Golden State and Cleveland are officially a thing. Each team has been a juggernaut in some sense over the past few years. For the Warriors, winning 73 games in the regular season might have been a peak, but adding Kevin Durant and going 12-0 to start the post-season is arguably the most impressive thing they've done.
For the Cavaliers, there's no question that their three-round dominance in each of the past two years has been incredible, and the comeback/Game 7 performance from the 2016 Finals will forever be part of NBA lore. This year, the Cavaliers proved once and for all that "flipping the switch" is a real thing. For much of the year, they were not good. Suddenly, they're 12-1 in the post-season and a trendy pick to win the NBA title.
But not everything is quite as it seems. The Cavaliers are (deservedly) underdogs in the series, but they might have weaknesses that surprise you. They might also be better at things you thought were their weaknesses. Let's dive in.
The "trick" to stopping Golden State has been to prevent them from getting out and running, right? They sprint down the floor and hit open threes before the defense has a chance to set up, right? Wrong. Not in these playoffs, anyway. Golden State is averaging 1.023 points per possession (PPP) in transition in the playoffs. To put that into perspective, that number is significantly lower than the Cavs overall halfcourt offense rate. The Warriors are the 12th best in the playoffs in transition scoring. The Cavaliers, for what it's worth, are 3rd best at 1.199 PPP. LeBron, despite the video below, has been close to middle-of-the-road for the league. That's something to keep an eye on.
For as good as the Cavs have been in transition as a team (3rd best in the playoffs), Golden State has been better on defense. They're the top-ranked transition defense, allowing under one point per transition possession. The Cavs are 3rd best defensively but imagine having a fastbreak and the expected outcome is less than one point. That's brutal.
In the 2015 Finals, LeBron did everything. Usage percentage is a stat that measures how involved on offense a player is in any game. Before the 2015 Finals, LeBron's usage rate in those playoffs was almost 37%, which is very high. In the Finals, it was 41%. That's unheard of. The point of this is to say that Golden State has had some of the best defenses in NBA history in the past few years: They swarm, they smother, they cover for each other, and they constantly move. The Cavaliers figured out (by necessity) that one of the ways to attack them was to slow down and stagnate the defense. How do you do that? Hero ball, of course. One-on-one matchups lull a defense to sleep. And would you look at that! The Cavaliers have the best isolation scoring offense in the playoffs!
This is enormous. The Cavs are so good at iso scoring (1.155 PPP) that their iso scoring would be the fifth best transition offense in the playoffs. For comparison's sake, the Cavs were also #1 in iso scoring in the regular season. They averaged 0.99 PPP.
The Pick and Roll
Kyrie Irving is one of the best guards in the league. He has never (think about it) been outplayed in a playoff series in his career by another guard. In the regular season, Kyrie averaged 0.959 PPP when he completed the play as a pick and roll ball handler. That number was 50th best in the NBA, good for the 83rd percentile. In short, Kyrie did pretty well at that during the regular season. In the playoffs, for some reason, he's scoring 0.7 PPP, which is a huge drop*. On the one hand, this is a major concern for the Cavaliers. On the other hand, this feels like something that will self-correct because Kyrie Irving is just too good to keep underperforming in this area. In last year's playoffs, Kyrie shot 47% in these situations, scoring on 46% of these possessions (the difference is due to turnovers and free throws). This year, he's at 35% shooting and 32.6% scoring. His fouls-drawn has dropped from 8% to 3.3%. That's not ideal.
The good news is that Golden State, for all their greatness (and they are great - they're the 2nd best pick and roll stoppers in the playoffs), doesn't exactly have a Kyrie Irving stopper. If you remember the Christmas day Cavs/Warriors game, Kyrie totaled 27 points, 10 assists, 7 steals, and 6 rebounds. Klay Thompson, a consensus great defender, was on him for most of the game. Watch these highlights and tell me if you think Klay can stop Kyrie.
We're running out of accolades for this guy, which is why the national conversation has centered so much around Michael Jordan. There are countless things to say about LeBron and his greatness, but here's one I haven't seen talked about elsewhere.
Synergy Sports keeps a stat called PP(P+A), which is the overall points per possession of a player plus the points derived from their assists. In the playoffs, LeBron James is 14th best out of 180 players at 1.422 PP(P+A). LeBron has had 462 qualifying possessions for this stat. Nobody above him has had more than 330 (that's Al Horford, who is somehow still a statistical darling despite basically being a cardboard cut-out of himself during the Cavs series). The only guys above James with more than 100 qualifying possessions are Horford (330 possessions, 1.524 PP(P+A), Draymond Green (234, 1.509), and Chris Paul (235, 1.43).
Those first two guys have something in common - they're versatile big men whose role is to distribute after the star player gets double-teamed. LeBron James and Chris Paul are the star players who get double teamed. Make no mistake about it, Draymond Green is great at what he does. He runs the secondary point guard after defenses start scrambling to trap Curry or Durant. It's potent, as shown by his statistics in categories like this. However, LeBron is doing almost the same thing... except that he's skipping the middle-man. He doesn't pass it to his version of Draymond Green; he passes it to the guy that Draymond would pass it to. He's essentially allowing the defense to react to the pass he should make, and then he makes a different one. If that seems impossible, then you're beginning to understand LeBron James.
That's enough to think about for right now. These pieces of the game - isolation scoring, LeBron's ability to find the open man in nearly any situation, Kyrie rounding back into shape after a poor shooting start to the playoffs, and figuring out which team can actually play in transition - are going to decide this series.
* These ppp numbers may not seem like much, but a 0.26 PPP difference is giant. Think of it this way: There are typically 90+ possessions in a game, if one play scores 1/4 of a point more each time you run it than what the opponent scores, that's more than 20 extra points in your favor. 0.26 PPP is an outrageous difference.