I guess you could call it inevitable. Despite some unanticipated twists and turns along the way, the NBA Finals has ended up exactly where most people expected, with the Warriors and Cavs meeting again. Let’s run through some of the key issues/interesting questions for a Finals preview.
But first, let’s take a quick look at a few of the departed:
Toronto Raptors: The Raps season could not reasonably have turned out much better. They had the most wins in a season and their best playoff run. The only minor ding was the failure to compete in Game 6 at home against the Cavs. Still, Toronto showed a reasonably good account of itself. The Raptors success is a strange story. While Masai Ujiri is known as a sharp GM, he fell into a decent situation by accident. Remember, he was initially coming to Toronto to clean house. He soon realized that he may have inherited some good players and a solid enough coaching and (with the Knicks help) resisted his initial urge to blow up a viable team. Well, it is better to be lucky than good I guess.
In either case, Ujiri now faces some tough decisions again. Toronto’s has two key free agents, DeMar DeRozan and Bismack Biyombo. DeRozan is nice scorer who does not shoot well from long range (though his three-point shooting has ticked up to almost acceptable levels). Based upon his raw stats, though, he is an All-Star (23.5 ppg) and his perceived value is that of a max-level player. The Raptors have some cap room but would arguably be overpaying a bit to max him out. Still, there are no clearly better options on the horizon and betting on DeRozan continuing effectiveness over the next four or five years (ages 27-32) is relatively safe. With only one better team in the east at the moment, keeping the team intact makes sense as well. The Raptors should move to re-sign DeRozan quickly, even if the max sounds a little high.
As for Biyombo, he is young and very effective defensively. A case could be made that he was the big difference in transforming the Raps from a poor defensive team in 2014-15 to a pretty good one this year. Despite this fact, it’s hard to justify the risk of paying him as much money as was speculated he could command on the open market ($15-18 million per year!). That’s a steep price for a specialist whose offense is non-existent and whose overall ceiling as a player is not tremendously high. If they were to let Biyombo go, the Raps could slot in Lucas Nogueira to play more minutes (his DPM is impressive) and then dip into the bargain market (where they found Biyombo) for another undervalued defensive player.
Oklahoma City Thunder: So close, yet so far. The real question is to what extent OKC blew the series versus the Warriors affirmatively winning it. Realistically, the series was more won by the Warriors than lost by the Thunder. Even so, the last few minutes of Game 6 were ugly for OKC’s offense. Kevin Durant threw up some terrible shots and Russell Westbrook lost the ball on a clear clubbing by Andre Iguodala (I’m sure Spurs fans have no sympathy for this missed call). In the end, the Thunder’s season was pretty much as good as could be expected from the perspective of keeping Durant.
Billy Donovan showed Durant that the Thunder have a chance to beat anyone and that KD has few better options for a title chance (other than taking less to go to Golden State or the Spurs). Given these facts and the fact that Durant will make more money by signing a short extension in OKC, KD’s choice this off-season seems pretty easy. He will likely come back give the Thunder another shot. This seems like the most rational decision from both a money and competition point of view (barring any sort of crazy free agent maneuvering a la Miami’s coup with LBJ, Bosh, Wade a few years ago).
Rematches and the NBA Finals
Rematches in the NBA Finals in back-to-back years were fairly common in the old days before becoming a relative rarity. For posterity, here is the full list since the Shot Clock Era began:
-2013/2014: Miami and San Antonio met very recently with Miami eking out a win in 2013 before getting steamrolled by the Spurs in 2014.
-1997/1998: Michael Jordan and the Bulls met the Jazz in his last two Finals. The Bulls won both series 4-2, though the 1998 series went down to the wire. The Bulls outscored the Jazz by only 0.6 points in 1997 (they won Game 1 on a late MJ shot and Game 6 on a late shot by Steve Kerr). In 1998, the Bulls actually outscored the Jazz by a whopping 7.8 points per game. In fact, five of the games were actually very close except for a historic blowout by the Bulls in Game 3 (96-54).
-1988/1989: The Lakers and Pistons had an epic seven-game series in 1988, highlighted by Isiah Thomas’ famed “sprained ankle game” and James Worthy’s big Game 7 to win. The teams met again the next season but the Pistons were peaking and the Lakers lost Magic Johnson and Byron Scott to leg injuries. The result was a Detroit sweep.
-1984/1985: This was the height of the Magic-Bird rivalry. Boston won in 1984 thanks to Bird’s great play and Magic throwing the ball away to Gerald Henderson to blow a game down the stretch (Magic also accidentally dribbled out the clock before overtime without getting a shot off in that same game). In 1985, the Lakers were drubbed in Game 1 but came back to win the series, with Kareem really playing well.
-1982/1983: The Magic Lakers played Dr. J in the Finals three times in four years, yet Lakers never really developed a rivalry with Philly as they did with Boston. The Lakers handled Philly relatively easily in 1982 but then the Sixers acquired Moses Malone and swept out the Lakers in 1983.
-1979/1980: The most forgettable rematch ever. In the hazy non-descript late 1970s NBA, the Sonics and Bullets met in back-to-backs with the Bullets taking the 1978 series in seven before getting beat up 4-1 in 1979 by the Sonics (peak Dennis Johnson).
-1968/1969, 1965/66, 1962/1963: We now reach the Bill Russell v. Lakers portion of the program. During the 1960s, the Celtics would play the Lakers for two years and then take a year off and play two again. Famously, the Lakers lost every time.
-1960/1961, 1957/1958: Before the Lakers, the Celtics had a fairly hot rivalry with Bob Pettit and the St. Louis Hawks. Russell won his first title against the Hawks in 1957 but lost to Pettit in 1958 (Russell had a broken hand in that series). After playing the Lakers in 1959, Boston met the Hawks again in 1960 and 1961, with Boston winning both times.
Of the eleven prior Finals rematches, we have five repeat winners and six splits. If you take away the old Russell Celtics, however, five out of six rematches since 1979 were splits. Because of the small sample size, there is little basis to infer that that this rematch data is a good indicator for the Cavs this season. Still, it at least gives Cavs fans a glimmer of hope that it might be hard to beat the same team two years in a row in the modern NBA.
Finals Prediction: The Cavs are playing at a very high level recently but have not yet faced a team as tough as the Warriors. In addition, GS smoked the Cavs both times they played this year. It’s tough, but not impossible, to envision a scenario where the Cavs can slowdown Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson sufficiently to win the series. Indeed, LeBron nearly beat the Warriors in the last Finals. LBJ is one of the few players that can’t really be stopped. Alas, Curry is one of the others and beating the Warriors at home isn’t easy either. Prediction: Warriors win 4-2.