Cavs-Warriors: A Finals Preview?

Christmas Day Game: Cleveland vs. Golden State

For the first time since Golden State took home the Larry O’Brien trophy in June, Cleveland and Golden State match up again.

What has happened since these teams have last taken the court together?

The Warriors have won 27 of 28 games, Curry is the center of the universe, and the good times are plentiful at Oracle Arena. Curry is the overwhelming favorite to win a second straight MVP, and the Warriors are expected to repeat as NBA Champs.

In Cleveland, LeBron and the Cavs are flying under the radar, and currently sit atop the East at 19-7. James has implemented a businesslike approach. In Golden State, the bench will dance after a made triple by one of the Splash Brothers (Curry, Thompson). But in Cleveland, the bench will look focused and serious, regardless of what happens on the court.

Steph Curry is playing out of his mind en route to a historic start for his team, and Kawhi Leonard has officially ascended to super-stardom, as he has led the San Antonio Spurs to a 25-5 start. These storylines have caused the Cavaliers to become somewhat overlooked as title contenders.

LeBron is doing what he has done for over a decade, averaging 26 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 assists. Despite this, he was only ranked 3rd in NBA.com’s most recent MVP ladder, behind Curry and Paul George.

The Cavs should not be taken lightly; this team has the third best record in the NBA, despite not having their starting backcourt for a single game this season.

Iman Shumpert was signed to a four year, $40 million deal this offseason, and was poised to be one of the league’s premier 3-and-D players. Instead, he underwent wrist surgery before the season and missed the first 21 games. He recently returned for his first action, only to be taken to the locker room with a groin injury. (It wasn’t serious). Three-time All-Star Kyrie Irving is making his way back from the broken kneecap he suffered in the Finals.

As a result, Mo Williams, J.R. Smith, and Matthew Dellavedova have all started a significant amount of games. These are capable players, but they were supposed to be coming off the bench, not logging starters minutes.

This has caused LeBron to nearly singlehandedly lead the Cavs, with some help from an improved Kevin Love. In a season in which David Blatt planned to reduce LeBron’s minutes, The King is averaging 36.4 minutes per game, which ranks seventh in the NBA. James also holds the second highest usage rate and fourth highest isolation rate.

Once Irving and Shumpert return to the lineup, it will take pressure off of LeBron, allowing him to become more efficient. Last season, when Irving did not play, James’ true shooting rate was 53% and his usage rate was over 40%. With Irving on the floor, his true shooting rate increased to 60% and his usage rate was 29% (SB Nation via NBA.com/stats). This second usage rate allows James to assume a more sustainable workload, while becoming an offensive facilitator rather than a lone wolf.

Even though the Cavs are not fully healthy, they provide a great matchup against the defending champs. Kevin Love is playing better in his second year in Cleveland, and the team is poised to avenge their championship loss.

Golden State is also improved, as Steph has soared even higher in his seventh season. Draymond Green will be voted into his first All-Star game because of his elite versatility on both ends of the court. The Warriors are playing so impressively that it is hard to imagine any NBA team beating them four times in a playoff series.

When the Cavs travel to the Bay Area on Christmas Day, viewers could be watching a preview of the 2016 NBA Finals. LeBron took the Warriors to six games last June without Irving or Love. This season, if the Cavs return to the playoffs with a healthy lineup, they will be Golden State’s toughest competition.

photo via llananba