Both the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors arrive at the championship round on different paths but in a similar fashion.
Besides stat-stuffing numbers from their marquee players, they had significant contributions from their supporting casts. Even with the All-Stars on both squads leading their respective teams, the role players should never be discounted.
Guys like Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving, and LeBron James will come out and seize the spotlight. Nonetheless, the 2015 NBA Finals is primed to be a grind and could come down to a test of which lesser star steps up and makes the difference. Here are the X-Factors who could affect the final outcome of the NBA Finals.
Iman Shumpert/J.R. Smith
The tandem of Shumpert and Smith were brought to Cleveland via trade in the middle of the season. While they were dismissed in New York, they have quietly become one of the Cavs' most productive combos. Via Marc Berman of the New York Post, Shumpert and Smith have a plus-24 per 100 plays, the highest plus-minus rating of any Cavs duo.
Shumpert was injured upon acquisition but quickly became one of Cleveland's top perimeter defenders. He has defended both guard and wing positions and allowed opponents to shoot only 28 percent from outside. Besides defense, Shumpert offers spot-up shooting, sporting 38 3PT% off of catch-and-shoot opportunities in the post-season per NBA.com/Stats.
On the other hand, Smith gives the Cavs a savvy shooter who can take some scoring pressure off of Irving and James. When Smith has the hot hand, he's draining threes with confidence and ease. In the playoffs, Smith is shooting 40% from beyond the arc and 57% on 'open' three-point chances via NBA.com/Stats. Smith is not afraid of shooting the long bomb as he set a Cavaliers playoff record with eight three-pointers made in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
With Kevin Love out of the lineup, Thompson blossomed as the team's starting power forward. Providing the Cavs with a different dynamic compared to Love, Thompson averaged 11.8 points, 11 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in the Atlanta series. The gritty big man has given the Cavaliers a solid low post presence and hauled in multiple second-chance possessions. According to ESPN, Thompson is third in offensive rebounding (4.0 ORPG), behind Tyson Chandler and LaMarcus Aldridge who were both eliminated in the first round. Thompson will likely be utilized in Cleveland's small-ball lineups and his ability to provide more scoring opportunities should not be undervalued.
Green is definitely not a role player by any means. While his impact on the game is often not noticeable in the boxscore, Green is a 'do it all' Swiss Army knife type of player. The Warriors have been at their best with Green on the floor, outscoring opponents by 13 points per 100 possessions. Green never backs down from a challenge and should be expected to defend James on occasions. With the capability to guard all five positions, facilitate the offense, knock down threes and much more, Green represents the modern-era 'playmaking four'.
Andre Iguodala/Shaun Livingston
When the Warriors needed an spark of energy, Iguodala and Livingston have been stable contributors. Both made a mark in the Houston Rockets' series by providing much needed bench production.
Livingston scored 18 points, grabbed seven rebounds and dished out three assists in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. With his length, Steve Kerr has been able to feature him in a three-guard lineup with Curry and Thompson. At 6'7", Livingston is a steady ball-handler who often takes advantage of a shorter guard matchups. He is also a skilled slasher without the ball, often finding space in the paint for an easy dunk.
Iguodala is a serviceable playmaker in addition to being a lock-down defender. When he's running the second unit's offense, Iguodala has made sound decisions which is reflected by an astounding assist-turnover ratio of 6.38 (51 AST, 8 TO) in the playoffs. Although his passing and cutting skills are on point, Iguodala is going to have to knock down wide open jumpers for the Warriors.
With a championship on the line, other players are going to have to emerge and help shoulder the weight carried by the stars. While all eyes will undoubtedly be on Curry and James, the NBA Finals could ultimately be decided by the impact of each team's supporting casts.