Sixty-seven wins. The eighth-best point differential (plus-10.2) of all time. The NBA’s Most Valuable Player. Two All-Stars. Three All-Defensive Team Selections. Playoff series wins over three All-NBA First Teamers (Anthony, Davis, Marc Gasol and James Harden, respectively).
The Golden State Warriors boasted all of these things this season, and in a couple weeks, they’ll add another accolade to their 2014-15 collection: the Larry O’Brien Trophy, which they’ll earn for defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals.
Okay, okay—I’m not REALLY guaranteeing a Warriors series win. I just think it’s the far more likely scenario.
Want to know why?
I’ll give you three reasons: the coaching mismatch, the Warriors won’t get killed on the boards and the precedent set by last year’s Finals.
Steve Kerr is a better coach than David Blatt
In hindsight, Steve Kerr deserved the Coach of the Year award this season.
Former Warriors head coach Mark Jackson transformed the team from doormat to playoff regular, motivating the team to believe in themselves. However, Kerr truly unlocked Golden State’s offensive potential with imaginative offensive plays in just his first year as a head coach.
In the finals, he’ll be matched up with David Blatt, also a rookie head coach in the NBA, although Blatt has extensive experience overseas.
Between the two, I’ll take Kerr.
Blatt’s reputation is still being established, but at least so far, he seems to be more of an ego manager than an ingenious strategist. He’s helped his team find its defensive identity by starting Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov in the absence of the injured Kevin Love’s, but that was out of necessity. Kerr, while also a player’s coach, has more tricks up his sleeve.
Take the types of plays the coaches have employed during the playoffs, for example.
A whopping 16.5 percent of Cleveland’s postseason possessions have been isolation plays, more than any other team in the playoffs. The four teams directly below the Cavs were all knocked out in the first round, and the Warriors are all the way down at 7.2 percent.
Are isolations efficient? Not at all. The Cavaliers are scoring just 0.79 points per 100 possessions on those plays, which means they would score in the low 70s if they ran that play every trip down the floor. The fact that Cleveland is spending approximately one-sixth of their possessions on a type of play that is so often fruitless is not something that will fly against such a good team.
Although LeBron James is the best player in the NBA, Golden State is too disciplined defensively to let one man singlehandedly beat them. The Warriors had the most efficient defense in the regular season, after all.
The Warriors rebound well
For the Cavs, one advantage they’ve been able to count on throughout the playoffs is rebounding. Thanks to the efforts of Thompson, Mozgov and James, they soundly defeated the Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks on the glass, helping them consistently earn more possessions than their opponents.
Rebounding is one advantage that might not be there in the Finals, however.
The Warriors have accumulated a third-best plus-4.0 advantage on the boards during their playoff run, a tick behind the Cavs’ top-ranked plus-6.5 edge.
However, their competition has been much different.
The New Orleans Pelicans, Memphis Grizzlies and Houston Rockets all ranked in the top half of rebound differential in the regular season. On the other hand, the Bulls ranked No. 5, but the Celtics and Hawks were both No. 20 or worse.
Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut are animals on the glass, and the Warriors guards do a good job of helping them, too. Expect a relatively even rebounding ledger, which will favor Golden State and their efficiency on both ends of the floor.
The Spurs killed the Heat last year
If you saw the NBA Finals last year, you saw the San Antonio Spurs perform spur-gery on the Miami Heat, winning in five games, earning the best point differential in Finals history.
How did they do it? Well, the Heat had the league’s best player (LeBron), but his supporting cast wasn’t anything special. He had a banged-up sidekick guard (Dwyane Wade) and a host of spot-up shooters (Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis, Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole and James Jones).
The Spurs, meanwhile, were a much more balanced team. They moved the ball and shot it well, too. Their defense was strong, both perimeter and interior.
Do either of those descriptions sound familiar?
Last year’s Heat aren’t quite this year’s Cavs, and last year’s Spurs aren’t quite this year’s Warriors, but there are several similarities. LeBron is going to have to carry a heavy burden this year to make up for the injured Irving, and the Warriors are a team rife with defenders (Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson) capable of checking him for at least periods of times.
Both teams are less battle-tested than their counterparts and Love’s absence means no one can take Chris Bosh’s floor-stretching title on the Cavs. Cleveland is a stronger rebounding team and more athletic on the wing than Miami, however.
Even with the subtle differences between the squads, however, last year’s series was too lopsided to discount. If the Warriors end up playing like a poor man’s version 2014 Spurs and the Cavs play like a rich man’s version of the 2014 Heat, Golden State can still pull this series out.