as 2-to-1 favorites to win the title, which may even undersell the difference between both teams. I like Golden State to get some resistance from Cleveland, just enough to avoid a sweep, but ultimately ending the series in 5 games (+350), or waiting to clinch at home in 6 (+400). At least let’s hope for at least a couple of close games to make up for this lackluster playoffs, even when the eventual champion will undoubtedly be a team for the ages.