The 2017 NBA Championship series is set to tip-off June 1st, 2017 and it will do so with historic significance. The level of individual talent together with high quality play makes for a combination not seen since the 1980s. Not since then has there been as much top-20 talent competing in a championship, and not since then has there been a series in which each team is among the best ever with respect to high percentage offense, outstanding unselfish ball movement and excellent team defense. There’s a lot on the line in this series. Neither team has established dominance. The record is 1-1 in consecutive championship battles, and yet this series, in potential anyhow, eclipses either of those from a historical context. Two days before Game 1 the build-up alone is worthy of discussion. Here’s why …
LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant are each likely to be top 20 All-Time.
- LeBron James. No other player in history has infected his teams more with need and urgency for unselfish end to end baskteball. One might argue Bird and Magic, but then the other end of the court is largely disregarded. No other player in history has done as much to promote quality end-to-end team basketball. LeBron leads his team as few of the greatest NBA leaders have and has done so for years.
- The Warriors are one of the great unselfish teams of all time. Both ends of the court.
- Offense: Four starters are willing to give up the ball within the context of the offensive plan. Two of the greatest scorers/shooters ever often give up the all as their assist numbers bear out statistically. A starting PF with gifted passing abilities as great as some of the best big men ever. And a bench stacked with players all willing to distribute and find the best shot on each and every possession.
- Defense: A tightly coordinated team defense coupled with quick hands and feet, athletes who bring double teams quickly and know their roles, and an intensity and sense of urgency matching the best defensive teams ever. Two of the greatest individual defenders of all time emphasize the quality of the Warriors’ defense within an historical context. Only a great rim protecting center among the starters prevents this team from being considered one of the greatest defensive teams ever.
- Warriors offense: Kevin Durant was added to the team just last summer. This is his first year on the team, and that means the Warriors are perhaps the only team ever to start three of the best shooters of all time in the NBA finals. But Durant brings much more than great outside shooting. At 6′ 11″ and cat-quick for his length, he’s one of the greats driving to the basket, drawing fouls and shooting free throws. For that reason the Cavaliers have one of two options to contain him, neither of which can succeed on a consistent basis: either 1.) cover Durant one on one and hope that help defense comes quickly enough to draw the offensive foul or 2.) frustrate his shot, or double team him regularly and hope that he gives up the ball quickly as time ticks low on the shot clock. There are two significant problems with either plan …
- Durant can pass quickly out of double-teams because of his height and the continual motion of the Warriors’ offense. Passing to a cutter or a 3-pt shooter has at this point of his career been impressively established within Durant’s repertoire, and made much more simple since the Warriors are often able to get Durant into position early in the shot clock.
- Durant can shoot or drive from the free point line. Much like Curry, Durant will force the Cavs to pick their poison. Allow him to drive past his defender and you have a 6′ 11″ passing threat driving to the lane. A triple team will rarely if ever be an option for the Cavs with Durant on the floor. Allow him some room from outside and his length can almost never been contested.
- Stephen Curry: perhaps the most dangerous shooter in history. Once again it will be a battle of MVPs, this time including Durant. But it is always clear where the most danger lies vs. the Warriors: if Curry gets hot from outside, his inside game will open up. If it continues there may be no way possible to stop it. The Cavs can try to outscore the Warriors when Curry is hot and driving and penetrating and kicking. It’s unlikely, but certainly provides intrigue and potential for one of the great series ever if the Cavs can win a game when Curry is at his best.
- Warriors defense: this is perhaps the biggest surprise and the reason the Warriors will be favored in this series. After losing what was considered their only true rim protector and in-the-paint shot intimidation with the trade of Andrew Bogut, the Warriors have responded with better defense one year later. While Durant’s defensive activity around the basket and rim protection has been a welcome and effective addition for the Warriors, Draymond Green has advanced his defensive skills and strength and has risen even higher to the top of the NBA as one of its premiere defenders with crazy-quick feet and hands and an intelligence that consistently gets him positional advantages vs. the great front court players in the league. Klay Thompson is still considered among the best defensive guards in the league, and depth comes off the bench with an urgent defense-first lock-them-up mindset. This year they do so with the addition of Javale McGee – one of the league most surprising and surging rim protectors in the post-season.
- Javale McGee has emerged as a potential force who can play significant minutes at the highest level. Now a fan favorite who will rock Oracle Arena when playing his game, McGee has shown a quickness and intelligence not previously considered among his strengths. Not only does McGee protect the rim as effectively as many other great big men, he’s shown a sort of new-found urgency to get excellent position on both ends of the court. Offensively this has meant consistent effectiveness as a scoring threat as he has dazzled in the playoffs with cat-quick throw downs and short jumpers. For long stretches his efficient offense has surprisingly emerged among league leaders in the post season, and that makes him certain to see significant minutes potentially even down the stretch of close games.
- Cavaliers have added effective depth with additions in Deron Williams, Kyle Korver and Channing Frye. The added shooting, ball movement and intelligence of these three has resulted in a more open offense allowing Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love the space to play their games and capitalizing on their advantages moving to the basket and getting into less contested shooting position.
- The Cavs have surged offensively in the 2017 playoffs. After a lackluster if not disappointing end to the regular season, the Cavs have picked up the intensity and urgency at both ends of the floor. Kyrie Irving appears able to get anywhere he wants in the lane and will present significant match-up and switching issues to the Warriors defense. Kevin Love seems to have fully bought-in to the LeBron-led Cavs, now consistently doing damage down low while finally exhibiting his quick-minded passing to perimeter shooters as well as streaking down-court outlet receivers. Just weeks ago the Cavs were considered to be both offensively inefficient and unprepared /undermanned to handle the Warriors attacking offense, the match-up has now evened significantly.
- Klay Thompson is due. He’s been surprisingly quiet in the playoffs, and for good reason. He doesn’t get the shooting opportunities he once had with another historically great shooter/scorer added to the lineup. But he is still considered one of the greatest shooters ever – a fact that seems unlikely to keep him in his cage.
With quality depth added to both teams, this series shows promise as an historical match-up of juggernauts. This time both teams are healthy, the Cavs are surging and look to have potential to outscore the Warriors 4 games out of 7. It may not matter, because the series may come down to 3rd and 4th quarter scoring streaks where the opponent has no answer. If Curry gets hot in more than one game while Durant shoots, drives and gets to the line with consistency there’s no reason to think the Cavaliers defense can have answers vs. the Warriors talent and depth. Conversely, there are many reasons to think that the Cavs will have more than one game where they shoot well from the outside while the big three of James, Irving and Love play their respective roles effectively. Even with the outstanding defense which the Warriors will certainly bring for 48 minutes, it may not be enough to keep the series from going 7 games. If that happens, barring significant injuries, foul-trouble or ejections, the Warriors will be tested just as they were last year when they folded and scored only 13 points in the final quarter. This year they will have Kevin Durant however.