It’s not just the stars: Cavaliers don’t have the role players to match Warriors

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LeBron James played well again in Game 2 on Sunday night against the Golden State Warriors. The Cleveland Cavaliers star followed up his 51-point performance in the Game 1 with a near triple-double of 29 points, 13 assists, and nine rebounds.

Still, it just wasn’t enough.

Despite double-digit contributions from three other starters and reasonable shooting percentages throughout most of the game, the supporting cast for the Cavaliers could not measure up to the intensity brought by the reigning world champions. Even worse, three players attributed with 49 of Cleveland’s most vital bench minutes combined for just nine points. Those players — Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, and Larry Nance — collectively shot 2-of-11 with 10 rebounds and three assists.

Meanwhile, despite lacking Andre Iguodala, the Warriors’ supporting cast was what you’d expect from such a disciplined squad. David West grabbed a few rebounds, dished a couple assists, and had three blocks in 11 minutes. Shaun Livingston went 5-of-5 from the field. JaVale McGee, who started, scored 12 points and didn’t miss a shot from the floor.

The differentiation in play between Golden State’s and Cleveland’s role players was not just the story of Game 2, but it’s what sets them apart fundamentally in roster construction and organizational strategy.

It’s a running joke on Twitter at this point, but the idea that Nick Young and McGee are contributing minutes to Golden State (they combined for 36 on Sunday) is wild beyond our NBA-watching dreams. It’s something you’d only expect to click for the Warriors or perhaps the San Antonio Spurs. But while that meme runs its course on social media, the reality is that Cleveland is running out a roster of players with similarly historically low expectations with very different results.

Jordan Clarkson looks like he’s not ready to be a rotation player; Rodney Hood nearly got DNP-CD’d again (he played garbage time on Sunday); Green looked extremely Jeff Green-y; Tristan Thompson didn’t contribute to his salary level; Nance got eaten alive against Warriors starters.

The gap between the stars on the Warriors and the stars on the Cavaliers is expansive. But the benches and role players, on paper and with Iguodala sidelined, are closer than we think. That’s doubly so when McGee and Young are getting significant run. It’s the execution that sets them apart, and as the rotation mixes over the game, how the stars are able to cover for their lesser teammates.

Cleveland isn’t the kind of team that’s going to be able to hide that many holes in a Finals matchup. They need their role players not just to fill in, but to push past their expectations in some kind of consistent manner. After Game 2 Tyronn Lue said as much, specifically with regard to Green.

“Jeff could be more assertive, I think,” said Lue. “[He needs to] be more aggressive offensively, not just settle for threes, [and] attack the basket.”

Green was important during Cleveland’s series against the Toronto Raptors, and vital to their Game 7 win over the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. But for the most part, Green hasn’t been able to handle his share, particularly when opponents have zeroed in on Love and Korver. That rang true again on Sunday when Green finished with six points, two rebounds, and one assist on 28.5 percent shooting.

In these NBA Finals, we’re seeing the truths our facts, figures, and theorems can teach us when we put them into a real life experiment. The result, for the Cavaliers, isn’t good. Outside of the record-breaking 3-point makes by Stephen Curry and the high-scoring of Kevin Durant are guys like Livingston, West, Kevon Looney, and even Jordan Bell, grinding away and playing their part. Cleveland hasn’t been able to find the same spark from their bench.

Golden State has been able to suppress the effectiveness of Cavaliers starters outside of LeBron, limiting Love’s shooting or keeping Thompson off the boards. That should naturally leave space for players with smaller roles to step up, but with the way the roster is constructed and the continual failure to get just about anything out of their bench, the reality of Who the Warriors Are vs. Who the Cavaliers Are is here, and it’s clear.

LeBron can play as hard as he can. He has, really. Game 1 was a masterpiece, and Game 2 was an efficient, superstar kind of night. But no matter the effort from James, the averages always come to bear during a playoff series. That’s especially true during the Finals, and it’s not just Golden State’s stars that are better than Cleveland’s.

It’s their bench, too.

Watch Stephen Curry hit a 38-foot 3-pointer at the buzzer vs. Cavs (VIDEO)

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The Cleveland Cavaliers opened Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals on Thursday night hot, especially considering how many have picked the Golden State Warriors to in the series in four or five games.

But as they do, the Warriors came roaring back during the second quarter, complete with a Stephen Curry runner at the first half buzzer to tie things up, 56-56.

The play came after a missed Jeff Green jumper on the other end with 7.8 seconds to go. Kevin Durant grabbed the rebound and flipped it to Curry, who promptly ducked a Cavaliers defender and did this.

Via Twitter:

He’s good.

Meanwhile the Cavaliers are playing the Warriors evenly but it’s taken 24 points from LeBron James just to do so.

LeBron James shouldering historic burden in carrying Cavaliers to NBA Finals

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As the Cavaliers were presented with the Eastern Conference championship trophy, LeBron James lied on the floor off to the side. Soon enough, Doris Burke – hosting the televised ceremony – beckoned him.

“I got to talk again?” said a clearly exhausted LeBron after leading Cleveland past the Pacers, Raptors and Celtics and into the NBA Finals.

His teammates helped him to his feet, and he returned the favor in his interview.

“I know I get a lot of the headlines – win, lose or draw, whatever the case may be,” LeBron said. “But in order to be successful, it’s a team game. I learned that from when I first started picking up a basketball to play organized basketball at age 9.”

That is true. No individual wins by himself.

But some do more than others, and LeBron is doing more than anyone in a long time.

He has put the Cavs on his back after failed trades, bad signings and aging (exacerbated by deep playoff runs annually) have left his supporting cast inept. His teammates are literally the butt of the joke.

The problems started last summer, when LeBron’s top teammate – Kyrie Irving – requested a trade. The Cavaliers dealt him for Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder, and when those two didn’t work, flipped them to get George Hill, Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson. Though Cleveland also netted the No. 8 pick in that string of transactions (and relinquished its own first-rounder), that selection isn’t helping this postseason.

Neither are Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose, two overhyped signings who were also sent away. J.R. Smith looks old. Tristan appears worn down.

Even the bright spots are blemished. Kevin Love is a star, but he has never neared his Minnesota-level contributions with the Cavs, and he’s not getting any younger. Plus, he’s still dealing with a concussion. Kyle Korver is a fine one-way player in a two-way sport. Jeff Green is finally providing surplus value – now that he’s earning a minimum salary. Jose Calderon has soared past expectations for someone who looked washed-up last year. Cedi Osman plays with a lot of energy but is deployed.

The other Cavaliers will have their moments, but so, so, so much falls on LeBron.

And he has risen to the occasion.

LeBron has posted 44% of Cleveland’s win shares this postseason. That’s the fifth-highest percentage ever for someone who led his team to the Finals and highest since the NBA-ABA merger.

The all-time leaderboard in percentage of team’s postseason win shares among players who led their team to the Finals:

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And here’s since the merger:

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Of course, win shares are far from a perfect measure. And these are all postseason-long marks. Perhaps, LeBron’s changes in the Finals.

But this matches what we’re all seeing unfold: LeBron is dragging an undermanned team deep in the playoffs.

The burden will probably become too great this round. The Warriors are stacked – Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson.

One man can’t topple this Golden State team alone.

If LeBron’s teammates are as capable as he says, this would be a great time for them to step up.

He got them this far. Now, he needs more help.

Five questions that will decide NBA Finals

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This was the matchup we expected in June before the season started: Golden State vs. Cleveland for the right to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Again.

However, the road to get here was far different — and with far more twists and turns — than we imagined. It was the kind of season that left us with questions — including questions about how the Warriors and Cavaliers match up in the Finals.

Here are the five questions whose answer will determine the winner of the NBA Finals.

1) How challenged, how engaged will the Warriors be this series? It’s easy to say the Golden State Warriors shouldn’t need more motivation to bring their “A” game every night — they are in the NBA Finals, the biggest stage in basketball. They are four wins away from a third NBA title in four years. They are playing to be considered a dynasty.

Yet, as we have seen this all season from Golden State, if this team doesn’t feel challenged, if it doesn’t get pushed, the Warriors coast and fall bad habits, making mistakes on both ends. The question isn’t even “will they coast in the Finals” as much as “how much will they coast in the Finals?”

The Warriors are unquestionably the more talented team in this series — for the Cavaliers to have any shot the Warriors have to be party to their own demise. The best way to tell if that’s happening (outside just missed threes by Golden State) is if Cleveland can replicate what Houston did last series — take away Golden State’s off-ball movement with good switching defense, and force them into a slowed down game in the halfcourt featuring Kevin Durant isolations. The Warriors will fall into that trap, if led there. The Rockets had the defensive talent, the defensive recognition and communication to pull that off. The Cavaliers… that brings us to our next question.

2) Can Cavaliers’ defense even begin to slow down Warriors’ offense? The Cavaliers are playing better defense in the playoffs than they did the regular season — Cleveland gave up 109.5 points per 100 possessions during the season (29th in the league), but it has been down to 105.9 per 100 in the postseason (7th in the playoffs, the equivalent of 15th in the league for the season). Cleveland players are putting in the effort, or at least they are when LeBron James is putting in that effort.

None of that may matter against the Warriors.

The Rockets had success shrinking the floor, switching everything, and defending the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, but the Cavaliers do not have the same personnel to make that defense work. Cleveland doesn’t have a rim-protecting big the likes of Clint Capela who can also switch on the perimeter and hold his own. The Cavs don’t have a good matchup for Kevin Durant (not that anyone does, but Trevor Ariza did a respectable job; now the defense of Durant likely falls to Jeff Green and LeBron). They don’t have switchable wing defenders who can play a physical style, like P.J. Tucker. They don’t have anyone who can hang with the off-ball movement of Klay Thompson.

George Hill, with his length and veteran savvy, may do okay on Stephen Curry. However, expect the back cuts, split cuts, and other off-ball movements that the Rockets took away from the Warriors last round to come back. And expect a lot of finger-pointing and glaring at each other from the Cavaliers after wide open made Warriors baskets.

3) Who will be the fifth man for the Warriors? Golden State hopes Andre Iguodala will be back this series — he is out for Game 1 at least. He would help their cause, primarily as a quality defender on LeBron James (so that Kevin Durant and Draymond Green don’t have to shoulder that burden all the time). Iguodala matters — in the 2017 Finals the Warriors were +60 when he was on the court and -26 when he was not. On offense, Iguodala is a smart playmaker who keeps the motion offense going.

Shaun Livingston has been the best fifth man with the rest of the Hampton’s lineup (Curry, Durant, Thompson, Green), but he’s not as good a defender and more of a midrange shooter. Jordan Bell brings athleticism and energy, but for every good play he makes he also seems to bring a rookie mistake. Kevon Looney tries. There is just not a great fifth option without Iguodala, but how much can the Cavaliers exploit that.

4) Can the Cavaliers knock down their threes? In the regular season, the three ball accounted for 34.8 percent of Cleveland’s non-garbage time shots, fourth highest percentage in the NBA (higher than the Warriors at 31.3 percent). In the playoffs that hasn’t changed, with 35 percent of Cleveland’s shots coming from beyond the arc (second highest percentage of playoff teams).

This isn’t rocket science — the Cavaliers need a high percentage of those shots to fall. Cleveland is shooting 34.7 percent on playoff threes (non-garbage time) and that simply isn’t going to be good enough against the high-powered Warriors. LeBron James, Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith and every other Cavalier player taking threes has got to knock them down this series at a high clip — Cleveland doesn’t defend well enough to lock Golden State down, the only way the Cavs win is outscoring the Warriors in a shootout. Which means making a lot of threes.

5) Will LeBron’s supporting cast be anywhere near enough? Last year, the Warriors beat the Cavaliers in five games in the NBA Finals — and that was a Cleveland team that had Kyrie Irving, Channing Frye, Deron Williams, Richard Jefferson, and James Jones. None of those guys are back this season.

LeBron has had to carry an incredible burden to get this team roster to the NBA Finals.

He’s got a few veterans who have been here before — Korver, Smith, Tristan Thompson — but not as many and some not as good as who they replaced. Then there are the newcomers such as George Hill, Larry Nance Jr., and Jordan Clarkson — those guys are going to have to step up and have big series on a stage they have never been on before.

Kevin Love’s return from a concussion — his status is not known for Game 1 as of this writing — would be a big boost. He can score, he is a matchup problem, and he’s got a ring to show he can play under this kind of pressure.

Can the rest of this team? The Cavalry is not charging over the hill to save the day for LeBron, he’s got to make due with the guys around him. That just doesn’t look like it will be enough.

LeBron James is the greatest player of all-time

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He’s done it again. LeBron James, the King in the East, played 48 minutes en route to his eighth straight NBA Finals appearance after beating the Boston Celtics in Game 7 at TD Garden on Sunday, 87-79.

Bow down to the greatest player of all-time.

Much has been made of LeBron’s place in history as his legacy has began to galvanize toward the end of his career. The conversation has raged on about LeBron vs. Michael Jordan, or Wilt Chamberlain, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Preference varies greatly between fans, while some still pick the centrist route and say there’s no simple way to compare across eras. There’s been mathematical attempts to rank the two, and even MJ’s old teammates have said LeBron is a more complete player.

On Sunday, James bounced yet another Eastern Conference Finals opponent, carrying his teammates on his shoulders and playing without All-Star Kevin Love. There was never a doubt for many watching Sunday’s matchup in Massachusetts. Before the final buzzer, LeBron had won 23 straight Eastern Conference playoff series. His determination was absolute, and the cards were always stacked against Boston even given their postseason record at home.

You could sort of just see it coming.

James was the motivating force in the first half for Cleveland, scoring 17 points while no other teammates tallied in double digits. The Cavaliers shot an abysmal 12 percent from beyond the arc, and the Celtics looked like they would be able to control the rest of the game as the crowd at home motivated them forward.

But Cleveland came roaring back in the second half, continuing to put on a defensive show, the kind we would not have expected of them during the regular season. Without Love, the Cavs had to make do with Jeff Green, who turned in a surprising performance. Green scored 19 points, shot 50 percent from the field, and grabbed eight rebounds.

In the face of a strengthening Cavaliers attack, the Celtics seems to retreat. Boston’s final offensive possessions in the fourth quarter were hectic, slow, and unsuccessful. While the Cavaliers tried their hardest during the final eight minutes to get Al Horford switched on to LeBron in isolation sets, the Celtics surprisingly mirrored the same offensive tactics. Instead of playing their regular offense, or running plays to get shooters free, or trying to attack the paint against James (who was in foul trouble) Boston resorted to trying to exploit any mismatches found through Cleveland’s switches.

The result was four field goals inside the 3-point line for LeBron in the fourth quarter, as much as the entire Celtics roster combined.

The play of the game came with 1:04 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Cavaliers leading by nine. LeBron was out on the break, with Marcus Morris trailing behind him. Morris went to foul LeBron, making no obvious attempts on the ball as he grabbed onto the Cavaliers star’s shoulders. Even with all of his might, Morris couldn’t stop James from scoring while drawing the foul. It was indicative of the entire fourth quarter for the Celtics, who scraped, clutched and grabbed as much as they could but did not have an answer for LeBron.

So here we are, with LeBron having won another Game 7 out in the Eastern Conference as he heads to another Finals. He probably won’t match Jordan’s championship mark. But Jordan didn’t match Russell’s. Or Horry’s. Or Havlichek’s, either.

Instead, we have to rely on what we see in front of our eyes combined with their dominance, weighted for context. Sunday night’s performance should help push LeBron over Jordan, if he wasn’t there already. James is a more complete player, which has always been apparent, and now he’s survived every challenge that’s been thrown at him. Declaring James the best player of all-time did not come because of Sunday’s game. It’s been years in the making, throughout the entirety of his 15-year career. The win over Boston was just an indication of his place in history.

LeBron has gone nuclear with 40+ point performances. He was part of the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history against the Golden State Warriors. He beat the Indiana Pacers all by himself, in the playoffs, just this very season. James has had a career season at age 33, playing 48 minutes in the 100th game of the 2017-18 season. LeBron has willed his way to yet another NBA Finals, with perhaps his worst team since the 2006-07 squad that was swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the season’s final series. To add to the accomplishment, LeBron pushed this Cavaliers squad past a stunningly good team in the Celtics, on the road, and without Love.

James is the greatest American sports story of our generation, and he’s the best player the NBA has ever seen. If you disagree, that’s OK. But after Sunday night, you’d be hard pressed to convince me otherwise.