The moment that all NBA fans have been waiting for all season is nearly here. The Golden State Warriors swept their way into the Finals, going 12-0 through the first three rounds. The Cleveland Cavaliers nearly matched their efforts, as they went 12-1 en route to the Finals. The third straight Warriors-Cavs Finals begins on June 1st, and both teams have improved their rosters since last year. This should be a championship round for the ages. Here is how it all breaks down.
Guards: Splash Brother(s) vs. Uncle Drew and J.R.
For the first time in this Finals matchup, we will get to see Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving face off at full health. Kyrie played just one game in 2015 before going down with a knee injury, and Curry played through an injury in last year's Finals. Kyrie has arguably done a better job of creating for others in these playoffs than at any other point in his career, averaging a playoff career-high 5.6 assists per game. However, he has continued to struggle on the defensive end. That will be anathema in this series, as Steph Curry has been a human torch in these playoffs. Curry is averaging 28.6 points and 5.6 assists per game on ridiculous 50/43/91 shooting splits.
The shooting guard matchup would normally be a massive advantage for the Warriors. However, Klay Thompson has been in a slump this entire postseason, averaging just 14.4 points per game with a miserable 48.5% True Shooting percentage. J.R. Smith is neither an All-Star nor a former All-NBA player, but he has grown into a top-notch defender in Cleveland. He should be able to hold Thompson in check, given Klay's struggles over the last month and a half. That being said, Thompson could get hot at any time. Ultimately, Golden State has a decided edge in the backcourt battle.
Advantage: Golden State
Forwards: A Worthy Opponent
The two best players in the league have been red-hot in these playoffs, and it is not hard to see why. LeBron James had his least impressive series of these playoffs against Paul George in the first round and then rolled over DeMarre Carrol and Jae Crowder/Jaylen Brown. Kevin Durant had an even easier road--he got to bully Maurice Harkless in the first round, and after a tough matchup in Gordon Hayward, he got to snack the Kawhi-less Spurs. While there might be some debate about it Kevin Durant is the second-best player in the league, the LeBron-Durant battle pits two of the league's best players against each other for the first time since 2012.
The other forward spot is just as intriguing. Draymond Green has faced an even easier slate of matchups than Durant--Noah Vonleh, Boris Diaw, and the artist formerly known as LaMarcus Aldridge is not exactly a murderer's row. Draymond will have his hands full in trying to cover Kevin Love, who has looked more like Minnesota Love with each passing playoff game. Having to stick with Love on the perimeter will draw Green away from the rest of the Cavaliers. Since his help defense is his greatest asset, that is already a huge win for the Cavaliers.
Love's struggles against the Warriors last year are concerning, but he was also battling a concussion for the latter half of the series. Green will be more impactful, but barring an injury or a meteor strike LeBron will be more impactful than Durant. For the first time in these playoffs, neither team will have a massive edge in the forward battle.
Center: Up in the Air
The presumed starting center battle will pit Zaza Pachulia against Tristan Thompson. Theoretically, that is a huge plus for Cleveland. Zaza is expected to play in Game 1, but even if he is fully healthy he will not be able to keep Tristan Thompson from banging the offensive glass.
However, Zaza will be a starter in this series in name only. The Warriors have kept the Draymond Green at center lineups on ice thus far, but those groups will come out in full force in the Finals. This year, those lineups will have the added edge of a seven footer in Kevin Durant replacing Harrison Barnes. The Cavaliers have been very effective in these playoffs by putting Kevin Love in at center, but Draymond could play those lineups off the floor. Mike Brown (or maybe Steve Kerr) could also opt to put JaVale McGee in against Thompson to match his athleticism.
The nominal starting matchup in the middle heavily favors the Cavaliers. However, pretty much all other center lineups will favor the Warriors.
Advantage: Golden State
Bench: Versatility vs. Sharpshooting
The Warriors lost some bench depth from last year in their push to create room to sign Kevin Durant. In spite of that sacrifice, they still have one of the better backup groups in the league. Andre Iguodala is arguably the league's best bench player, and Shaun Livingston is one of the league's better backup point guards and shooting 61.3% from the floor this postseason.Patrick McCaw, Ian Clark, and JaVale McGee have all had spectacular stretches in the postseason.
The Cavaliers, on the other hand, bring a bench unit that fits better with LeBron than any bench he has ever gotten to play with. Kyle Korver has been ridiculously efficient from deep since getting to Cleveland, and Iman Shumpert has canned 47.1% of his triples in this postseason run. Deron Williams has played better for Cleveland than he has in years, and is hitting an absurd 50% of his triples in the playoffs.
Most of Golden State's bench has been together for at least two years, while two of Cleveland's biggest bench pieces joined the team in 2017. Golden State also has a depth advantage; while that hopefully will not make too much of a difference (since an injury would be the only way that the 10th and 11th men will make a real difference), the Warriors still have chemistry and experience on their side.
Advantage: Golden State
Coaching: The Two-Headed Monster Steps over Lue
The coaching matchup in this series will turn on the availability of Steve Kerr. Bob Myers said in a recent interview that Kerr would probably not be available for this series, but did not rule out the possibility of Kerr returning to coach in the Finals. While Mike Brown has the 2009 Coach of the Year award on his resume, he does not have the same sterling coaching resume as the man who revolutionized the Warriors' offense. Kerr will certainly be involved with the gameplan as he was during the San Antonio series, and he will be involved in the Finals whether or not he is on the bench come game time.
Ty Lue's team prevailed in the Finals last year, but they did not do so on the strength of his coaching. Despite the locker room issues with David Blatt, the team had a better record under Blatt (30-11) than they did under Lue (27-14). While Lue deserves plenty of accolades for managing Cleveland's locker room, their defense collapse down the stretch of the regular season should also fall at least partially on the head of their head coach.
The Cavaliers have shown just how little the regular season means to them this year, so it would not be fair to use that regular season as the ultimate proof of Lue's coaching ability. Nonetheless, both Mike Brown and Steve Kerr have a longer track record of success than Cleveland's second-year head man.
Advantage: Golden State (probably)
Key Matchup: LeBron vs. the World
LeBron put together his single greatest playoff series in the 2016 Finals. He has arguably been even better in the 2017 playoffs than he was last year. It seems impossible, yet somehow LeBron continues to improve every year. Betting against him seems like a foolish exercise--he is by far the best player in the league, and nobody would be shocked if he managed to kick it into another gear in the Finals.
However, this Warriors team is stacked beyond comprehension or historical comparison. The Cavaliers may have the best player in the league, but Golden State has the second and third best player in the league. They have four of the 15 players on the 2015-2016 All-NBA teams, and three of the 15 players on this year's All-NBA team. The last three MVP awards were awarded to Golden State players. The runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year in each of the last two years (and the favorite for this year's DPOY) is the THIRD best player on their team. They also have a fourth All-Star and arguably the best sixth man in the league. The Warriors have an unprecedented amount of talent, and those players fit together nearly perfectly.
The Golden State Warriors would probably have won the title in five games last year had Draymond Green not been suspended. They took a 73-win team and swapped Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut for Kevin Durant.
LeBron James could carry this Cavaliers team to a title by averaging 40-10-10, and it would not be all that shocking. LeBron may continue to laugh in the face of Father Time, but the Warriors simply have too much talent to bet against them.
Prediction: Golden State defeats Cleveland 4-2 to win the 2017 NBA title.