Although we're still buzzing from the Golden State Warriors' thrilling Western Conference Finals series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, it's now (past) time to start looking ahead to the 2016 NBA Finals.
So as we do before every playoff round, we're here to offer our Golden State of Mind staff predictions.
1. Many people around the basketball world claimed that the Warriors got lucky in last year's Finals since Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were injured. But what do you think is the most significant difference between the 2015 and 2016 Cavs in terms of how they matchup with the Warriors?
Hugo: This is actually a fairly different team than the one the Warriors played in the Finals last year. The Cavs have added Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, and Channing Frye, while Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov have had reduced roles. The Warriors will have to defend the three-point line well this series, while exploiting the Cav's defensive weaknesses with no mercy.
Jared: Their small-ball lineup, which should allow them to keep up with Golden State's shooting. This isn't a good thing for them, so much as it's a different thing: Cleveland will have a harder time dominating the boards and controlling the pace with Frye or Love on the floor, which may create new problems the Cavs didn't have last playoffs.
Derek: Kevin Love is a matchup problem for both teams. In other words, defending a four/five that can shoot threes always requires defensive discipline -- something that Draymond Green, the likely defensive matchup for Love, sometimes gets away from. But Love is a double-edged sword (and I swear that's not an inspirational quote).
Tyronn Lue is going to have to experiment and see if he can hide Love on Andrew Bogut or Festus Ezeli on defense. Likewise, Steve Kerr will be probing the Cavs' defense by engaging Love's man in PnR action with Stephen Curry.
It needs to be said, though, that I don't really expect the deciding factor in this series to be something different than last year. As we saw with Oklahoma City, when the pressure is highest, players and teams revert to their deepest-ingrained habits. The Finals happens to be the highest-pressure crucible possible -- old habits will resurface. With the Cavs, that means running the offense through LeBron James. For the Warriors, that means "chucking" long-range bombs. That clash, which we saw last postseason, will once again be the central conflict.
Nate P.: I think Channing Frye is a pretty significant addition in the context of this series. Not only will he offer the Cavs some added punch from beyond the arc that they were lacking last season, but Frye might also help as a backup for Love -- they're going to need someone to help them defend when Love can't. If Frye can come in and simply move with the Warriors' quicker lineups more effectively than Love, the Cavs will be better off than they were last season... of course... I just don't think that will happen either...
Dean: Channing Frye's outside shooting prowess is the biggest change in Cleveland. Frye has converted the Cavs into a three-point shooting team, particularly when playing alongside Kevin Love. The Cavs can stretch the floor even more than usual with Frye in the pick and roll, forcing teams to go small... which plays to the Warriors' strength.
Bram: A quick tangent to the Channing Frye bandwagon discussion: his addition to the team emboldened Tyronne Lue to send Timofey Mozgov to the bench, opening up the center position for Tristan Thompson. In last year's finals, Tristan was by far the Cavs' second best player, behind LeBron. His commitment to rebounding and defense is insane. Having him on the floor is a huge plus for the Cavaliers, especially with all the newfound offense surrounding him.
Basketball Jonez: I think the improved chemistry that Cleveland has been displaying is the biggest difference for the Cavs going into this series. They seem to be getting along and working together better than ever. Their offense is incredible this postseason, putting up an incredible 119.2 ORtg so far in the playoffs. They’re moving the ball well, and Lebron has been trusting his teammates to pick up a lot of the load for him. It will be interesting to see how that holds up when they’re not playing against Eastern Conference teams and they find themselves challenged for the first time since last year’s Finals, but if their newfound love for each other is legitimate then watch out.
Apricot: The Cavs are really different from even the last time the W’s saw them (and crushed them in January). In the Lue era, he has convinced Lebron to be a screener in the pick and roll, and that is devastating, particularly with Kyrie, but also with Delly in the killer "HORNS Rub" play that they ran repeatedly at Toronto. They seem to have new firepower from 3, particularly with new toy Frye bombing from three. Lebron seems sold on using Kyrie and Love as offensive engines to conserve his energy.
2. Who/what do you think will be the biggest x-factor in this series?
Hugo: The Andre Iguodala vs. LeBron James matchup. I hope Steve Kerr starts Andre again this entire series. If he defends him as well as he did last year, it won't be close.
Jared: Klay Thompson. Last year he was that guy who got an A on your group project despite not doing much of anything. This year, he's the playoff MVP. It's hard to imagine any team corralling both Splash Brothers, four times in seven games.
Derek: Steph and LeBron.
Nate: 3-point shooting is gonna be pretty important in this series. While everyone is talking about what it means to have Irving and Love back, consider that Thompson and Draymond Green shot a combined 17-for-58 from beyond the arc last year. Now imagine if either (or both) shoots closer to their percentages throughout the playoffs. I understand why folks are focusing on the Cavs' shooting, but the Warriors have plenty of weapons themselves and I think it's the Cavs who will have to find ways to keep up.
Dean: Channing Frye is the x-factor in this series. The Warriors blew out Cleveland this season before Frye joined the Cavs. If he can maintain his shooting percentage from distance, that could help the Cavs bridge the gap between the teams.
Bram: If the Warriors come out strong in Games 1 and 2, will we see the Cavaliers go back to a more slow-it-down, grity style of play? I think strategical changes will once again define this series.
Jonez: Draymond Green. His combination of speed, skill, strength, and smarts are too much for Love and Thompson. I think he’ll draw coverage by Lebron pretty regularly. Putting Lebron to work on that end of the floor might make him a bit more critical of his teammates, which leads to mistrust, which leads to hero ball. Draymond’s constant trash talking is like the light that deep sea predators dangle in front of their open jaws, irresistible bait for a guy with Lebron’s ego.
Apricot: Besides Lebron as screener and Frye as stretch big, on the W’s side, we forget but (healthy) Curry is MUCH better than he was last Finals. Curry can now create his shot against defensive overplays and in isolations much more effectively than last year. Draymond (playmaking and post scoring) and Klay (assertive bombing, drives and simple playmaking) have grown too.
3. A few Warriors players struggled during last year's Finals, which prompted a couple lineup/rotation changes. So who is best positioned to enjoy a redemption story or show improvements compared to last year's Finals?
Jared: Again, the answer is Klay Thompson. He was wretched at times last season, but the Klayoffs appear to be a thing of the past. If Thompson is locked in and loaded, he could be the Warrior to steal a Finals MVP from Stephen Curry and the Cavaliers.
Nate: Marreese Speights played just 16 minutes over three games last season. With both Bogut and Ezeli struggling throughout this year's playoffs, no David Lee around to play the role of veteran stop gap and Speights extending his range to the 3-point line, I'd see Speights as someone poised for a bigger role this time around...or making an appearance in every game at the very least.
Bram: Honestly, there's a reason Stephen Curry didn't win Finals MVP last season. He did not play to the pinnacle of his abilities, and voters were stuck between giving the award to LeBron James (who had obviously been the series' best player), or giving it to the man most responsible for trying to stop LeBron, Iguodala. I think Curry remembers his (semi) no-show, and explodes onto the stage. Especially considering he has shown some more razzle dazzle as his knee heals.
Jonez: It has to be Klay. He scored 15.8 points per contest in the Finals last year, on .509 TS%. So far in this postseason, he’s averaged 26.2 a night with significantly better efficiency (.597 TS%). Not only that, he’s really carried the team offensively for long stretches throughout the postseason, and I think it’s led to improved confidence.
4. Who do you think will win the series and in how many games?
Hugo: I said Warriors in 5 last series, and I haven't learned anything, so I'm going to say Warriors in 5 again. But seriously, I see the Cavs as much less of a threat than the Thunder. The defensive weaknesses on the Cavs seem too significant.
Jared: Warriors in 7. The Cavaliers are a much-improved team from January, and new head coach Tyronn Lue seems to have better control of the Cavaliers, and their lineups. These new Cavs are an offensive juggernaut, but they do lack the volume of 'problem players' to cover, compared to the Oklahoma City Thunder. And I doubt their defense travels as well, with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love getting major minutes. This is close to a coin-flip, but I'll go with the home team.
Nate: I'm going with Warriors in 6. I do think the Cavs are better than the team the Warriors faced last year, but I also think this Warriors team that has a bit more experience, a two-time MVP, three All-NBA players, and just fought for their lives in the conference finals is also a better. We know as well as any fanbase that LeBron can singlehandedly win games, but it would stun me if he had the otherworldly series he had last year and I don't think the rest of the team has enough to put them over the top.
Derek: Warriors in 7 or 6. Or 5. Or 4. But probably 5. Maybe.
Usually, the conference postseasons lend clarity to each teams' abilities. This year, there is a fog of war over the battlefield. The Cavs have looked at times like a chainsaw; but the East is also a butter pat, and any old butter knife could cut through it with relative ease. So, are the Cavs just a butter knife in a conference of butter? Or are they really a chainsaw?
Likewise, the Warriors have looked bad at times, with ample valid explanations (Steph injuries, Draymond's technicals, et al.) for their substandard play. They also just ripped through three consecutive elimination games in a performance of reanimation that would make Dr. Frankenstein applaud.
The Cavs have more on-paper offensive talent than last year. I'm a Kyrie agnostic in terms of his actual on-court contributions, but I also just saw Dion Waiters contribute a few healthy minutes in the conference finals, so I'm still a bit shell-shocked. Love is one of the more skilled 6'9, 240 lbs human beings in the Association. The Cavs are more than an unfriendly nuisance.
The one truism regarding the Warriors that was strengthened in the OKC series is that you never bet against them.
Bram: I'm going Warriors in 6. I think they dug deeeeeep in the OKC series. The Cavaliers, outside of two strange losses in Canada, have not been tested at all this postseason. I think LeBron and Curry will be a sight to see, but in the end, the Warriors are just too committed to the moment to relinquish the crown. After what they went through in Oklahoma City, do you really see them coming out confused or flat? The moment is not too big for them.
Jonez: Unfortunately, I think that injuries and officiating will likely be a factor again (because they always are). The Warriors will find themselves down in the series at some point, and the usual suspects will take the opportunity to invalidate Golden State’s previous accomplishments. Things will look really bleak, and then the Warriors will figure out the best way to play against the Cavs and do that, rattling off a string of consecutive wins to close out Cleveland. Both teams seem to be improved from last year, but I trust the Warriors to step up and make the right play when it matters most. I just can’t say that about the Cavs, especially under this much pressure. Warriors in 7.
What are your predictions? Vote in the poll below and let us know in the comments.