Here we are again…Cleveland against Golden State. Last year, we took a look at trends found from other consecutive Finals rematches. We found that, outside of the 1960s Celtics, a rematch usually meant that the previous year’s loser got even. Well, what about three in a row? Making three Finals in a row is not that rare. But having the same Finals teams three years in a row from both conferences? Well, that hasn’t happened before in the NBA. We are in uncharted territory and it is fun to be here.
Historical trends aside, the match up doesn’t look particularly close on paper. Let’s look at the tale of the tape:
-The Warriors were 67-15 this season with an SRS of 11.35, fourth highest ever and even better than their previous two seasons. Cleveland had a middling season at 51-31 (for a Finals team) and an SRS of 2.87 (which would have been good for sixth in the Western Conference).
-The Cavs have looked pretty tough in the playoffs but this is actually the worst LeBron James Cleveland team since 2007-08 (when Cleveland went 45-37). The trend line looks bad. Here are the vitals on the Cavs the last three seasons:
2014-15, 53-29, 4.08 SRS (lost to Warriors 4-2 in Finals)
2015-16, 57-25, 5.45 SRS (beat Warriors 4-3 in Finals)
2016-17, 51-31, 2.87 SRS
Win-or-lose, the Cavs are going to need to add some new blood this off-season.
-On top of this marked decline, LeBron has now played in seven straight NBA Finals, a fairly unprecedented number in the modern NBA. Even Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird didn’t get to the Finals every year. As great as LeBron is, the cumulative effect of so many super deep playoff runs can’t be good.
-The Cavs clearly don’t have the depth of the Warriors. In fact, the advanced stats don’t even like LBJ’s second bananas that much. Kyrie Irving’s BPM is only 2.5 (thanks to a terrible defensive rating) and Kevin Love is lower still at 0.8 (though he did miss a lot of time with injuries). By contrast, Warrior role players score higher than Kyrie and Love. It’s hard to argue that Zaza Pachulia and players of his ilk are better actually than Love but the advanced stats do show Cleveland has some weaknesses.
-This is not to say the Cavs have no hope, LeBron James is still the best player in the NBA on most nights and he can physically dominate anyone. The Warriors were reminded of that fact in the Game 7.
-Random injuries can’t be predicted. But for Stephen Curry’s untimely knee sprain (which slowed him down a bit), a Draymond Green kick to the groin, and Andrew Bogut’s injury, the Warriors probably win last year. The Cavs had the bad injury bug the previous year. The Cavs really tested Golden State without the benefit of Love or Irving for most of the Finals in 2014-15. If even one of those two were healthy, the Cavs might have won that series.
-Head-to-head this year, the Cavs won a crazy game at home against the Warriors on Christmas Day. GS blew a huge lead and lost on a Kyrie fade away and some tough ref calls (Richard Jefferson’s foul on Kevin Durant was not called). A few weeks later, Golden State beat the Cavs like a drum in Oakland.
All the signs seem to be pointing to a Warriors route. The Cavs are much worse than last year, they should be tired, and the Warriors are ridiculously good. It would be foolish to ever totally count out LeBron but the odds clearly favor the Warriors. Prediction: Warriors win 4-1.