The 2016 NBA Finals begin tonight, pitting the Cleveland Cavaliers against the Golden State Warriors. Will the Warriors become NBA champions the second year in a row, or will the Cavs take home the rings that so many fans expected them to win last year? A lot of arguments have been made on both sides, many of which are resoundingly similar to some of the same hype we heard last year. But we’re here to break down each team and assess their chances of going home as champions.
By current industry standards, the Warriors are favorites for the 2016 NBA Finals. In fact, it’s widely expected that their winning streak for the series will begin with tonight’s home game. At the time of writing, general consensus in Vegas puts the Golden State Warriors as Game 1 favorites with a money line of -230 and a spread of 5.5, while lines for the Cavs are set at +190. The over/under is currently placed at 209, with a line of -110. These numbers haven’t changed too significantly over the past few hours, but it’s worth checking up on them here if you want to place your bet a little closer to game time.
If you’ve been taking advantage of our services, then you already have a fair recommendation regarding how to place your bet. But if you’d like a little more analysis on what each team has to offer, you might want to stick around and read the following. It’s been a while since we’ve posted an article like this (sorry about that), but we’ll be following our basic format by assessing each team individually before looking at them both for a comparative analysis. (Note that the individual assessments will still be somewhat comparative, since we’ll be looking at last year’s series quite a bit.) If you’re new to sports betting, you might want to skim through our beginner’s guide before continuing.
If you watch ESPN2’s First Take, you already saw the show a couple of days ago where their power index only gave the Cleveland Cavaliers a 25% chance of winning the 2016 NBA Finals. With Vegas setting such a low spread, it almost seems remarkable that anyone would place the Cavs as such heavy underdogs. This is a team that set the record for three-pointers in a single playoff game during their early May series against the Atlanta Hawks. They had 25 shots behind the three-point line, four more than the Warriors managed to net against the Houston Rockets back in April.
Both teams are appearing in the top ten for three-pointers in a single playoff game for a second time, with the Cavs setting two records this year (the first for 20 against the Detroit Pistons in April) and the Warriors having set a record last year (also 20, again versus the Rockets). But the Cavaliers have an edge here, with six players showing averages of more than 44% from behind the line. Top that off with the fact that Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love will be on the court for the 2016 NBA Finals (which wasn’t the case last year), and the Cavaliers have the potential to put forth a pretty aggressive offense.
Irving’s primary contribution, however, will likely be on defense. In his one Finals game last year, Irving defended Curry successfully on about 80% of their match-ups. Over the regular season this figure dropped, but only slightly (about 13%). It’s enough to make a difference, but not enough to make him a less formidable opponent against the Warriors. On the other hand, those figures only account for his defense against one man. As SB Nation points out, both Irving and Love tend to flail a bit when faced with a screen-roll offense. Love is especially bad on this end of things, as we discovered earlier this year.
Let’s face it, Vegas wouldn’t be setting totals play at 209 if they didn’t expect a decent offense from both teams. We already know that King James can deliver on this front, and he’ll shine even greater when he has stronger backup than he had last year. But whether or not the Cavs deserve to be such heavy underdogs for the 2016 NBA Finals comes down to whether or not their defense can perform, and there are some strong reasons to suspect that they might let their fans down for the second year in a row. That said, things aren’t perfect in Golden State, either.
Golden State Warriors
ESPN and Vegas aren’t alone in setting the Warriors as heavy favorites for the 2016 NBA Finals. Steph Curry is a beast, and the team has perfected the pick-and-roll more than arguably any other team in the association. And while the Cavs may appear strong behind the three-point line right now, LeBron himself has said that Curry and Klay Thompson make for tough opponents. In his own words:
“They shoot the ball extremely well. Klay and Steph are probably the two greatest shooters that we’ve probably ever seen. Obviously in today’s game they are. Some of the shots, there’s nothing that you can do about it. Better offense beats great defense any day.”
Given that Cleveland’s defense is in need of a tune-up against this team, those aren’t very encouraging words for Cavs fans. That said, Smith has noted that last year’s win wasn’t perfect. They exposed some weaknesses inside the paint, and these could be damaging if the Cavs are able to exploit them during the 2016 NBA Finals.
This is only true, however, if you side with Smith. If you side with most others, the Warriors have one of the best defenses in the NBA. A fair number attribute this to Andre Iguodala, who will be in the starting lineup for Game 1 of the 2016 NBA Finals. Fellow Warrior Draymond Green believes Iguodala to be one of the greatest defenders in the association, even against a four-time MVP like LeBron. With him opening, the Warriors could easily rack up points with a strong and varied offense while keeping their opponents at bay. If you’re betting over on totals play, you might want to anticipate a hefty dose of the combined score to be on the Warriors’ side of the board.
As far as problems with Golden State’s defense are concerned, a FanSided article from about a year ago named a few that are arguably still in play today. Next to Iguodala, Green is one of their strongest and most important defensive players going into the 2016 NBA Finals. But he fouls when it’s far from necessary, and that could allow the Cavs to line up some shots they might not have made under greater pressure. Add to that the Warriors’ occasional issues with rebounding, reckless turnovers and the uncommon yet not entirely rare slow starts that they’ve had in the past, and they’ve definitely got some problems that they’ll need to work around if they want the 2016 NBA Finals to play out in their favor.
2016 NBA Finals Analysis
You might notice we tried not to spend too much time talking about LeBron and Curry. Not out of disrespect for two of the best players in the NBA right now, but because we simply don’t believe that they’ll be out there alone. For all of Curry’s prowess, a big part of his strength is that he plays well with teammates like Green and Thompson. And LeBron, as great as he is, struggled with exhaustion when the series fell on his shoulders last year. That won’t be an issue in the 2016 NBA Finals, nor should it be. A lot of armchair analysts said last year that the Cavs would win if they gave it to King James every time, but we saw why that isn’t true. College football fans already saw what happened when LSU thought they could go a full season using that strategy with Leonard Fournette. Even when exhaustion comes into play, you just can’t let the game revolve around a single player. After a while, your opponents start to work around him. And in the 2016 NBA Finals, we’ve got two teams who already know how to strategize against each other, so putting the responsibility on one man simply won’t do.
On ESPN’s First Take yesterday, Smith suggested that the Cavs might stand a decent shot if they play from the outside in rather than the inside out. In other words, exploiting the Warriors’ weaknesses inside the paint won’t help them. Golden State is actually pretty decent at identifying their own shortcomings, and they’ll be working extra hard to close any gaps in their defense as they go into the 2016 NBA Finals. Smith instead believes that Cleveland should try to shake things up by taking advantage of their three-point game to force Golden State into defending them on the outside, then working their way inside once the defense is scattered.
This is a plausible strategy, although it was pointed out to Smith that Cleveland’s numbers behind the line were potentially inflated by the Atlanta series. That strategy may have worked against the Hawks, but it’s more questionable against Golden State. And even Smith himself admitted this morning that Golden State should win this, but that Cleveland can win the 2016 NBA Finals if players like Kevin Love and J.R. Smith support LeBron well enough to let him play at his best.
At the end of the day, the Golden State Warriors are the team with the odds while the Cleveland Cavaliers are the team with the motivation to take home a win that many felt they should have had last year. There are a lot of reasons to root for the Cavs this year. But if you’re going into the 2016 NBA Finals with money on Game 1, you might want to root for the Warriors. It won’t be a Game 4 win. It might not even be a Game 5 win. The 2016 NBA Finals series could easily take all seven to be decided, and we might see Cleveland come out of the woodwork to take everything home by Game 7. But we won’t know that until we see them on the court tonight. So for now, you might not want to bet against the chalkboard.