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The Last Word Before the NBA Finals

The Warriors should win this series. That sounds weird to say. Here's why ... and why they could fail.

Ezeli will prove to be part of the Warriors' edge.
Ezeli will prove to be part of the Warriors' edge.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

If the Cavaliers are who they were this year, the Warriors win easily. This is pretty straightforward, but the logical conclusion of simply looking at who the teams have on their rosters.  Rather than look at positional match-ups, or tactics, or anything that Zach Lowe already covered much better than I can, let's just look at players on each team, from best to worst.

LeBron vs. Steph

Small edge: LeBron. Their stats this year were closer than you think but LeBron James is, well, LeBron James. He gets the benefit of the doubt but by RPM the difference was only 0.1.

He's also, somewhat notoriously, got an on-off switch. We'll come back to this later.

Draymond vs. Shumpert

Massive edge to Draymond. Cavs fans will complain about the size of this edge, and claim that Shumpert isn't their second-best player. Well, they're wrong on both counts, for the same reason: defense matters. Draymond is an elite defensive player whose impact on the game is comparable to an elite offensive player - just harder to measure or to see with the naked eye.

Shumpert is a solid player who is good enough to be in the starting lineup of a very good team. Draymond is probably a top-20 player in the league.

Klay vs. Kyrie:

Klay has a large edge on Kyrie.  More howls form Cavs fans, here, but again they're wrong, for the same reason: Defense counts. Kyrie is a dynamic player who is one of the best in the league at getting to the rim, and he's got a dangerous shot. But he's also a defensive liability who the Cavs are going to have to hide.

You'll see lots of analysts pay lip service to defense and then ignore it when comparing players. Don't be fooled. Defense counts just as much as offense. Kyrie is good enough on offense to still be an excellent player despite his defense, but Klay - who is not as good on offense - is much better on defense.  The gap between these two is not small, it just looks that way.

Plus, Kyrie might not be 100% healthy. He's been sitting out of practices.

Bogut vs. Mozgov:

Bogut has a large edge on Mozgov.

Again, there have been a lot of superficial comparisons between these two guys, who are both great shot-blockers - but the simple truth is that Bogut is better. He challenges more shots at the rim. His passing makes him a better offensive player. Again, the gap is not particularly small. Do not be fooled by counting stats. Mozgov is a very good defensive player, but Bogut is a great one.

Thompson vs. Barnes:

Thompson has a small edge here.

Warriors fans sometimes get carried away with Barnes's scoring outbursts, but over the course of the season he's had plenty of games without them. (Hold on to that thought). Thompson is a dangerous offensive rebounder who will thrive when the Warriors are forced to help to challenge LeBron at the rim. But this is a small edge.

The size of the gaps in the spots where the Warriors have an edge is MUCH larger than the spots where the Cavs have the edge.

With the benches, we see something similar:

Iguodala vs. JR

Iguodala has a large edge over JR.

Again, many observers will ignore this, because they base their evaluations on scoring. But Iguodala is good enough to start for most teams in the league. He is a special defender whose defense generates easy baskets for his teammates. He's just flat-out better, but in ways that are hard to see unless you know what to look for.

The rest:

Dellavedova might be the next best bench player, but everybody else on their bench is terrible - replacement level or worse.

Meanwhile the Warriors have a bunch of solid bench guys - not special, but can come in and contribute: Livingston, Ezeli, Barbosa, and Speights will all get some run. And while the deep bench doesn't matter so much in the finals, with long breaks between games, it adds up and we can expect to see the Cavs getting tired at the end of games as the Warriors make them work and try to run them out of the gym. This is especially true if Kyrie is limited, when the Cavs will find themselves simply running out of gas trying to keep up while having only six healthy rotation-quality players.

The caveat:

So, essentially, the Cavs only hope is that they are substantially better in the finals than they were in the regular season. Unfortunately for the Warriors, there's some reason to think that might be the case.

LeBron has that on-off switch during the regular season. It's not like he can reach game-six-in-Boston heights every night even when he wants to, but we have to assume he's going to show us at least stretches of that next gear.

And beyond LeBron, it seems like the Cavs have really been gelling lately. They clobbered a bunch of teams in the playoffs. Does that represent their true strength? Or was it a function of opposition worn down by injury, wear and tear?

However, if you're going to give the Cavs credit for being better now than they were over the totality of the season, then you have to extend similar benefit of the doubt to Warriors like Ezeli, Livingston, and Barnes, all of whom have been playing better lately than they were from November to March.

The conclusion:

Predictions are a fool's game. Lots of things could happen: LeBron could just take over. Klay could get the yips. The pressure could get to the Warriors, or they could get cocky and sloppy. JR could forget how to miss. But in the NBA, at the end of the season, you usually find that teams are who you thought they were.

Who do we think these teams are? The Cavs are a good team in a weak conference. Not as strong as last year's Miami team, especially with their injuries. The Warriors, on the other hand, just had a historically great regular season and convincingly beat three teams in the playoffs, all of whom were better than the injury-depleted Hawks the Cavs just swept.

Warriors in five.

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