The betting public is backing LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2015 NBA Finals, even though the Golden State Warriors have been the league’s best team all season long. While the Cavs are led by the top basketball player on the planet, it likely won’t be enough to give them their first title in franchise history.
Golden State was dominant in the regular season, going 67-15 and finishing seven games ahead in the NBA’s overall standings. They’ve been just as good in the playoffs, winning 12 of their 15 contests, and there’s little reason to believe that won’t continue in the final series of the year.
The gap between Golden State and Cleveland might be smaller than their regular season records would indicate. The Cavaliers won 14 fewer games, but they started the year with a 19-20 record, and Cleveland became the clear top team in the Eastern Conference when James returned from his injury in mid-January.
But the West has proven to be the much better conference, and Cleveland would have had a much more difficult time making the NBA Finals had they played on the other side of the country. As good as James is, Stephen Curry was named the league’s MVP, and he’s been just as good in the playoffs.
There are a few key reasons why the Warriors will defeat the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals.
LeBron’s Supporting Cast
James was able to carry the Cavs against teams like the Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks, but he won’t be able to do the same against Golden State. The Warriors are too good to let one player beat them, even if he is the best player of the last 10 years.
James has put up historic statistics and he hasn’t played with a healthy Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love for the majority of the playoffs, but he could be looking at even worse production from his supporting cast in the NBA Finals. J.R. Smith was the team’s second-best player in the last two series, but his numbers don’t appear to be sustainable against Golden State.
Smith was instrumental in a few of Cleveland’s victories. He made eight of 12 three point attempts in Game 1 against the Atlanta Hawks, finishing the Eastern Conference Finals with 18 points per game on 50 percent field goal shooting. He also made some big shots against Chicago in the second round, shooting 50 percent from the floor, including 44.4 percent from three-point range.
JR has been the 2nd most efficient pull-up shooter this Playoffs(70.9% eFG%; C.Lee,72.9%).He had a 46.1 eFG% on such shots during the season
— NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) June 2, 2015
Playing against the league’s best defensive team, it’s hard to imagine Smith will keep up his hot shooting. His play has allowed the Cavaliers to survive the subpar play of the injured Irving, but the point guard will have to do a lot more against the Warriors.
Irving has still managed to score 18.7 points per game this postseason, and the week off could help him look more like his old self. But he’s admitted that he won’t be 100 percent healthy this series, and head coach David Blatt has indicated that Irving could have another tough series.
The Warriors had the league’s best defense in the regular season, leading the NBA in points allowed per possession and opponents’ field-goal percentage. They’ve continued to play well in the postseason, even limiting the MVP runner-up enough to win the Western Conference Finals in five games.
James Harden was terrific at times against Golden State, giving the Houston Rockets a chance to steal multiple games. But the Warriors forced him to have maybe his two worst games of the year. Harden missed 13 of his 16 field-goal attempts in Game 3, and he committed 13 turnovers while shooting 18.2 percent from the floor in Game 5.
LeBron James’ overall 2015 NBA Finals statistics might end up being impressive, but Golden State has the ability to make him have one or two uncharacteristically bad performances. Cleveland has almost no chance to win a game in which James isn’t playing at a high level, evidenced by the fact they've struggled with him off the court.
In his one contest against the Warriors this season, James was brilliant, leading his team to an 11-point victory. But Golden State has had a week to prepare for James, and he won’t be able to sustain that level of play for an entire series against the Warriors. Despite being able to put up big numbers in the playoffs, James has been in a shooting slump, something that Golden State might be able to expose.
Golden State has multiple defenders that will take turns guarding James. Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green are among the best players equipped to defend James, and Andrew Bogut’s presence in the paint will also force other members of the Cavaliers to make plays.
History says the Warriors are a near guarantee to win the series. Thirteen NBA teams have reached the NBA Finals after winning 65 games in the regular season, and each one has gone on to win the title.
The 2014 NBA Finals mirror this year’s matchup in a lot of ways. Last season, James led the Miami Heat against the San Antonio Spurs, who were the superior team in the regular season and entered the finals as the favorite. This year, James will try to lead the Cavs against a more talented team.
James put up big numbers in last year’s finals, averaging 28.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game, while shooting 57.1 percent from the field. But Kawhi Leonard managed to limit his production, forcing him to turn the ball over and holding the four-time MVP to just four assists per game.
The combination of Iguodala and Green might be comparable to Leonard, as each earned a spot on the NBA All-Defensive First Team in one of the last two years. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh saw their scoring averages drop in the NBA Finals, and Smith and Irving could face the same issues in their upcoming series.
Leonard was named the series MVP, and Curry gives the Warriors someone who can match James. Cleveland was able to get through the east without having to stop one of the league’s elite players, and they’ll have trouble keeping Curry in check over a seven-game series.