NBA Finals Preview 2018-19: Raps for Warriors

Another year, another Golden State Warriors NBA Finals and the question, as always, is can the Warriors lose?  Well, of course, they can lose, as they did in 2015-16, based upon an epic effort from LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, coupled with some bad times suspensions and injuries.  But the probabilities and possibilities change each season.  Let’s run through our usual NBA Finals preview FAQ-style to see what issues come up…

How long ago does it feel since the Warriors lost their last non-LeBron James playoff series?

This is not really relevant to the current match up but this question shows how much time has passed. It feels like a lifetime ago but, in May 2014, the Warriors lost a tough seven game series in the first round to the Clippers.  Steph Curry was the best player in the series and they had most of the current core (Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, and Draymond Green).  The Clippers were able to hold on at home in a tough Game 7 and L.A. looked like the West’s team of the future.

That Warriors team was 51-31.  Coach Mark Jackson built a tough defense team (4th) and solid, but not transcendent, offensively (12th).  Jackson was replaced with Steve Kerr, who upped the pace on offense and it has been nothing but Finals appearances ever since for GS.

Whither LeBron?

Going into the season, we knew that LeBron’s NBA Finals streak was likely over.  Now that it is definitively over, we must look way back to 2009-10 to find the last non-LBJ team to make the Finals in the East, the Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett Celtics.  Boston beat the Lakers in seven games in a gritty but not aesthetically pleasing Finals.

Interesting side note….Doc Rivers is the common denominator in the both of these events.  His 2009-10 Celts were the last team to knock LeBron out of the East playoffs and his 2013-14 Clipps were the last to beat the Warriors in the West.

Welcome Raptors!

This isn’t a question but a declarative statement.  The Raptors are nice object lesson in sticking with a core despite playoff frustration.  For five straight years, the Raps have lost in less than satisfying fashion and management has resisted making wholesale changes.  Trading DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard was a pragmatic risk that has paid off quite well and does not fall into the category of a rash trade.

Kawhi v. DeMar

It’s not a shock that Leonard is better than DeRozan but here are the side-by-side numbers to contrast:

-Derozan: 34.9 MPG, 21.2 PPG, .481 FG%, .542 TS%, 6.0 RPG, 6.2 APG, 1.1 SPG, 0.5 BPG, 2.6 TOPG, 19.6 PER, 6.3 WS, 0.9 BPM, 2.0 VORP

-Leonard:  34.0 MPG, 26.6 PPG, .496 FG%, .606 TS%, 7.3 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.8 SPG, 0.4 BPG, 2.0 TOPG, 25.8 PER, 9.5 WS, 5.0 BPM, 3.6 VORP

Leonard accrued those raw advanced stats in 17 fewer games too, so the gap is actually even bigger on a per-minute basis.

Does experience matter?  First timers and the Finals…

This is the Raptors first Finals appearance.  Since the shot clock was adopted in 1954-55, franchises are 6-12 in their first Finals appearances (2005-06 featured Miami and Dallas, the only match up between two teams making their first appearance in the same year).  It’s not clear if this trend has any predictive value but it certainly does not help Toronto.

How do the Raptors compare with GS’s usual Finals foe?

Here is a rundown of the Raptors compared with the Cavs teams that the Warriors have played each year:

-2014-15 Cavs, 53-28, 4.08 SRS

-2015-16 Cavs, 57-25, 5.45 SRS

-2016-17 Cavs, 51-31, 2.87 SRS

-2017-18 Cavs, 50-32, 0.59 SRS

-2018-19 Raps, 58-24, 5.49 SRS

Toronto is about as good as the peak Cavs.  The Raptors don’t have a player quite as good as LBJ from a few years ago but Leonard is darn close.

Did the Warriors dodge a bullet when Milwaukee lost to the Raptors?

On paper it does seem that way.  The Bucks were really good and rated much higher than the Warriors (Milwaukee was one of the best teams to miss the NBA Finals).  But the Raps definitively earned their win over the Bucks and should not be taken likely.  For what it’s worth, the Warriors split the season series with the Bucks and the Raps were 2-0 against the Warriors (though both games were played very early in the season when the Warriors were a bit askew).  Sweeping the season series could have some meaning.  By way of comparison, the Cavs were 2-6 in the regular season against the Warriors from 2014-15 to 2017-18.  So, it seems that Warriors are in for real competition.

How good are the 2018-19 Warriors?

It’s clear that the Warriors have declined quite a bit from their peak teams.  The first three Kerr Warriors team were as good as any NBA team ever, while the last two are very good title contenders but not quite as historic.  The difference appears to be attributable to slippage on defense where the Warriors have gone from top rated to slightly above average (11th last year and 13th this year).   Combine this defensive slippage with the lack of Kevin Durant, and we have to conclude that the Raptors chances are good.

Are the Warriors better without KD this year?

The Warriors great play against the Rockets and Nuggets without Durant has caused some to raise the question as to whether GS might be better off without Durant.  Even Durant has felt compelled to “deny” this notion.  Rather than directly respond to this issue, let’s set forth a few pretty clear statements of fact on the subject that answer the question pretty clearly:

-Kevin Durant is the best player on the Warriors

-The Warriors are a really good team without KD

-The Warriors could win a title without KD

-The fact that the Warriors are good enough to win a title without Durant does not make them “better” without him

Do the Raptors have a path to winning a title?

Of course! The Raps have the better record and home court.  In fact, stat models like FiveThirtyEight, see them as slight favorites.  Without Durant, the Warriors don’t really have an answer for Kawhi.  Toronto has superior depth even with Durant playing.  If Kyle Lowry and can play Curry relatively close, Toronto very much can win.

So who’s going to win this thing?

Many factors militate towards the Raps winning but, ultimately, it’s hard to bet against the Warriors when the matchups are so close and they have an experience edge.  Assuming, Durant can come back at some point, the Warriors take a tough series.  Prediction: Warriors win 4-2.

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