The NBA Finals have come to a close with the Warriors winning a vindicating, if somewhat anticlimactic, title for their second title in three years. They are likely a Draymond Green technical and/or Steph Curry slight injury away from a three-peat and legitimate “greatest team ever” clubhouse leader status, but regardless, it has been a pretty impressive run.
And the scary thing is, it shows no obvious signs of stopping. Their four best players are all under 30 years old and three are under contract with Steph Curry’s being simply a matter of how much he demands. In summary, the band will be back together again in 2017-2018, which makes them the obvious favorites for a third title in four years. In fact, they are so overwhelmingly the obvious favorite, that Vegas currently has them a 1:2, the lowest odds ever for a repeat champion prior to the season beginning.
The kings of the NBA are obvious. But can The King do anything to change the narrative next season??
Five Ways the Cavaliers Can Dethrone the Warriors in 2018
#1. The Regular Season Matters
Closing the gap on the Warriors for regular season dominance is easier said than done. The Warriors led the NBA with 67 wins (one year removed from winning an NBA-record 73) and did so in Year One of the Kevin Durant assimilation. Going by the same timeline it took the Miami Heat to get clicking in the advent of the “Big Three”, 2017 – 2018 could be an even better regular season. Assuming the Warriors WANT it to be… It’s possible that they play with the speed governor on a bit next year, stealing rest for key players and ceding a few games along the way after three straight Finals appearances.
Meanwhile, the Cavaliers won just 51 games this season, so adding 16 plus wins is a pretty daunting task. Tre is no denying the Cavs gave away a BUNCH of games due to sheer indifference this season, but 16 is a still a LOT to make up. And it came back to haunt them. The Cavaliers were unquestionably the BETTER team in both of their home games in the NBA Finals. A terrible 90 seconds cost them Game Three (and likely a competitive series) and Game Four was a performance for the ages. With home court advantage and 90 seconds of discipline, this series could have looked a WHOLE LOT different…
So how can they close the gap? Some of it might require a little good fortune. At some point, Golden State has to hit a few injury snags. Perhaps that can drag them down into the low 60’s. And perhaps a few teams in the West can make a little push, someone beside the Spurs being competitive (maybe Houston adds a piece or two, Utah grows up a bit, etc). But beside luck and some help from some friends in the West, THE biggest difference maker for a more fruitful regular season is Kyrie.
Kyrie showed he has the chops to be an Alpha Dog in the NBA Finals. Let him. Twenty to twenty five games a year, take the leash off Kyrie and let LeBron pseudo-rest rather than taking an actual night off the floor. Let LeBron be Magic. Let Kyrie be… I don’t know, Kyrie (A.I? Isaiah Thomas – the original one? Nate Archibald?) Pick your appropriate comp, but let Kyrie WIN you 15-20 games by himself by scoring 35-plus rather than rolling out the B-Team. It is going to take at least 60 wins to flirt with homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs, and looking at the currently constructed Warriors, I think homecourt edge in the Finals is going to be a prerequisite to win a title.
#2. What’s Love Gotta Do With It?
LeBron the GM’s biggest move this offseason is finding a replacement piece for Kevin Love. It is really the only move left on the chessboard. LeBron and Kyrie are untouchable (though I still think a Kyrie/Paul George trade straight-up makes sense for both teams. The Cavs don’t need a point guard, they need a second lean, long defender who can also hit threes). No other player has value independently. No one is giving the Cavs a useful piece for the pu-pu platter of Shumpert/Smith/Thompson/Korver/Williams. It is just Kevin Love. He has always “fit out” rather than fit in, to parrot a bad LeBron-ism, and Love would still command significant value on the open market.
They need someone who can defend AND shoot. The Cavs had to many one-way players on the floor at any given time to counter the brilliance and versatility on both ends of the floor for Golden State. They’d be better off with a tall wing who can defend the perimeter – put him on the Golden State four (unless the four is Draymond when they go big) and someone who can also slash, score, and create.
Maybe someone like an Andrew Wiggins. Oh wait…
For the record, I think Kevin Love is a fantastic player. He is the best outlet passer in the modern NBA, an excellent shooter as a stretch four, and a terrific rebounder. He can be a 20/10 guy in the right situation, as he had shown for most of his career. He isn’t a great fit in Cleveland. They aren’t strong enough defensively to cover for some of his shortcomings and their style of play isn’t ideal to take advantage of his offensive skill set. He is a good player in Cleveland. He can be a GREAT player again someplace else. I wouldn’t be stunned if the Cavs find a way to make a splashy deal, and Love is the only chip they have to play.
#3. Tell Chris Paul He’ll LOVE it in San Antonio
If the Cavs can’t knock off the Warriors, maybe they can get someone to do it FOR them. It is perhaps making a bit too much of one half of basketball, but the Spurs LOOKED like they could hang with Golden State before Kawhi went down. Replace an aging Tony Parker and an above-average but barely Patty Mills with Chris FREAKING Paul?? Tell me San Antonio isn’t a tempting pick in the West? I’ll spare you all of Chris Paul’s insane metrics for another column, but let’s simplify it to say, when he is on the court, every player on his team and his team in general is exponentially better than when he is not.
An opening night lineup of Paul/Green/Kawhi/Pau/Aldridge is pretty insane. They have size, athleticism, versatility and veteran savvy. They’d have trouble defending the Warriors small lineup, but they have plenty of 3-and-D guys on the bench they can swap in for Pau when Zaza goes to the bench.
It isn’t that far fetched that after a half decade of frustration in LA, Chris Paul finally goes ring shopping. There’s no better ring shopping valet than Coach Pop.
#4. Younger. Faster. Stronger
The bench SOUNDS so amazing. All Stars like Kyle Korver and Deron Williams. Shooters like Channing Frye. Defenders like Iman Shumpert. The problem with their bench is that ALL of those guys at this point in the careers can only do ONE thing, and with the exception of Shump, that thing ISN’T guard anyone effectively. The SECOND LeBron left the floor, all hell broke loose. Otherwise close games turned into romps if LeBron left the floor for literally more than two or three minutes. Their bench was just too old.
The need some young legs. They need some disruptors. They need a few 3-and-D guys like the Spurs always seem to have in abundance. The bench, which I thought could have been a strength, got exposed. They need some youth. Not just to counter Golden State, but to get through a long regular season. We talked earlier about the need to bolster the 51-win regular season. That can’t happen without a younger, better bench.
#5. Play Completely and Totally Different Stylistically
Ok, that’s a tricky one. But it makes sense and may be the fix more than any single trade or added piece in the rotation.
Look at the top teams in the NBA last season. Almost ALL of them play a free flowing, wide open, three-centric offensive style. The Cavaliers were actually second in the NBA in three point percentage last season at 38.4%, trailing only the Spurs and leading the Warriors by a tenth of a point. However, they had to WORK a lot harder to get their open shots and their points. They were one of the more efficient teams in the NBA, but not a particularly fast paced team. They ranked 16th in pace to the Warriors 4th. Now pace in and of itself isn’t a recipe for success. The top three teams in pace in the regular season were Brooklyn, Phoenix, and Houston – quite a mixed bag of results. But a quick pace for an efficient team only makes sense, assuming that a quicker tempo doesn’t drag down the efficiency.
In simple terms: More shots in a game for the more efficient team is always a good thing, and should increase margin of victory and expected win totals.
The tricky part is, speeding up the tempo for a team that doesn’t pass nearly as well as one would think a LeBron-led squad might isn’t always easy. The Warriors led the NBA in offensive efficiency, were third in three point FG% and were fourth in pace. But they were FIRST, and first by a LOT, in another overlooked category, Assist Ratio, at 21.4. The Cavaliers ranked 15th at 17.2. To put it in another context, the Warriors were better in the league at creating made baskets for teammates than any other team by the same margin that separated #2 Boston (18.9) and #21 Miami (16.3).
Four of the top five teams in the NBA ranked in the top six in Assist Ratio. The only exception? Cleveland.
The Cavaliers dribble too much for the modern NBA, and only get away with it because of the singular brilliance of LeBron James, and to a lesser extent, Kyrie Irving. If they want to dethrone the Warriors, it is going to take some serious soul-searching and a real change of heart in terms of playing style. In Games Three through Five, Kyrie and LeBron dribbled more individually than the ENTIRE WARRIORS TEAM. That style won games in the 90’s (and not coincidentally, when scores were also in the 80’s and 90’s). Not today when Golden State is dropping 125 in their sleep.
It will be a painful adjustment, and might take a little rejiggering of the roster, but if the Cavs want “Larry” back in Cleveland, they are going to need to grow and adapt to their surroundings.
CURRENT ODDS TO WIN THE 2017-2018 NBA CHAMPIONSHIP:
Golden State Warriors -200
Cleveland Cavaliers +300
Boston Celtics +1200
San Antonio Spurs +1200
Houston Rockets +2000
Los Angeles Clippers +3300
Toronto Raptors +5000
Washington Wizards +5000
Oklahoma City Thunder +6600
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