The NBA Finals are set, and once again, LeBron James is set to have a starring role in the season’s final series. For the fifth-straight season, James will make a trip to the Finals, this time leading his Cleveland Cavaliers as they prepare to go to work against the Golden State Warriors.
It will be just the Cavaliers’ second-ever Finals appearance and their first since 2007, back during James’ original tenure with the team. Back then, he carried the Cavs to the Finals on his back, only to be quickly cut down by the San Antonio Spurs in a four-game sweep. At the time, it was seen not only as a sign of James’s remaining development as a superstar, but the worst-best example of a competitive chasm between the two conferences that has existed for 15 years.
This year, despite the new and improved presence of LeBron in Cleveland, the Western Conference champion Warriors feel like the heavy favorite not only because they’ve put together one of the greatest regular- and post-seasons of all time, but also because they’ve done it while playing in a hyper-competitive conference. Golden State has had to deal with the likes of Anthony Davis, the Grizzlies’ defense, and the James Harden/Dwight Howard combo to reach the Finals. What has Cleveland had to deal with?
The literal answer to the question is obvious — two less-than-competitive sweeps from Boston and Atlanta as well as dealing with the last legs of a very tired era in Chicago — but it gets at the larger question that surrounds the Cavaliers, a talented team that has undergone major changes continually throughout the year: just how good are the Cavs?
It seems like a bit of a silly question at this point in the season, and to many people, the answer would be an easy, “not very.” It’s a question that’s very worth asking, especially since so many seem ready to write off (and potentially underestimate) Cleveland in the face of a historic juggernaut from Golden State.
In the interest of not doing that, following the Cavaliers’ proper crushing of the Eastern Conference, here’s a look at what we know about this team and how it could be crucial against the Warriors.
Outside of LeBron (currently), the Cavs can shoot. While the just-defeated Atlanta Hawks were thought of as the resident three-point bombing team in the East, that mantle actually belongs to Cleveland, who have been scorching the nets since the arrival of J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert from New York. The pair of ex-Knicks is shooting a tick under 40 percent and 38 percent, respectively, and the team is shooting 36 percent from three overall during the playoffs.
Without Kevin Love, the Cavs have a little less shooting, depending on how many minutes David Blatt decides to give to James Jones, but they still have enough to not only give James room to drive, but also have the competence to hit the shots James creates for them with his passing.
That shot-making ability will have to maintain itself against the Warriors, as their perimeter switches could render James’ ability to warp the defense via the pick-and-roll mostly useless. LeBron will likely use post-ups and isos to bend attention his way, and guys like Smith, Shumpert and Kyrie Irving will have to be ready to let it fly with whatever kind of daylight they have. The Warriors have been the most consistent defensive team in the NBA since the start of the season, and they have the skill to opposing teams’ indecisiveness into points.
The return of James’ jumper would be a huge boost for Cleveland to counter the Golden State defense. Right now, James is relying on power and skill to force his way into the lane for opportunities. He knows how valuable he could be if he could find a shooting rhythm and create some space for both he and his teammates.
Other than Kyrie, the Cavs can defend and rebound. The Timofey Mozgov trade gave Cleveland the rim-protector they needed to make a playoff run, and the Russian center has embraced the role with the necessary edge and enthusiasm. It’s been the extra level of defense from the rest of their players — from James, from Shumpert and especially from Tristan Thompson — that has helped them totally stifle their playoff opponents to the tune of a 98.5 defensive rating per NBA Stats.
Against the Warriors, they won’t be able to hide Irving, so he will have to show up and prove his health in a big way. Provided he can do that, the Cavaliers, like the Warriors, do have some degree of similar size and switching ability, at least until you get to Matthew Dellavadova and James Jones off the bench. Blatt will have to get tricky with his matchups and rotations on defense, depending on who plays for GSW.
Rebounding has been a huge key, however, as the Cavs has been able to get rebounding at every position and dominate their opponents on the boards on both ends, led by Thompson. The offensive boards have helped prop up an offense that hasn’t been very pretty without Love or a full-strength Irving, and being able to end defensive possessions after one shot goes a long way toward conserving energy and deflating opponents. The Warriors have been susceptible on the offensive glass, so this could be an area where Cleveland makes up some points as well.
Most importantly, the Cavs have LeBron. James hasn’t been great this postseason. One look at his shooting numbers can tell you that. But he has been next-level in setting up his teammates and in making an impact on the game beyond the box score. He has once again found himself as the lone catalytic offensive option on his team come playoff team, and despite a brutal slump with his jumper, he has still been able to carry an entire team all the way to the Finals.
There are a lot of great individual players in the NBA, and the Western Conference Finals, with James Harden and Steph Curry, provide perhaps an even better example of that. James has been a postseason constant, though, and can manipulate the flow, pace and style of a game in ways that probably no one else can. See his averaging a triple-double in the conference finals for evidence of that.
He will certainly have to step up his shooting against this vaunted Warriors defense, but if he can take advantage of this rest and return at full strength, there is no greater equalizer than LeBron.