For the third consecutive year, the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers will meet in the NBA Finals. It’s something we have seen coming for a while now. At the very least, since Kawhi Leonard went down to injury for the San Antonio Spurs in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.
There’s a whole heck of a lot more at stake here than simply hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy. There’s also a whole host of storylines we must pay attention to when the series itself starts on Thursday.
From fans everywhere relying on these two teams to save them from a truly horrible postseason to the Warriors laying claim as potentially the greatest team of all-time, here are the top 10 storylines for what promises to be a tremendous 2017 NBA Finals.
1. Save us from an awful postseason
Kevin Durant might have an opinion on it. And like pretty much everything else in life, Draymond Green sure has an opinion on it. Some might say that fans who have complained about the lack of drama in the playoffs should just tune it out. Watch something else. There’s a lot of entertainment options out there.
That sounds like a tremendous plan in a vacuum. But we love the NBA. It’s grown in popularity during this era of super teams and super stars. Simply telling someone to stop paying attention makes very little sense. Maybe provide the consumer a more drama-filled product?
The only saving grace we have here is that this specific NBA Finals matchup could be one for the ages. It’s the first time in Association history that two teams have played one another in the Finals in three consecutive seasons. It pits two-time reigning MVP Stephen Curry against the best basketball player in the planet.
It does so with Kevin Durant having taken over for LeBron James as public enemy No. 1 for those who are against the idea of super teams.
Golden State heads into the Finals with an NBA record 12-0 mark in the playoffs. The two-time defending Western Conference champs have won 27 of their past 28 games. In fact, the Warriors have lost just one game since March 11th. On the other hand, Cleveland ran through the Eastern Conference to the tune of an 11-1 mark and has won 14 of its past 15 playoff games.
We need a seven-game Finals series. We need drama to unfold on the court in both Oakland and Cleveland over the next couple weeks. The NBA needs it. The fans need it. And now, it’s up to these two potentially all-time great teams (more on that later) to provide it.
2. Kevin Love’s ascension
Following Love’s trade from Minnesota to Cleveland back in 2014, he didn’t necessarily fit in extremely well with the team. The All-Star averaged a five-year low 16.4 points per game. Love then missed a vast majority of the playoffs after suffering an injury in the first round against Boston.
Then, last season, Love fell out of favor big time in the playoffs. He averaged just 6.8 points per game and was inactive for one game in the Finals last June. Now, back to playing at an All-Star level, it will be interesting to see how Love performs against the Warriors in this third go-around.
While it’s still LeBron James and Kyrie Irving doing most of the damage for Cleveland, Love has had himself a splendid run during the playoffs. He’s averaging 17.3 points and 10.3 rebounds while shooting at an absurd 48 percent from distance. That’s been one of the primary reasons Cleveland continues to find itself dominating the opposition the later we get into the postseason.
Unfortunately for Love, he faces the difficult task of going up against likely Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green. It’s just not a good matchup for Love himself.
He averaged just 11.5 points while shooting at a 32 percent mark against Golden State in two regular season games. Add that to Love’s struggles in last year’s Finals and that has to be of utmost concern for Cleveland. Heck, even when the Warriors decide to go small with Green at center, either Kevin Durant or David West will be up against Love. Both of them are more physical than Love and have to be considered plus-level defenders.
Considering Golden State’s elite-level offense and the Cavaliers’ struggles on defense, the three-time defending Eastern Conference champs need more than LeBron and Kyrie to perform at a high level. Should Love struggle, this could very well lead to a short series.
3. The benches
James was 100 percent correct when he indicated the Cavaliers needed a backup point guard prior to the midway point of the regular season. Some saw it as a knock to the rest of Cleveland’s bench, but the King knew exactly what he was talking about. That help ended up coming in the form of five-time All-Star Deron Williams after he was bought out by Dallas.
Williams is nowhere near the player that was dominating in Utah, but he’s added a whole heck of a lot to Cleveland’s bench. The 12-year veteran averaged 7.5 points while shooting 42 percent from three during the regular year. He’s been a major help to a second unit that was already improved by the trade for Kyle Korver earlier in the year.
With that said, Cleveland’s bench is nowhere near as talented as what the Warriors bring to the table. That’s interesting considering many assumed Golden State’s bench was marginalized after the team let Leandro Barbosa, Marreese Speights, Brandon Rush and Festus Ezeli depart in free agency in order to acquire Durant.
For Steve Kerr’s squad, the likes of Javale McGee, Patrick McCaw, Shaun Livingston and Ian Clark have stepped up big time. The team also added David West and Matt Barnes to the mix. It’s now one of the top benches in the entire Association.
Both the Cavaliers and Warriors do a tremendous job mixing it up with their benches and starting units. For Golden State, the goal has always been to keep at least one of its four All-Stars on the court at one time. It’s led to Stephen Curry getting his rest to start the second and fourth quarters. Even then, both Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant remain on the court.
Cleveland runs the same theory. The addition of Williams enables Tyronn Lue to still have a master offensive mind on the court. And when Tristan Thompson goes to the bench, Kevin Love moves to the five with LeBron James playing the four. Adding Kyle Korver makes that unit even more dangerous, even when Kyrie is out of the game for the veteran Williams.
How the second units play in the Finals will have a huge role in the outcome of the series. Cleveland will push LeBron to the max in a close seven-game set. The same can be said for Durant and the Warriors. But both Irving and Curry will get their normal rests. This is what makes the play of the benches that much more important.\
4. Mike Brown
There’s so much to look at here. Will Steve Kerr be ready to return to the bench for the Finals? He’s been out since Game 2 of the first round after further complications from a previous back surgery. At this point, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether Kerr will return.
In his stead, Brown has led to the Warriors to a perfect 10-0 mark. Sure many will look at this as a way to discount both Kerr and Brown. After all, a min-pin could lead this talented squad to the Finals, right? That’s surface-based thinking that should be thrown out the window immediately.
Kerr, after he took over for Mark Jackson in the lead up to the 2014-15 season, changed the culture within Golden State’s locker room. Whether it was Luke Walton last season or Mr. Brown this year, that has carried over when Kerr himself has been sidelined. It’s an extremely important point to make.
There’s also a secondary story here that must be taken into account. Mike Brown coached the Cavaliers for two different stints, the first one culminating in an NBA Finals appearance with a then LeBron James. It wasn’t until Brown departed the second time, upon King’s return to Cleveland, that the Cavaliers got over that hump and earned a title.
Much like there’s a ton of respect between Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich and this Warriors staff, there is also undying respect between Mr. James and Brown. In no way does this mean that both Brown and LeBron don’t want to come out on top for bragging rights.
On the court, not much has changed from when Kerr was sidelined against Portland in the first round. Golden State still pretty much runs the same offensive sets. Star players pretty much get a rest at the same time.
There is, however, one difference here. Brown has made a point of going to the pick-and-roll more often than Kerr. He does so on the rare occasion that Golden State’s offense is bogged down with a lack of ball movement (imagine that).
It’s a philosophy the Warriors can surely take advantage of with two lackluster Cavaliers defenders in J.R. Smith and Kevin Love on the court. If Brown is indeed calling the in-game shots, we can expect this to become a prevalent part of the Warriors’ offense. The same can be said for isos, especially when LeBron James is not guarding Kevin Durant.
5. Redemption for Kevin Durant
The most-maligned player in the NBA. That’s a title Durant has received since he decided to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder for a Warriors team that has just won 73 games. In some cases, it’s deserving. In other cases, the whole thing is being blown out of proportion. But that’s a conversation for another time. For Durant, the NBA Finals represents redemption on two different fronts.
What we do know is that Durant wants to exact revenge against a player in LeBron James who defeated him in his only Finals appearance back in 2011-12. That series saw James dominate to the tune of 28.6 points and 10.2 rebounds per game in what would eventually become a Miami Heat series win in five games.
For Durant, all the criticism that has been thrown his way since departing OKC for the Warriors will be muted should he leads his new team past James and the Cavaliers. In reality, it will all be worth it for the former MVP. If the Warriors end up falling short, said criticism of Durant will be heightened even more. That’s the reality of the situation, one that will pit Durant up against James in one-on-one matchups throughout the series.
For his part, Durant heads into the Finals in the midst of a dominating stretch. He’s averaging 25.2 points and 7.8 rebounds during the playoffs. The former MVP is also coming off a series against San Antonio that saw him shoot at a 60 percent clip, including 10-of-13 in Golden State’s series-clinching Game 4 win. If anyone can go up against James and perform at a high level, it most definitely is Durant. Golden State will need that in order to come out on top here.
6. LeBron James, defining a legacy
LeBron brought a championship to Cleveland for the first time in over a half century. He did so less than two calendar years after returning from his stint in South Beach. Now, with seven consecutive NBA Finals appearances to his name, James is being mentioned among the game’s best. We’re talking about Bill Russell’s dominating run with the Celtics in the 1950’s and 1960’s. We’re also talking about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
It really isn’t hyperbole. James’ domination of the Eastern Conference over the course of the past near decade is historical. This year’s run to the NBA Finals is no different. In 13 games, James is averaging 32.7 points, 8.6 rebounds, 8.6 assists and 2.2 steals while shooting at a 56 percnt mark from the field.
Most experts are concluding that Golden State will run through Cleveland in the Finals. While that might very well be true, we can’t discount what James brings to the table. His performance last June is a prime example of that. If there’s one player that can take down this Warriors team, it surely is King James himself.
Though, there’s a wrench has been thrown into this entire narrative recently. We all know Golden State signed Durant to go up against James in June. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that. For the reigning NBA Finals MVP, it won’t be a cake walk like the Eastern Conference Playoffs were.
Sure Paul George offered a solid matchup in the first round, but he was a one-man show for Indiana. After that, the level of competition for James himself just wasn’t up to snuff. DeMarre Carroll and P.J. Tucker of the Raptors offered very little resistance in the conference semifinals. Meanwhile, Jae Crowder and rookie Jaylen Brown were in way over their heads in the conference finals.
That won’t be the case in the Finals. When Durant is not going up against James one-on-one, Defensive Player of the year front-runner Draymond Green will take on the four-time MVP. Heck, we will also see former NBA Finals MVP Andre Iguodala up against James. Those are three elite-level defenders. And if James is able to overcome them, his legacy will be defined as one of the greatest players to ever suit up in the NBA. It’s that simple.
7. Steph vs Kyrie
To say that Irving dominated Curry in last year’s NBA Finals would be an understatement. Even more than his game-winning shot in the do-or-die Game 7, Irving was on top of his game throughout the entire series. When it was Curry going up against him, the Cavaliers’ point guard absolutely made the then two-time reigning MVP look silly.
When all was said and done, Irving averaged 30.8 points and shot 47 percent from distance in the final five games of the series. Meanwhile, a hobbled Curry would lay a complete egg in Game 7 — shooting 6-of-19 from the field with four turnovers. Some will say that the knee injury Curry suffered earlier in the postseason played a role here, but that would be a cop out. He was simply vastly outplayed by his counterpart in Cleveland.
Though, the 2017 NBA Finals come at a time that Curry has recaptured his MVP form. He’s averaging 28.6 points while shooting at an absurd 50 percent from the field in this year’s playoffs. That’s led to a downright scary .622 effective field goal percentage. If Curry continues at that that level, the Finals will be a relatively short series.
Unfortunately for Cleveland, its defense continues to be a major black eye. When a team like Indiana can average 109 points in a series against the Cavaliers, that spells major trouble having to contend with what the Warriors offer on offense.
So even more so than what he brings on offense, Irving has to step up his defensive game. J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert are going to have a heck of a time against Klay Thompson. As we mentioned above, Kevin Love doesn’t necessarily match up well with Draymond Green. If Cleveland has to throw double teams Curry’s way, it will give other members of the Warriors wide-open shots to drain. That would be a less-than-ideal scenario for the three-time defending Eastern Conference champs.
8. Third and final?
Those outside of Cleveland and the Bay Area are probably hoping this is the last installment of the Cavaliers and Warriors in the Finals. Enough is enough, right? Common logic suggests that this trend will break next season, but that’s far from a certainty at this point.
While Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant are slated to become free agents, both are expected to return to the Warriors. Star sixth man Andre Iguodala has also indicated he wants to return on a smaller contract. Meanwhile, youngsters Ian Clark and Patrick McCaw have stepped up big time this year and have nowhere to go but up. The Warriors have four star players in their prime and seem to be destined for a continuation of this dominating run out west for the next several years.
We can pretty much also draw the same conclusion regarding Cleveland back east. LeBron James has not slowed down one bit this season. There’s nothing that suggests he’s going to. At just 25 years old, some will conclude that Kyrie Irving has not yet hit his prime. With Kevin Love finally fitting in, this trio should be able to dominate the east’s landscape for the foreseeable future.
Sure teams like San Antonio, Houston, Utah, Washington and Boston will make it difficult for these two squads. But to say that this is the final installment of the Warriors and Cavaliers would be a major mistake. That’s the unfortunate reality for those who don’t root for either team.
9. Will Draymond implode again?
For the most part, Draymond Green has behaved extremely well during the 2017 playoffs. He’s received one technical in 12 games and isn’t close to reaching the threshold that would suspend him for a game. That’s absolutely huge news for the Warriors, especially considering one could say he’s their most valuable player in this series.
With Golden State up 3-1 in the Finals last year, Green found himself suspended for Game 5 after a kick to James’ man parts. That ultimately helped Cleveland overcome the two-game deficit to pull off one of the greatest comebacks in playoff history.
In reality, Green not only needs to be on the court in every game of the Finals, he must maintain his emotions. That’s easier said than done for someone who relies on said emotion to help his team on the court.
Green will ultimately be tasked with going up against everyone from Kyrie Irving to LeBron James and Kevin Love on the defensive end of the court. His mere presence will make it difficult for the big three to go off in the same manner we have seen thus far in the playoffs.
Offensively, Green has given the Warriors more than they could have asked for thus far in the playoffs. Taking advantage of teams having to focus on Curry, Durant and Thompson, Green has found a plethora of wide-open threes. To the surprise of most outside of Oakland, Green is hitting the three at a 47 percent mark in the playoffs. He’s also adding 8.7 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.9 steals and 2.1 blocks per game. That’s some tremendous stuff right there.
If Green is able to keep his emotions in check while playing at an elite level on both ends of the court, it’s going to be really hard for Cleveland to come out on top in this series.
10. The greatest of all-time?
Golden State heads into the Finals having won 27 of its past 28 games. The team has lost a grand total of one game since March 11th. The three-time defending Western Conference champs are also the first team in NBA history to head into the Finals with a perfect 12-0 mark. Add in the fact that they’re winning by an average of nearly 17 points per game, and the domination has been real here.
If the Warriors make short work of Cleveland (as some suggest will happen), is this the greatest team in the history of the Association? Think about it this way. Golden State has won 67-plus games in each of the past three seasons. During that span, Steve Kerr’s squad boasts an absurd 207-39 regular season mark.
To put this into perspective, those 37 losses would have earned Golden State a spot in the playoffs in both conferences this season alone.
The numbers really are staggering when you look at them in context. Golden State finished the regular season No. 1 in the NBA at 115.9 points per game. It was also first in offensive efficiency and second in defensive efficiency. Draymond Green is the likely NBA Defensive Player of the Year and Kevin Durant upped his game to elite levels on that end of the court.
None of this has really changed in the playoffs. In fact, the Warriors are coming off a four-game sweep of the Spurs that saw them put up 120-plus points in each of the past three games. In total, Golden State averaged 122 points per game in the Western Conference Finals. That came on the heels of the team averaging 111 points in the semifinals and 120 points in the first round.
Should the Warriors handle business against Cleveland in the Finals for the second time in three years, a real argument could be made that this is the best team to ever play. It sounds like hyperbole, but the numbers sure do back up that sentiment. At the very least, it’s a debate that will rival what we are seeing with LeBron James and Michael Jordan right now.