As Oklahoma City Thunder go into the offseason with a huge burden that has lingered on for much of the season-Kevin Durant’s free agency- the NBA Finals roster is set. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors will begin hostilities on June 3 in a repeat of last season’s finals which the Warriors won, effectively becoming the new super power out west. Yes it is these same Warriors who handed the reins to a skinny, baby faced shooter with a creaky ankle named Steph Curry by moving 2007 Most Improved Player Monta Ellis and replacing him with another injury prone player, Andrew Bogut.
The same Warriors who fortified its backcourt scoring touch by drafting Klay Thompson outside the top ten places in the 2011 NBA Draft. And to complete the tremendous job Mark Jackson did by guiding the team to a surprise semi- final conference berth, the Warriors flipped defense-first Jackson for offense savvy Steve Kerr. So what we now see as the all conquering, 73 win in 82 games, fast paced side has gone through the mill to get to this point. It still has an eye for the future and has taken steps to make the unknown a bit less predictable. Thompson and Draymond Green- a diamond in the rough-have four respective years to play in Oakland or San Francisco should a new arena be ready in 2018.
Adding Thunder free agent Kevin Durant this offseason and signing Steph the year after, ought to keep Golden State hanging around championship talk for a long time. In the east, circumstances have been different for Cleveland Cavaliers; A team in shambles with a mercurial Point Guard gets jolted to the top of the pack within a year by a returning king and a sweet shooting big man who is underappreciated. A target finals appearance since 2007 was met with ease but the ultimate prize eluded the quick fix mega team. However, the 2016 finals will be different from a year ago.
For starters, the Cavaliers go up against Curry and Co with a healthy group which wasn’t the case 12 months ago. Kyrie Irving missed five games against Golden State playing just one game but Kevin Love missed out on playing the Warriors, the entire conference finals series against Atlanta Hawks, semi final series against Chicago Bulls and some games against Boston Celtics. In effect, LeBron James had to do it all on his own which he did by leading the Cavs to two wins in the series against the Warriors which had Curry fresh off an MVP (Most Valuable Player of the Year) season. The overwhelming quality of the opposition was too much to handle even for a self proclaimed King despite the likes of Tristan Thompson, Matthew Dellavedova and Timofey Mozgov stepping up.
However, Thompson is no Kevin Love, even with a far better defense than the former Minnesota Timber wolf and the all hustle defensive pest Dellavedova, isn’t a Kyrie. Truth, Thompson and Delly are role players which every championship team needs but neither are All Star players capable of winning games on their own. This time however, Love and Irving are healthy and playing some of the best basketball of their young careers. Kevin Love has averaged 17.3 points and 9.6 rebounds in 14 games as Irving fared even better in 14 as he averaged 24.3 points and 5.1 rebounds-per basketballreference.com- en route to the finals.
A year ago, experienced trainer David Blatt was new to the NBA but got to experience being at the epicenter of basketball. His iso-heavy, hero ball brand his team became known for did not get him the Larry O’ Brien trophy. It did get him sacked despite Cleveland sitting on top of the Eastern Conference midway in the season to be replaced by his assistant and LeBron confidant Tyronne Lue. Not being able to connect with basketball’s great force was perhaps the main reason behind his dismissal. This theme was rife this season as it got Kevin McHale kicked out of Houston Rockets after 11 games, was the same reason cited by Larry Bird to not extend Frank Vogel’s contract and not forgetting George Karl’s firing in Sacramento with DeMarcus Cousins in the mix.
Under Tyronne Lue, Cleveland is playing faster, scoring more and its three big stars are connecting the dots with pace. The defense might have suffered a dip just as improved production can be attributed to natural in house growth from the leaders but Lue deserves a ton of credit for winning the Eastern Conference Championship. The Warriors will face a man not afraid to dig deeper into his lineup for results. Whereas Blatt run LeBron and other starters into the ground by deploying heavy minutes on a seven man rotation, Lue has mixed it up even playing end of the bench players like acquired free agent Dahntay Jones. Mozgov who was exceptional last season, has played minutes in spite of his form dip.
Plus, Lue has found ways to use Love especially in the playoffs which wouldn’t have been fathomable in Blatt’s era. In the first round series against Detroit, Lue downsized his lineup with Love playing at Center in a small ball lineup that rendered Pistons best player Andre Drummond redundant. Drummond is best stationed under the basket where he is an absolute menace on the boards and one of the best in protecting the rim. Conversely, Love’s ability to play around the three point arc pulled Drummond from underneath the basket opening the paint for Cavs to cause havoc inside.
Cleveland’s roster was deep but playing Warriors in the finals exposed a lot of flaws. It might explain why Blatt leaned so much on a few players getting there. A season removed from that heart breaking loss, David Griffin has shaped the roster to counter Golden State’s threat. Dahntay Jones, Mo Williams, Channing Frye, Richard Jefferson and Jordan McRae are new faces who came on board before the season and midway through the year.
In Frye, there is an older, experienced version of Kevin Love. Williams was on LeBron’s side when Cleveland got swept by San Antonio Spurs in the 2007 finals and his second home coming is an insurance policy to Irving’s ill health. His polished offense is an upgrade on Dellavedova. Jefferson has lost out on the finals on two occasions as a young gunner beside Jason Kidd in New Jersey-now Brooklyn Nets- and is on a mission to avoid making it three straight losses.
By Yaw Adjei-Mintah