Well, I don't know about the rest of DubNation, but this is exactly the 2016 NBA Finals matchup I wanted.
After an offseason of so-called basketball experts claiming that the Golden State Warriors got lucky in the 2015 NBA Finals because the Cleveland Cavaliers were affected by injuries, I wanted to see how it would play out with both rosters fully available.
By mid-season — for those that slept — it was evident that the Cavs would hold up their end of the bargain as they continued to feast on Eastern Conference competition. And fortunately the Warriors survived the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals to make their return to the Finals.
So now we'll get to give the Warriors haters what they want: the LeBron James and the Cavaliers at full strength. No excuses, no claims that the Warriors ducked all the best teams.
But for insight about how much different the Cavs are this time around, I reached out to Ryan Mourton of Fear the Sword to get answers to some key questions.
GSoM: Let's cut right to the question everyone has been talking about pretty much since last year's finals ended: how much will having a healthy Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love affect this year's series?
Ryan Mourton: It's huge. I'll never be convinced that they don't win last year's series if Kyrie is playing. I know that is heresy these days based on what happened later, but that isn't really applicable to that series. As far as this series goes...
Kyrie is shooting 48% from the field and 46% from 3. He isn't the physical force of nature that Russ Westbrook is, but he still one of the hardest guys in the league to defend. When he's rolling it changes the entire complexion of the team, pulling guys away from JR and Kevin to get those wide open 3's. One of the things I really think was undersold when discussing the way the Cavs played things last season is that the Warriors never really had to exert much effort defensively given the Cavs lack of creators and turtle slow pace.
Kevin is a different animal, and harder to peg. He's been raining 3's all postseason (45%), and is a tremendous rebounder. He's killed smaller players that the Pistons and Hawks tried to play on him, which he'll need to do here to be effective. In the context of starters he will need to keep Draymond from roaming off of him, and if they stick Barnes over there instead he will need to punish him in the post. He is equipped to do both, but can he? He's prone to slumps. When you get into bench units, anything with Speights/Varejao should be the greenest of green lights for him to attack, but again, weird slumps.
Defense is where both get messy, Kevin especially. He just isn't very quick laterally, and that's gonna pose a problem. He pretty much has to cover Bogut because post defense is where he is most comfortable but that still poses a pick and roll problem. Kyrie? Well, he might struggle covering Steph in the pick and roll but uh..... So does everyone else. He relishes these challenges, so he might surprise you.
If I had to pick their biggest impact? LeBron is fresh. He's playing 38 minutes a night and taking 17 shots. Last playoffs it was 42 and 27. These are the lowest playoff minutes of his career, third fewest shots per game, and second highest FG%.
GSoM: There has been plenty of talk about the effect of Tyronn Lue replacing David Blatt, including a recent report describing how Lue pleaded with Cavs GM David Griffin to reconsider the decision. What are some specific things that the Cavs are doing differently under Lue that might affect this series?
RM: The obvious thing is guys are getting along and playing together. The subtle thing is they're moving quicker without actually turning up their pace. What does that mean? Well, when T-Lue says the Cavs want to run, he's full of it. They want to move, but they aren't running up and down the court 7 seconds or less Suns style. They are sprinting into early offense, but if nothing is there they retreat to start a set at 20 seconds, instead of the 16 or less that was customary under Blatt.
A subtle thing would be his love of LeBron as a screener, and getting LeBron to buy into it. In 78 games he was the roll man 67 times during the regular season. In 14 playoffs games he's qualified as such 27 times, and that feels kind of low for some reason. On such plays the Cavs score 1.4 points per possession (PPP). It's deadly, and something the Cavs will use heavily in multiple lineups to get Kyrie on a smaller player or Steph on LeBron.
GSoM: There are obviously quite a few personnel differences between the Cavs that are entering the Finals and the ones the Warriors faced this winter; I'm assuming there's no point in really rehashing those games. But the biggest roster change — aside from losing Anderson Varejao, of course — was probably adding Channing Frye at the trade deadline. How significant do you think he'll be in this series against the Warriors?
RM: Frye is going to be hugely important. He's a better defender than Love, both laterally and vertically. If things really hit the fan he is going to need to be counted on. For the playoffs he is shooting 58% (FIFTY EIGHT!) from 3.
The Cavs score 1.5 PPP with him as a spot up shooter, and it makes their most deadly lineup go. No, it isn't their starters -- it's their LeBron, Delly, Frye, Shumpert, Jefferson bench lineup that has been crushing folks (though the starters also crush folks).
They ran the same exact play on Toronto nine times in a row and scored on eight, in large part because of the decisions that Frye forces teams to make. He camps out on the backside of a LeBron/Delly pick and roll and fades up from the short corner to the top side of the arc as the pick happens. It's been devastating all playoffs, to the tune of that lineup having a +46.6 net rating in a 70 minute sample. Channing Frye, who was obtained for absolutely nothing, could decide who wins a title. I love this league.
GSoM: Last year, Delly
was the most annoying human being on the planet did a pretty good job harassing Steph Curry into a couple of rough games in the Finals. How do you expect the Cavs to approach Curry this time around?
RM: I think it will be much the same? Honestly, I don't know. Thinking of ways to defend Steph makes my head hurt. They'll grab and hold and chip him through screens like every team does (which is exactly what every team does to Kyrie, my dear complaining reader :) ), and Steph will make dumb circus shots like he does. The key is defending everyone else. Or maybe it's just easier to ponder defending everyone else. Also annoy Draymond. Tristan Thompson and Delly are good at that.
GSoM: What do you fear most about the Warriors based on the way they're playing right now?
RM: I mean...the only thing there really is to fear. You talk about Harrison Barnes mattering, or Draymond being great (he is!), or Bogut still being alive sometimes, but it all stems from one thing: Steph and Klay are absurd shooting the rock. The Thunder checked every box, and one otherworldly shooting performance from Klay has The Warriors in the Finals anyway. That's what sets the Warriors (and the Cavs, and most great teams really) apart: They make AWFUL shots. That's a real NBA skill. When Steph, or Klay, or Kyrie, or JR, whoever, makes that contested 25 footer, it's just killer. That's where things get out of control. You play your game, have a nice lead or are in a dogfight, and then the stupid shots make you want to try to respond, suddenly you're down 20. The term "make or miss league" is often too simplistic, but for all the other great things the Warriors do (again, GREAT!) the shooting from those two is the chaos engine.
For more on the Cavs' perspective of things, check out Fear the Sword, their questions for us in a Q&A published over there this morning, and especially Ryan's piece about the power of sports to affect the lives of fans.