We've finally reached the pinnacle of the basketball calendar: the 2016 NBA Finals, a renewal of unpleasantries between the two teams that battled for last year's championship.
In one corner: the Golden State Warriors, who dominated the competition en route to the greatest regular season in NBA history and are coming off the sternest test of their mettle yet. In the other: the Cleveland Cavaliers, a remodeled offensive monster that cruised through two postseason rounds and outclassed the Toronto Raptors to reach its second straight title round ... this time, with all of its top stars healthy.
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The question facing us: Which participants in this championship bout will matter most in the series ahead?
In the interest of providing guidance to BDL's readership in a trying time, I submit to a trusting public a new installment of Dan Devine's Inarguable Power Rankings, identifying which items in a group of things are most powerful. In this episode: Dan Devine's Inarguable Who Matters Most in the 2016 NBA Finals Power Rankings.
Let's dig in and weigh in. And please remember, as always, that the list is the list.
32. Kevon Looney. The 2016 first-round pick saw just 21 NBA minutes as a rookie, spending most of his season either recovering from hip surgery or playing in the D-League. He's now on the mend after a second hip surgery in a 12-month span — one on each side, which doesn't sound good. Heal up, rook.
31. James Michael McAdoo and Sasha Kaun (tie). McAdoo has seen a total of two minutes and 35 seconds of playing time in the last month of playoff games, occupying a lonely spot at the back end of the Warriors' deep frontcourt rotation. That's two minutes and 35 seconds' more postseason action than the Cavs have given the 7-foot Kaun, who last saw the court in the final game of Cleveland's regular season ... an outing that accounted for nearly 25 percent of the 95 total minutes he logged this year. If either guy gets on the floor, something has gone exceedingly well or exceedingly poorly for his team.
29. Jordan McRae. The 6-foot-6 guard out of Tennessee is long, athletic, can shoot a little bit ... and has gotten off the bench for a grand total of one minute of postseason action for the Cavs, in the second game of their opening-round sweep of the Detroit Pistons. In that game, McRae checked in with 1:13 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Cavs holding a 14-point lead; he promptly scored five quick points and grabbed a rebound, because there are no small parts, only small actors. Should he get the opportunity to tread the hardwood on the grandest stage in the sport, look for the same sort of command small-sample performance.
28. Dahntay Jones. One of the sneaky joys of the playoffs was Dahntay Jones reminding wide swaths of the NBA-watching public that he was still in the league by hitting Bismack Biyombo south of the border during the Eastern Conference finals, incurring a one-game suspension that carried with it the laughable fine of $80.17.
The 35-year-old swingman will not play meaningful minutes in this series, but his forays on the floor, however brief they may be, could wind up being very important if he decides it's time to get reacquainted with Draymond Green; you might remember those two getting into a little bit of a kerfuffle when Jones was with the Los Angeles Clippers two years back:
It seems very unlikely that anything similar will pop off this time around ... but, just in case, you might want to start getting your "Cool Story, Tyronn" designs together to submit for a limited print run. Bootleg T-shirt luck comes at the intersection of preparation and opportunity, after all.
27. Mo Williams. Given the possibility of another Draymond/Dahntay dust-up, I thought briefly about putting Jones ahead of Mo here. That was before I remembered one of the few hard and fast rules of my Inarguable Power Rankings: if you've ever had a 50-point game in the pros, you can't be put behind Dahntay Jones on any list. This is a land of laws, and we must abide by them. If we don't, it'll be anarchy.
26. James Jones, Ian Clark and Brandon Rush (tied). LeBron's longest-tenured running buddy hasn't gotten much run this year, and given how much 3-point shooting already occupies the upper reaches of Cleveland's rotation, it's likely Jones has made his most significant contribution by becoming the answer to the trivia question, "Who besides LeBron James is the only modern-day player to make six straight Finals?"
Kerr turned to sweet-shooting guard Clark and versatile wing Rush to round out his rotation earlier this postseason, especially when Curry was injured. As much as the Warriors' staff likes to keep its top guns fresh, though, Kerr also finally went away from some of his deeper-bench minutes late in the Western Conference finals, and with a title just four wins away, it seems likely he'll lean harder on the starrier end of his rotation as much as possible here.
23. Timofey Mozgov. This time last year, it would've been unthinkable to slot the 7-foot-1 Russian behemoth so low on this list. (In fact, he came in at No. 13 in last year's model.) But while Mozgov was a monster in the middle after coming to Cleveland in a midseason trade, averaged 14 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in 28.3 minutes per game in the 2015 Finals, and teamed with Tristan Thompson to bully the Dubs in the paint on both ends through the first three games, the run of play has run away from him ever since.
First, Kerr pulled Andrew Bogut for Andre Iguodala in Game 4, removing his natural physical matchup and leading then-Cavs coach David Blatt to go away from Mozgov in Game 5, as the Warriors took control. Next, a reportedly unsuccessful offseason knee surgery and insufficient rehab contributed to a rough start to the season, which saw Mozgov lose his starting spot before the All-Star break.
Then, the trade-deadline addition of Channing Frye combined with the presence of Thompson (and, once the playoffs started, Kevin Love) meant just about all of Cleveland's center minutes were spoken for, exorcising Mozgov almost entirely from Tyronn Lue's rotation, as the interim coach has sought and leaned on superior options to supercharge the Cavalier offense. From indispensable to nearly unplayable: 2016's a tough place to be for a lumbering and non-floor-spacing big man with a bad knee.
22. Leandro Barbosa. Kerr loves the 33-year-old Brazilian Still-Kind-of-a-Blur, relying on the shooting guard for both the joy he brings to the floor and his pace-jolting attacking for 16 minutes per game during the regular season. He only slightly curtailed Barbosa's minutes through the first two rounds of the playoffs, but moved away from him as the Thunder series wore on, preferring to go with bigger, longer, steadier performers as Golden State fought to save its season.
Kerr still feels comfortable calling Barbosa's number — witness the late-third quarter stretch in Game 7 against OKC where Kerr leaned on his reserves to help extend the lead, which they rewarded with a 12-0 run — but his impact's likely to be felt most in short bursts, if at all. Which, given Barbosa's style, feels appropriate, really.
21. Richard Jefferson. It is one of the weirdest and most bizarre aspects of this series that — in The Year Of Our Lord 2016 — I found myself wondering, "Wait, am I short-changing how big an impact Richard Jefferson might have on this series?"
Jefferson — whose last Finals trip came in 2003 as a member of the New Jersey nets, and whose first action in this series will tie him with Elden Campbell and Sam Cassell for the longest stretch between Finals appearances at 13 years — has long been a hard-working pro who has kept himself in great shape. To be honest, I've had a little bit of a soft spot for him ever since his matter-of-fact, refreshingly honest announcement back in 2013 that he had absolutely no compunction about chasing a ring. (The money quote: "If I get an opportunity to play for a championship team, I'm going to go hunting for that. I have no loyalty.")
He has played a key role in the killer lineup to which Lue has turned this postseason — LeBron at power forward alongside Jefferson, Frye, Iman Shumpert and Matthew Dellavedova — that has absolutely torched Cleveland's playoff opposition by a whopping 46.6 points per 100 possessions, tilting games at the starts of second and fourth quarters with boatloads of shooting and playmaking.
Jefferson acts as sort of a Shane Battier for these Cavs, spacing the floor, attacking closeouts when necessary and switching defensive assignments as a big wing with the strength and smarts to play up a spot as needed. In a series that figures to go small early and often, Jefferson must hold up against Golden State's perimeter talent and give as good as he gets on both ends. It's a far different role than he played for the Nets the last time he was here, but it could prove just as pivotal.
Podcast: The Warriors are unstoppable...or are they?:
20. Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli, Anderson Varejao and Marreese Speights (tie). Yes, this is a bit of a cheat, but given the tenor of this matchup and the likelihood of a series-long downsizing, it's difficult to separate out the Warriors centers individually; how Kerr manages and deploys his big men, and for how long, figures to be one of the series' most fascinating questions.
Bogut's the incumbent starter, the steadiest hand and smartest playmaker, the interior-defending difference-maker one who played a gigantic role in bringing Golden State back from the brink in Game 5. He's also big and slow, though, and when Cleveland goes with a smaller/shooting-heavy frontcourt — with the Love-Frye tandem that roasted the Atlanta Hawks in Round 2, or the Frye-LeBron pairing that's been crushing opposing reserve groups, or with Love at center and LeBron at power forward — Bogut's lack of foot speed figures to make him a significant liability in trying to track a shooting five and/or a stretch four on the perimeter. Ditto for Varejao, with whom Kerr has stuck for short stretches throughout the postseason but who brings a lot of the same pros and cons as Bogut with a bit more springiness and less defensive utility.
Ezeli gave the Warriors great minutes against the Cavs in last year's clinching Game 6, is mobile enough to do a better job defending in space against those smaller Cleveland units, and has the brawn and athleticism to match well with Thompson on the glass. But his offensive limitations, including the poor free-throw shooting that has emboldened opponents to intentionally foul him to disrupt Golden State's flow, make him a less attractive option for longer run than matching like-for-like, size- and skill-wise.
Speights' pick-and-pop shot-making — especially now that he's stretched his range out to 3-point land, shooting 38.7 percent from deep this season and 42.4 percent in the playoffs — make him an interesting potential helper when Kerr wants to add size without sacrificing spacing. But he's not exactly fleet-of-foot enough to chase shooters outside either, and he's the least likely of the three to prove helpful in keeping Cleveland off the offensive boards, too. And if he's the lone big on the floor when Lue breaks out the LeBron-and-the-Bench hammer, tasked with staying attached to Frye beyond the arc or switching assignments on the perimeter, things could get ugly quick.
As devastating as Golden State can be without traditional bigs on the floor, Kerr tends to prefer steering clear of those configurations for lengthy stretches; playing up a spot on the floor (especially on the defensive end) tends to take a physical toll on players that wears them down more quickly and easily, which could leave everybody more beaten up and less effective by mid-series. In order to do that, though, he's going to have to figure out how to get enough minutes in the right matchups from his four bigs. If Cleveland doubles down on the downshift, that could be awfully tough to do.
16. Matthew Dellavedova. Like Mozgov, Dellavedova's seen his role significantly reduced from last year's version of the Cavs; unlike Timo, though, he still actually plays one. His individual accuracy has tailed off this postseason — he's shooting just 25 percent since the Detroit series — but he has remained a valuable ball-mover and playmaker on that LeBron/Frye-led second unit, and while he never really was a Curry-stopper, he's still likely to see at least some time trying to make Steph's life more difficult and significantly less pleasant.
If the Cavs hemorrhage points with Irving trying to check Curry, Lue might have to find more minutes for Delly, even if it means sacrificing firepower. In fewer minutes and a smaller role, we might even get to see an even more caffeinated and supercharged version of Delly take the court on the game's biggest stage. One shudders to think about the frequency at which he'll be vibrating when unleashed.
15. Shaun Livingston. The 30-year-old has been one of the game's best backup point guards over the last two seasons, a steady ball-handler and playmaker who compensates for a lack of 3-point shooting with an ability to get to his preferred spots on the floor and a near-automatic turnaround jumper out of the post that, at 6-foot-7 with go-go-Gadget arms, he can get off over just about anybody. After a strong start to the postseason, though, Livingston's touch has been far iffier of late — just 41.5 percent from the field over his last 10 playoff games — and he struggled mightily for the bulk of the conference finals.
If and when this series goes small, Livingston figures to be called on to take on a more significant share of the minutes, as he did in Games 4, 5 and 6 in the 2015 Finals, which saw him chip in more than six points, four rebounds and two assists in 26 minutes per game. Since he's unlikely to hurt Cleveland from deep, he could wind up being a comfortable hiding spot for Irving or Love; he has to be more active, aggressive and accurate than he was against OKC to avoid giving the Cavs safe harbor for the lesser defenders in their most explosive lineups.
14. Harrison Barnes. Man, if you're one of the teams thinking about making a max offer for Barnes' services in restricted free agency this summer, it'd sure be nice to see him do something of consequence in the Finals, wouldn't it? Whether Barnes will regain his spot in the starting lineup or continue to give way to Andre Iguodala, as he did after halftime of Game 6 against Oklahoma City, remains a pre-tipoff mystery — including, apparently, to Barnes — and so does how big an impact Barnes will have whether he's on the court when the ball goes up or comes in midway through the first.
Barnes was largely brutal through the first two rounds of the playoffs, shooting just 35.9 percent from the floor and 25 percent from 3-point land against the Rockets and Blazers, without offering significant alternate contributions save for some help on the boards. His shooting numbers and defensive activity picked up against Oklahoma City, but he still seemed to float at times, and Kerr ultimately decided he had to flip the switch to Iguodala on Kevin Durant to give Golden State the best chance of advancing. He was right — Iguodala played tremendous defense on KD in Games 6 and 7 — but rather than picking up a larger scoring role as the primary threat on the second unit, Barnes still looked adrift and unmoored.
Whatever his role in this series, that can't continue. If Barnes goes back to the starting lineup, whether in Iguodala's place or in Bogut's stead in a from-the-jump Death Lineup, he's got to crank up his offensive game to make Cleveland pay for either trying to stash a weaker defender on him or leaving him alone to offer help on more threatening stuff elsewhere (like, for example, the Steph-Draymond pick-and-roll). He's got to dig in defensively to hold up his end of the bargain when Golden State starts switching assignments against Cleveland's smaller units, making good contests against all the Cavs' 3-point shooters, moving his feet against their ball-handlers, and doing his best to use his strength and length to battle on the block when switched onto the likes of LeBron or Love in the post. He's got to make shots and fight. He's got to show up.
13. Iman Shumpert. After a quiet, injury-limited regular season, Shumpert seems to be rounding into form at the right time in the playoffs, knocking down nearly half of his field-goal attempts and 3-pointers while largely playing within himself, keeping the ball moving and working his tail off on defense. His length, quickness, skillful ball denial and on-ball activity figure to be critical in defending Curry and Klay Thompson, and when the series goes small, he gives Cleveland another defender capable of switching against the Death Lineup and even, in spurts, holding up against the burlier Green. If he can keep knocking down the looks he gets off Cleveland's ball movement, he could play a major, major role in the series ... especially if Love's defensive deficiencies make sticking with him against Golden State's small-ball untenable.
12. Steve Kerr and Tyronn Lue (tie). Players ultimately decide matters, but coaches' tactical choices and rotation juggling can put them in the best position to succeed ... or, if a coach pushes the wrong button, leave them hanging out to try as the opposition exploits an unprotected weakness.
Lue has helped Cleveland find its best self this postseason by damning the torpedoes and doing everything in his power to produce a playoff-leading rate of offensive efficiency. Love and Irving have been major parts of that. If they struggle as much as expected defensively, how does he balance that with the need to keep them on the court to make the Cavs as fearsome as possible? How does he engineer matchups to get Iguodala off LeBron as much as possible? Does he really want to get out and run with the Warriors, or will he quickly decide that making the most out of individual possessions rather than trying to get as many possessions as posible is the better course of action? How will he respond if his haymaker lineups get short-circuited, like the Thunder briefly busted the Death Lineup last round?
We've got a more established book on Kerr's decision-making, but as we've discussed, he'll still face some interesting choices. Does he go small right away to get Iguodala on LeBron from Jump Street, give the Warriors the best chance of roasting the Cleveland defense and minimize the potential damage from having Bogut stretched out of the paint? If so, can he find enough minutes somewhere for his centers to avoid prematurely burning out his top five? Does he start Klay on Irving off the bat to try to keep Kyrie from getting off, and to keep Golden State's D structurally sound when Kyrie starts triggering pick-and-rolls? What does he do if J.R. Smith gets hot firing right over the top of Steph? If Cleveland starts dominating the offensive glass again this year, will Kerr stay with small-ball and trust that his best will ultimately be better than Lue's?
Every substitution, every timeout, every play call out of a stoppage ... they could all matter. Kerr's already proven himself on this stage, and though the early returns have been promising, Lue still has to.
10. J.R. Smith. The famously mercurial shooting guard has been remarkably dependable over the course of this postseason for Cleveland, evolving into a praiseworthy perimeter defender who turned off the water on Atlanta's Kyle Korver and worked hard, albeit with inconsistent results, to stifle Toronto's DeMar DeRozan. He's also settled nicely into his role as Cleveland's designated rifleman and fourth offensive option, averaging 12 points in 33.5 minutes per playoff game while shooting 45.5 percent from the floor and a blistering 46.2 percent from beyond the arc on 7.6 triple tries a night, helping fuel the Cavaliers' bombs-away barrages without succumbing to the forays into unthinking elbow-throwing that have earned him suspensions in recent postseason runs.
Smith's defensive improvement will face its toughest test yet in the Warriors' Thompson, averaging 26.2 points per postseason game by virtue of making a slew of double-tough shots over the outstretched arms of brutalizing perimeter defenders. And with Thompson likely to defend Irving, he'll have to come through by making shots against Curry; he can't disintegrate like he did against the Warriors last year. The talent's always been there; this spring, the focus and determination has been, too. If it holds up, J.R.'s exactly the kind of X-factor that can swing a game, and perhaps the series, in Cleveland's favor.
9. Channing Frye. The Cavs picked up Frye from the Orlando Magic at the trade deadline for the price of an out-of-the-mix Varejao, little-used Jared Cunningham and a protected first-round draft pick, and he's been a game-changing godsend in this postseason. He's Cleveland's fifth-leading scorer in the playoffs despite ranking eighth in minutes played, scorching the nets to the tune of 62.1 percent shooting overall and a bonkers 57.8 percent mark from 3-point range on nearly eight attempts per 36 minutes of floor time.
His shooting has unlocked some of the most dynamic units of Cleveland's postseason run, including the pairings with Love against the Hawks and the LeBron-and-the-Bench group that ran roughshod over the East, and his ability to hold his own defensively against bigger interior opponents has let Lue straddle the line between big and small as he crafts lineups. If Frye can keep knocking down outside shots, he could play just about all of Golden State's centers off the floor, and leave even the Warriors' athletic, aggressive, tough-to-puncture defense — just like Atlanta's No. 2-ranked D — holding its head and wondering if anyone got the license plate number of the Mack truck that just hit it.
8. Klay Thompson. It feels almost disrespectful to slot the Warriors' best and most consistent 2016 postseason performer this low, especially after he damn near single-handedly saved Golden State's season in Game 6 against the Thunder. In a series with this much star power and this many fascinating subplots, though, somebody's going to get the short end of the stick at some point. (Also, I had Iguodala at 15 last year, and he won freaking Finals MVP. What the hell do I know?)
Kerr will ask Klay to use his height, length, balance and discipline to bother and stymie Irving; to dig in when switched onto James and Love in the pick-and-roll; to lose Smith and Shumpert for open looks or make tough shots even with them draped all over him; and, if it's not too much trouble, to become fresh-dipped in flames for a several-minute stretch in which he scores, oh, I don't know, 15 or 19 or 37 points. Thompson's got a lot of responsibility in this series, and he's been handling his business with brilliance all postseason long; if he can continue apace, Golden State's chances of repeating improve exponentially.
7. Andre Iguodala. "Hey, Dre: how'd you like having to spend seven games chasing and fighting and scrapping with Kevin Durant? Good, good. Now we need you to do it all over again against LeBron, who has played 40 fewer minutes through three rounds this year than he had last year, who's been resting for the last five days, and who has way more weapons around him this year, so you won't have as much help defense right behind you. Sound good? OK, great, good talk!"
Iguodala's work in limiting LeBron to shot 38.1 percent when he was on the floor, and in making him work overtime for everything he got, earned him Finals MVP last June. But Iguodala also came through in a big way on the offensive end, averaging 16.3 points on 52.1 percent shooting, knocking down 14 of his 35 3-pointers, and dishing 24 assists against six turnovers in 222 minutes. He was brilliant, and he'll need to be again, especially if Kerr elects to go small earlier this series than he did last year; he'll have a tougher task, because a smaller Cavs lineup should reduce the number of wide-open looks he gets off Golden State's ball movement, and a healthier and better-rested LeBron's just a flat-out different beast than the one who had to do absolutely everything for Cleveland last year. Iguodala's challenge is immense. Warriors fans have to hope he's ready for it one more time.
6. Tristan Thompson. Despite Lue's insistence that Cleveland wants to run with Golden State, we just saw the Thunder come closer to beating the Warriors than anyone yet by dominating the offensive glass. One way to stall out the Dubs' go-go offense is to keep them from running off your misses, and a pretty great way to do that is by making sure they don't get the ball ... which, you'll recall, is Thompson's specialty.
The Cavaliers rode a similar formula to a 2-1 lead in last year's Finals, due in large part to the size and relentless effort of Thompson and Mozgov. While Tristan's former pivot partner's out of the picture now, Love's been damn good on the offensive glass, too, and this is an area in which the Canadian big man can flex his muscle and make his presence felt. (Thompson is also the only Cavalier big man mobile enough to stand a chance defensively when switched onto Steph or Klay on the perimeter, which could be huge.)
This right here? This is what that five-year, $82 million contract was for. It's time to earn the money, Tristan.
5. Draymond Green. First thing's first: Draymond must chill, like a teensy-weensy bit ... or, at least, get through this series without kicking anyone in the groin or face. Two more technical fouls, and he gets a one-game suspension. One more flagrant foul, and he gets a one-game suspension. He's waaaay too important for that to happen; it is not in his nature to cool down, but he must, for the greater good.
Green's coming off an up-and-down conference finals that saw him struggle against the Thunder's length. But he put up big numbers against Cleveland this season, and was huge in the 2015 Finals as the center in the small-ball lineup that lifted the Warriors to the title. He's got to outwork Tristan Thompson on the interior, clamp down on Cleveland's floor-stretching bigs when the series goes small, punish Love whenever he gets that matchup, and do his level best to deal with LeBron without picking up fouls or getting so frustrated that he retreats back inside his head, sapping himself and the Warriors of his intensity. When Green's locked in and bringing the dog to the fight, the Warriors feed off his energy and reach new heights. When he's rattled, they're vulnerable.
3. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love (tie). We take these two together for two reasons. For one thing, there's the elephant-in-the-room asterisk placed by some on last year's Finals: that if not for Kelly Olynyk destroying Love's shoulder in Round 1 and Irving breaking his kneecap in Game 1, the full-strength Cavs might've taken Golden State out. Well, now, we're going to see.
For another, the biggest questions facing the Cavs concern whether they can defend the Steph-Draymond pick-and-roll, and whether they can hold up against the Death Lineup, and the answers to both of those questions figure to depend largely on the performance of Love and Irving. Opponents have torched them in the pick-and-roll all year, and the Warriors blew Cleveland's doors off in January in large part by targeting Love. As much as Lue has come to rely on their shot-making, passing and spacing to juice up Cleveland's offense, if Kevin and Kyrie can't dig in, his best chance of slowing the Death Lineup might wind up being leaning more heavily on Dellavedova and Shumpert than his two stars.
Irving has to absolutely kill Thompson, Curry, Barnes and any other defender that gets in his path, take advantage of whatever opportunities he gets to rest on defense (against, say, Livingston, Iguodala or Barnes) and survive against Steph on the other end. Love needs to get a couple of shots down early to build confidence and get engaged, continue providing the effort he's offered on defense this postseason, punish pick-and-roll switches that result in him having a smaller defender on his back, clean the glass and hope for the best. This is when reputations are made. Love and Irving need the defensive series of their lives to meet this challenge.
2. Stephen Curry. After injury-related inconsistency dogged the back-to-back MVP through the first two and a half rounds of this postseason, Steph seemed to find his footing late in the conference finals, exploding in the second half of Game 4 before capped a comeback from 3-1 down with a superstar performance in Game 7. If Curry's fully himself again, he presents a problem that Cleveland simply can't consistently solve.
The threat and promise of Curry's shooting stretches and demoralizes defenses; his pick-and-roll playmaking and finishing at the rim breaks them. If the Cavs can disrupt his flow like OKC did early last round, they've got a real shot of stealing one in Oracle for the second straight year and fundamentally changing the series. If Cleveland's perimeter defenders — Curry, Smith, Dellavedova, Shumpert, whoever; it's "all hands on deck, we're surrounded" when it comes to Steph — can't jar him out of his rhythm, though, and if the Cavs can't come up with a consistent response to the Steph-Draymond pick-and-roll that doesn't leave their coverages bursting at the seams on the back end, they'll struggle with the same math problem everybody else has: that three is more than two, and that nobody gets three more easily than the NBA's most dangerous weapon, the first unanimous MVP in league history, and the player who came out of nowhere to unseat LeBron as the face, present and future of the NBA.
1. LeBron James. And yet, it feels like the fate of this series rests LeBron, doesn't it? Heavy is the head, and all that.
With the Cavs decimated by injuries last June, James had to be superhuman to carry Cleveland to a title … and he nearly did it, averaging 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists in 45.7 minutes per game. His efficiency suffered, sure, but that's because he was forced to bear the kind of creative burden that would kill a lesser hero. With Love and Irving in the fold, and with that second unit chock full of shooters around, Cleveland's got more healthy bodies and firepower this year, which should mean LeBron won't have to do everything. But that also means more pressure to get the job done this time, which means he might feel like he has to ... and if that means LeBron deploys himself as the ultimate Swiss Army knife, a mega-Draymond who plays four and five just about full-time, blows past slower defenders and bullies smaller ones on his way to the rim, sets the table for everybody and switches defensive assignments to wreak havoc all over the floor, then that might be the best thing possible for the Cavs.
To dethrone the champs, it feels like LeBron's going to have to take matters into his own hands at some point, unleashing the all-court brilliance that has made him one of the greatest of all time. It also feels like — after watching Steph win two straight MVPs and raising questions about what "valuable" means (even if he doesn't see himself and Steph as "rivals," per se) — LeBron will relish the opportunity to remind anyone who's forgot just what a force of nature he can be ... which could set the stage for an absolute monster of a series.
Still, the Warriors are 85-14 this year. Even after watching OKC get close, it seems crazy to think someone could beat them four times in seven games.
Would you bet against LeBron being the one to do it?
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